Sunday, November 15, 2009

Just Fiddling Around

Recently I wrote a post on Toponyms. If you recall, the study of unusual place names is called Toponymy.

Fiddler’s Green was for many years just a name of a street in a town I once visited. Years later, I became acquainted with a folk group known as the Friends of Fiddler’s Green. The name bugged me for a few nights recently so I did an Internet search which revealed that for sailors, (and apparently, some cavalrymen) Fiddler’s Green was heaven — as in the sweet by-and-by. It is sailor’s heaven, the place where all good seafarers go, a paradise or Elysium where unlimited supplies of rum, women and tobacco are provided. Unlike Davy Jones’ Locker, the final resting place of sailors lost at sea, it is on land, the place where sailors go who die ashore. Its origins are rather obscure.

What I did find is that the term appears fully formed near the start of the nineteenth century. There’s an association behind it, I would guess, that is now lost to us, perhaps from a song that refers to a real English village green with a fiddler playing. As well as British sailors, the US Army has long claimed it. A famous ballad of the US Cavalry begins:

Halfway down the road to hell,
In a shady meadow green,
Are the souls of all dead troopers camped
Near a good old-time canteen.
And this eternal resting place
Is known as Fiddler's Green.

The author is unknown. It was first published in a US Cavalry Manual in 1923, but could possibly be a century older; I have no idea whether this is the original, or whether the author was drawing on something even older. I would guess the latter, for otherwise we have no way of explaining how by the 1830s it was so firmly set in British maritime usage. It looks as though both traditions are drawing on a common eighteenth century source, but I have to tell you that I have no idea what it is.

But, at least now I know where Fiddler's Green is and where the name came from.

1 comment:

  1. There is a beautiful song called "Fiddler's Green" by Canadian band The Tragically Hip, from their 1991 album. A few years ago I posted a video (not mine) of a rare live performance of the song. You can watch it and read a brief background summary of the song by clicking here.

    Also, the lyrics are here.