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Although Springtown, Tennessee, has a small monument outside an old mill claiming the song was written by a local "George Johnson", in 1864, for his Maggie, the truth is that its lyrics were written as a poem by the Canadian school teacher George Washington Johnson from Hamilton, Ontario. Margaret "Maggie" Clark was his pupil. They fell in love and during a period of illness, George walked to the edge of the Niagara escarpment, overlooking what is now downtown Hamilton, and composed the poem. The general tone is perhaps one of melancholy and consolation over lost youth rather than mere sentimentality or a fear of aging. It was published in 1864 in a collection of his poems entitled Maple Leaves. They were married October 21, 1864 but Maggie's health deteriorated and she died on May 12, 1865. James Austin Butterfield set the poem to music and it became popular all over the world. George Washington Johnson died in 1917. The house where the two lovers met still stands on the escarpment above Hamilton, and a plaque bearing the name of the song had been erected in front of the old building but is now inside the Township of Glanbrook building on Binbrook Road (Road 52) just east of Fletcher Road (Road 614). In 2005, the song was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Some claim that the song was first sung by Frank Dumont "as the Duprez & Benedict's Minstrels programs, dated, will show" in 1870. The song was first recorded by Corinne Morgan and Frank C. Stanley in 1905 and has been recorded since by many famous artists including opera tenors John McCormack in 1920 and Jan Peerce, early country singer Fiddlin' John Carson, country singer Slim Whitman, bluegrass musicians Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Mac Wiseman, David Grisman and James Alan Shelton, crooners Perry Como and Gene Autry and popular singers such as Will Oakland, Henry Burr, Harry MacDonough and Frank Dunn. Instrumental recordings of Butterfield's melody are also numerous, and date as far back as the 1930s. Notable recordings include those of jazzmen Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Sidney Bechet and ragtime pianist Johnny Maddox. "Maggie" has been re-scored as "When You and I Were Young, Maggie Blues", by Jack Frost and Jimmy McHugh. Mills Music Inc. published this edition in 1922, and again in 1949 with Guy Lombardo's picture on the cover. This was a 1951 hit for father and son Bing Crosby and Gary Crosby reaching the No. 8 spot in the Billboard charts and for the duet team of Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely. John W. Schaum arranged "When you and I were young Maggie Boogie" and had it published by Belwin Inc. in 1952. The song is also considered as a standard of dixieland.
The song was used by Seán O'Casey in his 1926 play The Plough and the Stars, but the name "Maggie" was changed to "Nora" because the character, Jack Clitheroe, was singing it to his wife Nora. Johnny McEvoy recorded it as "Nora" in 1968 and had a number one hit in Ireland. In 1983 Irish duo Foster and Allen reached number one in New Zealand, number six in Ireland and 27 in the UK singles chart with their version. This led many people to think it was an Irish song. It was also recorded by De Dannan on the album "Star-Spangled Molly", by Josef Locke on "Let there be Peace", and by James Galway and The Chieftains on "In Ireland". The Statler Brothers also recorded their harmonious rendition. In addition to Henry Burr and Harry MacDonough, other Canadian performers such as Hank Snow, The Climax Jazz Band and Murray McLaughlin have also recorded it. Tom Rush recorded a version on his CBS release "Ladies Love Outlaws" in 1974. American psychedelic rock band Magic Fern from Seattle (who wrote and performed together in the mid to late 1960s) recorded a version of this song entitled "Maggie" and that version is on the soundtrack for Adam Sandler's film Strange Wilderness. The Hot Sardines have it on their debut album released in 2014. Irish band The Fureys & Davey Arthur also released "Maggie" as the eleventh track on their album "Golden Days" in 1984.
- Rural Roots of Bluegrass: Songs, Stories & History By Wayne Erbsen p166
- Excerpts from "When You and I Were Young, Maggie", by George Rickard, 1981. Reprinted by Glanbrook Heritage Society, with permission, 2001.
- Houghton, Margaret (ed.) Hamilton street names, p. 85 (2002)
- Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame at http://www.cshf.ca/inductees/by-year/?InducteeYear=2005. Retrieved 2015-09-18.
- Circus Historical Society, Burnt Cork Supplement, 2005, by William L. Slout. "The Younger Generation in Minstrelsy and Reminiscences of the Past,” by Frank Dumont, New York Clipper, March 27, 1915. (Accessed August 2011)
- Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-89820-083-6.
- Encyclopedia of Music in Canada
- The partial list of artists have recorded the song was compiled from the listing of the iTunes Store on February 21st, 2008.
- Broderick, Vincent (1990). Traditional Irish Flute Solos. Mel Bay Publications. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-85720-061-4. Retrieved 2011-04-05.
- "Foster & Allen - Maggie (song)". charts.org.nz. Archived from the original on 16 October 2014. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
- "The Irish Charts: All There Is to Know". Irish Recorded Music Association. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
- The Hot Sardines
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