The origins of the tune known as Bonaparte's Retreat are somewhat hazy, which is often the way with traditional folk, country and blues songs. One theory is that it originates from an old Irish tune named The Eagle's Whistle. Another places it with a Scottish piper who served at Waterloo, presumably celebrating the eponymous defeat, while yet another places it, played at a slower tempo, with Irish musicians bemoaning the same event. (It's not that they would be particularly pro-Napoleon so much as anti-English.) There's a tune named The Dunmore Lasses and another entitled The Bonny Bunch Of Roses, both of which may stem from various evolutions of the song; or which may be merely similar—nobody really knows, although the origin is almost definitely Celtic. By the time of the American civil war, however, forty-five years after Waterloo, the tune—or at least a tune—going by the title Bonaparte's Retreat is noted as having been played on both sides of the Atlantic.
The first version to be recorded, though, is known. Fiddle-player A. A. Gray, from Tallapoosa, Georgia, recorded a version on Okeh in 1924:
It was recorded several times during the pre-war years, with my favourite probably being Luther Strong's version, recorded for the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song, by the great folklorist Alan Lomax:
And then someone put words to it, and things, to my mind, got kind of strange…
Here's Pee wee King, as quoted in the liner-notes to the 1949 disc of Bear Family's wonderful Dim Lights, Thick Smoke And Hillbilly Music series:
So we were rehearsing some square dance numbers with a boy from Texas [Lee A. Bedford], and he showed us a recording of a Texas square dance tune called 'Bonaparte's Retreat,' which had a sort of Cajun beat. It was a folk tune in the public domain, so Redd Stewart and I put a bridge or middle to it, wrote some words, and reshaped the whole song.
Two things to take note of here: firstly, the "boo-waah" swoop of the steel guitar behind the start of each line of the chorus, and secondly the "bridge or middle," as King called it—the part of the tune that sounds vaguely middle-eastern ("All the world was bright as I held her on that night…") (and to which the opening line of Bill Haley's 1956 Teenager's Mother bears a rather suspicious resemblance). Anyways, it's a nice enough little ditty. Enjoy:
King's version didn't do particularly well until Kay Starr picked it up and made a faintly jazzy pop version (not unusual in those days, when songs were routinely repackaged to fit several genres) which became a hit. I'm not particularly fond of Starr's version, but Gene Krupa made a blinder, so here's that instead:
(The vocalist on Krupa's version, Bobby Soots, was a sometime hillbilly singer who Krupa had hired to sing big-band jazz versons of hillbilly/country songs. It's all part of that repackaging thing I mentioned. But I digress…)
Notice how the tune is evolving. It's why I consider the evolution of the song a little strange—though not in a bad way. That understated swoop of the steel guitar in Pee Wee King's version, which forms no part of the tune the song is nominally based upon, has, in Krupa's (and Starr's), and almost any version thereafter, been brought forward in the mix, until instead of being a feature of the backing, it is now a major part of the tune itself. But it gets stranger yet…
By the late '50s, early '60s, although the original, no-lyrics (unlyricked?), fiddle tune was being played now and again by folk, bluegrass and mountain-music artists, it was pretty much unheard of by anyone outside those circles—but plenty knew the Pee Wee King song, or versions thereof, and instrumental versions of that begin to appear. Not many, what with a ten-year-old hit being old enough to be un-hip, but not yet old enough to be considered a classic, but a few. My favourite, I think, is this 1961 version, by German trad-jazz band, the Spree City Stompers:
So, we've started with an instrumental, carried on through a re-arrangement with lyrics, and ended with an instrumental. We should have come full-circle, but we're definitely not back where we started. There are now two different versions of the song and the later one, though these days old enough to be just as "traditional" as the the older, bears little, if any, resemblance to it. Both though, somewhat paradoxically, are indubitably Bonaparte's Retreat. And for whatever reason, that tickles me.
I didn't really set out to make a point with this; rather I just wanted to share what I thought was a kind of interesting chain of changes. If I did, though, I would hark right back to my opening paragraph, where I mentioned how Bonaparte's Retreat itself, like many traditional melodies and songs, had itself evolved from one or more sources. At one time, there were, quite possibly, two or more versions of, for instance, The Eagle's Whistle, which, to the casual listener, bore little resemblance to one another but, to the dedicated historian of music, might have had obvious similarites. If so, it's highly possible that The Eagle's Whistle (as is the way with many old Celtic tunes) has spawned many songs just as seemingly unrelated to the original as that Spree City Stompers number is.
And that, Gentle Reader, is evolution in action.
That's the end of the essay-proper, but—having listed to far too many versions whilst researching this—I have to share my personal least- and most-liked.
First my least-liked. Remember that gentle swoop on the steel guitar. This is what it's like when, seemingly, rescored for a bloody fog-horn. Ridiculous! (And on Hickory, a country label, to boot. Doubly ridiculous!)
And you knew there had to be a rockabilly version somewhere, right? Eddie Cochran never, to my knowledge, recorded Bonaparte's Retreat. If he had, though, it would have sounded just like Darrel Higham's:
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