The Song of the Banjo

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication history

The poem was first published in the New Review, in June 1895; this was a London periodical, of which W.E. Henley had become Editor a year earlier. It was collected in :

  • The Seven Seas, published simultaneously in London and the USA on 30 October 1896: London, Methuen & Co. New York, D. Appleton & Co.
  • Later occasional volumes: Songs for Youth (1924), A Choice of Songs from the Verse of Rudyard Kipling (1925), and Sixty Poems (1939).

The poems from The Seven Seas were themselves collected in the Edition de luxe (1898), the successive editions of Rudyard Kipling’s Inclusive Verse (1919, 1926, 1932) and Rudyard Kipling’s Definitive Verse (1940): also in the Sussex Edition (Vol. XXXV) and the Burwash Edition (Vol, XXVIII).

In the Edition de Luxe (1898) the first four lines of the eighth verse were changed to :

Of the driven dust of speech I make a flame
And a scourge of broken withes that men let fall:
For the words that had no honour till I came—
Lo! I raise them into honour over all!

These lines reverted to the Seven Seas version in Inclusive Verse (1919) and later editions. This is the version we have reproduced in this Guide.

There is a musical setting, for voice and banjo, by Michael Longcor: see Musical Settings of Kipling’s Verse by Brian Mattinson.

Theme and background

The banjo is a stringed instrument, having (mostly) five strings, played by plucking the strings with the fingers. It is of African origin, and first reached Great Britain in the 1840s with a group called ‘The Virginia Minstrels’. It became popular in the music halls.

It is not easy today, when music of all kinds is available to us, virtually on demand, in any place and at any time, to imagine a time when the only music available to an individual, apart from public concerts and music halls, was that which one made oneself, or with one’s friends.
If you were a District Officer in a remote area of Africa, or an Engineer on a construction site high in the hills where you were building a dam, if you wanted music, you had to make it yourself, and any musical instrument had to be portable and climate-proof. The banjo fitted the bill exactly.

Literary References

In 1888, Jerome K. Jerome wrote Three Men in a Boat, an excerpt from which illustrates the point above:

“George had a rather curious oil-skin-covered parcel in his hand. It was round and flat at one end, with a long straight handle sticking out of it.
“What’s that?” said Harris – “a frying pan?”
“No.” said George, with a strange, wild look glittering in his eyes; “they are all the rage this season; everybody has got them up the river. It’s a banjo.”
“I never knew you played the banjo!” cried Harris and I, in one breath.
“Not exactly,” replied George; “but it’s very easy, they tell me; and I’ve got the instruction book!”


Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

[Line 1] You couldn’t pack a Broadwood half a mile: John Broadwood and Son was a company making piano-fortes: they still are. ‘A Broadwood’ was synonymous with ‘a piano’. ‘To pack’, in this case, means ‘carry as a pack (or a number of packs) on an animal’s back (camel, mule or donkey). Broadwood’s made grand and upright pianos

[Line 3] You couldn’t raft an organ up the Nile: to raft – carry on a raft. You certainly couldn’t take a full-sized organ “up the Nile”, but, in fact, the Navy had – still has – an “organ, portable, small” which matched its description and was meant for use on shipboard.

[Verse 1 Chorus]

[Line 1] With my ‘Pilly-willy-winky-winky-popp!’: an onomatopoeic rendering of the sound of a banjo: a similar first line appears in the choruses to verses 2,3,5 and 7.
In this chorus, the music provided by the banjo is encouraging a marching column of troops. (As an aside¸ David Page remarks, citing the Oxford English Dictionary, that pillywinks were instruments of torture, designed for squeezing the fingers.)

[Line 4] So I play’em up to water: The first thing a column did on completing a march, was to give water to its animals. In the ‘Parade-Song of the Camp-Animals” (from “Her Majesty’s Servants” in The Jungle Book), the Cavalry Horses sing:

And it’s sweeter than “Stables” or “Water” to me
The Cavalry Canter of ‘Bonnie Dundee.

“Stables” and “Water” were two cavalry trumpet calls, and “Bonnie Dundee” is a traditional Scottish air.

[Verse 2]

[Line 4] Explaining ten to one was always fair: the odds against the column. Kipling is being extremely jingoistic here, though entirely typical of the period. At the Battle of Omdurman (1898), the last pitched battle of any size in the colonial wars of the 19th century, the odds were no more than two to one – 8,000 British troops, and 17,000 Egyptian and Sudanese (British trained and officered) against 52,000 of the Khalifa’s forces.

[Lines 5-7] the Prophet of the Utterly Absurd, Of the Patently Impossible…: The music of the banjo gives men heart to do the impossible.

[Line 8] to change my leg: when a horse is cantering it ‘leads’ with one foreleg or the other, and will turn naturally to the side of the leading leg. If the rider wants to turn in the opposite direction, he/she must make the horse ‘change leg’. The move may be seen in dressage as a ‘flying change’ and can be likened to doing a ‘hop and a skip’.

[Verse 2 Chorus]

[Line 2] where the dung-fed camp-smoke curled: dried animal dung, especially of forage-fed animals, which has a high proportion of fibre in it when it has dried, was often used in the desert, where there was no wood available.

[Verse 3]

[Line 1] By the bitter road the Younger Son must tread: In Britain, the rule of primogeniture (inheritance going to the eldest), especially with regard to landed property, applies, and so younger sons had to go and make their way in the world on their own. They might join the Navy or the Army, or the Church – rarely, at that time, going into one of the learned professions.

But it was not just the black sheep of the family who was sent to the Colonies. The opportunities at home being limited, a young man might choose one of the expanding colonies with a view to winning (line 2) “to hearth and saddle of his own”. Here the word ‘saddle’ is really shorthand for ‘saddle-tree’, in turn, a metaphor for one’s own stables, implying that one had sufficient money to buy or build a property of one’s own.

[Lines 3-8] ‘Mid the riot of the shearers at the shed: Wherever the Younger Son may be (the sheep shearers in the ‘shed’ in Australia, the ‘herder’s hut’ in New Zealand), the banjo and its music (often music hall songs) reminds the expatriate of London.

Town: in England, and among the upper classes, meant London.

[Verse 3 Chorus, Line 3 ] rowel ‘em spur them: The rowel is a small spiked revolving wheel or disc attached to the end of a spur.

[Verse 4]

[Line 2] Where the new-raised tropic city sweats and roars: This is poetry, not a guide-book, but it is of interest to wonder what city Kipling had in mind. ‘Tropic City’ implies that the newly founded city lay between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, but there are no obvious candidates for his choice. Brisbane and Johannesburg are the nearest as being ‘new-raised’ European-type cities, but both are, in fact, outside the limits of the topics, though both, especially Brisbane, may be said to have a tropical climate.

The other two candidates are Singapore and Hong Kong (the latter tropical by a whisker), both of which he had visited, albeit briefly, on his way home with the Hills in 1889. They were as much Eastern cities as European. Both certainly ‘sweated’, and possibly Singapore, which had been an established entrepôt for centuries, might be said to have ‘roared’.

But Hong Kong was fairly ‘new-raised’, though whether it could be classed as a city then is, perhaps, doubtful. It was more of a colonial administrative centre and naval base, rather than the trading centre it has since become (Shanghai occupied the equivalent position then as regards trade). And it didn’t do much ‘roaring’. When Kipling and the Hills passed through in 1889, the colony had no electricity, no trams. Nor was it the kind of place to which the expatriate younger son might have gone to seek his fortune: Shanghai, quite possibly, but Hong Kong, less likely.

[Line 3] Young Ulysses: Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. As the King of Ithaca he took part in the Trojan War (his was the idea of the Trojan Horse) and then took ten years to sail home again, enduring great perils and having marvellous adventures on the way. Kipling is suggesting that the “Younger Son” will have similar adventures before he finally wins home – his banjo having accompanied him.

Line 5] he is blooded to the open: ‘Blooded’ here means ‘initiated’. In many primitive initiation ceremonies, young men are smeared with blood. The ceremony was until recently sometimes performed in the English hunting field on a youngster who is ‘in at the death’ for the first time. [Durand]

[Lines 5-7] Some of the experiences of ‘Young Ulysses, analogous to his mythical namesake’s adventures. One can suggest that the singing strongly is a reference to the Sirens who sang to lure sailors to their doom in The Odyssey.

[Line 8] shouting of a backstay in a gale:  a slightly unusual metaphor. The backstay is a rope, part of a sailing ship’s rigging, and in strong winds will vibrate and ‘sing’, though scarcely shout. We feel, though, that this is poetic licence.

