Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bonny Light Horseman

Today's song is "Bonny Light Horseman", a lament of English origin from the Napoleonic Wars. Though written in England, it became popular in Ireland as a broadsheet ballad. As the song gained popularity, it split into two versions with different tunes and slightly different lyrics- one sung mostly in the south, and another sung mostly in the north and west. The tunes are likely of Irish origin. The musical historian Sam Henry noting the use of the old Irish gapped scale, and estimated that the tune was likely some 400 years old.

I've chosen Maranna McCloskey's arrangement for the northern/western version . Planxty also has a very good arrangement, though theirs is a bit more martial, while this definitely carries the feeling of a lament. As the song is meant to be sung from a woman's perspective, I also thought it fitting to use female artists' performance.

Normally, I would include the lyrics, but they are included in the video. There are many different arrangements of the lyrics,which is not unusual. The basic chord structure, in the key of D is roughly as follows:

The charge of the Scots Grays dragoons at Waterloo
Oh Napoleon Boneparte, you're the cause of my woe
since my bonny light horseman, in the wars he did go
Brokenhearted I'll wander, brokenhearted I'll remain
G D G Bm
Since my bonny light horseman, in the wars he was slain
When Boney commanded his armies to stand
And proud lift his banners all gayly and grand  
He levelled his cannons right over the plain  
And my bonny light horseman in the wars he was slain
French Artillery at the Battle of Austerlitz
And if I was some small bird and had wings and could fly
I would fly over the salt sea where my true love does lie  
Three years and six months now, since he left this bright shore  
Oh, my bonny light horseman will I never see you more?
And the dove she laments for her mate as she flies  
"Oh, where, tell me where is my true love?" she sighs
"And where in this wide world is there one to compare  
With my bonny light horseman who was killed in the war?"
For the Southern version, here the arrangement by the group Oisin.

It is important to note that the lyrics of this version of the song are highly variable, with many different arrangement using different verses and lines. The lyrics below are the ones used in Oisin's rendition. 

Bonaparte, he has commanded his troops for to stand
And he planted his cannon all over the land;
and he planted his cannon, the whole victory to gain,
And he slew my light horseman returning from Spain.
Chorus (after each verse):
Broken-hearted I wander all for my true lover,
He's a bonny light horseman, in the war has been slain

Charge of the 15th Hussars at the Battle of Sahagun
You should see my light horseman on a cold winter's day,
With his red and rosy cheeks and his curly black hair.
He's mounted on horseback, the whole victory to gain,
And he's over the battlefield for honour and fame.

Oh, if I were a blackbird and had wings to fly
I would fly to the spot where my true love he does lie
And with me little fluttering wings his wounds I would heal
And it's all the night long on his breast I would lie

Oh Boney, Oh Boney, I have caused you no harm
tell me why, tell me why, have you caused me this alarm
we were happy together my true love and me
Oh but now you have stretched him in death over the sea

As a historical note, the light horseman in this song could likely refer to one of two types of light cavalry used by the British army during the Napoleonic war- the hussar and the dragoon. The dragoons (mentioned in such songs as "Maid of Fife" and "Eniskillen Dragoon") were originally a form of French mounted infantry, but by the Napoleonic wars had spread elsewhere and evolved into light cavalry. The dragoon carried a light wheel-lock carbine gun, or 'dragon', from which their name derives. Companies of dragoons were useful as mobile forces for internal security, maintaining lines of communication, supporting regular cavalry, and other purposes. By the time the Napoleonic wars came about, the dragoon was being used as a cavalry unit in its own right. In the British forces, the heavy cavalry companies were in fact demoted in pay and station to heavy dragoons and dragon guards, to complement the regular and light dragoons. During the Napoleonic wars, dragoons were often used as an intermediate cavalry between the light hussars and the heavier breastplate-clad curraisers. The cavalry at the time primarily took the duties of shock troops in offense and flank harassers and cavalry screens in defense. Dragoons would be used in these roles by the British for several decades after the war, though the dragoon companies were eventually reorganized as lancers and hussars.

The hussars had originated in Hungary during the 1400s, but, like the dragoons, been adopted by other armies. The British first gained hussars by adopting four regiments of dragoons in 1806-07. The troops had a distinctive style and bravado. Nearly all hussars went mustached, unique in the whole British army. Armed with a carbine gun, saber, and often a brace of pistols, the hussar cavalry were consummate light infantry.

The category of the light horseman in the song is, of course, unimportant. Indeed, the very fact that the horseman was a horseman at all is not of great importance. What makes this song memorable is the emotion behind it- a story of loss told again and again with each new war. The story manages to be both intensely historically rooted, yet capable of transcending generations with its message and feeling. The singer is singing about her horseman lost in Europe- but could she not as easily be singing about a sailor sunk on the Pacific, a pilot shot down over Vietnam, or a corpsman killed in action in Afghantistan? That is the power of the song.


  1. An interesting explanation on the origins and development of cavalry units. The song though sad in the content, is thoroughly engaging. Bravo!

  2. What an amazing article.
    I was listening to the band Bonny Light Horseman and I got curious about the band's name.
    Thank you so much for this!