The bonny labouring boy, from the Bodleian Library collection; printed by J.F. Nugent, & Co. (Dublin) between 1850 and 1899.
I first heard this on an Irish compilation LP which I borrowed from my local record library in the late 1970s. I remember little about the album, except that it featured the Sands Family, and Planxty doing ‘Three Drunken Maidens’. But thanks to the wonders of the internet I can now reveal that it must have been The Best Of Irish Folk, and the band doing this song was Aileach (me neither).
I didn’t actually learn the song from the record, but it was probably having heard the recording which prompted me to learn the song when I found it in Peter Kennedy’s massive tome, Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. It must have been around the same time as well that I saw the song being performed by Shirley and Dolly Collins, at a one-day festival at City University, featuring the entire roster of the Oglesby-Winder agency (i.e. pretty much all the top acts on the English folk scene). I’m slightly puzzled, when there is so much trivia, ephemera and nostalgia on the web, that I can’t seem to find any mention of this event. A post on Facebook this morning confirms that I didn’t dream the whole thing, and it turns out that a number of people with whom I am now friends were at the event. Initially noone seemed willing to commit to when it happened, but Chris Foster – who was on the bill – has just stated very confidently that it was in October 1978. He remembers it clearly because he’d just spent a week in the studio recording his second LP, All Things in Common.
Anyway, the version in Peter Kennedy’s book is from the great Harry Cox. You can hear him singing the song on the Topic double CD The Bonny Labouring Boy.
I learned this from All Buttoned Up, the first LP on Topic Records by the Cock and Bull Band – apologies, the Hemlock Cock and Bull Band – where it was sung by drummer John Maxwell.
It seems to have been particularly popular (or at least, most frequently collected) in Oxfordshire: Peter Kennedy recorded a version from Arthur Smith of Swinbrook in 1952, Francis Collinson had the song from Bob Arnold (of Archers fame) at Burford in 1946, Mike Yates recorded it from Freda Palmer of Witney in 19767, and John Howson recorded the Bampton morris dancer Francis Shergold singing it in 1987.
Francis’ version was included on the Veteran CD It was on a market day Volume 2, and his words can be found at www.veteran.co.uk/vt7cd_words.htm#Needlecases. I don’t have a copy of All Buttoned Up to hand, but I seem to remember that the sleevenotes referred to Alfred Williams as the source of the song. Be that as it may, looking at those lyrics, I think it highly likely that John Maxwell had learned the song from Francis Shergold.
Alfred Williams did collect a version from Eli Dawes of Southropp in Gloucestershire, and the song was recorded in the same village, some 40 years later, from a singer by the name of Jimmie Maunders in 1957. Apart from that the only other version listed in the Roud Index - and the only one not from the Cotswolds – was printed in Kidson & Moffat’s English Peasant Songs (1929).
I come now to the third class of patterers, — those who, whatever their early pursuits and pleasures, have manifested a predilection for vagrancy, and neither can nor will settle to any ordinary calling. There is now on the streets a man scarcely thirty years old, conspicuous by the misfortune of a sabre-wound on the cheek. He is a native of the Isle of Man. His father was a captain in the Buff’s, and himself a commissioned officer at seventeen. He left the army, designing to marry and open a boarding- school. The young lady to whom he was betrothed died, and that event might affect his mind ; at any rate, he has had 38 situations in a dozen years, and will not keep one a week. He has a mortal antipathy to good clothes, and will not keep them one hour. He sells anything — chiefly needle-cases. He ‘patters’ very little in a main drag (public street); but in the little private streets he preaches an outline of his life, and makes no secret of his wandering propensity. His aged mother, who still lives, pays his lodgings in Old Pye-street.
A late change of plan, in response to this morning’s snow.
I learned this about 30 years ago from Roy Palmer’s A Touch on the Times. The words are from a broadside printed by Sharp of London (from Nottingham University’s collection – I haven’t been able to find a copy on the web). Roy set it to a version of the well-known ‘Dives and Lazarus’ tune, which is the tune given in William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time.
For reasons best known to myself (and long-forgotten) I decided to sing it to a version of the ‘Whitstable May Song’ tune – but changed from a jolly 6/8 major key, into a suitably miserable minor key and, for the first few verses at least, in 4/4.
