morning in Philadelphia, while wearing the bright red and blue regimental coat
of a Continental Army musician, I played "Garryowen" for a group of
tourists. One visitor asked me why I was playing what he described as a "Civil
War tune." I am sure he remembered some time when he was at a theater and saw
the U.S. Cavalry charging down a hill on their noble steeds, bugles blaring, with
the orchestral background playing this memorable tune. I am also frequently asked,
"Who was Gary Owen, anyway?"
The name, "Garryowen" isn't a person's name. It is a place. Now located within the city limits of Limerick, Ireland, it derives its name from the Gaelic, Garrai Eoin, which means Owen's Garden. Back around the 12th Century it was set up as a tea garden, and took its name from the fact that a nearby cottage was owned by a man named Owen. During the day it appears to have been a lovely place for families or lovers to stroll, a location for picnics, parties, and athletic events. In the nighttime, however, it was quite a different story. A rowdy crowd that would easily rank with the gregarious characters portrayed in Rakes of Mallow, Rosin the Beau, or even Old Dan Tucker would gather there, drinking and brawling until dawn. They often went off, carrying out acts of destruction throughout the town of what was then nearby Limerick.
Some vague historical references state that an Irish poet from Cork named Jackson composed the original tune, but this cannot be easily confirmed. During the late 17th Century, it was adopted as a marching and drinking tune by the Royal Irish Regiment, based in Limerick, and was later used by many other Irish regiments. With the emigration to America that was always taking place, the tune eventually crossed the Atlantic, probably in the head of an Irish fiddler or flute player. It was not unusual for tunes of British, Scottish or Irish heritage to be adopted, with new lyrics, in America. Hearts of Oak became the Liberty Song. British Grenadiers was played as Free Americay. Girl I Left Behind Me was known in Boston as Father Abbey's Will and Waxie's Dargle before that.
This is the main reason why tunes popular among contemporary fifers and drummers often have many different titles. New lyrics and parodies to many catchy tunes were often composed over the course of time. Our national anthem had many parodies during its transition from Anachreon in Heaven to the Star Spangled Banner, and Yankee Doodle also had countless word sets, even during the American Revolution: eg: Battle of the Kegs and Cornwallis' Country Dance. Garryowen was no different.
In 1788 the tune was published as Auld Bessie, and around the beginning of the 19th Century, Thomas Moore wrote The Daughters of Erin. In 1851, a military unit that later became the 69th Regiment of the New York State Militia (now an active National Guard unit) selected the tune as their official marching song. It wasn't until the U.S. 7th Cavalry, composed largely of Irish immigrants, developed an affection for the song that it took on an even greater popularity. Any time there is a cinematic or television portrayal of Custer's Last Stand, this tune always plays in the background.
The evolution never
ceases. In 1905, the Chief Musician of the 7th Cavalry, J.O. Brockenshire, wrote
another set of lyrics for the tune that begins with:
We are the pride of the army,
And a regiment of great reknown,
Our name's on the pages of history
From sixty-six on down.
If you think we stop or falter
While in the fray we're goin'
Just watch the steps with out heads erect,
While our band plays "Garry Owen."
In the Fighting Seventh's
It's the cream of all the cavalry,
No other regiment ever can claim
Its pride, honor, glory and undying fame.
Over the course of my many years as a fifer and musical historian I have heard endless debates and bickering by musicians whom I call "note-nazis" about how a tune "was played back then." They argue about whether the third note on the second line of one tune or the other was a G or an E. They endlessly debate as to the "correct" lyrics to a tune. It is almost always a futile process. The rule I always abide by is that any tune is probably much, much older than we think it is, and because it was passed on for generations through an aural tradition at musters and jam sessions, any and all variations are probably correct. "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" had an earlier life as God Save Ireland. Even Love Me Tender, as recorded by Elvis Presley, was a reincarnation of Aura Lea, and may have had yet an earlier life at that!