Bruce Springsteen reworks folk classic Mrs McGrath

The folk song Mrs McGrath was brought to America in the mid-19th century by the thousands of Irish immigrants who had been forced by poverty to leave their homes in Ireland.

Mrs McGrath
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Many of those immigrants went on to fight in the American Civil War. There were Irish soldiers on both sides, which meant that Mrs McGrath, the old marching song from Ireland, was quickly adapted as a marching song by American regiments on both sides to the political divide.

From jaunty marching song to haunting ballad

Bruce Springsteen (photo Helge Overas)

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen took this old anti-war marching song and transformed it into something totally new.

The original song tells the story of a woman whose son loses both legs in battle after being recruited into the British army. Although it’s a tragic story, the song has a jaunty upbeat feel, probably because it was used as a marching song by soldiers who wanted to raise their spirits rather than dwell upon the sense of tragedy.

Bruce Springsteen changes all that. His haunting version of the song, on the album We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions, concentrates full scale on the mother’s sense of loss.

Foreign wars live on blood and a mother’s pain

This sense of loss reaches its climax in the final verse when Springsteen changes the words of the original so they become more personal.

The original reads:
All foreign wars I do proclaim,
Between Don Juan and the King of Spain.

Springsteen changes that to:
All foreign wars I do proclaim,
Live on blood and a mother’s pain.

The effect is very powerful and extremely poignant.

Springsteen transposes the song to a minor key

The melody is also transformed in the Springsteen version. The original is in a major key and, despite the theme of the lyrics, has the kind of upbeat feel as would be expected of a marching tune.

Springsteen transposes the song into a minor key to produce a sad, haunting melody that is more in keeping with the tragedy explored by the lyrics.

In fact, although the Springsteen version is still reminiscent of the Irish original, it is so different that it could almost be classed as a different melody.

Springsteen brings Mrs McGrath to a new audience

Mrs McGrath had always been a popular song on the folk circuit but Springsteen’s version brought it to the attention of a new audience of rock fans across the world.

The fact that it became one of the most popular tracks on the Seeger Sessions album is testament to the enduring appeal of the original anti-war song, and also the remarkable piece of work Springsteen did in re-arranging it so that it focused so precisely on the tragedy of war and a mother’s sense of loss.

Mrs McGrath
Bruce Springsteen
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Bruce Springsteen Lyrics and chords

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