Found a great rendition of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya,” an old Irish Folk Song sung by British Opera Singer Benjamin Luxon and accompanied on Banjo by American Folk Singer Bill Crofut. The piece plays out exactly how you would imagine a man of the theatre and a seasoned folk artist would sound together: dramatic, powerful, and heartfelt. Here’s the video.
The way he articulates that one line, “Where is… the leg… in which you run…” gives me chills down my spine every time I hear it. It has a sense of despair that really depicts the horror that families have to experience when their loved ones are sent out to foreign lands to fight people they have no quarrel with, and then come back home. As you hear the last reprise, as he ties it all together with one last solemn chorus, it leaves you with the impression that Johnny has changed for the worse.
This performance really gave me the feels because it deals directly with subjects that I hold dear to my heart. It was one of my goals as a music major to study compositions like this, songs of protest. To study the anthems that the poor, disenfranchised, and the working class devised to comment on the times was my ambition. I do believe art is a reflection of the times, and good art is something that inspires people to make the world a better place. To document and analyze the music theory behind it would combine two passions of mine (Leftist politics and Music Theory). Here’s another example of a song that I would like to dissect. “Pie in the Sky,” an old labor tune 1st sung by the traveling man Joe Hill but performed by Utah Phillips.
It’s ironic that “Johnny I Hardly I Knew Ya” was an Irish anti-war song (A late 18th century response to the British involvement in Sri Lanka) that soon became an American pro-war song (“When Johnny Comes Marching Home”), but many folk songs were the opposite and are essentially “parodies” of popular church hymns. “Pie in the Sky” carries the same tune as “In the Sweet By and By.” This was done for a few reasons, one being a popular tune that people can recognize so they can pay attention to the lyrics, and secondly the song itself was criticizing religion, and all the empty promises it makes for in the next world. So it is only appropriate to still have those Christian overtones as it help sells the parody.
My original inspiration to do this was just the fact that Politics and Music have such a conservative background together. Out of all the arts, Traditional Western Music, which I studied at UOG, is full of Patrons of Churches and Kings, music was a voice for the wealthy. Folk music was still important, but the Romantic ideas that fueled many visual and literary artists were less inspirational for the giants of music. There are a select few that stand out as more liberal in Music History, Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich, and Britten to name a few, but as a whole, they were definitely part of the establishment. To help shed light on people who wanted to use music to improve the world, that is what I wanted to do. And all of these folk songs that these people wrote, their messages are so powerful and timely. They are incredibly important in the People’s History of Music.