Johnny has Gone for a Soldier

“Johnny has Gone for a Soldier” is a well-known folk song. It was sung during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Some speculate that it may have originated among Irish Jacobites — the 17th and 18th century supporters of King James II and VI and of monarchical succession.[1]

A.A. Bondy covers “Johnny has Gone for a Soldier” on the excellent 2013 collection of contemporary, reinterpreted Civil War era songs, Divided and United.

In this song, Bondy sings:

Sell your rod, sell your reel,
Sell your chain of silver.
Buy your love a sword of steel.
Johnny has gone for a soldier.

In earlier versions of the song, the words cited above differ. Following are the lyrics of the early Irish version, Siúil a Rún, by Clannad:

I’ll sell my rock, I’ll sell my reel,
I’ll sell my only spinning wheel.
To buy my love a sword of steel
Is go dté tú mo mhúirnín slán.

In Clannad’s version, “rock” and “reel” refer to the distaff and spindle used in hand spinning. In Bondy’s Civil War era lyrics, “rod” might possibly refer to a distaff, which often takes the shape of a rod. However, spinning wheels had greatly improved and largely replaced the use of distaffs and spindles altogether by this time. Moreover, I can find no common historical evidence of the word “rod” being used interchangeably with “rock” or “distaff.”

I wonder, then, if the latter lyrics might refer to fishing tackle. By the time of the war, the split bamboo fly rod had been invented and the use of reels was common. Moreover, a fishing rod and reel was most certainly more valuable at the time than a spindle and, particularly, a distaff. Distaffs, after all, were usually very simply devices (at least those used predominantly in Western Europe and American were).

Regardless, hundreds of years after this song was first sung, it remains a moving one. And selling those things that are of the greatest monetary value to you, in order to arm yourself or a loved one is no small thing.  Sacrifices such as things are important to ponder, as we think back upon the even greater sacrifices made by soldiers at Normandy and elsewhere, 70 years ago today. In 17th century Ireland, England, and Scotland; in 18th and 19th century United States; in 1940’s Europe, Oceania, and Asia; and in far too many places in throughout the world right now, fishing tackle and even new clothing is a luxury that many cannot afford.[2]

[1] Numerous other posts describe the circumstances of the 17th century English speaking world. This is, after all, the world of Izaak Walton.

[2] Then again, there have been those soldiers who considered fishing tackle a fundamental necessity.  For instance, Charles K. Fox imagines the fate of  flyfishing soldiers before and after the battle of Gettysburg in This Wonderful World of Trout (1963). Charles Ritz describes the immense collection of tackle and guns brought to France during WWII by Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith (later Director of Central Intelligence) in A Flyfisher’s Life (1959).

2 Responses to “Johnny has Gone for a Soldier”

  1. Bob Stanton Says:

    Peculiar, I stumbled across this album on Spotify just today. Got on the blog tonight and there it is! Coincidence? Probably not.


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