The Girl I Left Behind Me (Brighton Camp)

The Girl I Left Behind Me (Brighton Camp)

What is the song about?

The Girl I Left Behind Me (Brighton Camp) is sung by a soldier going to war, who remembers the beautiful girl whom he left back home, hoping to return to her soon.

The Girl I Left Behind Me, by Eastman Johnson, early 1870s
The Girl I Left Behind Me, by Eastman Johnson, early 1870s

Where did it start?

As with many folk songs, no one knows for sure. Some date the song to the times of Queen Elizabeth I (17th century), when it was played when soldiers or a naval ship left for war.

William Chappell, a music researcher and writer (of music publishers Chappell and Co. fame) and the first person who seriously studied traditional English tunes, in 1859 dated the song to 1758, when there were military encampments on the coast of the English Channel. This was during the Seven Years War, when the French planned an invasion of Britain, which never materialised.

The first printed mention The Girl I Left Behind is from Ireland, in a serial song collection The Charms of Melody, printed in Dublin in 1791. The earliest known version of the melody was printed about 1810 in Hime’s Pocket Book for the German Flute or Violin (Dublin).

The Girl I Left Behind Me travels around the world

In the 19th century this tune had some different Irish and English language lyrics in Ireland, including one called An Spailpín Fánach (The Rambling Labourer).

Early American settlers mention a song called Brighton Camp, but it might have had a different tune.

During the Napoleonic wars (1812), when America quarrelled with England once again, after the Wars of Independence, the song became popular in the US army as a marching tune – it is easy to play on the fife, a staple instrument of military bands.

During American Civil War both sides popularised the song with their own adapted lyrics, one version inspired by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

In the early stages of WWI, the British army used an obscene version of this song which ran in part:

Kaiser Bill is feeling ill,
the Crown Prince has gone barmy,
We don’t give a f*** for old von Kluck
And all his bleedin’ army

The Girl I Left Behind Me Lives On

The song found its way into the modern culture, too, from Bug’s Bunny (A Wild Hare), where he plays it on a carrot for a fife, and Popeye cartoon Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor, to films about American civil war, Westerns and the Indian War, as well as TV series Hornblower and Sharpe’s Company. It features in the 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade and 1970s film Waterloo.

There are over 50 recordings of the song by various artists, including being referenced by Glenn Miller’s arrangement of American Patrol, popularised during World War II. Bing Crosby included the song in a medley on his album 101 Gang Songs (1961).

The site mentions 15 settings of the tune, as well as numerous name variations and the fact that it was added to 226 tunebooks.

The tune is popular with Morris dancers, often referred to as Brighton Camp, (Polka step in Morris dance, or as a 2/2 country dance tune). It was collected from musicians of the Cotswolds villages, where it was part of the popular music traditions.

The Lyrics:

I’m lonesome since I crossed the hill,
And o’er the moorland sedgy
Such heavy thoughts my heart do fill,
Since parting with my Betsey
I seek for one as fair and gay,
But find none to remind me
How sweet the hours I passed away,
With the girl I left behind me.

O ne’er shall I forget the night,
the stars were bright above me
And gently lent their silv’ry light
when first she vowed to love me
But now I’m bound to Brighton camp
kind heaven then pray guide me
And send me safely back again,
to the girl I left behind me

Her golden hair in ringlets fair,
her eyes like diamonds shining
Her slender waist, her heavenly face,
that leaves my heart still pining
Ye gods above oh hear my prayer
to my beauteous fair to find me
And send me safely back again,
to the girl I left behind me

The bee shall honey taste no more,
the dove become a ranger
The falling waters cease to roar,
ere I shall seek to change her
The vows we made to heav’n above
shall ever cheer and bind me
In constancy to her I love,
the girl I left behind me.


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