> Peter Bellamy > Songs > Mandalay


[ Roud - ; Mudcat 509 , 11643 ; words Rudyard Kipling, music trad. arr. Peter Bellamy; notes on Mandalay at the Kipling Society]

Mandalay is a poem from Rudyard Kipling’s book Barrack-Room Ballads. It was inspired by the reminiscences of participants in the third Burmese War (1885-90) which led to the overthrow of King Thibaw. Kipling himself visited Burma in 1889, falling deeply in love (his words) with a girl sitting on the pagoda steps just as he described.

Kipling wrote in his autobiography Something of Myself (as cited on Mudcat in 2012):

I wrote a song called ‘Mandalay’ which, tacked to a tune with a swing, made one of the waltzes of that distant age. A private soldier reviews his loves and, in the chorus, his experiences in the Burma campaign. One of his ladies lives at Moulmein, which is not on the road to anywhere, and he describes the amour with some minuteness, but always in his chorus deals with ‘the road to Mandalay’, his golden path to romance. The inhabitants of the United States, to whom I owed most of the bother, ‘Panamaed’ that song (this was before copyright), set it to their own tunes, and sang it in their own national voices. Not content with this, they took to pleasure cruising, and discovered that Moulmein did not command any view of any sun rising across the Bay of Bengal. They must have interfered too with the navigation of the Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers, for one of the Captains S.O.S.-ed me to give him ‘something to tell these somethinged tourists about it’. I forget what word I sent, but I hoped it might help.

Had I opened the chorus of the song with ‘Oh’ instead of ‘On the road’, etc., it might have shown that the song was a general mix-up of the singer’s Far-Eastern memories against a background of the Bay of Bengal as seen at dawn from a troop-ship taking him there. But ‘On’ in this case was more singable than ‘Oh’. That simple explanation may stand as a warning.

This is an early recording of Mandalay by Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson (1882-1961):

Peter Bellamy sang Mandalay on his third album of songs set to Kipling’s poems, Peter Bellamy Sings the Barrack-Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling. He noted:

This song endures in its several formal settings (one of which was an adaption entitled Panama for the American audience) and is probably the best remembered of the Barrack-Room Ballads. The soldier’s nostalgia for the East when returned to the ‘gritty paving-stones’ of London is beautifully realised. Supi-Yaw-Lat was the widow of King Theebaw of Burma. Hathis are elephants. The tune is from the traditional song 10,000 Miles Away.

This track was also included on the Free Reed anthology This Label Is Not Removable in 2002. There are two other Mandalay versions on this anthology: Barrie Roberts sang it live at the Fitter’s Arms, Walsall in 1974 to his own arrangement; and a massed chorus of Tony Barrand, John Roberts, Heather Wood, Dave Webber, Anni Fentiman, Louis Killen, Ian Robb, David Jones, Nigel Shofield and festival guests sang it at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, New York in June 2000. John Roberts, Dave Webber, Louis Killen and Ian Robb played concertinas.

Peter Bellamy re-recorded the song in 1990 for his privately issued cassette Soldiers Three.

Dave Webber sang Mandalay on the 1995 album of Barrack Room Ballads and other soldier’s poems of Rudyard Kipling as set to traditional tunes by Peter Bellamy, The Widow’s Uniform. He noted:

One of Kipling’s best known and best loved works. Bellamy’s setting is by no means the first, though some previous efforts have failed to reflect—perhaps to recognise—the strong element of pathos and underlying bitterness.

Mandalay was inspired by the reminiscences of participants in the third Burmese War (1885-91), ending with the overthrow of the tyrant King Thibaw. Kipling himself visited Burma in I889, falling deeply in love (his words) with a girl sitting on the pagoda steps just as he described.

The poem has also been one of many to arouse hostility. Some claim it to be patronising; a claim that simply is not supported by the text—perhaps an instance of critics seeing what they want or expect to see. Far from patronising the East and its people, the singer genuinely craves a return to his “cleaner, greener land”. Kipling is describing a clear case of acculturation, before the term was current—but it is the English soldier who is the victim, and it is Burma and the Burmese—or at least one Burmese—that he considers in every way superior to England and its inhabitants.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand sang Mandalay to Peter Bellamy’s setting in 1997 on their CD of songs of Rudyard Kipling, Naulakha Redux. This video shows them at a Northern Roots concert in January 2018:

Jeff Warner sang Mandalay on his 2005 album Jolly Tinker. He noted:

This is not the popular song from 1907 by Oley Speaks. Rather, it is from English folk revival singer Peter Bellamy (1944-1991). Peter put scores of Kipling’s poems to music, making a most educated guess that they were written to be sung rather than read. Sometimes I think Kipling/Bellamy’s Mandalay [is] the perfect song.

Eddy O’Dwyer sang Mandalay on his 2012 CD Go and ’List for a Sailor.



By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
    Come you back to Mandalay,
    Where the old Flotilla lay:
    Can’t you ’ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
    On the road to Mandalay,
    Where the flyin’-fishes play,
    An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the Bay!

’Er petticoat was yaller an’ ’er little cap was green,
An’ ’er name was Supi-Yaw-Lat—jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ’eathen idol’s foot:
    Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud—
    Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd—
    Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ’er where she stud!
    On the road to Mandalay …

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was sinkin’ low,
She’d git ’er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”
With ’er arm upon my shoulder an’ ’er cheek agin’ my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
    Elephints a-pilin’ teak
    In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
    Where the silence ’ung that ’eavy you was ’arf afraid to speak!
    On the road to Mandalay …

But that’s all shove be’ind me—long ago an’ fur away,
An’ there ain’t no ’busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ’ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ’eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ’eed naught else.”
    No! you won’t ’eed nothin’ else
    But them spicy garlic smells,
    An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
    On the road to Mandalay …

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ’ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
    Beefy face an’ grubby ’and—
    Law! wot do they understand?
    I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
    On the road to Mandalay …

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be—
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
    On the road to Mandalay,
    Where the old Flotilla lay,
    With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
    On the road to Mandalay,
    Where the flyin’-fishes play,
    An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the Bay!