[Verse 4 Chorus]

[Line 1] With my ‘Hya! Heeya! Heeya! Hullah! Haul!: Kipling is suggesting that the banjo might be used as the accompaniment to a shanty, one of the rhythmic worksongs sung in the days of sail. Again, there’s a lot of poetic licence here. The onomatopoeia of the words is good for the sense of working up a one-two-three-Haul, but less good for the plinky-tinkle of a banjo. And in any case, hauling shanties weren’t accompanied – the hands of the possible musician were needed to clap onto the tail of the rope.

[Line 2] Oh the green that thunders aft: A heavy sea coming inboard may resemble a wall of green water, and is called “a green sea”. The phrase is used, “shipping it green”. The sea, when angry, is rarely blue.

[Line 4] For it’s ‘Johnny Bowlegs, pack your kit and trek’:  This quotation is a loose translation of a South African Dutch folk song, which Kipling probably picked up on his short visit to Cape Town in 1891.

Vat jou goed en trek, Ferriera,
Vat jou goed en trek !
Agter die bos is ‘n klompie perde,
Vat jou goed en trek !


Zwaar drag, alle en de ein kant;
Jannie met de hoepel bein!


Kipling later used it, in its Dutch form, in “The Way that He Took” a tale of the Second South African War, published in 1900. [Confirmed by Mary Hamer, with thanks to Elria Wessels of the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, RSA. Ed.]

[Verse 5]

Our “Young Ulysses” is ‘pushing forward the lines of communication’ in an empty country. He may merely be a pioneer, literally ‘blazing a trail’ to be followed by either a graded wagon-trail or a railroad; the first three lines describe such a scene, while lines four to seven seem to refer to an engineer building a railway, as it might be, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The chorus to this verse makes it clear that he is a railway engineer.

[Line 1] Through the gorge that gives the stars at noon-day clear: It is said that from a deep mine shaft, stars may be seen in the middle of the day in the narrow patch of sky looking upwards.

This would be impossible in any gorge wide enough to carry a railway; poetic licence again.

However, thanks to Society members we have found a number of other literary references to “noon-day stars”. David Page writes: ‘I have found Martineau’s Complete Guide to the English Lakes, 1855, where it says’:

“Here, too, lies another wonder- that tarn (Scales Tarn) which is said to reflect the stars at noonday – a marvel which we by no means undertake to avouch. The tarn is so situated at the foot of a vast precipice, and so buried among crags, that the sun never reaches it, except through a crevice in early morning.”

Then from the Metropolitan Magazine for September 1834, the following excerpt from a comedy “The Gypsy; or ‘Whose Son am I?’ “

Nelly: The stars the noonday stars
Peter: The noonday stars who can see the stars at noonday
Nelly:The gifted
Peter, looking up: Well then I aren’t one of them

It also appears in translations of Don Quixote by Cervantes, and as a Bengali proverb:

“When the poor man grows rich he beholds the stars at noonday.”

And Yan Shapiro has found two references on the Internet to the idea of seeing stars in the noon-day, on a Harvard University website, and
a Pliny site.

[Line 2] that packs the scud beneath our wheels: scud meaning dirt, or refuse [Oxford English Dictionary].

[Line 4] our guttering brakes: The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘guttering’ as referring to something “that gutters”: and “to gutter” has, as one of its meanings “to form gutters or gullies”. This Editor would suggest that this is Kipling’s meaning here: the brakes are hard on, so that the wheel skids, forming a gutter or gully in the road surface.

An alternative interpretation might be associated with another meaning of “to gutter”; “to melt away rapidly by its becoming channelled on one side and the tallow or wax pouring down”. If the context is a railway one, then the application of the brakes might overheat the wheel and its axle and axle-box, leading to the grease melting and running down: an unusual and somewhat far-fetched metaphor, in this Editor’s opinion.

[Line 5] Where the trestle groans and quivers in the snow: The Kiplings had comparatively recently made a trip on the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had only been opened for about six years when they made the trip. Many of the bridges were wooden trestles, built in the interests of speed: although perfectly safe, under load they would “groan and quiver”.

[Line 6] Where the many-shedded levels loop and twine: The reference is to snow sheds, built to protect the tracks from avalanches in winter: the levels looping and twining refers to the tracks winding their way up or downhill, sometimes making a complete circle as they spiralled up to gain height in the minimum distance.

