The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #37249   Message #1018384
Posted By: Malcolm Douglas
13-Sep-03 - 08:48 PM
Thread Name: Origins: My Johnny Was a Shoemaker
Subject: RE: My Johnny was a Shoemaker - origins?
Quite a few people sing, or have recorded arrangements of, this song. Whether many of them know anything about its history is another matter. As we've already seen, it was published as sheet music and on broadsides in the wake of the Florences' extensive tours of European and American theatres in the 1850s. It also appeared in songsters of the day such as Beadle's Dime Song Book (no.5, 1860) and The Comic Songster (Boston, Oliver and Ditson, 1870); the tune from the latter was reproduced in The Journal of the Folk Song Society, vol. III (issue 10, 1907/8, p.33).

Although we haven't seen the music at Levy, the Comic Songster tune is from the same publisher, and it is reasonable to suppose that the melody line will be essentially the same. Here it is:

T:My Johnny was a Shoemaker
C:[W.J. Florence]
B:The Comic Songster (Boston, Oliver and Ditson, 1870)
G4 FDCB,|C2 C2 G2 (GA)|B2 B2 A2 A2|G2 G2 FDCB,|C2 C2 HG2 (GA)|
B2 B2 A2 A2|HG6 (GA)|B2 B2 A2 A2|G2 G2 D2 G2|FDCB, C2 C2|
(B3G) A3 _G|HG4 z2 FD|B,B,B,B, C2 C2|{D}G4 z2|]

Only a very few examples have been found in oral tradition (Roud currently lists two from England, two from Scotland, and one from Ireland), and, so far as I know, all (I can't speak for one of the Scottish sets, which I haven't seen) use forms of this tune. Of the two midis indicated at the beginning of this thread, only the first was taken from tradition; the second is a modern, non-traditional adaptation of it, and should be disregarded for purposes of comparison. It's likely, though, that the majority of Revival singers who have recorded the song will have used the adapted tune, having learned it at one remove or another from the Steeleye Span record, which is mainly responsible for disseminating it in recent years. Oral examples may derive from printed sources or have been learned from stage performances, of which there seem to have been plenty during the second half of the 19th century.

There was some discussion of these issues in the Journal piece referred to above. Lucy Broadwood pointed out J. A. Fuller Maitland's opinion that there was a noticeable resemblance between a form of the tune quoted there from the Rev. J. Kirk Maconachie, who had learned it (one verse only) from his childhood nurse in Aberdeenshire, and a (major key) form of Shule Agra noted by Frank Kidson from an Irishman who had learned it in Liverpool (Journal, II (9) 253); this is likely a red herring, though, as the resemblance really is not close enough to suggest a significant relationship. Maconachie's tune, incidentally, though clearly derived from the usual one, is a little odd in any case.

This wouldn't be worth mentioning were it not for further conclusions which were drawn by Miss Broadwood. Pointing to further points of resemblance between Maconachies's Shoemaker tune and the Seeds of Love tune published by Chappell (Popular Music of the Olden Time, II, 520-3) and to versions of Johnny Doyle appearing in the Petrie Collection, she went on to say

"These proofs of an old form of the song are of importance, as it has sometimes been suggested that, My Johnny was a shoemaker, as given in English County Songs is merely a modern street-ballad popular in the 'sixties' of the last century. The reason for this idea has been explained by Dr. George B. Gardiner's correspondence with the secretary of the late comedian Mr. J. Toole. Mr. F. Arlton, writing on Feb. 9th, 1906, says "Mr. Toole sang 'My Johnny was a Shoemaker' in three or four different characters. He cannot remember the first time he sang it, or the source from which he obtained it. The last characters in which he sang it were as 'The Artful Dodger' in 'Oliver Twist' and (he sometimes sang it) as 'Simmonds' in the 'Spitalfield Weaver', but not often. As far as my memory serves me, it was at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, as 'the Dodger', in about 1894, that he sang it last." Mr. Toole's illness prevented Dr. Gardiner from learning more."

The "proofs of an old form of the song" referred to are the suggested tune-correspondences and the occurrence of some similar turns of phrase in other songs. They are not, on re-examination nearly a century later, particularly convincing.

It is made clear, however, that the song turned up on the stage in a number of contexts at least until the 1890s. A further example can be seen at the  Adelphi Theatre Project,  where there is a reference to a performance of My Johnny Was a Shoemaker by Miss Julia Daly on 25 March 1871.

We still have no reason to suppose that the words of the song are older than the 1850s, or that they were not written by Mr Florence. The tune, however, is another matter. I have already quoted the Comic Songster example, which was added by Frank Kidson immediately following Miss Broadwood's comments in the Journal; this may be taken, for now, as the closest we can get to the form in which Florence published it. Following that, Anne Gichrist added

"My sailor friend, Mr. Bolton, says that My Johnny was a Shoemaker was a well-known forecastle song when he was at sea."

William Bolton was at sea, on and off, between 1852 and about 1888, so this doesn't take us out of our time-frame. However, Miss Gilchrist went on to quote a tune (apparently deriving from a traditional source) from the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Hymn Book, Caernarvon, 1897, which certainly suggests that Mr Florence's tune was, if not directly adapted from a traditional melody from somewhere or other, at least modelled on one.

N:Alaw Gymreig=Welsh Air
B:Welsh Calvinist Methodist Hymn Book, Caernarvon, 1897.
A4|G2 F2 E2 D2 C2 D2 E4|c8 B4 A4|(G2 F2) (E2 D2) (C2 D2) E4|A12:|
B4|c4 e4 d4 G4|c8 e4 e4|e4 A4 G4 E4|G12||
A4|(G2 F2) (E2 D2) (C2 D2) E4|c8 B4 A4|(G2 F2) (E2 D2) (C2 D2) E4|A12|]

This is not to suggest that Mr Florence necessarily based his tune on a Welsh Methodist hymn; but the existence of the above, and Miss Gilchrist's reasonable presumption that it was quite old, may reasonably be taken to suggest that there is a good chance that the tune of My Johnny was a Shoemaker is, at least in part, older than the song which it carries. My Johnny appears never to have been found in oral tradition in Wales, so Lesley Nelson's reference (quoted earlier) to its supposed popularity in that country appears to derive from a misunderstanding, by whover wrote the sleeve notes for Steeleye Span's Hark the Village Wait, of the Journal piece I have quoted from.