I first heard this on the 1974 Shirley Collins LP of the same name. Then a little later I heard it sung by John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris on Among the Many Attractions at the Show Will Be a Really High Class Band. I learned this version in the early 1980s from Caroline Jackson-Houlston; it was part of our repertoire in the harmony duo Flash Company.
The song comes from Sabine Baring-Gould’s Folk Songs of the West Country, where it says it was “Taken down from William Friend, 1889”. Elsewhere Baring-Gould claimed to have found the song “repeatedly” in the West Country, and you can see his collected versions on the EFDSS Full English site, along with versions taken down by Sharp, Gardiner, Hammond and Lucy Broadwood – all in the West Country. But that might just reflect the geographical bias of the collectors – Norfolk’s Harry Cox had the song in his repertoire, and it has also been collected in Bedfordshire, Scotland and North America.
I’d never looked into the song’s background before starting this blog post, but I was sure there would be umpteen broadside versions – the song very much has the air of one that originated with the broadside press. However the notes to the EFDSS publication Still Growing state “No known broadside versions”, and a decade on from that book’s publication I can’t find any online. However Baring-Gould’s English Minstrelsie (1896) contains an eighteenth century printed version – here are some extracts from the book’s song notes:
A song from “Vocal Music, or, The Songster’s Companion,” circ. 1778, vol. iv. This begins-
“Ye frolicsome sparks of the game,
Ye misers both wretched and old,
Come listen to Billy, my name,
Who once had his hat full of gold.”
The chorus to this is —
“Then why should we quarrel for riches,
Or any such glittering toys ?
A light heart and a thin pair of breeches,
Go through the world, brave boys ! “
But this chorus belongs to a much earlier song that is in “Perseus and Andromeda” which was acted at Drury Lane in 1728.
There is a song I have come upon repeatedly, for the last ten years, as a folk-ballad in the West of England, that goes over the same ground as the song in “Vocal Music,” but has more verses, and the chorus, “Adieu to Old England, adieu,” in place of that from “Perseus and Andromeda,”
In ” Vocal Music ” the chorus to ” Ye frolicksome sparks,” is a mere repetition of the last two lines of each verse. I have therefore adopted the chorus of the folk-song as now sung. The folk-chorus, “Adieu to Old England, adieu,” will perhaps be more acceptable than that which insists on a “Thin pair of breeches,” and the folk-melody of the chorus is also good, and better than a mere repetition.
Proving, if nothing else, that it wasn’t just songs from the oral tradition which the good Reverend felt compelled to mess around with when publishing them!
The song’s lyrics do not make clear why the narrator is bidding farewell to his native land. Has he committed a crime, and now awaits transportation? Or has, he like the character in Limbo, simply spent all his money on riotous living, and is now fleeing abroad? Answers on a postcard, please.
Adieu to Old England
Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina