F is for Percy French

This is my contribution to Round Eleven of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.

Abdul Abulbul AmirMy ABC Wednesday for the letter F  is even more self-indulgent than usual, concerning as it does the Irish songwriter, Percy French and his most famous creation that I recall from my childhood.

But first some background, French was born in 1854, the son of a protestant landlord in Roscommon and educated Foyle’s College, Derry.

He wrote his first successful song while studying at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated as a civil engineer.

This might have been his career, but the Board of Works in County Cavan where he was employed reduced its staff in 1887 and French left to try his hand at journalism as the editor of The Jarvey, a weekly comic paper.

Percy FrenchWhen that failed he turned to entertainment, composing and singing comic songs, such as ‘Phil the Fluther’s Ball’, ‘Slattery’s Mounted Foot’, and ‘The Mountains of Mourne’.

He also wrote ‘Are Ye Right There Michael’ which poked fun at the poor state of the railway in County Clare. The railway company took out a libel action against him and French arrived late for the hearing.

When the judge asked him why, he said: ‘Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway,’  which explained everything and the case was thrown out.

Bronze figure of Percy French in the main square of Ballyjamesduff.

Bronze figure of Percy French in Ballyjamesduff

But French’s most famous creation as far as I am concerned is Abdul Abulbul Amir which he wrote in 1877 at the start of the Russo-Turkish War. It tells the story of the titanic battle between the Russian cossack, Ivan Skavinsky Skavar, and one of the Sultan’s mamelukes, Abdul Abulbul Amir.

French sold the song for £5 to an unscrupulous publisher and it was claimed by other writers after it became hugely popular.

My own memory of it comes from the MGM cartoon version of the song that would appear on tv from time to time during my childhood. It was produced in 1941 by Fred Quimby (who I’ve written about before) and featured caricatures of Groucho Marx and Lou Costello.

I felt certain I would be able to find it on YouTube or elsewhere, but I couldn’t, at least not in English.

This is the only version I could track down on a website hosted in Bulgaria, but the connection can be slow and annoying. If your German isn’t up to it, you can find the English lyrics here .

Otherwise here is an abbreviated version of the song recorded by Frank Crumit in 1927.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

9 comments… Add yours
  • rhymeswithplague 22nd August 2012

    My mother used to sing that song! You brought back some forgotten memories of my childhood…thank you.

    Reply
  • Meryl 22nd August 2012

    Fascinating post for “F”! Thanks.

    Reply
  • photowannabe 22nd August 2012

    I have to admit I vaguely remember the cartoon and music.
    This is quite fascinating.

    Reply
  • zongrik 22nd August 2012

    interesting. i’m not familiar with this composer.

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  • Chrissy Brand 22nd August 2012

    Fascinating, fine find…

    Reply
  • Roger Green 22nd August 2012

    We LOVE it when you’re self-indulgent. Don’t you know that yet?
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

    Reply
  • Reader Wil 22nd August 2012

    A really great song! Again I learned something new from you! The ABC meme is very informative and interesting. Thank you so much!
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  • 4joy 22nd August 2012

    love to learn new and interesting stuFF…thanx

    Reply
  • ChrisJ 23rd August 2012

    I definitely remember that song! Have no idea how, when or where I’ve heard it before, but it’s very familiar to me. Must have been sometime in my childhood in England. Thanks for the memories!

    Reply

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