Who started it?

Cock o’ the North is a tune favoured by troupes of Morris dancers. The tune is not an English one, despite the enthusiasm with which it is played by Border Morris musicians, it was the regimental march of the Gordon Highlanders. It was suggested that the Duke of Gordon was such a powerful man that he was known as the “cock o’ the north.” The earlier title of the tune, it seems, was Jumping Joan. Prior to it assuming that title some three hundred years ago, if it came from the Scottish highlands, it probably had a Gaelic name.  If one turned to oral tradition, stories of the origins of the tune would probably be as plentiful as the different renditions of it.

There are numerous sets of words to the tune, some less polite than others, many of them beginning with the line Auntie Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers. (The version I encountered in Ulster in the 1980s substituted De Valera for Auntie Mary and had the canary emerging from the leg of the drawers while whistling the Protestant Boys).

The tune may have evolved over centuries, and have been an amalgam of various predecessors, to the extent that no-one can claim to have been the composer. (The long evolution of a piece of music does not always prevent someone claiming they have written it; a setting of the Irish traditional air The Hills of Donegal was presented as the composition of an evangelical Christian songwriter in one volume of “praise” music).

Unlike the music, words tend to have a more distinctive authorship. However much the lines concerning Auntie Mary or Eamon de Valera may be lacking in merit, someone, somewhere, at some time, must have taken a conscious decision to devise those lyrics and to set them to those notes. Bawdy lines concerning Auntie Mary, or sectarian lines concerning the man who was Irish taoiseach and then president, were the product of an individual putting the words in those forms. Someone sitting in a pub, or walking down a street, or lying awake in bed, or wherever they were, must have had the tune running through their head and thought, “what about singing those words?” Not only that, they must have shared their thoughts with others and those thoughts must have been widely shared, yet there seems no record of such a process.

Perhaps the Internet will mean that future generations will be clear about the origins of who started traditions, although, human nature being what it is, there will probably be as may claimants as versions of Auntie Mary.

 

 

 

 

 

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