Living History & Reenactment Music

IN TUNE WITH THE TIMES
Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Whiskey in the Jar

"Whiskey in the Jar" is probably the only Metallica song you can hear sung around campfires at living history events.

The basic story told in the song is of a highwayman who was crossing over the mountains (Mulberry Mountain, Kilgary Mountain, Calvert Mountain, Gilgarra Mountains, Far off Kerry Mountains, Cork and Kerry Mountains or famed Kerry Mountains in different versions). He meets with his victim (Captain Farrell, Colonel Farrell, Captain Everet, Colonel Pepper, or Sir Frederick Pottinger). First he drew his pistols and then he drew his rapier (a good trick to manage two pistols and a rapier); while saying the obligatory line "Stand and deliver for I am a bold deceiver." (In the Smothers Brothers parody from the Hootenanny folk song era of the 1960's , the protagonist meets a St. Bernard and says "Fetch and deliver for you are a born retriever.")

The protagonist then robs the victim and takes the money back to his deceitful girlfriend, named Molly in most versions, but who has the delightful appellation of "my darlin' sportin' Jenny" in others. While the highwayman is asleep, Molly or sportin' Jenny hides his rapier, fills his pistols with water and calls in Captain Farrell (or whatever his name is in that version). After being arrested, the highwayman manages to beat the jailer with his fists and escape, in most cases to go look for his brother "the one that's in the army" and who is stationed somewhere "in Cork or in Killarney", except in the versions in which the robber has two brothers, one in Cork and the other in Killarney.

Each verse is followed by a rousing chorus

Mush a ringum durum da
Whack for my daddy-o
Whack for my daddy-o
There's Whiskey in the Jar.

There are slight variations in the chorus among the many versions, some resulting from different transliterations of the first line. The whiskey is most often in the jar, though in some older versions it is in the john (short for demijohn) or in the bar. The song sounds best when the whiskey is in the singers.

In the last 50 years, "Whiskey in the Jar" has been recorded by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Thin Lizzie, The Grateful Dead, the Pogues, The Dubliners, the Limeliters and Metallica, to name but a few. It has been called the most overdone folk song in Ireland. Since there were some thirty recorded versions of it on www.mp3.com when I researched this article, not counting the ones mentioned above, this could well be the case. There are 8 copyrighted versions listed by the copyright licensing organization BMI, two of which mention "traditional" as one of the sources; and two more are listed on ASCAP, neither of which mention a source as "traditional". The "Ballad Index" (www.csufresno.edu/folklore/) has seven text citations, and the Ceolas Fiddler's Companion (www.ceolas.org) has two "There's Whiskey in the Jar" citations, one to Harding's All Round Collection (1905) and one to the 1909 Joyce collection of Old Irish Folk Music and Song.*

Alan Lomax's "Folk Songs of North America", 1975 ed., originally published in 1960, has a somewhat romantic speculation of a connection between "Whiskey in the Jar" and John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728), while citing no sources for the song earlier than 1930, one from the US and one from Scotland. As it turns out there are several English broadside ballad versions of "Whiskey in the Jar" in the Bodleian Library collections, Oxford (http://bodley24.bodley.ox.ac.uk/). However, the Bodleian Library broadsides date back only as far as the mid 1840s, some110 years after The Beggars' Opera opened.**

Any connection between the protagonist of "Whiskey in the Jar" and his Molly or sportin' Jenny with Captain MacHeath and Polly Peachem of The Beggar's Opera seems quite tenous. There are several songs about highwaymen and betrayal in both the 18th and 19th centuries, including Gilderoy, MacPherson's Lament and Newlyn Town. In John Gay's London in the late 1720s, there were several active highwaymen as well as recently-captured or recently-hanged highwaymen available for inspiration. Some of the highwaymen still at large may have attended The Beggar's Opera in 1728.

Sheet music and midi file are on the music page.

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* Oddly enough, until the folk song revival of the 1960's the song seems to have stayed in Appalachia and New England, the Canadian Maritimes, England, Ireland and Australia. I did not find it in Vance Randolph's "Ozark Folk Songs", or Ira Ford's "Traditional Music of America". And it is not in my 1960 "Clancy Borthers and Tommy Makem Song Book" or the massive "Folksongs of Britain and Ireland" edited by Peter Kennedy, nor in Chappell's "Old English Popular Music", written at about the time the "Whiskey in the Jar/Bar" broadsides were being peddled on the London streets. Perhaps in the mid-1800s "Whiskey in the Jar" was not an old song.

** Some of the broadside versions are titled "Whiskey in the Bar" or "Sporting Hero". In one of them, printed by a J. Cadman, which the Bodleian Library dates at 1850-1855, instead of juggling two pistols and a rapier, the protagonist draws a pistol, a broadsword and a rapier. In the same broadside, the chorus starts with "Mush a ring a ding a da", and it's "Ri too ral laddy O" instead of "Whack fol de daddy O", or words to that effect.