I didn’t notice this until many years later, but had I wanted to, I could have provided a justification for this choice of tune. The ‘Whitstable May Song’ is very similar to the tune of the ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ (see this YouTube video of Oyster Morris processing to the tune at the annual Whitstable May Day celebrations). And in the Oxford Book of Carols there is a note that the ‘Seven Joys’ tune was used by unemployed London labourers in times of hardship. The note is taken from Carols Their Origin, Music And Connection With Mystery Plays by William J. Phillips.
The writer well remembers, when we had a particularly hard winter nearly forty years ago [i.e. circa 1850], having heard this same carol tune sung round the streets of London by labouring men out of work, who tramped the streets through the snow, with shovels over their shoulders, singing the following doggerel verse, in hope of receiving pence from the charitably disposed:-
We’ve got no work to do, we’ve got no work to do
We’ve got no work to do, we’ve got no work to do
We’re all turned out, poor labouring men, we’ve got no work to do
The editors of the Oxford Book of Carols add
We can corroborate this for a later period, c.1890. only they sang, ‘We’re all froze out’
It’s worth noting that this is probably about as much as the labourers themselves did sing, and not anything like the eight verses printed on the broadside, and which I sing here.
The practice itself seems to have been quite common in the nineteenth century, and there are numerous reports, both sympathetic and hostile.
The market gardeners also felt the severity of the weather – it stopped their labours, and some of the men, attended by their wives, went about in parties, and with frosted greens fixed at the tops of rakes and hoes, uttered the ancient cry of “Pray remember the gardeners! Remembers the poor frozen out gardeners!”
are seen during a frost in gangs of from six to twenty. Two gangs generally “work” together, that is while one gang begs at one end of a street, a second gang begs at the other. Their mode of procedure their “programme” is very simple. Upon the spades which they carry is chalked “frozen-out!” or “starving!” and they enhance the effect of this “slum or fake-ment” by shouting out sturdily “frozen out”, “We’re all frozen-out! The gardeners differ from the agriculturalists or “navvies! In their costume. They affect aprons and old starw hats, their manner is less demonstrative, and their tones less rusty and unmelodious. The “navvies” roar; the gardeners squeak. The navvies’ petition is made loud and lustily, as by men used to work in clay and rock; the gardeners’ voice is meek and mild, as of a gentle nature trained to tend on fruits and flowers. The young bulky, sinewy beggar plays navvy; the shrivelled, gravelly, pottering, elderly cadger performs gardener.
Mayhew, though fully supportive of the honest working-man who seeks charity to feed his starving family, is quick to point out there were many imposters amongst the supposed frozen-out gardeners. And it is this side of the story which is presented in The Florist And Garden Miscellany for 1849-1850, published by Chapman And Hall (from which the illustration below is also taken)
For the tailpiece to our present Volume, we present our younger readers with a sketch illustrating a custom now extinct, at least in our neighbourhood. Some years back, as soon as inclement weather rendered it impossible for the men and women employed in the market-gardens to pursue their daily labours, they formed themselves into bands, and bearing bunches of vegetables upon poles, solicited donations from the charitably disposed, appealing to them with the cry of ” Pray remember the poor frozen-out gardeners !” As it was generally the most idle and profligate that composed these parties, and the proceeds were almost invariably expended in dissipation, it was considered an abuse, and was suppressed by the magistrates and police. Our cut gives an excellent representation of one of these parties.
Frozen-out gardeners, from the The Florist And Garden Miscellany 1849-50
This recording is another track from the Chris Wood and Andy Turner demo tape, circa 1985. If you’re familiar with the Magpie Lane recording of this song, you’ll recognise that our version was based very closely on Chris’s arrangement, especially that riff between the verses.
You can’t be a folk singer from Kent and not know at least a few verses of this song.
I first encountered it sung by Shirley Collins on the Albion Dance Band LP The Prospect Before Us. When I first heard that I was still a folk music novice, and almost every song I heard was new to me. Given how well-known the song has become, it’s funny to think that, when that album was released back in 1977 Hopping down in Kent was in fact new to most people on the folk scene.
