Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier is the kind of song young girls love to sing. Haunting, plaintive, and beautiful, it has a strong melody with a melancholy story which seems to take you back to earlier times, the sad days of the Civil War, or "The War Between the States". Here is a beautiful arrangement in 4 keys: Am, Gm, Fm, and Em.
The song actually dates from the American Revolution, with possible roots in Ireland (it is similar to a tune called "Shule Aroon"). Because it is such an old song, you'll find lots of different versions of the tune and the lyrics.
Years ago film-maker Ken Burns produced a moving documentary about the Civil War. Prominent among the music in the background was this song, Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier. Again and again this theme came back, growing in poignancy with each repetition. I loved the arrangement used in the movie so much that I tried to duplicate it, and this was the result.
Please notice that verses 1 and 3 are not exactly the same tune as verses 2 and 4. Only one measure is different (the 3rd measure of each verse), by only a couple of notes, but it is enough to throw singers off if they are not prepared well.
Not just a pretty face - there's lots of substance here
This song has lots of opportunities for beginners to improve basic technique. Even the very first word, "Here," presents difficulties for many singers. I love to use this piece to encourage long vowels..."hih" for "here," and "ah(ee)" for "I".
Watch out for "Ho-ho's"
Another challenge in Johnny is keeping the "h's" out of the syllables with two or more notes. You know what I mean: instead of "tu-urn a-a mill," students want to sing "tu-hurn a-ha mill." There are lots of those spots in this song!
How do you climb higher without tightening the throat?
The ascending phrase toward the end of each verse feels higher than it really is, and students may start to tighten their throats. Help them relax their throats on that phrase by singing such syllables as "Yah-yah-yah-yah-yah," "Lah-gah, lah-gah, lah" without moving their jaw, sirens on those notes, and other such singing warm ups. You need to help them open up expressively and make a slight crescendo as they ascend.
Vowels are much easier than words
I like to take the words out temporarily, so students sing the melody on "ah", "oh", "ee", "oo", "lah," etc. When the notes come easily, we put the words back in.
Breathing for singing - it's not the same as speaking!
This free vocal sheet music also helps teach good breathing for young singers.
The difference in regular breathing, and breathing for singing makes itself plain in Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier. I remind students that they wouldn't take a breath in the middle of a sentence if they were speaking the words to another person, and so, to make themselves understood, their goal in singing a phrase -- ideally -- is to sing the whole thing with no breaths chopping it up. But singing takes so much more breath than just talking, and careful, measured release. Students will learn a lot as they make phrases long and smooth in Johnny.
Sometimes you want to emphasize a word
I make an exception to singing the whole phrase in verse one after the word "drop." I want the word "drop" to sound like a drop, with an audible "p" sound ...perhaps this could be seen as an affectation, but making singing expressive involves making personal choices such as this.
Help us understand you
Singers must remember that they are telling a story. Making pretty sounds is not enough. When I listen to people singing, I want to know what they are saying!
Enjoy this beautiful piece of history, Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.