Q From Ed Jager, Jakarta: To me, Fiddler’s Green was for many years just a name of a street in a town near to one I grew up in. Then, I became acquainted with a folk group known as the Friends of Fiddler’s Green. Not believing they were particularly enamored of that street, I did an Internet search which revealed that for sailors, (and apparently, some cavalrymen) Fiddler’s Green was heaven — not metaphorically, but as in the sweet by-and-by. Can you give me some insight into the origins of the phrase?
A You’re right about its origin. It is sailor’s heaven, the place where all good seafarers go, a paradise or Elysium where unlimited supplies of rum, women and tobacco are provided. Unlike Davy Jones’s Locker, the final resting place of sailors lost at sea, it is on land, the place where sailors go who die ashore. It is very like Cockaigne, another mythical country of luxury and idleness. Its origins are unfortunately even more obscure than those of Cockaigne, and as elusive as that magical place Glockamorra.
What we do know is that the term appears fully formed near the start of the nineteenth century. There’s an association behind it, I would guess, that is now lost to us, perhaps from a song that refers to a real English village green with a fiddler playing. As well as British sailors, the US Army has long claimed it, as you have discovered, to the extent that some people have argued that it originated there. A famous ballad of the US Cavalry begins:
Halfway down the road to hell,
In a shady meadow green,
Are the souls of all dead troopers camped
Near a good old-time canteen.
And this eternal resting place
Is known as Fiddler's Green.
The author is unknown. It was first published in a US Cavalry Manual in 1923, but could possibly be a century older; we’ve no idea whether this is the original, or whether the author was drawing on something even older. My own hunch suggests the latter, for otherwise we have no way of explaining how by the 1830s it was so firmly set in British maritime usage. It looks as though both traditions are drawing on a common eighteenth century source, but I have to tell you that we’ve no idea what it is.