“I left my wife in 1712
On the verge of starvation
Without a piece of gingerbread,
Did I do right? Right?
Right for my country,
Right for myself?
I managed a store,
Bought a new home,
By Jove, but I left, left ”
Morgan’s mother learned this marching song from friends at a Girl Scout Camp in Northern Virginia around the year 1965 and it has been in her family ever since. When I first heard it, I was a little surprised at the content of a Girl Scout marching song. After some consideration though, I realized that it makes sense. This would not be the first time a military-style marching song has been adopted into a children’s song- for example, the “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” rhyme featured on page 91 of Elliott Oring’s Folk Groups and Folklore Genres. A brief web search revealed that this particular song exists in many forms, both as a military chant and a children’s marching song, with the unifying characteristics being that in each version, the soldier has left (“left…left…”) his wife and a number of children behind with little to no food.
This song seems to have existed at least since World War I, and earlier versions of it do not include the second half. Instead, they all say something along the lines of “Left, Left/I left my wife and [x] children/ to go and fight a war/ I left,” which makes sense given the propensity of Americans at the time to consider patriotism and the duty to one’s country a higher calling than the duty to oneself (or family). In the 1965 version, however, something is different and that is what I find so interesting. The speaker did not go off to fight a war. He went to start a new life without his wife and children and he continually questions (in marching rhythm) “Did I do right?”
In 1965, The United States was 10 years into the Vietnam War, with 10 years still to go. It appears that, given the atmosphere of fatigue and uncertainty at the time, a traditional military marching song turned children’s song was modified to convey the perspective of a draft dodger who started a new life away from his family. But why choose the year 1712? Obviously, there is no one answer. It could be a reference to the New York Slave Uprising, which happened on April 6, 1712 or the War of Spanish Succession, which Great Britain was involved in until 1714. It is also possible that the year was chosen arbitrarily. What is significant is the way the sentiment of the American people during the years of the Vietnam war was able to reach a Girl Scout camp in Northern Virginia and create a lasting piece of folklore.