Harry Macdonough (1871-1931): "Goodbye Dolly Gray" 1901

You are listening to an original recording from 1901 made by one of Canada's very first recording artists, Harry Macdonough singing "Goodbye Dolly Gray," a tune played on every Gramophone as Canadians sent their boys off to war to distant South Africa.

(You can hear these earliest Canadian recordings on our program's soundtrack. Details on our Music Page)

Victorian/Edwardian Sheet Music 1880-1910 - Sheets 1

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Good-Bye Dolly Gray

The theme song for "The Great Anglo-Boer War: the Canadian Experience" is "Good-bye Dolly Gray."

It was sung around pianos with special poignancy during family gatherings at Christmas 1899, as the dreadful news of the horrendous British defeats at Magersfontein and Colenso started to arrive.

The sheet music had already been issued in US versions for the Spanish-American War which lasted for a few months during 1898 (two versions below). With the outbreak of the Boer War, a British version was rushed to the presses featuring a British uniform (left.)

But if sheet music is to be believed, the women were somewhat fickle; the same woman is kissing two different men goodbye! And shame, she hasn't even changed dresses between kisses!

The Gramophone had recently been invented, and now the enormously popular tenor Harry Macdonough - one of Canada's first recording artists - was singing on records all over Canada as the Canadian boys embarked for the adventure of a lifetime in South Africa.

Boer War Sheet Music

The Boer War coincided with an explosion in wonderfully colourful sheet music. It was only in the late 1890s that sheet music for singing around the piano, was first produced in colour. Until then sheet music covers had been bleak, unattractive, black and white, and virtually without pictures.

The Spanish American War (a few months in 1898) and the Boer War which lasted three years (1899 - 1902) offered all kinds of romantic subject material to put on colourful covers. It was ET Paull who started the revolution in colourful sheet music and produced spectacular covers at the turn of the century. 

New inventions announcing Paull's "Dawn of the Century" (1900) included the telegraph,  electricity, the telephone, the sewing machine, the movie camera, and the steam locomotive. All were to play key roles during the Boer War.

For all the promise of a new century, throughout the British Empire the drums were beating for war. And once again, as they have done since time immemorial, farmers and workers prepared to beat their ploughshares into swords.... 

In Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, Dolly Gray became the favourite parting song for wives, mothers, and sweethearts sending their men folk off to war.


In Canadian towns patriotism rose to fever pitch and sheet music reflected it. "Three Cheers for the Flag," printed in Toronto in 1900, was rescued from serving as a cover for a hole in a window blind in a house in Delhi, ON.

14 year old Edwin McCormick from Toronto (above right) signed on with the Strathcona's Horse, as a bugler, the only way that teenagers in Australia, Britain, and New Zealand could get to the front. After all, wasn't that were the real work was being done! (below 1900). "Let's give credit where credit is due" was the subtitle, perhaps an admonition to those who criticized the volunteers for merely signing up to escape the drudgery of work in farm and factory.

Sleuthing at Auctions Pays Off Famously!!

By keeping his eyes on Ontario auctions, historian John Goldi was able to discover, identify, and rescue Edwin McCormick's own bugle (left) from the trash heap of history.  

Read all about this exciting discovery by visiting the Bugle Page.


Canadian men were reminded "How Can You Help It" but to go nudge the tardy Boer into behaving in a civilized manner! This sheet, (below) found in Vancouver, BC, was published in Toronto in 1900, and was "Respectfully Dedicated to the Canadian Contingent to South Africa". Farewells to departing soldiers were poignant (right).

7,000 Canadians ultimately went to serve in South Africa. Over 300, most of whom, like Sgt. Beattie from Toronto, ON, (right), died of enteric fever, and lie today in lonely African graves. 


The Great Marches
Of course the generals were doing he most important work. Lord Robert's fabled March to Pretoria (1900) brought forth a gush of sheet music and was supposed to end it all. Instead the war went on for two more years.

But the music accurately reflects the fact that Lord Roberts' army was mainly made up of foot soldiers, chasing an army of Boers who were all mounted. It proved to be a futile exercise.

But others were marching too. General Buller, (below left,1900), who had been replaced as commander-in-chief by Lord Roberts, now headed the army column chasing the Boers in the Transvaal. Canadians played a big role in his army and got along famously with the British general. "I have never worked with a finer body of men" he said in his farewell address to them.

