05 Mar

Johnny Jarmin

He says “Dear honored lady, what makes you so cast down?”
Right modestly she answered, without a tear or frown,
“My true love’s gone and left me, he’s sailing to and fro,
And he left me no true love’s token, whether he would return or no.”

“Perhaps I saw your darling, when I was last at sea,
And if I do describe him, the truth you’ll tell to me,
And if I do describe him, I hope you’ll tell me so,
That you’ll agree and marry me, let him return or no.”

“Your true love’s tall and handsome where ’er he turns his back,
He’s comely in his features, and they call him Handsome Jack,
He’s away on board the Rainbow, he’s sailing to and fro,
Your true love’s Johnny Jarmin. Is he the lad or no?”

“He’s just the very sailor lad that you have mention-ed,
Pray tell to me, kind sir, is he alive or dead?
He was away on board the Rainbow, and sailing to and fro,
Your true love John Jarmin, is dead nine months ago.”

When she heard this doleful news, she fell in deep despair,
To the wringing of her hands and the tearing of her hair,
She fled unto her chamber, all for to make great moan,
It’s expected any moment, that death wil claim it’s own.

He has dressed himself in scarlet red, and is away to her again,
To ease her of her sorrows, and cure her killing pain,
“Cheer up, cheer up, my Mary, for there’s none so blithe as thee,
There’s not two doves in all the world, to equal you and me.”

“The moon exceeds the sun, the sun exceeds the rose,
And upon your bosom, darling, that flower both buds and grows,
There is none shall e’er enjoy me, but you that feels the smart,
And I’ll bid adieu to the Rainbow, since Mary has won my heart.”

The Minnesota Historical Society has an oral history interview made in the 1950s with Mary Orr O’Neill who cooked meals in her father’s lumber camps on Tamarac River, Loon Lake and Sioux Portage, Wisconsin in the 1880s. In it, Orr O’Neill recalls hearing several songs in her father’s camps including “Johnny German.” Versions of this song were once sung across the Great Lakes and in the Canadian Maritimes as well as in Ireland where Sam Henry collected a version. The above text come from an unpublished typescript compiled by New York singer Joseph McGinnis in the 1920s and titled The Songs of the Dogwatch. The melody is adapted from McGinnis as well with some modifications (McGinnis did strange things with key signatures and rhythm that I believe are more a function of his understanding of staff notation than a representation of what he actually sung).

Like the more well-known “Banks of Claudy,” “Johnny Jarmin” is what folklorists term a Riley Ballad—a story in which a man leaves his girlfriend behind, returns years later and tests her faithfulness by pretending to not be who he is. I was first introduced to this plot line as a kid by Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride which I must have watched a thousand times. The trick seemed cruel, confusing and strangely romantic to me then and now. I think McGinnis’ “Johnny Jarmin” deals with the resolution in a very satisfying, poetic way.