Who's Johnny, And Why Does He Show Up In So Many Songs

by Amanda Flinner

When Pop star El DeBarge first asked "Who's Johnny" in 1986, he was talking about the robot, Johnny 5, from the movie Short Circuit - not exactly a satisfactory answer.

If music has shown us anything about the all-American male, it's in the name Johnny. He's the fighting soldier that can take down an onslaught of enemy troops while clutching a letter to his sweetheart in one hand. He's the football star who can score all the touchdowns without breaking a sweat. He's the heartbreaker who can steal your girl with a smile and hang on to her while he moves onto the next.

Johnny carries with him all the promises of youth. He didn't just represent the common young man anymore, but an ideal for the average young man to strive for, whether it was on the battlefield or the football field. He is everything you should want to be but probably not anything you can achieve. That's enough to make anyone hate him. Even Johnny can't live up to that ideal; as his journey through music continued, he began to represent the real battles of the American male and suffered real-life consequences.
Johnny Rebel

"He not only considered himself a rebel but he gloried in the name."
- The Life of Johnny Reb - Bell Irvin Wiley

Johnny Rebel, or Johnny Reb, represented the common soldier of the Confederacy during the US Civil War, although the name was actually created by Union opponents who would taunt them with calls across picket lines. But the young southern soldiers raring for a fight delighted in the insult. They had no idea of the legacy they would leave behind as Johnny Rebs, not just for the war effort but in Pop culture for years to come.

Johnny had a northern counterpart in Billy Yank, but even the Union adopted Johnny as their own. One of the most famous songs of the era was written by the Union soldier and bandmaster Patrick Gilmore in 1863 under his pseudonym Louis Lambert. "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" (hurraw! hurraw!) looked forward to when their fighting boys would return home as heroic men. The song's history is a bit complicated. Gilmore has been accused of spinning a powerful Irish anti-war song, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" - which shows the real fate of Johnny after the horrors of war have ravaged him so that he is barely recognizable - into Civil War propaganda. Would they really know Johnny if they saw him stumbling home barefoot in rags as opposed to in a pressed uniform and shining boots? But further studies have shown that Gilmore's song was actually published first and "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" didn't have its roots in antiwar sentiment at all, but in comedy. Either way, people were still singing praises for Johnny well into the 20th century.

The Clash even used Gilmore's tune in their song "English Civil War." Lead singer Joe Strummer suggested that the band should update it to warn against the dangerous rise of far-right groups during the mid-1970s in Britain. He told the Record Mirror: "War is just around the corner. Johnny hasn't got far to march. That's why he is coming by bus or underground."

Country music singer Johnny Horton paid tribute to "Johnny Reb" in 1959, where the bravery and strong ideals of our hero are respected even by the enemy, who honors his life instead of celebrating his death. Johnny is no longer just a common soldier, he's the ideal soldier:

When Honest Abe heard the news about your fall
The folks thought he'd call a great victory ball
But he asked the band to play the song Dixie
For you Johnny Reb and all that you believed

The following year, Johnny was elevated - again by Johnny Horton - to not just a Civil War hero, but a hero throughout US history, in "Johnny Freedom":

You can meet him on each page of history
He's the spirit of a bear cub
Our country's pride and joy
Hats off to Johnny Freedom, Johnny Freedom
That's our boy

Breaking into the Top 100 at #96, Fred Darian picks up Johnny's trail in 1961's "Johnny Willow," where the lines between the common soldier and the ideal soldier continue to be muddled. The WWII soldier is writing a letter to his girl back home when his troop is ambushed. Maybe a lesser soldier would have to put down his pen, but not Johnny. Not only is he a skillful shooter, but he's a dedicated letter writer. He fights back with "a letter in his hand and a carbine in his right." It's men like Johnny Willow who'll keep this country free, he sings.