In Mafeking Robert Baden-Powell (above right 1900), later of Boy Scout fame, held off the Boers until relieved by a British army that waited for two months to make it's move until re-enforced by the arrival of the guns of Canada's C battery.

Canadians were proud of the accomplishments of Canadian fighting men. "Johnny Canuck" (above from 1900) was found in Vancouver, BC.
Pride reached a new high after the Royal Canadians were in the lead trenches at the decisive Battle of Paardeberg.  The sheet music celebrating their achievement (above right), was published in Toronto, in 1900, and found in Barrie, ON.

British generals on the site, including Lord Roberts himself, praised the Canadians for making the victory happen. But British historians like Byron Farwell dismisses the Canadians entirely, not even bothering to note their presence during a battle he spends many pages covering. This die-hard Brit says it was the might of British guns, using powerful new lyddite explosive which won the victory. He must have got his idea from the sheet music makers (below 1900).

Music sheet publicists had promised action a plenty (left 1900).

The Fabian Scott sheet was inspired by heroic British night attacks to destroy the guns of the Boers who were starting to encircle the British town of Ladysmith in the early months of the war.

But for most soldiers, including the Canadians, war was mostly made up of tedious monotony and waiting for something to happen. Lt. Morrison of the Royal Canadian Artillery, wrote that Canadians often sang of home at night; their favorite songs:  "My Old Kentucky Home" with "Canadian" substituted for Kentucky, and "The Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee", (below), a huge hit from 1899, with no substitutions...

After months of unrelieved tedium on guard duty, thoughts turned to loved ones left behind (below left 1900).

Home Sweet Home
At the end of the 19th century, the piano was the center of family life in the western world, fulfilling the function of today's television, CD player, radio, and computer and video games, all rolled into one precious musical instrument. And sheet music provided the source for new songs for the family to sing. More so among the Boers than probably anywhere else in the world, the piano was the heart and soul of Boer family life, because they lived in remote farms far from neighbours. This is captured marvelously in this painting of Boers at home, just before the war. It is easy to see why for most families, the piano was the most valuable possession they owned.

Then came the war.

As the war went into it's second year, pianos became a special target for freezing British troops as they swept women and children off their farms, and into concentration camps.

The high quality wood in pianos made excellent firewood and hundreds of them were burned by soldiers trying to keep warm in a place where there were few trees.

Diaries of Tommies often recount how first they would play on the pianos (left) before finally chopping them up into firewood.

Ah Those Canadians: There were exceptions. Canadian artilleryman Jack Randell, shown in Cape Town with his 12 pounder, once stopped his men from wrecking a fine piano, saying,

"We're here to make war, not wreck beautiful things!"

With so many men in Africa, hundreds of Canadian families looked forward - eagerly - for the "Letter from the Front." (right, 1901) 

A Canadian Letter from the Front

This letter was sent by a Canadian volunteer in South Africa at a time that Canada had no official contingent in Africa.

For the full story on this letter

Click   Ira's Letter

A Letter from the Front (1901)

1. A maiden fair with bright golden hair, By a window sat silent one day
Watching the throng as it passed along while her thoughts drifted far away. 
When a knock at the door brought the roses once more, to her cheeks long so pale and so wan.
The old postman was there, with his old cheerful air, He'd a message he left and was gone.

          Twas just a letter that came from the front, but it told of deeds both brave and true,
          Of a hero who ne'er feared the battles' brunt and who fought for the Red, White and Blue,
          A lad who while off in a distant land, with grim war searing heaven' blue dome
          Wrote a fond letter, with loving hand  
          From the front to his sweetheart at home..

2. A woman grey, in grief stood one day, by a packet of letters well worn.
Leafing them o'er till her heart grew sore, and her soul with despair was torn.
When she came to one stained, where the teardrops had rained,
And with sobs she bowed low her tired head.
For as memory went back, all the world seemed so black,
'Twas a message of love from the dead...

Over 300 Canadians would remain behind, forever, in South Africa.



With Peace, after three year's war, sheet music celebrated the triumphant return of the soldiers. Some, perhaps eyeing the sheet music market in Europe, where "the British War" had been wildly unpopular, showed Briton now "Side by Side" with Brother Boer.

c Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996 & 2000