Mike Yates recorded a couple of versions in the early seventies, from Louie (Louise) Fuller of Lingfield, Surrey, and the gipsy singer Mary Ann Haynes, who had settled in Brighton. Both versions were included in the Folk Music Journal, in an issue dedicated to travellers’ songs, in 1975. I’d guess that the Albions’ recording was prompted by this (House in the country, which they recorded later on Rise up like the sun, was in the same issue) - although Shirley may well have known Louie and/or Mary Ann, and heard them singing the song.
Mary Ann Haynes – photo by Mike Yates (?) from Musical Traditions
In the booklet to that CD, Mike Yates wrote this about his first encounter with Mary Ann Haynes:
One of the first Gypsy singers that I met was Mary Ann Haynes. I had been told that her son, Ted, was a singer and I drove down to Sussex one Sunday afternoon, looking for his trailer. Eventually, I found Ted and his trailer in a field. He was busy and directed me to his mother, who ‘knew all the old songs’. Mary lived in High Street, Brighton, where, according to Ted, she was known to ‘everybody’. High Street turned out to be a narrow street off the sea-front and was full of large tower blocks. I started knocking on doors, only to be told that nobody knew a Mrs Haynes. I found that when I mentioned that she was a Gypsy doors were closed very quickly in my face. I began to wonder if I would ever find Mary, and was about to give up, when a lady said that there were no Gypsies in the area, only ‘an Italian looking lady’. This was, of course, Mary. When I arrived she was sleeping off a lunchtime session in the pub, but, once roused, she set about making a cup of tea and, having said that I knew her son (sort of), she began to sing as soon as I mentioned songs. Mary had been born in 1905, in a Faversham waggon parked behind The Coach and Horses in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Her father, Richard Milest, was a horse-dealer whose family would accompany him across England during the summer as he made his way from fair to fair. “We used to go to the Vinegar & Pepper Fair at Bristol, then to Chichester, Lewes, Canterbury and Oxford, then up to Appleby and back down to Yalding.” Mary’s husband died suddenly, leaving her with a large family, and, having settled in Brighton, she worked as a flower-seller, earning enough to support her family. Mary died in 1977.
The way I sing the song these days is very much based on Mike’s recording of Mary Ann Haynes, although I’ve also included some verses from Louie Fuller, and a couple from lovely Ron Spicer. The second and penultimate verses are Ron’s, and I’ve never come across them anywhere else. I was also tempted to add this verse from Shropshire singer Ray Driscoll
When we use the karsey, sitting on the pole,
You have to keep your balance or you fall back in the hole
Ray Driscoll and Louie Fuller were both brought up in London, and in the days before mechanisation the local workforce would be massively swelled at hop-picking time by families from the East End of London come down for a working holiday – and of course by a great many gipsies and travellers.
I think I first heard this song on Shirley Collins’ 1967 LP The Sweet Primeroses, and subsequently learned it from Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain and Ireland. The version in Kennedy’s book is as sung by John ‘Charger’ Salmons and recorded at the Sutton Windmill, near Stalham, Norfolk in October 1947. The recording was made for the BBC Third Programme by composer E.J. Moeran. You can hear the entire 1947 broadcast on the CD East Anglia Sings, released by the rather wonderfully named Snatch’d from Oblivion label. A Musical Traditions article, E J Moeran: Collecting folk songs in East Norfolk – in his own words gives you all the background, and allows you to listen to the songs which he recorded; you can also buy the East Anglia Sings CD from Musical Traditions.
The song presumably dates from the Napoleonic period, judging by the rich farmers’ daughters who say
Boney alas! There’s a French war to fight and the cows have no grass.
Incidentally the three ballad sheets with the title ‘Rigs of the Time’ which can be found on the Bodleian Library Ballads site deal with a similar theme to this song, but otherwise appear unrelated.
