Day 235: From The Battlefield To The Movie Theater – Journey Of A Song

originally published August 22, 2012

Sometimes a rich and textured piece of music requires further analysis. Only by delving deeper into the complexities and subtle modal shifts of a great work can we truly hope to understand it, to appreciate its aesthetic and kinesthetic properties, and to gauge its true importance in whatever sub-cultural niche the piece belongs.

To that end, I’m going to spend a thousand words writing about a song with no complexities, a negligible aesthetic, and which probably shows up on approximately zero iPod playlists in any given metropolitan area.

“For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.”

What a delightful sentiment. And everyone knows the tune; this song has been worked into the grain by unseen hands. It’s part of the unspoken collective cultural understanding of every cognizant human being in the western world, like Auld Lang Syne, the Star Spangled Banner, and “Brickyard Blues” by Little Feat. Okay, that last one should be known by everyone.

(ours is not yet a fully evolved culture)

Every piece of music has its origin story. Somewhere, at some point in history, somebody had to be the first to staple those notes together and call it a tune. “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” finds its roots, not in celebration of some schmuck becoming Salesman of the Month, but in someone’s misunderstanding of a gruesome blood-fest.

For the second time in three months I find myself returning to September 11 – but not that September 11. This was September 11, 1709, in the middle of the War of the Spanish Succession. This 13-year shootapalooza featured nearly everyone on the European continent. Its end result split the kingdoms of Spain all over the place, redrew the map, and put an end to France’s inexplicable desire to possess control of Saskatchewan.

No really, a lot of stuff went down. But today’s topic focuses specifically on the Battle of Malplaquet, which was fought in France. Though Britain and her allies suffered double the casualties, it was the French side who backed off at the end of the bloody day, so technically it was counted as a win for Britain. There was even a rumor – though totally false – that the leader of the British squad, the Duke of Marlborough, perished in battle.

Shortly after the battle, someone wrote a folk song about it. No one knows who, but it was probably some 18th-century French hippie (or ‘Frippie’ as I think we should call them). The song was called “Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre” or “Mort et convoy de l’invincible Marlbrough”, which translates as “Marlborough Has Left For The War” or “The Death And Burial Of The Invincible Marlborough.” It was catchy enough to have survived, and – as you have probably guessed by now – it was sung to the tune of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.”

The story goes that a peasant nurse named Madame Poitrine sang the tune to an infant Louis XVII in late-1780s France, and his mom, Marie Antoinette, noticed that he really responded to it. She began to sing it, and as she was the nation’s number-one trend-setter, the song became a hit among the people.

Cover versions and shameless rip-offs grabbed the nation by the ball-shaped whole notes. Visiting German composer Carl Stamitz wrapped up a sonata in D-major with the tune. Beethoven worked it into his Wellington’s Victory piece in 1813, symbolizing the defeat of the French. The song’s name was tied to fashions, carriages and soups. The song’s subject was printed on ornamental fans, on tapestries and toys. Marlborough was like the Beatles of the turn of the 19th century. All this happened eighty years after he died – ninety years since his mistaken death inspired this song.

You can read all twelve verses of the song here. If you just want a taste, sing along with this verse from the English translation (you know the tune):

“He’s dead! He’s dead as a herring!

For I beheld his berring,

And four officers transferring

His corpse away from the field.”

Somehow this fills me with just a little less cheer than the version I grew up with. By the latter part of the 19th century, this progression of notes became a standard harpsichord exercise, which meant that scores of disgruntled children had to play it over and over again. At some unknown point around this time, some master lyricist whose name is lost to the ether of history decided the words “for he’s a jolly good fellow” fit perfectly into the tune.

The British and American versions of the song differ, as anyone who has seen Bridge On The River Kwai knows. The Americans conclude the sentiment with the line “which nobody can deny”; the British take more ownership over the sentiment by singing “and so say all of us.” A subtle difference, but it’s there.

There’s an Italian version listed also: “Perché è un bravo ragazzo, nessuno lo può negar.” Plunking that into Google translate gives me: “Because he is a good guy, no one can deny.” Not purely identical, but close enough.

The song is used occasionally in movies and on TV in place of “Happy Birthday” because the latter song costs money to use. Written by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, “Happy Birthday” still falls under copyright law. I’m not shattering a lot of minds with this information – the song is actually somewhat infamous for that.

I can’t list every time “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” has made an appearance in movies and TV – there are just too many of them. It’s free to use, often fits into a plot, and it’s instantly recognizable. In fact, after “Happy Birthday” this is the most recognized song in the world.

It has popped up in other worlds as well. “The Bear Went Over The Mountain,” a traditional children’s song with its origins in a bizarre German belief in bears’ abilities to foretell the weather, shares the same tune. As does the timeless theatrical musical snipe that reminded audiences in the 50s and 60s that they would get hungry during the upcoming movie: “Let’s All Go To The Lobby.”

A good tune lives on, I suppose. This harmless, mostly generic folk melody will be sung long after I’m gone. I suppose the trick is to find a way to get people to sing it to me. I’m just not fully certain I’m jolly good. Jolly, sometimes. Good, when I have to be. But some of us just ain’t jolly good fellows.

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