"Soldier's Joy" is one of the oldest and most widely distributed tunes in the English-speaking world. The tune appeared in late eighteenth-century sheet music and dance instruction manuals on both sides of the Atlantic. By the nineteenth century, it was published in numerous books of fiddle tunes, usually classified as a reel or country dance. Yet the lively tune could be played on just about any instrument, as the piano score below, published in Boston in 1885, illustrates.


Read the sheet music

Printed publications can be used as evidence of the tune's age and popularity, but most musicians who played it and dancers who danced to it did not learn the tune from a printed page. They learned it by hearing it. Some heard it at dances in their communities; some heard it at home, played by a family member. Others may have heard it played by Army bands during wartime, to lift the spirits of troops in camp or as they marched to battle.

The invention of recording equipment near the turn of the twentieth century allowed even more people to hear the tune. Country singer Jimmy Driftwood wrote lyrics to "Soldier's Joy" and recorded his version of it in 1957.


Hear a "caller" calling a square dance of "Soldier's Joy"

The popularity of "Soldier's Joy," as both an instrumental and a dance tune, persisted in America, and there are numerous renditions of this piece located throughout Library of Congress collections. Many of these have been digitized and made accessible through the Internet.


Read instructions on how to dance "Soldier's Joy"

From a dancer in Rhode Island, documented by the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, to Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed -- pictured above, circa 1903 with his older brother Josh -- to Dust Bowl migrants in a Farm Security Administration camp in central California, musicians carried the tune with them as they traveled around the country.

Under the auspices of another New Deal project, folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell made field recordings of various artists. California native Mrs. Ben Scott learned to play music by ear when she was growing up in Monterey County, California. Mrs. Scott and Myrtle B. Wilkinson of Turlock, California performed "Soldier's Joy" on the fiddle and tenor banjo for Cowell's recording machine in October 1939. Sidney Robertson Cowell also recorded fiddle players John Selleck, of Camino, California, and John Stone, a goldminer in Columbia, California. Pat Ford, who performs "Soldier's Joy" on harmonica, came from Wisconsin to California with his brothers to work on the Shasta Dam.


Listen to Henry Reed perform "Soldier's Joy"


Band of the 10th Veteran Reserve Corps. Washington, D.C. April, 1865.

"Now he's playing the Soldiers Joy -- see them all get up, too -- you can't sit still when he begins that one. Lets go. Whew -- that's a rouser, limbers up the old joints and no mistake...."

--Tiverton Fisherman, interviewed during the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.


Listen to C. E. Summers play his rendition on harmonica

"Just about every old time fiddler I've met knows the tune 'Soldier's Joy.' It's one of the real standards, played in dozens of styles, all over the country. When my Cherokee friend Bob Thomas was alive, he would always request that tune for jig dancing. One day his son Stanley told me why. It seems that when the Cherokee veterans of the Civil War returned to Tahlequah, in Indian Territory, they were greeted by musicians playing that tune. And ever after, when those old men would get together, there would be a fiddler playing 'Soldier's Joy' as an honoring song."

--Jim Griffith, Tucson, Arizona


Listen to Myrtle B. Wilkinson and Mrs. Ben Scott play the tune on fiddle and banjo

Listen to John Stone play it on the fiddle

Listen to Pat Ford's play the tune on harmonica

Listen to John Selleck play it on the fiddle



This is Fred Colby's introduction of Albert Gore's band at a square dance in 1938:

"Some thirty or forty years ago, two brothers ran for governor of Tennessee. The one on the Republican ticket, and one on the Democrat. And they went around over the state fiddling. The Democrat was the best fiddler, and he was elected. But the Republican was a very shrewd man, as they have to be in Tennessee. So, he waited until the Democrats nominated a man who couldn't fiddle, and then he ran again and was elected, about twenty years later.

"Well, our--the music for our square dance tonight is furnished by Albert Gore's band. Albert and six other men, they ran for Congress in the fourth Congressional district. And Albert, he was a little young, but he was the best fiddler, and we thought he'd be the safest man. His band is going to give us the music for the square dance tonight."


Listen to Albert Gore's band perform "Soldier's Joy" at the1938 National Folk Festival, Constitution Hall, Washington, D.C. May 1938


The National Digital Library Program at the Library of Congress is bringing important historical and cultural materials to citizens around the world. Through American Memory, over seventy multimedia collections comprising over three million digitized documents, photographs, recorded sound, motion pictures, and text are now available online, free to the public for educational purposes. The items on this page were taken from the following collections:

An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920. From the Music Division, Library of Congress.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. From the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. From the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection. From the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885. From the Music Division, Library of Congress.

Selected Civil War Photographs. From the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. From the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941. From the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.