Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

The Well-Travelled 'Wild Rover'

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

The Well-Travelled 'Wild Rover'

Article excerpt


"The Wild Rover', a song widely known amongst the general public and commonly believed to be Irish, has its origin in a seventeenth-century English broadside written by Thomas Lanfiere, one of a class of moralizing 'alehouse ballads' of the period. This evolved into several distinct printed texts, which passed into oral tradition in England, Scotland, Ireland, and North America, while the song also achieved significant popularity in Australia. The version familiar today is the result of further adaptation by performers in the 1960s folk revival. Over the course of three hundred years, several distinct textual and musical changes have altered the moral thrust of the song and assisted its enduring popularity.

9-ilhe Wild Rover' (Roud 1173) is one of the most widely recognized traditional folk .i_ songs in the English-speaking world, and one that has made the journey from the folk revival into modern oral tradition. Both verses and chorus are familiar far beyond the cohort of traditional music enthusiasts and are sung actively in several contexts: the song is a staple of 'singalong' entertainment in Irish-themed pubs; it is in many collections of rugby songs, both in its original form and as an obscene parody; it has been adopted by fans of Glasgow Celtic Football Club as a terrace chant,(1) and the melody borrowed by supporters of other teams throughout the country for their own verses. Celebrated as an icon of Irish culture, it has been dubbed 'the second national anthem of Ireland'.(2) Countless raucous renditions in pubs reflect the common perception that the song is a celebration of drinking, despite the refrain's insistence that the narrator will 'never play the wild rover no more'. In this article I examine the history of 'The Wild Rover' in print and oral tradition, and explain the series of events by which a moralizing English ballad of the seventeenth century became an 'Irish' drinking anthem.

'The Wild Rover' as a 1960s Hit Record

The popularity over the last fifty years of 'The Wild Rover' is the result of recordings and performances by two well-known groups performing broadly traditional Irish material, which attracted mass audiences in Ireland, in Britain, and amongst the wider Irish diaspora. The Dubliners were the first to record the song, in 1963,(3) followed two years later by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who credited the Dubliners' Luke Kelly as the song's writer/arranger.(4) By this time the Clancys and Makem were established as a major act in their adopted home of the USA, were regular performers on prime-time TV, had become famous worldwide, and were responsible for one in every three album sales in Ireland.(5) 'The Wild Rover' became a keystone of the concert sets of both the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers, reappearing regularly on live albums by both groups over the succeeding decades.(6) An additional factor in the spread of the song was that both groups released it as a 7-inch single, as well as on LPs, allowing it to be loaded into pub jukeboxes.(7) In the early days, the Dubliners would perform it relatively slowly (120-130 bpm) and lyrically, with the four crotchet rests in bar 4 of the refrain punctuated only by a lightly finger-picked banjo and lilting whistle (Figure 1).

I went into an ale-house I used to frequent
and I told the landlady my money was spent.
I asked her for credit, she answered me, 'Nay,
Such a custom as yours I can have any day.' Chorus

I then took from my pocket ten sovereigns bright
And the landlady's eyes opened wide with delight.
She says, 'I have whiskeys and winesof the best
And the words that you told me were only in jest.'

I'll go home to my parents, confess what I've done
And I'll ask them to pardon their prodigal son.
And when they've caressed me, as oft times before,
I never will play the wild rover no more.

By 1974 the pace had increased to 174 bpm, the triple-time rhythm was accentuated, and the audience was gleefully filling the four crotchet rests with handclaps(8) 'The Wild Rover', as we know it, was born. …

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