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To Hear the Nightingale Sing One Morning in May

Leggi in Italiano

”The Bold Grenader”, “A bold brave bonair” or “The Soldier and the Lady” but also “To Hear the Nightingale Sing”, “The Nightingale Sings” and “One Morning in May” are different titles of a same traditional song collected in England, Ireland, America and Canada.


The story belongs to some stereotypical love adventures in which a soldier (or a nobleman, sometimes a sailor) for his attractiveness and gallantry, manages to obtain the virtue of a young girl. The girls are always naive peasant women or shepherdesses who believe in the sweet words of love sighed by man, and they expect to marry him after sex, but they are inevitably abandoned.


soldierIn the nursery rhyme above “Where are you going my pretty maid” this seductive situation is sweetly reproduced and the illustrator portrays the man in the role of the soldier. Walter Craine (in “A Baby’s Opera”, 1877) represents him as a dapper gentleman, but in reality he is the archetype of the predator , the wolf with the fur inside and the woman of the nursery rhyme with his blow-answer seems to be a good girl who has treasured the maternal teachings

In other versions is the girl (bad girl !!) to take the initiative and to bring the young soldier in her house (see more), only the season is always the same because it is in the spring that blood boils in the veins; as early as 1600 there was a ballad called “The Nightingale’s Song: The Soldier’s Rare Musick, and Maid’s Recreation”, so for a song that has been around for so long, we can expect a great deal of textual versions and different melodies. An accurate overview of texts and melodic variations starting from 1689 here

FOLK REVIVAL: “They kissed so sweet & comforting”

This is the version almost at the same time diffused by the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers, the most popular version in the 60’s Folk clubs.

The Dubliners

Clancy Brothers & Tommy Maker, from Live in Ireland, 1965
The Nightingale

As I went a walking one morning in May
I met a young couple so far did we stray
And one was a young maid so sweet and so fair
And the other was a soldier and a brave Grenadier(1)
And they kissed so sweet and comforting
As they clung to each other
They went arm in arm along the road
Like sister and brother
They went arm in arm along the road
Til they came to a stream
And they both sat down together, love
To hear the nightingale sing(2)
Out of his knapsack he took a fine fiddle(3)
He played her such merry tunes that you ever did hear
He played her such merry tunes that the valley did ring
And softly cried the fair maid as the nightingale sings
Oh, I’m off to India for seven long years
Drinking wines and strong whiskies instead of strong beer
And if ever I return again ‘twill be in the spring
And we’ll both sit down together love to hear the nightingale sing
“Well then”, says the fair maid, “will you marry me?”
“Oh no”, says the soldier, “however can that be?”
For I’ve my own wife at home in my own country
And she is the finest little maid that you ever did see

1) soldier becomes sometimes a volunteer, but the grenadier is a soldier particularly gifted for his prestige and courage, the strongest and tallest man of the average, distinguished by a showy uniform, with the characteristic miter headgear, which in America was replaced by a bear fur hat.
2) it is the code phrase that distinguishes this style of courting songs. The nightingale is the bird that sings only at night and in the popular tradition it is the symbol of lovers and their love conventions (vedi)
3) perhaps the instrument was initially a flute but more often it was a small violin or portable violin called the kit violiner (pocket fiddle): it was the popular instrument par excellence in the Renaissance. It is curious to note how in this type of gallant encounters the soldier has been replaced by the itinerant violinist, mostly a dance teacher, so it is explained how any reference to the violin, to its bow or strings could have some sexual connotations in the folk tradition


John Jacob Niles – One Morning In May

Jo Stafford The Nightingale


The melody spread in Dorsetshire, so vibrant and passionate but with a hint of melancholy, a version more suited to the Romeo and Juliet’s love night and to the nightingale chant in its version of medieval aubade, also closer to the nursery rhyme “Where are you going my pretty maid” of which takes up the call and response structure.

To savor its ancient charm, here is a series of instrumental arrangements



Le Trésor d’Orphée
Redwood Falls (Madeleine Cooke, Phil Jones & Edd Mann)

Isla Cameron The Bold Grenadier from “Far from The Madding Crowd”

As I was a walking one morning in May
I spied a young couple a makin’ of hay.
O one was a fair maid and her beauty showed clear
and the other was a soldier, a bold grenadier.
Good morning, good morning, good morning said he
O where are you going my pretty lady?
I’m a going a walking by the clear crystal stream
to see cool water glide and hear nightingales sing.
O soldier, o soldier, will you marry me?
O no, my sweet lady that never can be.
For I’ve got a wife at home in my own country,
Two wives and the army’s too many for me.


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