> Steeleye Span > Songs > When I Was on Horseback

When I Was on Horseback / The Dying Soldier

[ Roud 2 ; Laws Q26 ; Ballad Index LQ26 ; trad.]

Mary Doran of Waterford, Co. Waterford sang When I Was on Horseback on August 1, 1952 to Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle (BBC recording 18591). This recording was also included with the title The Dying Soldier on the anthology A Soldier's Life for Me (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 8; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970)

Steeleye Span recorded When I Was on Horseback in 1971 for their third album, Ten Man Mop or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again, and a second time in 2002 for their CD Present to accompany the December 2002 Steeleye Span reunion tour. They also performed it live for the BBC radio programme “Peel's Sunday Concert” on September 15, 1971. This programme was included as bonus CD on the 2006 reissue of Ten Man Mop.

The Ten Man Mop sleeve notes commented cryptically, but acknowledging Mary Doran:

Another young man cut down in his prime … tasted and wasted … sickness and diseases pull you down … Oh and it's Mary Doran crooning her way into our hearts … O'Riordan's song in the snow flurries … the first tentative step—in which Peter is given his head.

The Digital Tradition commented:

One of countless songs of the Unfortunate Rake family. While each telling a completely different story, they all share the description of the funeral (here verses 2 and 3). This version is Irish and is the most stripped down I know, consisting of virtually nothing but the funeral. It is worth noting that most versions have it “…I know I've done wrong” while here it's “…that never done wrong”. American versions include The Streets of Laredo and St. James Infirmary, British versions are The Unfortunate Rake and Locke Hospital and many more. There is a Folkways record (The Unfortunate Rake, FS 3805) dedicated exclusively to this family. (MJ)

Martin Simpson played When I Was on Horseback in 1991 as the title track of his instrumental album When I Was on Horseback.

Susan McKeown sang When I Was on Horseback in 2004 on her CD Sweet Liberty. She commented:

Johnny Cunningham first sang me this song sometime in 2002. The original was recorded from Mary Doran in Co. Waterford in the 1950s.

Maddie Southorn sang When I Was on Horseback in 2005 on her Fellside CD The Pilgrim Soul. She commented in her liner notes:

This is one of the many songs that tell the story of a young man or girl cut down in their prime and is usually presented as a cautionary tale of the hazards of catching certain ‘social’ diseases. This version seems to have lost that vital element! This song has many variants: The Unfortunate Rake, The Soldier (Sailor) Cut Down in His Prime, The Royal Albion, and in America The Streets of Laredo and St James' Infirmary Blues, to name but a few. I first heard it on the 1971 Steeleye Span album Ten Man Mop which was played to me often as a child as light relief from all the Black Sabbath. The source was Mary Doran of Co. Waterford, who called it The Dying Soldier.

Andy Turner learned When I Was on Horseback from Steeleye Span's album too and sang it as the May 9, 2016 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Compare this to A.L. Lloyd singing The Unfortunate Rake on his album English Street Songs and St James's Hospital on his album First Person, to Norma Waterson singing The Unfortunate Lass on her and her sister Lal's album A True Hearted Girl and Bright Shiny Morning, the title track of her third solo album Bright Shiny Morning. All of these songs share the funeral verses.

Lyrics

Mary Doran sings The Dying Soldier Steeleye Span sing When I Was on Horseback

When I was on horseback wasn't I pretty?
When I was on horseback wasn't I gay?
O wasn't I pretty when I entered Cork City
When I met with my downfall on the fourteenth of May?

Six jolly soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six jolly soldiers to march by my side.
And let each jolly soldiers take a bunch of red roses
And then for to smell them as we go along.

Play the pipes only, play the drum slowly,
Play up the dead march as we go along.
Well you bring me to Tipperary and lay me down easy,
I am a young soldier that never did wrong.

When I was on horseback wasn't I pretty?
When I was on horseback wasn't I gay?
Wasn't I pretty when I entered Cork City
And met with my downfall on the fourteenth of May?

Six jolly soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six jolly soldiers to march by my side.
It's six jolly soldiers take a bunch of red roses
Then for to smell them as we go along.

Beat the drum slowly and play the pipes only,
Play up the dead march as we go along.
And bring me to Tipperary and lay me down easy.
I am a young soldier that never done wrong.

(repeat first verse)