I’ve been familiar with the song, “Let him go, let him tarry” since childhood, as it’s one whose very catchy chorus my mother liked to sing:
Let him go, let him tarry, let him sink or let him swim
He doesn’t care for me and I don’t care for him
He can go and find another that I hope he will enjoy
For I’m going to marry a far nicer boy
And while no-one would, I think, mistake it for a feminist anthem—the song is sung, after all, from the point of view of someone who looks forward confidently to conventional heterosexual matrimony—there seems to me to be an admirable defiance to the song, and its message, roughly speaking, is the thoroughly commendable one that women shouldn’t put up with crap from the men in their lives.
I don’t know much at all about the song’s origins. It’s often described as “trad.” or “Irish”, but I haven’t come across anything that counts as real evidence for either label, and I suppose I’m inclined (again, on the basis of no evidence) to agree with people, like whoever wrote this, who think it probably emerged through the music hall tradition some time in the later nineteenth or early twentieth century. I think the oldest recorded version I’ve heard is by Gracie Fields, who sang it as part of a medley or other Irish (or supposedly Irish, at least) songs, though I don’t know what the date of that recording is. It sounds really old (and it’s on Spotify, for people who do that).
“Let him go, let him tarry” became huge, however, in 1945. That’s well documented. (My mother, from whom I learned the song, was born in 1939, which may be significant.) In England, I suspect the breakthrough moment was this scene in the film The Way to the Stars, where the singer is the 16-year old Jean Simmons:
Various websites tell me that “Let Him Go Let Him Tarry” by Joe Loss & Nat Gonella was #1 on the sheet music charts for the week of 26th August 1945, and there’s a nice reminiscence from this discussion of the song from someone who reports that they “First heard this at a VE Day party at Tabley House in Mid Cheshire, sung by one of the daughters of the house (a Miss Leicester-Warren) to her own piano accompaniment.”
But the detail I’m interested in–that motivates the post, and that I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else–is that 1945 is also the year when the song seems to bifurcate. In the United States, Evelyn Knight and the Jesters recorded their version—which is repackaged in a way that changes the song’s message. The first two verses were dropped, and in their place came, first of all, a 3rd-person prologue setting the scene, beginning with the words, “Bridget was a colleen with an independent air…” Well, you know things are going to go wrong from there. And what happens this time round is that Miss Bridget (also my mother’s name, as it happens, not that it matters) spends her later years bemoaning her earlier attitude, for, in the new final verse to the song:
The years rolled on and left poor Bridget high upon the shelf
And often in the evening when she’s sitting by herself
She remembers that young fellow, so debonair and gay
And wishes oh, so often, he’d never heard her say…
Let him go (etc.)…
… Thereby completely transforming the message of the song, which is now a warning to young women that they should put up with crap from the men in their lives, lest they end up like “poor Bridget high upon the shelf”.
I don’t know where what I take to be the new lyrics come from. In my prejudiced way I suppose I assume that they are American in origin—the faux Irishness of “Bridget was a colleen” strikes me as the kind of thing an American would be much more likely to perpetrate, and the only reason I can see for turning a fine song like this inside out is to pander to reactionary taste for commercial purposes, and the Evelyn Knight record is clearly a piece of commercial popular music. But I don’t really know; this seems to be a world where solid evidence is hard to come by, and my “research” doesn’t extend further than the internet. And I also don’t know the 1945 sequencing in any detail, either: the sheet music that was so popular in Britain that Summer was associated with Joe Loss & Nat Gonella, and their recordings—both made, I think, in this country—also have these alternative words.
Nowadays, it seems that both versions circulate. I very much prefer what I think must be the older version. Here, for example, is a video of Eleanor Shanley singing it in concert not so long ago—she starts off with one of her signature songs, “Still I Love Him”, and starts on “Let Him Go ” at 2’50” or so, and although neither the audio nor the video are especially good, it’s clear what a spirited song it still can be: