Behind the Deeper Origin of the Nursery Rhyme, “Ants Go Marching”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“Ants Go Marching” has long been considered a children’s song, known to teach kids counting and math, but its origins date back to the Civil War. Though the original tune was born from grim circumstances, and also stems from a drinking song that condemned the war, “Ants Go Marching” offers a lightness that helps teach children the art of rhyming and counting.

Meaning Behind the Song

“Ants Go Marching” pulls some of its lyrics from “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a Civil War-era song that celebrated soldiers’ return from the war. Irish-American composer Patrick Gilmore is credited for writing the tune that was published by the Library of Congress in 1863 under a pseudonym. The song is said to be inspired by Gilmore’s sister Annie, who longed for her fiancé, Union solider John O’Rourke, to return home safely. The song also crossed political lines and was sung by both the Union and Confederate armies.

When Johnny comes marching home again
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

Supposedly, Gilmore wrote the song while stationed in New Orleans. The Library of Congress also reports that the melody bears resemblance to the Irish song “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye,” but Gilmore said that his song was adapted from a Black spiritual. In 1883, he clarified to the Musical Herald that while he didn’t create the melody himself, it was “a musical waif which I happened to hear somebody humming in the early days of the rebellion, and taking a fancy to it, wrote it down, dressed it up, gave it a name, and rhymed it into usefulness for a special purpose suited to the times.”

It turns out that the melody was actually lifted from the drinking song, “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl,” which also rose to popularity during the Civil War and begged then-President Abraham Lincoln to stop the war. The lyrics also called out the draft stating, “we’re getting anxious all of us hurrah! hurrah!”

The Ants

The same melody can be heard on “Ants Go Marching,” (also known as “Ants Go Marching One by One”) although the lyrics are much more light, borrowing the melody and the spirited “hurrah” refrain. The children’s version is credited to Robert D. Singleton and can be heard in the 1990 Barney special, Campfire Sing-Along.

The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah
The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah
The ants go marching one by one,
The little one stops to suck his thumb
And they all go marching down to the ground
To get out of the rain, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

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