Thursday, August 25, 2011

Little Drummer Girl: A Historical Analysis

The traditional folk song "Drummer Girl" has taken many variations, but its origins may very well be of Mary Anne Talbot and created during the last decade of the 1700s.  First brought to attention in 1965 during the folk resurgence by the Watersons with Percy Grainger, the song was taught by none other than a Yorkshire girl.  It's very fascinating that this song lasted through the times, considering its nature, but it would be very easy to teach to your daughters through the generations and gone under the radar as a lost folk tune.  So let's take a look at the possible history of the song and its transformations.

Lord William Talbot bore sixteen children (all with the same mother!), and one was Mary Anne.  Her mother died giving birth to Mary Anne, and she was sent to live under the care of those who were not her father in Shropshire.  Captain Bowen was appointed to take Mary Anne to be taken care of by a new female guardian, but he instead took her to be his mistress in 1792.  He was called to the West Indies, but he took her with him...disguised as a foot boy named John Taylor.  When they arrived to the West Indies, they were sent to war in Flanders' for the Duke of York's army.  Mary Anne/John became a drummer boy.  To quell her pleas of protest, Bowen threatened to sell her into slavery.  Grrrrr!

At the Siege of Valenciennes (or Utrecht) in 1793, Mary Anne was wounded twice.  Before she could be found out, she healed herself in how she knew best: "by the assistance of a little basilicon, lint, and a few Dutch drops", which are much like our cough drops, except gummy.  It was here that Bowen was killed in the final battle.  Though she knew the repercussions of caught deserters was hanging, she fled as a sailor after her captor was killed.  She was finally found out when wounds festered and were treated by a surgeon.

Not only does this seem to fit the tune "Drummer Girl," but it's also reminiscent of tunes such as "Billy Taylor" or "Willie Taylor" where Mr. Taylor's lover dresses as a sailor to go with her man to fight a war.  It just so happens that the man's last name is Taylor?  Hmmmm.  And the ship's name was Mary Anne?  The captain found her out when her blouse blew open from a storm's strong gust of wind.  But this is in no way a sappy love song.  She saw Billy with a woman at his side.  She demanded a gun and shot Billy on the spot.

Records of other women entering on their own volition as soldiers or drummers are accounted for at least since the 1600s.  One, Christian Welsh, went out disguised as a drummer seven months after giving birth.

Frankie Armstrong's version is perhaps the oldest version known, as it was recorded as a broadside in the Bodleian Library around 1790.  I rather like this version, for it reduces the fact that the narrator is a woman, and in the end, she offers up that she has served her country well, and if they're ever in need of soldiers again, send for her.  Beautiful.


I listed in the army in uniform quite new
And if they let me have a drum I'll be a drummer too
To rush into the battlefield with a broadsword in my hand
To hear the cannon rattle and the music play so grand
And the music play so grand, and the music play so grand
To hear the cannon rattle and the music play so grand



When I was a young girl at the age of sixteen
From my home I ran away to go and serve the Queen
The officer who enlisted me said, You are a fine young man
I think you'll make a drummer, so just step this way, young man


They led me to my office, they let me off to bed
And lying by a soldier's side I never was afraid
And taking off my old red coat I oftimes used to smile
To think myself a drummer, yet a female all the while

My waist long and slender, my fingers neat and small
And very soon they taught me how to play the best of all
I played upon the kettle drum as other drummers played
I played upon my kettle drum and I'll beat the drum again

They sent me off to London to be guard o'er the Tower
And there I would have been until this very day and hour
But a young girl fell in love with me, she found I was a maid
She went straightway to my officer, my secret betrayed

My officer he sent for me to see if it was true
But I all for to beat him said I already knew
There's a pension award for you, he smiled and he said
It's a pity we should lose you, such a drummer as you made

So fare you well, my officer, you have been kind to me
And fare you well, my comrades, you ne'er forgot shall be
And should the British Army fall short of any men
I'll put on my hat and feather and I'll beat the drum again



Then comes The Watersons singing "The Pretty Drummer Boy".  The introduction is dropped.  Rather than deceiving the audience into thinking, along with those in the story, that the drummer is a man.  Rather we now start off with the fact that the narrator is a woman.  And no longer does she offer up her services again.  She's returned to her parents and seemingly imprisoned, for "no longer can [she] roam".