[Line 8] Till we sing the Song of Roland to the pine: This line is also rather obscure. The Song of Roland is the oldest surviving piece of French mediaeval literature, dating from the 12th century. It tells the story of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s knights, and how he and the twelve paladins held the pass of Roncevaux against a Moorish horde, and thus enabled the main body of Charlemagne’s army to withdraw in safety. The only direct connection is that the action takes place in a mountain pass.

Daniel Hadas notes:  pine trees are prominent in the Chanson de Roland, as detailed here. Or maybe Kipling is thinking of Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the dark tower came’. [D.H.]

[Verse 5 Chorus]

[Line 2] And the axe has cleared the mountain, croup and crest: from top to bottom: the croup of an animal (particularly a horse) is its rump: the crest is its mane at the back of the neck, so an alternative would be ‘from end to end’.

[Line 3] iron stallions: The steam locomotive was frequently referred to as the ‘iron horse’ in the early days of railways.

[Line 4] through the cañons to the waters of the West!: definitely Canada!

[Verse 6] This expresses the nostalgia induced by the popular songs, from the last time you were ‘home’.

[Line 2] Common tunes and [Line 3] Vulgar tunes: The banjo was essentially an instrument for ‘low-brow’ music: one speaks of ‘classical guitar music’, but not, it is suggested, of ‘classical banjo music’.

[As an aside, Three Men in a Boat shows the opposite side of the banjo:

George got his banjo out after supper, and wanted to play it, but Harris objected: he said he had got a headache, and did not feel strong enough to stand it. George thought the music would do him good – said music often soothed the nerves and took away a headache; and he twanged two or three notes, just to show Harris what it was like.
Harris said he would rather have the headache.

[Verse 6 Chorus] This extends the theme of the verse, but rather than nostalgia, it is remorse (“We have done those things which we ought not to have done”.)

[Verse 7] Organ music tends to be mournful, but is always played and heard indoors – but the banjo can be played mournfully in the wide open spaces. The Trumpet’s music is martial, and encourages men to battle: but the banjo can play mockingly in defeat. (A somewhat unlikely metaphor, scarcely to be taken literally – if you’re running for your life, you’re not going to hold on to your banjo to play ‘Plunka-lunka-lunk” as you run.)

[Verse 7 Chorus]

[Line 1] Ta-ra-rara-rara-ra-r-arrp: As a piece of onomatopoeia, Ta-rara, etc, is more usually associated with the trumpet, but this Editor has been trying it out (don’t ask!) and has come to the conclusion that it is not so un-banjo-like as all that!

The rest of the chorus is, it is suggested, a reference to an army’s marching songs – such as ‘Lilibulero’, ‘The Girl I left behind Me’, and ‘Tipperary’ to name but a few.

[Verse 8]

[Line 2] O the blue below the little fisher huts!: Kipling thinks of the lyre as the musical instrument of classical Greece, and is evoking the blue Mediterranean.

[Line 3] the Stealer: David Page writes, quoting Ralph Durand:

Hermes, the patron god of merchants and thieves, began his career of crime on the day he was born by stealing the oxen that Apollo tended (Horace, Odes i. 10). He invented the lyre, which he made out of a sea-shell and ultimately sold to Apollo, the god of music and poetry.

However, we would suggest that Kipling implies a double meaning here, and is making a reference to the Greek poet Homer, whom he refers to as a user of other men’s tales in ‘When ‘Omer smote
‘is bloomin’ lyre…’
also collected in The Seven Seas:

“An’ what he thought ‘e might require
‘E went an’ took – the same as me!

[Line 4] bore my iron head and ringing guts: gave birth to the banjo.

[Verse 8 Chorus]

[Line 2] What d’ye lack?: a street vendor’s cry of the 18th century. If there’s anything in the musical line, the banjo can supply it.

[Line 3] So I draw the world together: The music of the banjo is universal, uniting people of all races.

[Line 4] Delos: an island in the Cyclades, in the South Aegean Sea.  Yan Shapiro suggests that Kipling’s choice of Delos was deliberate, in that there was a connection with Homer. Daniel Hadas notes:  ‘As the Wordsworth edition suggests, Delos’ connection with Apollo is surely also relevant.’  [D.H.]

[Line 4] Limerick: a town in southwestern Ireland. Yan Shapiro suggests that Limerick was an equally deliberate choice, in that the Limerick verse form could be associated, as a piece of nonsense verse, with the banjo, as the “Prophet of the Utterly Absurd”.



©Alastair Wilson 2011. All rights reserved