Week 294 – When You and I Were Young, Maggie

I always thought that I had first heard this song while watching Top of the Pops in early 1983, when I saw it performed in a pretty ghastly, slushy version by Foster & Allan (the song reached number 27 in the UK charts). However I see that De Dannan’s (obviously superior) recording of it, on The Star-Spangled Molly, came out in 1981, so I must have heard that one first. Either way, it never suggested itself as a song I would want to learn. A couple of months on from that Top of the Pops, I recorded ‘Maggie’ being sung by Charlie Bridger, which of course raised it in the authenticity stakes, as far as I was concerned; but it still wasn’t a song I really considered learning.

At some point in the 90s or 2000s I did toy with it, although I think I saw it mostly as a vehicle for a particular sort of parlour ballad concertina accompaniment. Then a few months ago, at a lockdown Zoom meeting of the Traditional Song Forum, Steve Roud mentioned this song. He said that he felt a particular affection for Southern English traditional singers, and also that there were songs to which he’d previously paid little attention but which, as he got older, seemed to have a greater resonance. He cited ‘Maggie’ as an example. Given that the song appears to have been recorded only a handful of times by English collectors, it may well have been Charlie’s version which he had in mind.

Prompted by this, I got the words out again and decided it was finally time to learn it properly. Initially I still saw it as a song which needed accompaniment, and over the next few weeks, on various boxes, I tried it in D, Eb, F and G. But – as with ‘The Isle of St. Helena’ – singing the song without an accompaniment, just to cement the words in my head, I found that I really liked it that way. It means I can sing more freely, and properly concentrate on the song. Also, I don’t have to compromise on what key to sing it in – G’s probably easiest for me to play a good anglo accompaniment, but it’s a bit too high… This way, I can sing it at whatever pitch I feel like on the day (E-ish in this recording!).

 

The following notes on the song’s origin were posted on Mudcat by Dale Young, who found them on a website about John McCormack, the Irish tenor:

According to the notes by Philip Lieson Miller for RCA LP ARL1-1698 (“When You and I Were Young Maggie.” Robert White, Tenor), this song commemorates one Maggie Clark, born in Glanford, Ontario. George Johnson also was born in this area, where he eventually became a teacher in a local school. The two became engaged and eventually married. The song alludes to features in the countryside there, including an old sawmill located on a creek near Maggie’s home. After marriage the two moved to Cleveland, but Maggie died less than a year later (in May 1865). She was buried near her old home, and Washington too came home to Canada, where he was a Professor at the University of Toronto. The poem was first published in 1864. After his wife’s death, Washington arranged for it to be set to music by Butterfield, who then lived in Detroit. He was a music teacher and minor composer, whose numerous other works are largely forgotten. The poem and the song attained great popularity in post-Civil War America. Maggie’s sister published this background information in 1941, in response apparently to various erroneous tales of its origins that had circulated.

I had thought of the song as being about an old couple, “aged and grey”, but still very much in love after all these years. Reading the notes above, at first I thought “ah no, it’s an old man still in love with his wife, even though she died years ago”. But hang on – he published the song in 1864, while his wife died the following year, in 1865. So it was actually written by a young, newly-married man, using his imagination to portray how he would feel in forty or fifty years’ time. You’ll find more detail in this 1933 article from the Canadian MacLean’s magazine.

There’s a completely different set of words sung to the same tune, where the last line of each verse is “And you said you loved only me”. According to that same Mudcat discussion, that version was written by Seàn O’Casey for his play The Plough and the Stars with the woman’s name changed to fit that of his lead female character, Nora Clitheroe. However, when Mary Black recorded this version with De Danann, to the annoyance of Noras worldwide, she changed the name back to Maggie.

 

 

When You And I Were Young Maggie, published by Oliver Ditson & Co., 451 Washington Street, Boston, 1866. From the Lester Levy Sheet Music collection.

When You And I Were Young Maggie, published by Oliver Ditson & Co., 451 Washington Street, Boston, 1866. From the Lester Levy Sheet Music collection.

 

 

When You and I Were Young, Maggie

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