I was brought up in Yorkshire and when I was sixteen
I ran away from home, me lads, and a soldier I became
With a fine cap and feathers, likewise a rattling drum
They learned me to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum


Chorus (after each verse):
With a fine cap and feathers, likewise a rattling drum
They learned her to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum
With her gentle waist so slender, and her fingers long and small
She could play upon the rub-a-dub the best of them all
And it's many is the pranks that I saw amongst the French
And boldly I did fight, me boys, although I'm but a wench
And in buttoning up me trousers so often have I smiled
To think I lay with a thousand men and a maiden all the while


And they never found me secret out until this very hour
For they sent me up to London to be sentry at the Tower
And a lady fell in love with me and I told her I's a maid
And she went unto me officer and me secret she betrayed


He unbuttoned up my red tunic and he found that it was true
“It's a shame,” he says “to lose a pretty drummer boy like you.”
So now I must return to me mam and dad at home
And along with my bold comrades no longer can I roam



Then Steeleye Span recorded a version in 1971 as "Female Drummer".  They drop the repetitious 3rd and 4th lines in the first verse from the previous version, rather than repeating them immediately after in the chorus.


I was brought up in Yorkshire and when I was sixteen
Oh I ran away to London and a soldier I became


Chorus (after each verse):
With me fine cap and feather, likewise me rattling drum
They learned me to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum
With me gentle waist so slender, me fingers long and small
and to play upon the rub-a-dub the best of them all
And so many were the pranks that I saw among the French
And so boldly did I fight, me boys, although I'm but a wench
And in buttoning up me trousers so often have I smiled
To think I lay with a thousand men and a maiden all the while


But they never found my secret out until this very hour
When they sent me off to London to keep sentry o'er the Tower
When a young girl fell in love with me and she found that I was a maid
She went up to me officer me secret she betrayed



He unbuttoned then my red tunic and he found that it was true
“It's a shame,” he says, “to lose a pretty drummer boy like you”
So now I must return to me mum and dad at home
And along with me bold comrades it's no longer can I roam





Harry Cox recorded a version as old as 1810.  It's essentially like the first mentioned from the 1790s, except it still has two near-repeated lines every verse.  It is this, I've come to conclude, that is the oldest version.  It was common then for women to dress as men and go to war, many undocumented.  It was also common for women to be women in war.  Many acted as spies as well.  This seems to me the most comprehensive and feminist of the bunch.


I'm going to be a soldier in my uniform quite new
And if they let me have a drum I'll be a drummer too,
For to march into the battlefield with a broadsword in my hand
To hear the cannons rattle and the music sound so grand.
The music sound so grand, the music sound so grand,
To hear the cannons rattle and the music sound so grand.


Now when I was a young girl the age of sixteen
It's from my home I ran away to go and serve the Queen
And the officer who enlisted me said, “You are a nice young man;
I think you'll make a drummer, so please step this way, young man.
Just step this way, young man, just step this way, young man,
Oh, I think you'll make a drummer, so just step this way, young man.”


They led me to my officer, they lit me up to bed,
But laying down by a soldier's side I never felt afraid.
And in a-pulling off my old red coat I sometimes had to smile
For to think myself a drummer yet a female all the while.
A female all the while, a female all the while,
For to think myself a drummer yet a female all the while.


My waist so neat and slender and my fingers long and small
And very soon they taught me how to play the best of all.
I played all on my kettledrum while other drummers played,
I played all on my kettledrum and I'll beat the drum again.
I'll beat the drum again, I'll beat the drum again,
Oh, I played all on my kettledrum and I'll beat the drum again.


So they sent me up to London to be guard o'er the Tower
And there I might have been until this very day and hour,
But a young girl fell in love with me, then found I was a maid
She went straight to my officer and my secret betrayed.
My secret betrayed, my secret betrayed,
Oh, she went up to my officer and my secret betrayed.


So my officer he sent for me to hear if this was true
And I all for to tell to him a tale already knew.
“Here's a pension all for your reward,” he smiled as he said,
“It's a pity we must lose you, such a drummer as you made.
A drummer as you made, a drummer as you made,
It's a pity we should lose you, such a drummer as you made.”


So fare you well, my officers, you have been kind to me
And likewise all my comrades, you ne'er forgot shall be.
And should the British army fall short of any man
I'll put on my hat and feathers and I'll beat the drum again.
I'll beat the drum again, you know I'll beat the drum again,
I'll put on my hat and feathers and I'll beat the drum again.






The version usually used today is that of Steeleye Span.  Look for beautiful renditions from Karan Casey and John Doyle's "The Little Drummer Girl" and from Wild Mountain Thyme titled the same.

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