I learned this from the singing of Bob and John Copper on the single LP selection from A Song for Every Season. Bob gives the background to the song in his book of the same name:
Shearing the wool off the back and belly of a sheep in such a manner as to finish up with a fleece of the maximum weight in one piece and in the minimum time was by no means a simple task. It was a skill that was developed over a number of years and, even then, really good shearers were few and far between. For this reason when it ‘came in season the lambs and ewes to shear’ a crew of expert shearers was formed to travel round from farm to farm in a given area and shear all the sheep at each farm in turn by piece-work. The crew from the Rottingdean area called themselves the Brookside Shearers, because the area they covered included all the ‘brook farms’ up the western side of the Ouse Valley from Newhaven to Lewes in what was known as Brookside Country. A crew consisted of a captain, who wore two stars on his hat, a lieutenant, who wore one star, twelve to fourteen men, picked for their skill at shearing and willingness to work hard for long hours, a wool winder to roll and stack the shorn fleeces and a tar-boy whose job it was to go round as required and dab tar – or in later years, powdered lime – on any accidental cuts in the sheep’s hide to stop the bleeding and to prevent flies from entering.
This was the practice when Bob’s father Jim started shearing around the turn of the twentieth century, and things appeared to have changed very little for decades.
In an interview given to Vic Smith in 1970 – and now transcribed on the Musical Traditions website – Bob talked more about White Ram Night, which preceded the shearing, and the rather more rumbustious Black Ram Night which came at the end of their work:
They used to start off in their first night to make arrangements of where they were going and what they were going to do and that was called ‘White Ram Night’. They’d agree on a pub for headquarters. Usually it was the Red, White & Blue in Lewes. It’s no longer a pub. It was until fairly recently. I’ve had a drink there. Is it Friars Walk? Anyway, it’s a green tiled place. It was a horrible pub. The worst of Victoriana, but they liked it. They must have liked the landlady or her daughter or something. Well, that was their headquarters. Well, they used to start off on the first night, before the shearing actually started, on the Saturday before they started on the Monday morning. That was called ‘White Ram’. That was more or less just business. There was plenty of beer, there always was. Then they used to arrange where they were going. The captain would read out which farms they were going to. How many in each flock, “Well, we’ll get through that in two days.” And so on and so on.
Then they had a list of fines. They used to … If you leave a patch of wool as big as a half-crown on a sheep, you were fined sixpence. And if it were bigger, it would be a shilling. If you let your sheep go in the barn, that would cost you sixpence. If you called a man a fool, sixpence; if you called him anything worse, a shilling. And they all agreed on this because this all went into the kitty for Black Ram which was the last … which was the Saturday after the completion. They used to meet on the following Saturday, pay out the wages due and the fines used to go into the kitty over the counter against food, salt beef, they used to have a very good do, cooked beef and bacon and goodness knows what. That was Black Ram. That was a really good night, a real humdinger and, in fact, the strong beer they used to drink was called Black Ram very strong, stronger than Old, like a very strong barley wine. That was called Black Ram and that was a real humdinger. That was a pretty beefy affair. So that was the second one, Black Ram.
Here’s another song from the Copper Family repertoire. I think I must have learned it from the recording of Bob and Ron Copper on the LP Jack of All Trades, Volume 3 in the Caedmon / Topic series The Folk Songs of Britain (where it is titled ‘The Jovial Tradesman’).
The words and tune are printed in Bob’s book A Song for Every Season.
There was a thread on the fRoots forum a few weeks back in which board members suggested songs which, when you hear them being sung by a floor singer at a folk club, make your heart sink. I wrote at the time that, in most cases, the songs themselves were relatively blameless, but suffered from the rather lacklustre way in which they were often performed.
In any case, there were several songs on the fRoots blacklist which will appear here in due course, this being the first (I won’t count ‘The Wild Rover’ as the version I sing is so different from the normal one we all know and… er… )
An Oxfordshire version of a well-known song – well-known in the folk revival, but also widely sung in oral tradition.
Although this was not included on the first Magpie Lane CD, it was certainly in our repertoire when we played our first concerts in May 1993, and was included on our second album, Speed the Plough. In those days we followed the song with the dance tune ‘Speed the Plough’, aka ”The National Anthem of English Country Dance Music”. But we’re a band that likes to move with the times, so in more recent years we’ve taken to playing – as on this this live recording – ‘New Speed the Plough’, from Vic Gammon’s A Sussex Tune Book (N.B. the word “New” in this context is relative – the tune comes from the Welch family MS, dated 1800).
