My Son John

My Son John

My son John was tall and slim
He had a leg for every limb
But now he’s got no legs at all
For he run a race with a cannonball
With me roo dum dar for the diddle dar
Whack for the riddle with me roo rum dar

Oh were you drunk or were you blind
When you left your two fine legs behind
Or was it sailing on the sea
Wore your two fine legs right down to the knee
With me roo dum dar for the diddle dar
Whack for the riddle with me roo rum dar

No I was not drunk and I wasn’t blind
When I left my two fine legs behind
But a cannonball on the fifth of May
Took me two fine legs from the knees away
With me roo dum dar for the diddle dar
Whack for the riddle with me roo rum dar

For I was tall I was slim
And I had a leg for every limb
But now I’ve got no legs at all
They were both shot away by a cannonball.
With me roo dum dar for the diddle dar
Whack for the riddle with me roo rum dar

My Son Jack
Captain Norman Ramsay, Royal Horse Artillery, Galloping his Troop Through the French Army to Safety at the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro, 1811 by George Bryant Campion.

My Son John is a variant of the longer and better known Mrs McGrath – “Mrs McGrath,” the sergeant said, “would you like to make a soldier of your son, Ted?” – although how Ted changed his name to John is something of a mystery!

Also a puzzle is how ‘he had a leg for every limb’. This line only occurs in My Son John. I can only think that John was so powerful his arms looked like legs! If anyone has another explanation, I’d love to hear it.

Mrs McGrath can be found in Colm O Lochlainn’s Irish Street Ballads, first published in 1939. I first heard My Son John on the LP Folk Songs of Old England, by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior (1969).

The songs tell the story of a young Irishman who joined the British Army to fight in the Peninsular War against the forces of Napoleon, and who returned home having lost both his legs.

It seems likely that the songs relate to the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro (3-5 May, 1811). It’s possible that John/Ted was a soldier in the Connaught Rangers (the 88th Regiment of Foot, also known as ‘The Devil’s Own’). The battle took place in a village on the Spanish side of the border with Portugal. It was a hell on Earth:

‘The whole village became a holocaust of vomiting muskets, stabbing bayonets, violent explosions, shrieking struggling soldiers. Yard by yard the Scots and Irishmen punched their way over the corpses and reached the river; over the red and greasy water went the grappling men and on to the French bank’ (Roger Parkinson, The Peninsular War, 1973).

The Jones Boys play highly accomplished traditional music from Ireland, England, Scotland, Brittany, Sweden, Bulgaria …

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