According to Jack Woodford, piano player to Chicago’s 1920s gangland, there was only one song that Al Capone ever really wanted to hear.
It was the song he asked for when he first met Woodford playing piano at Colissimo’s, Big Jim’s famous Chicago speakeasy, back when Capone was “just a nobody” working for more powerful underworld figures—and it was the same one he wanted years later when he’d become Chicago’s most famous gangster, holed up in his office after almost getting shot in a gangland scuffle. The song was so ingrained in Woodford’s fingers by that point that Al didn’t even need to ask for it: “I knew [exactly] what he wanted [me to play],” said Jack in his memoir, My Years with Capone:1924-1926. “I could improvise…songs 9,000 different ways. Orchestrated, cross-handed, C-sharp minor. But mostly he liked the same thing over and over again—‘Roses of Picardy.’”
It’s an unusual song choice for an American, seeing as Roses of Picardy was actually a famous British ballad from 1916. The song held a special place in the hearts of homesick English soldiers throughout the horrors of World War I, thanks to its sentimental lyrics describing the longing of a woman waiting in vain for her sweetheart to come home from the war. Legend says it was written by a lovesick officer at the French Front as he watched a war widow plant roses in her garden—or perhaps by a wounded soldier whose nurse brought him bouquets of fresh roses every day in the hospital. Quite a number of clichéd, conflicting romantic situations have been suggested over the years.
However, the song’s lyricist—an English barrister by the name of Frederick Weatherly—said in his personal memoirs that the song was actually “based around the love story of a very dear friend of mine” and had been penned far away from the battlefields of France. Weatherly himself was sixty-five at the start of the Great War, far too old to serve as a soldier in the trenches. All the same, Weatherly was a pretty busy man during the Great War. When he wasn’t being a lawyer he managed to pen the lyrics to over 3,000 songs in his spare time, including famous ballads like “Danny Boy” which are still popular today. Weatherly’s sentimental lyrics were often paired with the musical styling of Haydn Wood, a prolific British composer of popular music with over 200 ballads to his name. Wood claimed the melody for Roses came to him one night while he was heading home on the top of a double-decker London bus. He jotted the refrain on the back of an old envelope while standing under a street lamp.
Whatever it’s true origins, Roses of Picardy was the biggest hit of 1916. It sold 50,000 copies every month in Britain until the end of the Great War, from its creation in 1916 to the Armistice in 1918—and it was popular long afterwards as well. By the end of the war, so many Englishmen knew it by heart that British doctors used it as part of their medical treatment for the country’s shell-shocked soldiers, encouraging them to sing along with the lyrics.
The song stirred the hearts of American soldiers as well. American Red Cross nurse Shirley Millard claimed that it was one of many patriotic tunes that “heated her enthusiasm to a fever pitch” and encouraged her to join the war effort in France. Roses had an enduring popularity in both America and Britain. It was the most requested song for a WGN Chicago radio broadcast in 1934, a whole sixteen years after its publication. Today it’s considered one of the most emblematic songs of World War I, on par with It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Over There.
But why would someone like Al Capone—who never actually served in the trenches—love this song so much? Perhaps it was because it reminded him of the tragedy inherent in his own life. Woodford felt that Al saw Roses as his personal theme song. “He had a very sad nature in his interior,” said Jack. A sort of “unconscious recognition of the fundamental sadness of life, and a kind of precognition that despite all his successes and a desire to do good, that he would ultimately end up badly. He really saw himself as a tragic figure…[and the song] perfectly suited this interior moodiness and thoughtfulness.”
Listen to the song:
The wonderful website www.firstworldwar.com has two recordings of this song. The first one is by Earnest Pike from 1917, and the second is by John McCormack from 1919. The lyrics are there as well. The embedded player with the song can be found here. This website is chock full of great WWI audio clips, including tons of period songs. Highly recommended! 🙂
Recently, Roses of Picardy was featured in Downton Abbey Season 2, sung by tenor Alfie Boe. A recording of the song can be found here.
There’s even a Frank Sinatra version!
“Roses of picardy” to be sung by Attilio Baggiore. (1934, Sep 09). Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963).
Marjorie Cullerne and Gilles Gouset. August 2012. “Roses of Picardy: the real story.”
Weatherly, F. E. 1926. Piano and Gown. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Woodford, Jack, and Neil Elliott. 1985. My years with Capone: Jack Woodford and Al Capone, 1924-1932. Seattle, WA: Woodford Memorial Editions.