My Son John


Jon says, “I seem to recall that my folk-hating school friends became rather attached to this particular song. I’m not entirely sure why but there’s something slightly Monty Python about the wording and perhaps that’s the appeal. It’s a strange combination of jollity and social comment.”

Jon credits Tim Hart as his source for this, who recorded it with Maddy Prior on their Folk Songs Of Old England Vol. 2 back in 1969. Sadly it’s another of those songs that hasn’t lost its relevance and Martin Carthy gave it a very smart updating with The Imagined Village, bringing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mainly Norfolk covers Tim and Maddy’s version. Wiki turns up an interesting Irish antecedent called Mrs McGrath that has a lot more detail, naming the conflict as fighting the Spanish.
You can buy the January digital album now from all good download stores.


17 Responses to “My Son John”

  1. Simon says:

    Sorry folks for some reason the comments were disabled today. I really don’t know why that is, but will have to ask Ben to have a look and see whether it’s a setting that has changed for some reason. I managed to turn them back on, but I’ve no idea why it happened.

  2. Mike New says:

    that doesn’t matter Simon – it’s the song and Jon that are important. A good version. I have Hart and Prior on vinyl singing this! Nice one.

  3. Shelley says:

    Seconded Mike! So many great versions of this song exist – Tim and Maddy’s was the first I heard, and the Imagined Village’s version proves the timelessness of the subject matter. There happens to be a Bailey Sisters recording of this too (from an arrangement by Polly Bolton). It’s on our myspace page, and apologies for blowing our collective trumpet again!

  4. Neil says:

    Simon/Ben would it be very cheeky of me to plug my almost-weekly folkacousticcountryetc internet radio show on here?

    I would only plug it on the days of the show and then, just the once, discretely.

  5. Sue says:

    One of my particular favourites and one I want to sing around our Napoleonic camp fire this summer.

  6. Ellie May says:

    The Kent based band Wheeler Street do a great version of this.

  7. Jane Ramsden says:

    I love the stark reality and sentiment of this song, and very well rendered, Jon! The graphics of it don’t bear thinking about, yesterday or today. You wonder how people survive such, but some do.

    Got to disagree with Mike a bit about the comments (as an avid commentator!) because they open up other musical sharing experiences, knowledge to the unknowledgeable like me, and a great sense of community. Of course, Jon starts it all off, he and the collective hugely helpful & informative Admin pave the way for the rest of us to chip in. I, for one, appreciate the whole experience. Thank you, all!

  8. Diana says:

    Nothing changes. Men and women are still losing limbs, are blinded or suffer some horrific injuries due to war. Only now it isn’t cannonballs that cause the damage but more sophisticated weapons.

    @Tedd: I agree with the sentiments you expressed above. I know how much I have enjoyed the camaraderie that this site has produced.

  9. muzza (N.W Surrey-UK) says:

    @ Admin Simon’s 2011 comment…
    “Sorry folks for some reason the comments were disabled today.”………was that an unintended pun or is the old devil way ahead of us!

  10. Maggie says:

    Enjoyed this version of the song – thanks Jon.

    I also agree with Diana’s comments about the impact of war. I also find the Bruce Springsteen version of Mrs McGrath poignant – the grittiness of his voice really works for me on that song

  11. Tedd O'Ramsden says:

    I absolutely love this song/Mrs McGrath, which I heard most recently live by Peter Knight’s Gigspanner. Those who have the chance (probably mostly ‘dahn Sarf’) do get along to see them, described thus by Noel Harvey in Acoustic Magazine:

    “At a time when the big-band sound is the order of the day, and a separate brass, woodwind and string section seems to be de rigeur to qualify for headline billing at any festival of note, it’s interesting to see Peter Knight – Steeleye Span’s legendary fiddle player and an early exponent of the folk-rock style – doing a neat about-turn and boldly heading in the opposite direction….

    Joined by Guitarist and composer Roger Flack and the formidable energies of Afro-Percussionist Vincent Salzfaas on Conga’s and Djembe, the Trio co-create a depth of multi-textured melody that belies the pared-down instrumental line-up.”

    I can’t find a YouTube video of them doing ‘Mrs McGrath,’ so y’all just have to buy their CD ‘Doors at Eight’ &/or go see them live! Here’s a link to their upcoming gigs this year so far:

    (Anyone knowing of a Northern venue that would like to host this classy trio can contact them via their web site. Why should ‘the Sarf’ have all the best stuff!)

    Here’s a taste of them doing ‘Sharpe Goes Walkabout’ – ‘Sean Bean’s Walkabout’ as I call it:


  12. Tedd O'Ramsden says:

    Here’s a link to the Bruce Springsteen version, Live For The BBC with the Seegar Sessions band:

  13. William Hazell says:

    “…naming the conflict as fighting the Spanish”

    Sorry, but that’s not correct. The Spanish were our allies in the Peninsular War, it was a war thought against the French.

  14. Diana says:

    A rather jolly tune for anhappy song.

  15. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    I know this as ‘Mrs. McGrath’ but her son’s name was Ted…same problems though!

    Oh Mrs McGrath the sergeant said/would you like to make a soldier out of your son Ted
    With scarlet coat and big cocked hat/now Mrs. McGrath wouldn’t you like that.
    CH: with a too rye are, fol di diddle da/too rye oo rye Do rye da
    Now Mrs. McGrath lived on the sea shore / for a space of seven long years or more
    She saw a big ship sail into the bay/that’s my son Ted wont you clear the way
    Oh captain dear where have you been/have you been sailing in the Meditereen(sic)
    and have you tidings of my son Ted/is the poor boy living or is he dead
    Then up stumped Ted without any legs/and in their place he had two wooden pegs
    She kissed him a dozen times or so/saying surely to God it can’t be you
    Oh were you drunk or were you blind/that you left your two fine legs behind
    or was it walking upon the sea/wore your two fine legs from your knees away
    A cannon roared and I rue the day/that chain shot whipped my legs away
    Twas the searing slash of the cannon ball/that made me short where I once was tall
    Oh foreign wars I do declaim /such as between Dom John and the king of Spain
    But by God I’ll make them rue the time/that they took the legs from a child of mine

  16. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    I could have saved myself a lot of typing if I’d re read and checked out all Admin Simon’s notes and followed the Mrs.McGrath trail!!!!…seems my version from a very old folk on 2 tape is very near Tommy Makem…I made up verse six (short/tall)as couldn’t hear it on the tape.

  17. Old Muzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    Listening yet again…this version is more like the middle section of a song, has no beginning or end as opposed to the version that I sing and have noted above as Mrs.McGrath….Old blokes-I ask yer…so bally picky!

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