The vision of Johnny on the battlefield didn't end with WWII. Richie Havens, along with future Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr., wrote "Handsome Johnny" in protest of the Vietnam War. Havens sang the song during his famous opening act at Woodstock in 1969. While singers like Horton and Darian praised Johnny for his tireless efforts on "each page of history" for flag-waving patriotism, Havens put an anti-war spin on the mythology. At first blush, Havens is praising Johnny for his heroics much the same way, even adding him marching along during the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. But he warns against blindly marching into death in ceaseless battles that only lead to more violence:

Hey, what's the use of singing this song?
Some of you are not even listening
Tell me what it is we've got to do, wait for our fields to start glistening
Hey, wait for the bullets to start whistling

Hey, here comes a hydrogen bomb and here comes a guided missile
Here comes a hydrogen bomb, I can almost hear its whistle
I can almost hear its whistle

Billy Yank

The traditional folk song "Billy Boy" asks "Oh where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" That's a good question when it comes to Billy Yank. Even though the Union army was victorious in the Civil War, poor Billy didn't get as much attention as Johnny Reb. When he was mentioned, it was usually in a brother-fighting-against-brother lament. In Gene Autry's "Johnny Reb and Billy Yank," the boys were fishing buddies before they were forced to fight on opposite sides. American folk musician Jimmie Driftwood gave Billy some love on his Civil War-themed album Billy Yank and Johnny Reb (1961), but again he had to share the accolades with Johnny. In the title song, Driftwood sings:

Who's that with the blisters on their feet and mouth?
Not them politicians in the North and in the South
Who's that in the moonlight talking to his pa?
Who's that in the bushes tradin' coffee for a chaw?
Billy Yank and Johnny Reb!

At least he got top billing.

For awhile it seemed that Billy made it to the Vietnam War with "Billy Don't Be a Hero," a hit for both Paper Lace and Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods in 1974. In actuality, it's another Civil War number, this time with Billy as a fallen hero despite his girlfriend's pleas:

Billy, don't be a hero, Don't be a fool with your life
Billy, don't be a hero, Come back and make me your wife

But Billy was about to get his second wind with his own laundry list of songs. Like Johnny, he was making the girls beg in Donna Summer's "Oh Billy Please"; Jon Bon Jovi warned him, "Billy Get Your Gun"; Phil Collins pleaded "Don't Lose My Number"; Prince insulted "Billy Jack Bitch"; Laura Nyro sang about "Billy's Blues" and Merle Haggard assured everyone that "Billy Overcame His Size."

Terry Jacks told us why he used the name in his 1969 Poppy Family hit "Which Way You Goin' Billy?": "You've got to use a name that isn't going to stick out like a sore thumb. You can't do, 'Which way you goin', Lawrence.' Lots of people are called Billy, and it's a name that doesn't rub you wrong or anything."
Johnny Lover

She loved her man, but he done her wrong
- "Frankie and Johnny"

Johnny was a fighter and a lover. In WWI, he was still in military fatigues and wandering the streets of romantic Paris in the novelty number "Johnny's in Town." When he came back home with Parisian street cred, all the women in his hometown wanted a piece of Johnny because "oh, dearie, oh, dearie, he's been aroun'."

The transition from soldier to loverboy reached its heights in the '60s starting with The Bobbettes claiming "Mr. Johnny Q" was the "best lookin' fella in all the town" with the smoothest dance moves (he should really watch himself - these were the same girls who shot their crush "in the head, boom boom" in "I Shot Mr. Lee").

Shelley Fabares' 1962 hit "Johnny Angel" established Johnny as the high school teen dream. Fabares starred as teenage daughter Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show. Much to her surprise, the network wanted to groom her as a singer to boost the series' sinking ratings, even though she couldn't sing a note. A reported 18 takes were taken and strung together to capture the lovesick narrator pining for Johnny:

Johnny Angel, how I love him
He has something that I can't resist
But he doesn't even know
that I exist

Fabares performed the song on the show, and it became a huge hit and soared to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. A follow-up, "Johnny Loves Me," lets us know she got her man and couldn't be happier.

