My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean

Annual #tellastory day and Pop’s birthday, and so another pop tale.

I don’t recall exactly when it arrived in our home, but at some point when I was young, Pop acquired a banjo. He would spend hours in the evenings and weekends plinking and plunking away, often playing along with something on the stereo or working his way through books of folk and country songs. How he learned to play is a mystery to me. I don’t think he took lessons anywhere but on his own; in the days before any kind of online learning, it must have been entirely by trial and error.

Eventually, he became tuneful enough to entertain us and teach us some of what are now mostly inappropriate and politically incorrect songs and many of which were not suitable for children now or then, involving sex and violence, drinking and swearing, and every -ism there is. (I could say similar things about the movies we watched, but that’s another story.) Knowing him, this wink-wink inherent naughtiness was likely a big part of the appeal.

He had a few books that survived throughout his life, including a now-tattered paperback* of classic tunes called Songs for Pickin’ and Singin’. It includes classics like “Oh My Darling, Clementine”, “Molly Malone”, and “Froggie Went a Courtin’”, and somewhere he also had lesser-known-but-beloved-by-me songs like “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and “The Rattlin’ Bog”.

One I remember well was “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”; it was familiar to me as a campfire song from Brownies. Of course, Pop’s version featured the more bawdy and often gross versions of the verses, which he gleefully taught me and encouraged as part of the sing-along, each reprise bringing his famous smile and cackle. Poor Bonnie has smelly feet, gets tuberculosis, drowns in a bathtub of gin, and gets blown to bits in a fuel tank explosion. Regardless, the tune always led back to the rousing chorus and lots of fun.

I still have that book, or at least the pieces that remain. Sadly, the pages with “My Bonnie” are missing, but other classics are still there.

In an oddity of childhood memories, this book does not include “Sweet Betsy from Pike” (which I was sure that it did), and so I’m at a loss as to how I know and remember it so vividly as being part of this book and of his repertoire of tunes. Where else would I have learned it if not from this book? There must have been other books in his collection, now lost and scattered to days gone by, but in my memory this book captured the majority of his banj-oeuvre.

His fondness for banjo led to a healthy dose of folk and country music in my childhood, especially The Irish Rovers, the Canadian-Irish-CBC stars of the 70s, whose songs like “My Old Man’s a Dustman”, “Lily the Pink” and “The Unicorn” became ones that I know by heart.

For me, this early exposure to Irish music resulted in a lifelong enjoyment of that genre. In the early 90s, I was introduced to the group Stringband, and their versions of traditional songs as well as their original traditional-style tunes remain much beloved by me and are ones that I’m sure Pop would have enjoyed. Then came the Rankin Family and the Barra MacNeils, the Pogues and Great Big Sea, and in more recent years The Dubliners, the Irish Descendants, the Clancy Brothers, Seamus Kennedy, Sharon Shannon, and Maura O’Connell.

And many more. Now, as I look at my own playlists and favourites, I see that that early influence persists; the music I most often drift to on my own has that familiarity of style and minor-key-melody from those early Pop-and-banjo days.

“My Bonnie” came around again in later years with Pop. In one of my last visits with him in Ottawa, before the odyssey of his last years, he played a few songs from a new-to-him CD, B’tween the Earth and My Soul by Laura Smith. His favourite was her version of “My Bonny”, a lovely haunting song that he almost ruined for me by playing it (as was his wont) on repeat, a few dozen times over that weekend. Thankfully, it was not ruined, but became firmly fixed in my playlists, a part of his musical legacy to me.

* I would also count these pieces of book as a treasured object. While it is too fragile and broken to get any regular use, its yellow and frayed pages bring back memories of childhood days and sing-alongs. Music was perhaps not an overwhelming part of my childhood, but between piano lessons, singing in the car with mom (“Down By the Bay” was a persistent favourite), and the large stereo and record collection that occupied a big part of the living room for several years (with the addition of an 8-track player when that was new and cool), music was certainly omnipresent. While I don’t have many items or objects left from those times and days (the stereo cabinet is sadly long gone), the musical legacy persists in my memories and my playlists, where no-longer-hip-but-still-beloved-by-me artists like Neil Diamond and Helen Reddy, the Eagles, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, ABBA, and the Bee Gees remain in heavy rotation.

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