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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW (OT) 11/14/14 -- Boyne Water

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

JanetB - Posted - 11/13/2014:  21:20:01

Attending a workshop and jam with West Virginian fiddler Franklin George was quite a thrill last year and I wanted to learn one of his tunes in honor of the occasion.  After listening to lots of his music I settled upon the tune Boyne Water, named for a battle on a river near Dublin in 1690, and I’ve since discovered it also gave birth to the American song Backside Albany.


Boyne Water is a very old ballad describing the fighting between King James and King Williams.  This Wickepedia article on Battle of the Boyne gives historical details and background.   The original lyrics to The Boyne Water describing the battle ends with the song’s last verse praising the brave leadership of King William:

     Come let us all with heart and voice applaud our lives’ defender

     Who at the Boyne his valor showed and made his foe surrender

     To God above, the praise we’ll give now and ever after,

     And bless the glorious memory of King William that crossed the water.


And this link goes into more detail, including the biblical references in the song:  a folklorist's analysis of The Battle of the Boyne lyrics


Samuel Bayard, in his book Dance to the Fiddle and March to the Fife, dates the earliest published source of Boyne Water to a German lute book of 1694.  You can read some of its historical background on the Ceolas site.  The historic event of the battle near the Boyne River between William and James II in 1690 had deep consequences for Ireland.   As Donel O'Sullivan put it in his biography of the famous Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, for Ireland this battle was "the beginning of the end."  The tune has Irish roots as well, with the melody in such tunes as Leading the Calves to Pasture, To Look for My Calf I sent My Child, and One Pleasant Morn Beside the Glen.

Boyne Water’s melody was adopted in another song, Backside Albany, written by Micah Hawkins in 1815 to parody the British defeat in the war of 1812.  The first title was “The Siege of Plattsburgh,” but was changed to Backside Albany because those were its first words.  Lyrics to Siege of Plattsburgh  reveals that it comes from the perspective of a black sailor.  One of the historic incidents leading to the War of 1812 was impressment to the British Navy of American sailors in 1807, including four African Americans.  An interesting feature of Backside Albany is that it may have been the first time a black-faced performance received widespread favor by popularizing the song in theatres.  Discussion of Backside Albany as the first black-faced minstrel performance  includes a historic poster illustrating a minstrel singer performing it.


Franklin George was adept at reading music and learned this from Howe’s Violin Tutor according to Paul Hostetter, a Santa Cruz luthier and BHO member.  There’s discussion in an archived BHO thread with comments beginning with Paul and including Brendan Doyle, Dan Gellert, and Tony Spadaro (oldwoodchuck):  I understand Melvin Wine played it, too, and his version came to Cathy Fink via Joe Fallon, but I haven’t heard it yet.   Please let me know if it’s available to hear. 

You’ll enjoy these versions:

     Cathy Fink's Boyne River

     Bob Blanham's Back Side of Albany (from Gumbo Chaff’s Complete Preceptor for Banjo, 1851)

     Paul Draper's Backside Albany

     Timothy Twiss's Backside of Albany

     Clawhammer version

I never realized this tune would be so historically  deep, yet it’s been a common experience I’ve had every time when researching a tune for the old-timeTune of the Week.  My versions in sawmill tuning are a combination of Franklin George and Cathy Fink’s.  I hope you’ll give it a try and also enjoy learning the dual history of Boyne Water and Backside Albany.

Edited by - JanetB on 11/14/2014 06:32:36

VIDEO: Boyne Water (TOTW)
(click to view)

Boyne Water

Boyne Water tab

RG - Posted - 11/13/2014:  23:19:06

I used to distribute that LP back in the 70's, nice tune and well done Janet!!!

JanetB - Posted - 11/14/2014:  06:16:45

Thanks, RG.  Boyne Water was recorded with David O'Dell in 1995 on the CD "Reflections of the Past."

Here's a link to an interview with Frank George with interesting bio information:

Zischkale - Posted - 11/14/2014:  12:06:21

Really digging this tune, and enjoying every version of it posted!

