The Stories Behind 10 Soon to Be Forgotten War Songs

Every war needs a song, we have collected ten songs from the past 300 years that were popular in war. A trip down memory lane!

Before 1700: O’er the Hills and Far Away

This song has lived through several incarnations, but no one knows exactly how old it is. A verse from a play of 1698, The Campaigners, mentions it as though it were a standard piece of pop culture:

Jockey was a Piper’s Son,
And fell in love when he was young;
But all the Tunes that he could play,
Was, o’er the Hills, and far away,

Used in Ireland, Scotland, and England as a song to bolster recruiting efforts, it was sung during the Jacobite Wars, by the soldiers of the Duke of Marlborough, and the kings, queens, and commanders of current conflicts were always substituted to match the times.

The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond

The date of origin is unknown and there are many theories concerning the interpretation of this song, but two relate to the Jacobite wars in Scotland.

One theory suggests that because rebels were executed by beheading and their heads were displayed on the high streets, or “high roads”, while their relatives returning home after the executions would take the low road which was the common route of travel for the peasant class.

Another theory states that the English played a particularly cruel game in which they made Jacobite brothers or friends chose themselves which one should die. The dead brother took the low road home to Scotland as part of the Duke of Cumberland’s scare tactic propaganda while the other brother used the safety of the hills, or the high road, to reach home safely.

Whatever the truth about the origin of the song is, the sentiments of those two theories and others like it made it a popular song for soldiers during more than one war.

1700s: Yankee Doodle

Some of the early versions of Yankee Doodle have very dark connotations, especially those sung by British troops during the American Revolution.

It’s fairly well known that the character of the song is being made fun of for being an effeminate Dandy, and that “called it Macaroni” refers to a popular wig style among dandies and fops of the time, but it is not so well known that some lyrics refer to people who were tarred and feathered or to American soldiers who had died.

Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock,
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.

Some of the lyrics were certainly humorous to the British soldiers of the time, and to American audiences when they later appropriated the song.

1800s: John Brown’s Body

Written by Union soldiers about the great abolitionist John Brown and mixed with a little tongue in cheek pointing at a sergeant of the same name, this song is both rousing and depressing at once.

The tune was taken from camp meeting formula songs and so the lyrics were often changed, especially because early versions were too graphic. It was also for this reason that we now have Battle Hymn of the Republic. Julia Ward Howe, the writer of that song, was urged to do so by a friend that thought she could create better lyrics for that great melody.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

This rhythmic song was popular on both sides of the conflict during the U.S. Civil War, and gaining a great deal of popularity in Britain as well.

The lyrics were said to be written by Patrick Gilmore for his sister Annie who was yearning for her fiancé, Captain John O’Rourke to come marching home. Gilmore later said that he heard someone humming the tune in passing and liking it, he dressed it up and repackaged it.

20th Century: The Army Goes Rolling Along

The song from which this comes, with the more popular refrain –the caissons go rolling along – was conceived as American soldiers were traversing the mountains of the Philippines in 1908 during the Philippine-American War. A section chief had yelled to his men “Come on! Keep them rolling!”

A year later, huddled in a hut, six soldiers strummed out the tune on a guitar and wrote the lyrics based on the memory of the section chief’s shout. The man who remembered that yell was then an artillery field officer – Edmund Gruber – and also a relative of the composer of the Christmas song Silent Night, the Austrian Franz Xaver Gruber.

The song has changed names a few times, but now as the official song of the Army, it is called The Army Goes Rolling Along.

La Cucaracha

La Cucaracha was the battle song of the Mexican Revolution, but its Spanish origins may precede 1492. Because many of the early lyrics can be vague, it is hard to date, but as the song evolved, and lyrics specific to the times were added, they can make the guess that it predated 1500.

Most of the song that survives today is the version from the Revolution with lyrics about the political unrest featuring insinuation that the cockroach is President Victoriano Huerta who was abhorred for his involvement in the death of President Francisco Madero. The marijuana verse is attributed to Huerta’s reputation.

It’s a Long Way to Tipperary

Written for a bet in 1912, by the time WWI rolled around it was enough of a pop culture leader to become the British ballad of the war.  The soldiers even added their own lyrics, thus making a rowdy version that was unique to that war:

That’s the wrong way to tickle Mary,
That’s the wrong way to kiss.
Don’t you know that over here, lad
They like it best like this.
Hooray pour Les Français
Farewell Angleterre.
We didn’t know how to tickle Mary,
But we learnt how over there.

When the Yanks Go Marching In

Based on the popular gospel song of the early 20th century, When the Saints Go Marching In, Woody Guthrie wrote this 1943 hit in collaboration with Earl Robinson. The song was so good that it was bought immediately, which is unusual for a folk song.  The US Army was so impressed they included it in the Hit Kit, a collection of songs for soldiers. It became one of the most popular pep songs of WWII and The Korean War.

Boonie Rat Song

“Boonie Rats” were men that served “in-country” during Viet Nam. This nickname was further popularized by the song they wrote in 1970. Ronald Jordan and the second battalion of the 502 Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division wrote this song about their experiences and perspectives and when Jordan died, author John Del Vecchio found himself “keeper” of the song.

Del Vecchio does not allow the song to be used for profit. It is free for use by vets at Veteran’s activities and when it is sold on media, the profits are placed in a trust for Viet Nam vets.

Jinny McCormick

Jinny McCormick is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE