I recorded Arthur McBride, also known as The Recruiting Sergeant, with fellow Brooklyn musician Mark Caserta for our 79th Quarantine Session. I chose this Irish resistance song because it features Christmas. It seemed like a fitting choice for my 11th Quarantine Session article at The New Leaf Journal on this Christmas Eve. All of my Quarantine Session articles are available in the Quarantine Sessions series archive.
You can listen to my Quarantine Session version of Arthur McBride on Soundcloud.
Learning About Arthur McBride From Bob Dylan
I first heard Arthur McBride in Bob Dylan’s 1992 album, Good As I Been To You. The album consisted entirely of Mr. Dylan covering folk songs that he defined as “music that’s true to me.” (The album also includes Frankie & Albert, which I covered in an earlier Quarantine Session article.)
Mr. Dylan’s cover of Arthur McBride is available on his official YouTube channel.
Mr. Dylan had covered Irish folk songs before he released his rendition of Arthur McBride. There is ample evidence that Irish folk music had an impact on Mr. Dylan’s own work. Mr. Dylan revered Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers and spent time with Clancy in New York in the early 1960s. He was moved by the “rebel songs,” and he said of the Clancy Brothers that “there was something in their eyes that said ‘I know something you don’t know,’ and I wanted to be that kind of performer.” (No Direction Home, 2005).
Arthur McBride and Me
Arthur McBride resonated with me in part because I have family roots with the Catholics of Northern Ireland. In listening to this anthem of resistance against the British, I recalled my Irish Catholic grandmother telling me that “we were the tough ones.”
I am far from the first person to first encounter Arthur McBride in the United States and feel a connection to it. While looking for different versions of the song, I came across a 1977 recording by Paul Brady that includes more verses than Mr. Dylan’s 1992 version. Mr. Brady first encountered Arthur McBride in America.
Arthur McBride is labeld as Roud #2355 in the Roud Folk Song Index. It was first formally documented by Patrick Weston Joyce, an Irish historian, in 1830. The song likely originated in the seventeenth century.
Arthur McBride Synopsis
The narrator of the song tells the story of a Christmas morning walk that he took with his cousin, Arthur McBride. On the walk, they were approached by three British soldiers – a sergeant, corporal, and drummer – who attempted to recruit them.
McBride rejected the soldiers’ offer:
"I wouldn't be proud of your clothes For you've only the lend of them, as I suppose But you're dare not change them one night, for you know If you do, you'll be flogged in the morning..."
"For you'd have no scruples for to send us to France Where we would get shot without warning."
(The above passage has been used by historians to date the piece.)
The sergeant, enraged by McBride’s words, threatened to behead the two Irishmen. However, before the three British soldiers could draw their weapons, McBride and his cousin beat them with their shillelaghs within an inch of their lives and tossed their swords into the ocean.
The song concludes with McBride snidely asking the soldiers if they were looking for recruits before leaving them for dead.
Although I decided to write this Quarantine Session article for Christmas, the song has very little to do with the holiday other than the fact that its events take place on a Christmas morning. It is, however, a beautiful example of a traditional Irish folk song with a powerful and decisive narrative.
Moreover, I thought that the extreme violence in the song may brighten your holiday.