On the flip side, Pat Boone proves how hard it is to live up to the Johnny ideal with "Johnny Will," where he scrambles to earn money to spend on his girlfriend before Johnny does. Apparently, cash comes just as easily to Johnny as looks, talent and girls...and he doesn't have any scruples taking those girls from other guys like poor Pat. He wouldn't stand a chance with Little Peggy March, who claimed "Johnny Cool" was the "warmest-hearted boy in the world" on the inside, while on the outside he was an unflappable god who kept his cool even when he won the high school football game in 1963. (Johnny's effortless athletic prowess became the stuff of legend. Nada Surf was lamenting over it 30 years later in the sarcastic "Popular": "If you see Johnny football hero in the hall, tell him he played a great game.")

Maybe Johnny isn't really the angel he appears to be. In 1963's "It's My Party," Lesley Gore cries when Johnny leaves her party with Judy and has the nerve to come back with her on his arm: "Oh what a birthday surprise, Judy's wearing his ring." Brenda Lee has the same experience in 1969 when she's misled by smooth-talking "Johnny One Time," who wears a "charm bracelet of broken hearts."

If these girls had been into murder ballads from the early 20th century, they'd have saved themselves some trouble. In the traditional 1904 song based on a real murder, "Frankie and Johnny" were faithful sweethearts until Johnny started fooling around with Nelly Bly. Frankie pulled out a .44 and shot Johnny three times and was sentenced to die in the electric chair. (In the real case, Frankie's beau was Allen, sometimes called Albert, and the story even inspired a blues number by Bill Dooley, "Frankie Killed Allen.")

Johnny Cash went easier on him in his 1959 cover: Johnny was true but his "wicked wandering eye" spied a redhead in a bar... who turned out to be Frankie's sister. While he emerges unscathed, secure that he still didn't do her wrong, most other versions - especially after Johnny has philandered his way through relationships into adulthood, through Pop and Country and Rock and Roll - have Frankie embracing tradition and taking bloody retribution against her lover, sometimes with a gun, sometimes with a knife. In Brook Benton's Jazzy 1961 version, a crowd even gathers around the crime scene and reassures her she did the right thing when she shot him ("yeah, he done you wrong, Frankie. You should've shot him 40 times").

In 1995, Poe is like a modern-day Frankie as she's determined to kill "Angry Johnny." Any time, any place, any way. On choosing the name, Poe said: "Johnny is a very powerful name in the sense that it's so classic. It's such the all-American boy name. John Doe: It's anonymous but it's not. It's anonymous in a personal way but very defined in a cultural way. You know, Johnny the soldier coming back from the war. It's a primal archetype for an American man."

Johnny was their man, but he was usually doing them wrong.

Plenty of songs have been inspired by real-life Johnnys. Perhaps the most famous is Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," the mostly autobiographical tale of Berry's own life as a guitar prodigy who rose from the sticks to Rock-and-Roll stardom. Probably because "Chucky B. Goode" didn't have quite the same ring, Berry borrowed the name from piano player Johnnie Johnson for the 1958 hit (incidentally, Johnson did not man the keys for this song; Layfayette Leake did).

Many others pay homage to dead Johnnys:

- Berry's song inspired Bruce Springsteen's "Johnny Bye Bye" about the death of another Rock-and-Roll legend: Elvis Presley.

- Elton John's "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" is a tribute to John Lennon, who was killed two years earlier in 1980. Lennon and John performed together at Madison Square Garden in 1974 and had remained good friends.

- The Replacements' "Johnny's Gonna Die" is about the drug-related death of Heartbreakers' leader Johnny Thunders.

- Shelby Lynne wrote the love song "Johnny Met June" the day Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003. She sings of how Johnny and his late wife June Carter Cash are reunited in heaven.

- Pearl Jam's 2009 song "Johnny Guitar" was inspired by a photo of Bluesman Johnny "Guitar" Watson hanging above a urinal. Watson died in 1996.

