Video: Learned Hand Sings A Ballad of American History

January 9th, 2013

Come on. Admit it. When you were learning the Hand Formula in Torts, you hummed along, and wondered what it would sound like if Learned Hand was singing it. Well now, thanks to the Sound Recordings of the Library of Congress, you can hear how Learned Hand sounded when he sang.

In this recording, Judge Hand sings the song “The Iron Merrimac.” The recording was made in Washington D.C. on October 3, 1942 when Hand was 70 (he would live until 1961). It was published by the Library of Congress in “Songs of American History and the Assasination of Presidents.” Of course, Hand is singing about the battle between the Merrimac and the Monitor, more commonly known as the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Hand explains how he came to learn that song

That song I learned, about I should suppose, 60 years ago, in Elizabethtown, which is a very small village in theAdirondack’s Mountains, Essex County, about 8 miles from Lake Champlain. It was then sung by boys of my own age. A few. And, I know nothing more about it than that. I think possibly it was song by my Uncle’s hired man who had been in the Civil War. But that I am very uncertain of. I don’t know where we boys picked it up.

Here is my rough transcript (I couldn’t understand some of them)

The iron Merrimac,with others at her back,

Commanded by () , and the gradiyo

From Norfolk started out, and put her all to rout

And to make an end of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Oh

The Cumberland went down, and the () ran aground

Made the Yankee core look ()

When () the Monitor appeared

And the music struck up Yankee Doodle Dandy, Oh

The Rebels shot through hot, Yankees answered not

Till they got within a distance, ()

() To his crew,

Boys, we’ll see what we can do

When we fight for little yankee Doodle Dandy, Oh.


H/T Priscilla J. who sent it to Adam White who sent it to me. Adam recently reviewed the new book about Learned Hand in the WSJ.

Update: Thanks to Orin for the link.

Thanks to some of the comments, I have more context.

ContraStercorum • 17 hours ago

If you listen to the lyrics Judge Hand is singing, they quite clearly describe the first day of the naval battle in Hampton Roads that culminated later with the Monitor-Merrimack (“Iron Merrimack” in the lyrics) engagement. The CSS navy built the iron-clad ship they called the Virginia on the hull of the captured Merrimack. The Union and history referred to the ship by the original Union ship’s name.

The original tune and lyrics were probably based on the War of 1812 song but rewriting lyrics of old songs to fit new events of topical interest is a common part of the folk process.

And someone found the lyrics!

At this link:

There is what appears to be a broadsheet (undated) with very similar lyrics. Clears up some of the less-than-clear lyrics in Judge Hand’s version of the song, and Blackman’s attempted transcription.

Here is a transcript of the lyrics that I think Hand was trying to sing.

Their iron Merrimack,

With others at her back,

Commanded by Buchanan, the old granny, oh,

From Norfolk started out,

And tried to put to rout,

And capture little Yankee Doodle Dandy, oh.

The noble little band

on board the Cumberland,

All disabled, was asked to surrender, oh

“You may sink us, if you like,

But my flag I will not strike,”

Says brave Morris, “to the last we will defend her oh.”

The rebel shot flew hot,

But the Yankees answered not,

Till tehy go within a distance they called handy, oh

“Now,” says Worden to his crew,

“Boy’s lets see what you can do-

If you take this iron rebel you’re the dandy, oh.”

The PDF is here, and I insert the cool broadsheet as a JPG.


Update: Prof. Steve Lubet writes in with this information about the origin of the tune:

The lyrics are clearly about the Civil War, but the melody is “The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie-O,” which is a traditional tune from Scotland:

Our captain fell in love with a maiden like a dove/

And they called her by her name, Pretty Peggy-O.

Here is a traditional version by the Corries:

Here is a version by Jerry Garcia, which he calls Fenario:

There are many others – including one on Bob Dylan’s first album – but I’d never heard the Civil War version.

Update: Another version from Joan Baez, courtesy of my former employer, the Honorable Danny. J. Boggs.

From Learned Hand to Joan Baez to Jerry Garcia!