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14 October 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 12:51pm

The history of folk music, as told by Michael Morpurgo

BBC Radio 4's Michael Morpurgo's Folk Journeys explores the musical tradition of songs about war, protest, immigration and love. 

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“You haven’t an arm and you haven’t a leg,/You’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg” is one of the more memorable lyrics from the folk song “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”, the first of several pieces examined in Michael Morpurgo’s Folk Journeys (19 October, 4pm). “I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach when I heard it first,” says Ian Lynch, a musician from the contemporary Irish folk band Lankum. But he laughs, too, as he says this, acknowledging the strange mix of humour and despair in this surreal image of a soldier returning from conflict with no limbs, eyes or nose. The first episode of Morpurgo’s series explores folk music’s interest in conflict: “a theme”, the former Children’s Laureate acknowledges, “I’ve written about in many of my books”.

Morpurgo segues between different folk musicians offering their thoughts, such as Lynch; the traditional singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh; Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band; and the singer-songwriter Ralph McTell (known for the 1969 song “Streets of London”). They marvel at the juxtaposition in “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” of violent lyrics with a jolly, nursery-rhyme melody (I first heard the tune as “The Animals Went in Two by Two”, though it also appears in the Clash’s “English Civil War” and others).

Lynch explains that the song has an American parallel: the far more jaunty, jingoistic “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”, which was sung during the American Civil War by both Confederate and Unionist soldiers. In it, the singer imagines the joy that will greet Johnny on his return, happy and healthy, from war. It’s not clear which came first, but it’s possible that  “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” was a bleak, comic parody of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”.

This song is a jumping-off point to explore the tradition of songs about war; later episodes will explore protest, immigration and, of course, love. Morpurgo tends to say little, but it’s lovely when he enters the narrative to describe a time when, in Ypres, he joined the a cappella folk group Coope Boys & Simpson in a performance. The experience, he says, “made me feel part of something, just like it had in primary school”. 

Michael Morpurgo’s Folk Journeys 
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?