Wild mountain thyme

When I was a kid, my parents had a Clancy Brothers album, The Boys Won't Leave the Girls Alone, probably my first exposure to Celtic music. I eventually found it on CD, though it's long out of print, and I'm still quite fond of it. But the Clancy Brothers didn't always get the lyrics right, and I didn't always hear them right.

One of the songs was titled "Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?" All through my childhood, I thought the chorus went:

And we'll all go together

To bluff wild mountain Ty

All around the blue wind Heather

Will ye go, lassie, go?

(I wasn't sure about "bluff"; maybe it was "to blove"? :) ) I also thought another line went "Where the wild mountain Ty rose around the blue wind Heather."

I had vague but intriguing images of a wild mountain named Ty, or maybe Thai, and a sentient blue wind named Heather. I wasn't sure what it had to do with the song (or how a mountain could rise around a wind instead of vice versa), but hey, I read speculative fiction; sentient blue winds didn't seem all that odd. I figured some sort of epic fantasy quest was involved.

It was only many years later that I learned the chorus actually went:

And we'll all go together

To pluck wild mountain thyme

All around the blooming heather

Will ye go, lassie, go?

Much more prosaic. And the other line is "Where the wild mountain thyme grows around the blooming heather."

But even so, one of the verses still had an interesting and unusual image in it:

I will build my love a tower

Near yon pure crystal fountain

And on it I will build

All the flowers of the mountain.

Will ye go, lassie, go?

Kinda cool: he loves her so much he's going to build her a tower, and he's going to carve stone flowers into it. Or something.

It was only last week that I listened carefully to a non-Clancy Brothers version and learned that he's actually planning to build his love a bower, and to place flowers on it. I hurried back to the Clancy Brothers' version, and found that in this case it wasn't my mishearing; they very clearly sing it the way I heard it. The folk process at work.

For something closer to the original version, and some notes about where the song came from, see the lyrics page at Cantaria. (The song is more commonly known, btw, as "Wild Mountain Thyme.") But if you listen to the first MP3 version there, note that the Clancy Brothers version is sung at roughly twice that speed. (The second version on that page is closer to the speed of the C.B. version.)

For more on mishearings, see my 1998 column on Mondegreens, which links to (among other places) Jon Carroll's Mondegreen columns.

13 Responses to “Wild mountain thyme”

  1. claris/wintersweet

    Great, now I’m going to have the version of “I’ll Tell Me Ma” done by Brak and the Chieftains stuck in my head all night. ;p

    I hate it when the real lyric is not as cool as my mondegreen. But then most lyrics are mondegreens to me. I read today that women tend to pay more attention than men to lyrics’ meanings in songs, but I’m right out on that count. I usually can’t understand ’em too well anyway, so I just listen to the whole gestalt.

  2. David Moles

    What are all the flowers of the Big Rock Candy Mountain? (I’m extrapolating from the crystal fountain, y’understand.)

  3. naomi_traveller

    One of my favourite folksongs to sing (while driving, doing dishes, hiking, paddling…) is “Wildwood Flower” which exists in an original version that almost no one knows and gets sung broadly and lustily with all kinds of substitutions by any number of bands.

    I’ve never actually heard it performed with words that make sense. But it’s *fun* to sing. Maybe moreso because it doesn’t really matter what the words are. They just feel like they oughter be.

  4. Mer

    The Clancy Brothers stymied me in my youth as well. “The Rising of the Moon” is one of my favorite songs, but I can’t say that I know the actual words to all the verses… In the first verse I hear this nonsense: “hushy woe come, hushy listen” and I’m pretty sure that’s not right. Nor are any variations I can think up: “has she woken, has she listened” or “hush ye woe camp, hush ye glisten.”

  5. naomi_traveller

    “Husha buachaill, hush and listen”, which explains your problem as the words are in gaelic. 🙂 “Husha buachaill”, I believe translates roughly as “hush, lad”.

