I once was a jolly ploughboy ploughing in the fields all day,
When a very funny thought came across my mind, I thought I'd run away,
For I'm sick and tired of the country life and the place where I was born,
So I've been and joined the army and I'm off tomorrow morn.
So hurrah for the scarlet and the blue, see the helmets glisten in the sun,
And the bay'nets flash like lightning to the beat of a military drum.
There's a flag in dear old England proudly waving in the sky,
And the last words of my comrades were, 'We'll conquer or we'll die.'
I put aside my old grey mare, I put aside my plough,
I put aside my two-tined fork, no more to reap or mow,
No more will I go harvesting to reap the golden corn,
For I've been and joined the army and I'm off tomorrow morn.
But there's one little girl I must leave behind and that is my Nellie dear;
She said she would be true to me if I be far or near;
And when I come back from the foreign shore how happy I will be,
For I'll march my Nellie off to church and a sergeant's wife she'll be.
Sung by Ted Hutchinson, aged 76, of Canal Head, Driffield.
He learnt his version from older farm workers who, after their day's work, used to gather in the barn lit by a lantern, to sing and play the mouth organ and melodeon.
This is a traditional song
According to A.L.Lloyd The Scarlet and the Blue was written in the 1870s by John Blockley and popularized on both sides of the Atlantic by Ed Harrigan and Tony Hart. This information has been frequently reprinted whenever oral versions have been published but no-one I know has actually seen any verified references to Blockley's authorship or a copy of the original sheet music. Blockley was a prolific composer of music for parlour pieces up to his death in 1882 but he seldom was credited with any lyrics. Although the song could well have been written in the 1870s and applied to the many colonial wars of that era, all of the versions I have come across can only be traced back to having been sung in World War I. Although some writers quite rightly claim the practice of wearing scarlet and blue was replaced by khaki in the 1880s, song writers continued to use the title for army songs up to at least 1900 when J. Horspool wrote the words and music to a song of this title. Another of the same title was written in 1884 by W. Sapte, music by Joseph Duggan. John Farmer also produced a book in 1898 entitled Scarlet and Blue, Songs for Soldiers and sailors.
Whatever its prior history it must have been very popular amongst the troops in World War I to judge by the fact that it was still being widely sung in rural England in the second half of the twentieth century, and in fact is still sung by many retired farm workers today. It was particularly adopted by Royal Artillery regiments. During World War I the horse was still the main source of power for transporting heavy equipment and ordnance, so young ploughmen and other heavy horse workers were seen as ideal recruiting fodder for artillery regiments like the Warwickshire Royal Horse Artillery. This song must have been a godsend as a recruiting song for these artillery regiments.
One such was Sykes's Wagonners Reserves which recruited on the Yorkshire Wolds, particularly the area around the Sykes's Sledmere Estate. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Mark Sykes MP established the regiment in anticipation of World War I, consequently those Wagonners who were lucky enough to return after the war had the song in their repertoires and eventually passed it on to younger farm workers, so that throughout the twentieth century there was scarcely a farm lad in the East Riding who could not sing it.
Despite the aforementioned fact that scarlet and blue were dropped in favour of khaki in the 1880s, all but one of the many versions I have heard still refer to 'the scarlet and the blue'. Mick Taylor of Hawes sang a version that had 'the khaki and the blue'.
The song was adapted for use by the IRA post 1916 and Dominic Behan could remember singing it as a member of the Young Republican Boy Scouts. He rewrote the words in the 1960s and his version became very popular on the folk scene on both sides of the Irish Sea. More recently the Yetties from Dorset have rewritten the song to apply to a local Dorset regiment.
The original recording of this song is deposited in the British Library Sound Archive at C1009/16 C11 [access copy 1CDR00010642 BD30] and this recording was digitized by the British Library Sound Archive as part of the Traditional Music in England project sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Further details can be obtained at www.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/traditional_music.html along with details of many other recordings of traditional songs made by Steve Gardham and others from other parts of the UK.
This version was originally published in Gardham, An East Riding Songster, Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts, 1982, p40.