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Jonny Wilkinson became Britain's national hero when he kicked a magnificent winning field goal in the last minute of extra time, in the heart-stopping Rugby World Cup final against Australia in Sydney last week.

His thousands of supporters, who had travelled half-way around the world and were dubbed the Barmy Army, time and again sang their theme song, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, at the top of their voices during the game. Next day, the team flew back to England in a British Airways 747 renamed Sweet Chariot.

Here's a friendly suggestion for the Barmy Army: at future matches, you should abandon Sweet Chariot, and instead sing Oh Jonny, Oh Jonny, Oh!.

Perhaps the BBC can be tempted to revive that tune, which was popular in both world wars, although the name was spelt differently.

Originally a U.S. wartime song, "Oh Johnny" was composed by Ed Rose (lyrics) and Abe Olman (music) in 1917, and achieved worldwide popularity in the 1940s when presented by Glen Miller and the Andrews Sisters. I remember hearing it broadcast by a US Armed Forces radio station, as well as seeing it sung in a Hollywood film, in the New Guinea jungle in World War II.

It went with a swing, and quickly became a favourite of the thousands of Australian and U.S. servicemen feeling isolated in that country (and, of course, it was popular everywhere else). Here are the words:

Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny!
How you can love!
Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny!
Heavens above!
You make my sad heart jump with joy,
And when you're near I just
Can't sit still a minute.
I'm so, Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny!
Please tell me dear.
What makes me love you so?
You're not handsome, it's true,
But when I look at you,
I just, Oh, Johnny!
Oh, Johnny! Oh!

The Barmy Army's present theme song is a soulful spiritual melody composed by Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), a black American composer and singer who did much to preserve and popularise black folk melodies. He arranged more than 100 folk songs, including Deep River and Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen. He never played Rugby.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is not exactly appropriate for a sporting fixture. Read (or better still, sing) the words, and judge for yourself:

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan and what did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home.
A band of angels comin' after me,
Comin' for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home.

If you get there before I do,
Comin' for to carry me home,
Jess tell my friends that I'm acomin' too,
Comin' for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home.

I'm sometimes up and sometimes down,
Comin' for to carry me home,
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Comin' for to carry me home.

Geoff Grainger, a British singer who has featured the song on a CD, says on his website: "I learned this well known gospel as a Rugby song in my childhood and remember singing it in 23 Mess, H.M.S. Victorious in the early sixties.

"We sang it straight but accompanied the song with comic gestures some of which were lewd and would be considered offensive outside naval and Rugby circles. I have a vivid memory of Arthur Copus, at that time a 3rd class shipwright, performing what I consider the definitive version of this 'song with actions'."

Geoff, now 62, has lived in Germany for 30 years He describes himself as a pub singer, folk and street musician of the old school. His repertoire covers all manner of American, Australian, British, Low German (Plattdeutsch), pub, music hall, folk and sea songs, as well as gospels and spirituals.

Having learned to "sing" in various naval messes and canteens around the world, he was a founder member of the Idle Fellows, an Anglo-German folk group which sang around Bremen for 12 years. His CD, Ditty Box, presents British folk songs, sea songs, love songs and ballads ranging over eight centuries, with the odd gospel thrown in.

In an e-mail from Germany last week, Geoff said: "The recorded song in question on Ditty Box was sung by the beautiful sisters, The Herminas with a lovely version, light years away from my crudities. By coincidence Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny! (1917) is on my list of resources to be adapted for the recorder.

"Some of my naval friends will search and listen in vain for the ribald stuff of yore. Perhaps with a bit of luck and backing, naval songs may well form the theme of a future CD."



Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted December 2003

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