Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry

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:

7 thoughts on “Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry”

  1. It’s proper old, almost certainly pre-music hall; same goes for “I’ll go with him” (also known as “Do you love an apple?” from the first line of some versions). “Let him go” overlaps with “Farewell he”, which is one of the sources of the more famous “All around my hat” (a song in which Steeleye Span for some reason put together a verse and a chorus with completely different messages – “he can get lost”/”I’ll stay faithful to him”). More on “Let him go” here (see the comment from Malcolm Douglas in particular).

  2. I remember years ago hearing an Irish Republican version satirising Taoiseach Jack Lynch for his inadequate zeal [from an IRA standpoint] at the time of the Battle of the Bogside – a bit unfair as it seems generally conceded that he knew of the gun-running to the Provos by Blaney and Haughey for which he nonetheless sacked them from his cabinet when it became public.

    Anyway I have now tracked down the lyrics and here they are;

    Jack Lynch came out from Dublin and he had 10,000 men
    He marched them to the border and he marched back again
    But such an armored column lads the like was never seen
    500 mounted bicycles all-wearing of the green

    Let him go let him tarry let him sink or let him swim
    He doesn’t give a damn for us nor we a damn for him
    He sits on his ass in Dublin and hope he does enjoy
    Selling out his country for he’s England’s little boy

    Well, the Special Branch in Dublin are something for to see
    They’ll crawl out of the castle to inform on you and me
    But the day is coming soon me boys you’ll hear those rifles bark
    The only snakes in Ireland will be in the Phoenix Park
    Well, Jack where were you last August with all your merry men?
    Ah were you on the Falls Road or in the Bogside then?
    No you were phoning London and squealing all you knew
    On every Irish rebel that would hold a gun it’s true
    When we finally get our freedom we’ll make them understand
    Scrap Fianna Fail Gestapo and all their rotten band
    But we want a true Republic with the workers in command
    That won’t betray their countrymen or sell them out of hand

  3. There’s quite a tradition of turning reasonably well-meaning folksongs into bitter sectarian songs – I’ve heard Irish versions of “This Land is Your Land” that completely transform the message to republican irredentism, and on the other side there was a version of “I was born under a wandering star” that included the line “Do you know where hell is? / Hell is down the Falls”.

  4. I’m proper frustrated now, because my mother used to sing the chorus to me all the time, but she was 20 in 1945, so she could have picked up either version, and now she’s long dead so I can’t ask her.

    She always sounded pretty up beat when she sang it, so I’m going to assume she knew the original.

  5. I can well remember my Mother (born 1896) singing, “Let him go, let him tarry.” long before the Second World War when I was under school-age and my Mother said my grandmother often sung the song when my mother was a teenager.
    I then offer the information that the song first came to notice in the early part of the twentieth century.

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