On the other hand, Neil Young's "Johnny Magic" was actually alive and well when he wrote the song (and by all reports, still is). Biodiesel pioneer Jonathan Goodwin helped Young retrofit his 1959 Lincoln Continental with an experimental electric engine. Young was so impressed with Goodwin that most of his 2009 album, Fork in the Road, was inspired by him. But Goodwin was oblivious to Young's fame: "For the first month I thought he was Neil Diamond."
Johnny Downtrodden

But Johnny can't read
Summer is over and he's gone to seed

- Don Henley, "Johnny Can't Read"

It's not so great being Johnny now after so many songs have exposed his flaws, but he was about to become the common man again with songs like Bruce Springsteen's 1982 number "Johnny 99." President Ronald Reagan had begun praising Springsteen as the great American musician in his re-election campaign speeches, much to the Boss' irritation. "They basically tried to co-opt every image that was American, including me. I wanted to stake my own claim to those images, and put forth my own ideas about them," he said of Reagan-era Republicans. Springsteen used this song as a response, with an explanatory introduction while on tour: "The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think he's been listening to this one."

Instead of the average soldier or ideal lover, he has become the average factory worker, and no one is giving welcome home parties anymore - and who better to represent the plight of the American male than Johnny?

Well, they closed the auto plant in Mahwah late last month
Ralph went lookin' for a job but he couldn't find none
He came home too drunk from mixin' Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun, shot a night clerk
Now they call him Johnny 99

That same year, Don Henley addressed the problem of illiteracy in the scathing attack on the American public school system in his controversial debut solo single, "Johnny Can't Read." Johnny met all the criteria to be the superstar everybody thought he was:

Football, baseball, basketball games
Drinkin' beer, kickin' ass and takin' down names

He could also dance and love, talk tough and shove. He reveled in distractions like TV, music and the Rubik's Cube (hey, it was the '80s). But when school was in session, there was just one problem: Johnny couldn't read, and no one would help - not parents, not teachers, not society. Like Springsteen's "Johnny 99," there are no other options for him, so he buys himself a gun and falls into a life of crime.

The Australian band Men at Work brought us even farther back in Johnny's life and gave us a glimpse into his childhood with "Be Good Johnny," also released in 1982.

I only like dreaming
All the day long
Where no one is screaming
Be good Johnny!

In a Songfacts interview, lead singer Colin Hay told us: "It was a song written from the standpoint of a 9-year-old boy. His parents are constantly telling him to be good and he feels like he understands some things but is completely misunderstood by the adult world, which I think a lot of people feel."

In 1985, the UK group Fine Young Cannibals borrowed Johnny for their debut single to represent London runaways in "Johnny Come Home," the story of a teen who learns the harsh reality of a life on the streets and his parents' desperate plea for him to come home.

But who will this Johnny be when he comes marching home?

March 17, 2013
More Song Writing

Comments: 18

  • Johnny from Franklin Creek (near Moss Point)misisissippi ,usaMy nickname has been that since i was born. 45 years now.
  • Cat from Uk Alfred from El Sobrante. My father taught me that song as a little girl. It’s called The Cruel War.