    I think Peter Paul and Mary’s version of the same renders it as “hush, me boy, now hush and listen” but I haven’t listened to it in a really long time…

  6. Jim O'Dell

    As a fledgling folksinger in the early sixties, I was attractd to the driving rhythm of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. As often as I listened to the first album, I could not make out some of the lyrics, especially in “Shoals of Herring,” where it sounded like someone had had a bit too much stout. Any road, the version posted on a Makem Brothers website is not how the Clancy Brothers performed it on the album.

  7. Jed

    A few long-delayed responses:

    Claris: Thankfully, I don’t know the Brak version. Interesting idea that women tend to pay more attention to lyrics than men; I hadn’t heard that.

    David: Yeah, I meant to mention that the crystal fountain added to my childhood notion that the song was set in some kind of fantasy world.

    Naomi: I was going to write “Huh, the lyrics to ‘Wildwood Flower’ always seemed really obvious to me.” And then I went and listened to the version from Will the Circle Be Unbroken and realized that I had absolutely no idea what they were saying. Turns out Wikipedia even has a Wildwood Flower article about the confusion. The original song was called “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets,” written by Maud Irving and Joseph Philbrick Webster in 1860; the lyrics in that version actually make sense, except that nobody on the whole web has a clue what aronatus might be. Anyway, the Wikipedia article is fun for Mondegreen fans; for example, it mentions that “I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets of my raven black hair” became “Oh, I’ll twine with my mingles and waving black hair.”

    Jim: Interesting; the version of “Shoals of Herring” on The Boys Won’t Leave the Girls Alone seems mostly pretty lyrically clear to me, though I always heard “wild and wasteful ocean” as “wild unwestful ocean.” Cantaria’s version of the lyrics purports to be the original Ewan MacColl version, but yeah, that’s not quite the same lyrics. I mostly prefer the Clancy version–especially since the Cantaria version has a couple of incredibly clunky lines, like “There was little kindness and the kicks were many” (okay, I guess it does scan, but it still looks clunky to me) where the Clancys have “And I used to sleep standin’ on me feet.” Hee–I just noticed the Cantaria version uses the word “bearing” as a rhyme word three different times, with three different meanings.

    …I always figured the Clancys were singing “with a hundred grand of the silver darlings” (meaning a hundred thousand), but Cantaria has “a hundred cran”; turns out “cran” is the standard unit of measure for fresh-caught herring, about 45 gallons.

    …I really love the Clancys’ rendition of the song, btw, specifically the mournful opening and closing verses with harmonica accompaniment.


    hi, i am from Argentina.
    I heard the version of OS DRUIDAS, but the lyrics found don’t match.

  9. Jed

    I hadn’t heard of Os Druidas before; a little bit of web research suggests that they may be an Argentinian Celtic band? For example, here’s a page in Spanish (though without much text) about their album Oniria, which appears to be a mix of Celtic, other traditional songs, Beatles, and some songs with Spanish titles that I don’t recognize.

    So, Cesar, what are some of the differences between the Os Druidas version and the traditional versions?

  10. Anonymous

    I think the song “Wild Mountain Thyme” is a reference to sex. “I will build my love a tower” is an erection.

  11. Ann

    hi! I read a book called Wild mountain Thyme… and in the middle of the book that song appeared. I think is a traditional Scottish song. The book`s writer is Rosamunde Pilcher and she describes Scatland Hills.. I wonder if Wild mountain Thyme concerned something beautifull or sweety. Sorry for my mistakes I`m from Argentina,

  12. anonymous

    And I thought I was the only one who heard “tower” not “bower” on that old album, (which I have been hunting for on CD exhaustively, and have just about given up.) My parents had the album too, I finally bought the LP on Ebay but I’d love the CD!

  13. Jed

    Anonymous 1: Heh—funny. (I assume you were joking.)

    Ann: Thyme is a plant; it grows wild on some mountains.

    Anonymous 2: I found the CD on eBay after not too much searching, but that was a few years ago. Still, I suspect if you keep an eye on eBay it’ll turn up there sooner or later. Sadly, although the iTunes Music Store has several other Clancy Brothers (and/or Tommy Makem) albums, they don’t appear to have this one.


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