We learned the song from the Oxfordshire section of Lucy Broadwood’s English County Songs. There are four songs in that section, and the source for all of them is given as Mr R. Bennell. It’s not made clear whether Mr Bennell was simply responsible for communicating the songs to Miss Broadwood, or if she collected them directly from his singing . Fortunately Broadwood researcher Irene Shettle has provided the answer – Mr Bennell wrote out the words and tunes and sent them to the collector in a series of letters in November 1891.
Mr Bennell was a professional cornet player, then living in Richmond. The pieces he sent to Broadwood were songs which he remembered from his younger days, having been brought up at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. Of this song he wrote
I have written the tune of (It was early etc) as I have always heard it sung round about Nettlebed in Oxfordshire where I was brought up. I have herd strangers sing it to the air of Villikins and his Dinah, which melody you are no doubt acquainted with.
I have also written two more, one I may call the Nettlebed Cricket Song as I have never heard a word of the song or a bar of the melody sung in any of my travels. Neither of the songs I have dotted down have the peculiar quaintness and minor tendency of most of our most rural district songs but I could commit several to paper, but the words I could not easily obtain now I am away. I have written the two first and the two last verses of the Leathern Bottle. I can remember no more. There are various difficulties in the way as regards the words of songs; our ancestors in their simplicity were rather coarse even in their sentimental ditties. This for one thing gives rise to a difficulty where as regards the tune there would be none. In answer to your enquiry as to my profession I beg to state that I am a musician and play the cornet for a living in all lines of the business theatrical or otherwise. I object to publicity regarding myself unless consulted. Any remuneration for my little efforts would be thankfully received to cover postage etc. If these songs should give you any satisfaction or be of any help to you in your labours I will furnish you with another or two
In English County Songs Lucy Broadwood gives the Nettlebed tune for this song (under the title ‘Twas Early One Morning’), but prints a set of words “from a gardener’s boy in Berkshire”.
All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough / New Speed the Plough
Andy Turner: vocal, one-row melodeon
Ian Giles: vocal, percussion
Mat Green: fiddle
Sophie Thurman: cello
Jon Fletcher: guitar
recorded direct from the mixing desk, Banbury Folk Festival, 14th October 2007
The Lark in the Morning - from the Bodleian Library collection
Here’s the opening track from the new Magpie Lane CD, The Robber Bird. I learned this from Roy Palmer’s excellent book Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (now republished as Bushes and Briars). Vaughan Williams noted down the tune and first verse on the 24th April 1904, from Mrs Harriet Verrall, of Monk’s Gate, Horsham in Sussex; Roy added further verses from a printed broadside. The song itself is a celebration of ploughboys’ sexual prowess – it is taken as read that they worked hard, but here it is made clear that they also knew how to have a good time, and were fecund to boot. We top and tail our arrangement with ‘The Muffin Man’, a dance tune from the manuscript tune book of William Mittell, dated 1799, from New Romney in Kent. I learned this from the ABC notation file transcribed by George Frampton, and made available by the Village Music Project.
The Robber Bird is not currently available even in the very best record shops. But you can order it online from www.magpielane.co.uk
Or of course you could buy a copy at one of our gigs. We will be celebrating the 108th anniversary of the collection of this song in Reading on Tuesday, at the Museum of English Rural Life, with the wonderful Hilary James and Simon Mayor.
Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Mat Green: fiddle, vocal
Sophie Thurman: cello, vocal
Jon Fletcher: bouzouki, vocal
Ian Giles: drum, vocal
The title track from the 1963 Topic LP The Roving Journeymen featuring members of the Willett family. On the LP it is sung in slightly different versions by both 84 year old Tom, and his son Chris. Tom’s version was included on volume 20 of The Voice of the People where it is titled ‘The Roaming Journeyman’ – quite rightly, since that’s what both father and son actually sang. What I sing is a bit of an amalgam of the two versions – influenced very largely, I suspect, by the words printed in Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain & Ireland.
I’m always surprised that the Willetts’ songs are not more widely sung on the folk scene. But John Kirkpatrick has recorded this song, and ‘Riding Down to Portsmouth’; while there’s a striking arrangement of ‘The Roving Journeyman’ on the recent CD by the Woodbine & Ivy Band – sung with great gusto by James Raynard (at the time of writing, if you follow that last link, you can in fact listen to the track).