Janet, that big fretless piece you've got makes a great sound, but one of my favorites here is the audio-only clip. You've always got a real strong downbeat, really seats the tune in a good groove.

I like those crashing slides Cathy fink does, and that oldthymedragon rendition is great! Wish the audio quality was better, getting a cool tight rhythm out of that 'jo--maybe muting the strings a bit? Sort of like a cluck? 

Fascinating history (love how tunes are adapted over the years) and sweet melody, thanks Janet!


RG - Posted - 11/14/2014:  20:10:21

Haven't heard "Reflections of the Past" Janet, will have to check that one out.  I was talking about the 1967 Kanawha release that was re-issued by County (the photo in your OP)...still have an original LP, it's great, looks like the County re-issue has some added tracks...

Again, cool tune!

BrendanD - Posted - 11/15/2014:  02:05:35

That's a lovely version, Janet! (I haven't watched the video yet.) Very faithful to the melody as I hear it.

Here's a version that my band the Cliffhangers recorded nine years ago (on our CD "On The Edge"), medleyed with Luther Strong's version of "The Hog-Eyed Man".

Boyne Water/The Hog-Eyed Man

hendrid - Posted - 11/15/2014:  07:03:20

Couple of across the Atlantic versions    has the sheet music at the end

JanetB - Posted - 11/15/2014:  09:09:00

Thanks for adding versions with varied instrumentation--banjo, fiddle, fife, drum, guitar.  Brendan, it's amazing that you, sometimes with your band, have recorded many of our TOTW topics.

hendrid - Posted - 11/15/2014:  10:00:50

Lot of Boyne Water information on ibiblio

​for instance,  The air was widespread in American usage, often heard as the tune the popular song "Barbara Allan" was sung to, which fact has been noted by several writers (Bayard, Cowdery, Cazden). It is, for example, identified by Cowdery (1990) as one of four tunes which carry the tale of "(Bonny) Barbara Allen" (the second strain of both Joyce's version and Bunting's "To seek for the Lambs..." is the portion of the Irish tune which corresponds to the America "Barbara Allen"). As "The Battle of the Boyne" it was included in a Philadelphia chapbook of 1805, and, under the title "The Buoying Water," as an instrumental piece in the 1790Whittier Perkins Book (Cazden, et al, 1982). According to Bronner (1987), it was used for an 1815 hit American blackface minstrel song by Micah Hawkins called "The Siege of Plattsburgh" or "Backside Albany." Cazden prints it with the Catskill Mountain (N.Y.)-collected song "A Shantyman's Life," which he states can be found in most collections of lumber camp songs. Musicologist Alan Jabbour traces one of the strains of  Virginia  fiddler Henry Reed’s “Shady Grove” ultimately to the  Boyne  water, and says the strain was absorbed into American traditional music, also referencing another  Virginia  fiddler, J.H. Chisholm, and his tune called “The Foggy Dew,” which also uses the strain.

Four versions of sheet music and abc notation

Edited by - hendrid on 11/15/2014 10:13:27

Paul Meredith - Posted - 11/16/2014:  19:25:53

Good tune Janet, good renditions (I especially like the video), and a very interesting history as well.   The band version that Brendon posted is very helpful, a bit of a different context than solo fiddle or banjo.

JanetB - Posted - 11/16/2014:  20:11:11

Thanks, Don and Paul.  The tune does have a long history.  Boyne Water's musical descendant, Backside Albany, also pointed the way to the genre of minstrelsy, preceding it by about twenty years.  

Currently there's a thoughtful discussion going on in another thread about minstrel songs and how musicians handle the racial aspect:   Backside Albany lyrics express the joy of winning the battle and watching the enemy flee, as told in dialect from the point of view of a Black sailor on the side of "Uncle Sam."  It was written by a white man, performed in blackface, and is one of the earliest published songs of this genre.  It was even a hit on Broadway.  However, performing it now would necessarily have to be done in an informative, sensitive manner, expressed multiple times in the above-linked discussion.  For the most part, minstrel tunes such as Backside Albany are just performed instrumentally, but this TOTW has got me thinking deeper about a topic I don't usually ponder. 

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