Once I had a Sweetheart

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ONCE I HAD A SWEETHEART. English, Air or Waltz. A Minor (Knowles): D Minor (Flood, Kidson). Standard tuning (fiddle). One Part (Flood): AAB (Knowles). Grattan Flood (1905, 1906), with characteristic abandon, claims the air for "Once I had a sweetheart" was originally an Irish tune composed around the year 1695 by the blind harper Turlough O'Carolan. There seems to be no direct evidence for this, however. Kidson thought the air an "old and pretty folk-melody" that he traced back as far as Daniel Wright's Complete Tutor for ye Flute, c. 1735. Grattan Flood is on more solid ground when he describes the air as a vehicle for a song in Charles Coffey's (1700-1745) Anglo-Irish ballad opera The Beggar's Wedding, produced in Dublin in 1729, after Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728). He points out Coffey's opera predates Daniel Wright's publication and writes in The Musical Times (Sept. 1, 1903):

I strongly suspect that Daniel Wright was supplied with this Irish air in 1726 by Dermot O'Conor, who translated Keating's History of Ireland from Irish into English, and who is also responsible for the Irish tunes in the Aria di Camera, published by Wright in 1727 or 1728. If not, he copied the air from Coffey's ballad-opera, which was printed in London in 1729, inasmuch as the tunes in the 'Flute Tutor' (1735) are stated to be "A collection from Ballad Operas." Coffey's opera (1728) is dedicated to "the Provost, Fellows, and rest of the learned Society of Trinity College, Dublin."

As a song it has had amazing longevity. It also appears in the ballad opera Silvia (1731) as the air "So kind and so unwilling." Malcolm Douglas finds that Baring-Gould noted "Once I had a sweetheart" in Songs of the West, while Cecil Sharp and Hammond published it in the Journal of the Folk Song Society (vol. 5, no. 18, 1914 and vol. 3, No. 11, 1907, respectively). In 1932 the journal, renamed the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, printed a version from Australia that had been learned in Gloucestershire (vol. 1, no.1, 1932). Malcolm says that Phoebe Smith and Paddy Tunney had versions, and another, learned by Maurice Ogg from Edith Leaning of Coleby, Lincolnshire, appeared in English Dance and Song, vol. 43, no.2, 1981.

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Flood (The Story of the Harp), 1905; p. 104. Knowles (Northern Frisk), 1988; No. 70.

Recorded sources:




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