    The cruel war is raging, Johnny has to fight
    I want to be with him from morning to night
    I want to be with him, it grieves my heart so
    Won't you let me go with you?
    No, my love, no
    Tomorrow is Sunday, Monday is the day
    That your captain will call you and you must obey
    Your captain will call you it grieves my heart so
    Won't you let me go with you?
    No, my love, no
    I'll tie back my hair, men's clothing I'll put on
    I'll pass as your comrade, as we march along
    I'll pass as your comrade, no one will ever know
    Won't you let me go with you?
    No, my love, no
    Oh Johnny, oh Johnny, I fear you are unkind
    I love you far better than all of mankind
    I love you far better than words can e're express
    Won't you let me go with you?
    Yes, my love, yes
    Yes, my love, yes
  • David from California Also: Joanie Sommers' 1962 hit, "Johnny Get Angry" and The Playmates' 1960 hit "Wait For Me" ( Wait For Me, Johnny Please Wait For Me)
  • Roger from TexasHow about "Johnny B Goode" by Chuck Berry?
  • Ed from NovaThe "Johnny" story goes back at least as far as 1962 with The Cardigan Brothers song "Everybody Loves A Guy Named Johnny".
  • Spencer from OhioJohnny beats the Devil in a contest for his soul and a fiddle made of gold. Devil went down to Georgia.
  • Keith from PhiladelphiaNice list. I'd throw in Johnny Rotten. He's like the incarnation of what happened to Johnny, given society's ills. There's a few "Michael" songs out there too. I think he's the gay Johnny.
  • Alfred from El Sobrante, CaHi. Awesome research. I love the dedication it takes present this to the public. I have been trying to find the title of a folk song with a line begining "...I'll tie back my hair. .." another line may be "o, johnny, don't leave me behind." Can you help me?
  • Goa from Denmark CphAlso New Order from the 80s mentions Johnny...

    It was January, nineteen-sixty-three
    When Johnny came home with a gift for me
    He said I bought it for you because I love you
    And I bought it for you 'cause it's your birthday, too
    He was so very nice, he was so very kind
    To think of me at this point in time
    I used to think of him, he used think of me
    He told me to close my eyes
    My gift would be a great surprise
    I saw tears were in his eyes
    He never meant to hurt me
    Oh, God, Johnny, don't point that gun at me
    There's so many ways our lives have changed
    But please, I beg, don't do this to me
    Johnny, don't point that gun at me
    Can I save my life at any price?
    For God's sake won't you listen to me?
  • Jeff M from Woodstown, NjI first thought of Johnny Strikes Up the Band by Warren Zevon.
  • J.j. from HiloKick a hole in the sky
  • Poglad from AberdeenTowards the end of He's Got Magic by Fox, Noosha reveals who she's singing about. Yup, it's Johnny again.
  • David from El Paso, TxI'm with Mike. Where's Johnny Yuma?
  • George from Central Nyx2 on the Dire Straits comment above.....I just know there's something I'm missing & I'm thinking that this author (A. Flinner) is just the one to find & explain it.....
  • Ekristheh from HalathThe boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run, but the movie kept moving as planned
    The boy took Johnny, pushed him against the locker,
    drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
    and the boy disappeared,
    Johnny fell on his knees, started crashing his head against the locker,
    started laughing hysterically .....
  • Silas Brock from NycExcellent read. Thank you. I've been semi-aware of the recurring "Johnny" in popular music, but this tied it all together in a compelling, well-researched narrative. I'd be interested in reading anything else by the author.
  • Alex from G Funkthey didn't mention 'Walk of Life' by Dire Straits. "Here comes Johnny singin oldies goldies"
  • Mike from Mesa, Az.what, no mention of the rebel johnny yuma? he got fightin' mad this rebel lad...
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Gary Numan

Gary NumanSongwriter Interviews

An Electronic music pioneer with Asperger's Syndrome. This could be interesting.

Chris Isaak

Chris IsaakSongwriter Interviews

Chris tells the story of "Wicked Game," talks milkshakes and moonpies at Sun Records, and explains why women always get their way.

Ralph Casale  - Session Pro

Ralph Casale - Session ProSongwriter Interviews

A top New York studio musician, Ralph played guitar on many '60s hits, including "Lightnin' Strikes," "A Lover's Concerto" and "I Am A Rock."

Rupert Hine

Rupert HineSongwriter Interviews

Producer Rupert Hine talks about crafting hits for Tina Turner, Howard Jones and The Fixx.

Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders

Chrissie Hynde of The PretendersSongwriter Interviews

The rock revolutionist on songwriting, quitting smoking, and what she thinks of Rush Limbaugh using her song.

Gavin Rossdale of Bush

Gavin Rossdale of BushSongwriter Interviews

On the "schizoid element" of his lyrics, and a famous line from "Everything Zen."