Legends surround many songs, charming stories included in collections of sheet music and passed along by performers. This one really happened.

"When You and I Were Young, Maggie" became a Victorian favourite, an international hit of the late nineteenth century. It has a haunting sound, music suggesting country and folk and things played on a parlor piano. I suppose a musicologist could easily identify its specific time and place in the tune, in the lyrics; I could not. Hear it and you know it came from someone's past. The song has been misidentified as both traditional Irish and Scottish.

An American wrote the music; a Canadian, the lyrics. The story happened in rural Ontario.

George Washington Johnson, a schoolteacher and poet from Hamilton, Ontario, found his first teaching job in nearby Glanford Township in 1859, at the age of twenty. He fell for one of his teenaged pupils, a young woman named Margaret Clark. Maggie returned his affection. Ultimately, they were engaged.

Then she contracted tuberculosis.

At some point, he walked through the countryside of Glanford Township. Atop a hill near a rural mill he wrote a poem for his beloved, one which has him reflecting back on their lives from the perspective of old age, a sentiment made more poignant by the fact that he contemplated a life he knew they might never live. The piece appeared in a published collection of his poems entitled Maple Leaves.

They married on October 21, 1864. Disease claimed Maggie on May 12, 1865.

Maple Leaves caught the attention of a young American musician, James Austin Butterfield, who set "...Maggie" to music in 1866.1 Its mainstream popularity lasted well into the age of recorded music, and it has been covered numerous times.

Johnson did not teach high school for long. He worked as a journalist in Cleveland and later became a professor of languages at the University of Toronto. He died in 1917. In 1937, an historical society erected a monument to Johnson at the Rock Garden in Hamilton. Another organization posted a plaque outside Maggie's childhood home on Nabo Road in Glanbrook, in 1963. The owners of the rural property had it removed. It seems it led passers-by to mistake the house for a museum.

In February of 2005, Johnson was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

I often laugh at Victorian sentimentality. I don't laugh at this song. Perhaps the most painful longing is nostalgia for a life that might have been.

I wandered today to the hill, Maggie
To watch the scene below
The creek and the rusty old mill, Maggie
Where we sat in the long, long ago.
The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie
Where first the daisies sprung
The old rusty mill is still, Maggie
Since you and I were young.

A city so silent and lone, Maggie
Where the young and the gay and the best
In polished white mansion of stone, Maggie
Have each found a place of rest
Is built where the birds used to play, Maggie
And join in the songs that were sung
For we sang just as gay as they, Maggie
When you and I were young.

They say I am feeble with age, Maggie
My steps are less sprightly than then
My face is a well written page, Maggie
But time alone was the pen.
They say we are aged and grey, Maggie
As spray by the white breakers flung
But to me you're as fair as you were, Maggie
When you and I were young.

And now we are aged and grey, Maggie
The trials of life nearly done
Let us sing of the days that are gone, Maggie
When you and I were young.


1. Some sources identify Butterfield as a friend of Johnson's; according to historians in Hamilton, it remains uncertain whether the two men ever met.

Even stranger, Springtown, Tennessee, has a small monument outside an old mill claiming the song was written by a local George Johnson, in 1820, for his Maggie. I have no idea who fabricated this one, but the actual history of the song is thoroughly documented.

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