Week 125 – Old Brown’s Daughter

A song from my favourite traditional singer, Walter Pardon, and one which I’ve been neglecting for far too long.

At the Traditional Song Forum Broadside Day at Cecil Sharp House a couple of years ago I was surprised to find that this song (albeit with a completely different tune) is very popular in Newfoundland – indeed is regarded by many Newfies as a local composition. In fact it is a British music hall song written by the George W. Hunt (1839-1904) and sung on the halls by Alfred ‘The Great’ Vance;  this Mudcat thread throws a lot of light on the song’s origins.

Vance's New Song Of Old Brown's Daughter - from the EFDSS Full English archive

Vance’s New Song Of Old Brown’s Daughter – from the EFDSS Full English archive

I remember the suggestion being made that it might be possible to date the song by the use of the word “galvanised” in the third verse, but actually I think that’s a red herring. Luigi Galvani was conducting his experiments in the second half of the eighteenth century, and it was in 1771 that he discovered that the muscles of dead frogs could be made to twitch by applying a spark of electrical current. The OED has the word ‘galvanized’ being used in this literal sense as early as 1802 (“The heat is likewise increased in the part which is galvanised.”) and 1820 (“The lungs of the galvanized rabbit had some blotches on their surface”) – both examples from The Medical and Physical Journal; I also rather like Sydney Smith’s “Galvanise a frog, don’t galvanise a tiger”  from 1825.

As for the metaphorical use of the word, the earliest known use seems to be from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, from 1853 “Her approach always galvanized him to new and spasmodic life”.

The song is almost certainly later than that. Based on the last line – “By jingo next election I will put up as MP” – I’d always thought that it probably dated from the time of the 1884 Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote for the first time to (some of) the rural working class. But I was forgetting that, although Walter Pardon was a rural singer, this song is almost certainly from a more urban milieu. So a better bet would seem to be the Representation of the People Act of 1867. That gave the vote to some urban / industrial working men for the first time, and changes which followed in its wake made it (theoretically) possible for working men to enter Parliament. The first two working class MPs, Thomas Burt and Alexander MacDonald, both miners’ leaders, were elected (for Morpeth and Stafford respectively) in 1874.

In fact, evidence is given on that Mudcat thread mentioned above, that this song predates working men actually being sent to Parliament – there’s a reference to it in Vance’s Last Great Hits in Era Magazine, Sunday December 4th 1870. So at that stage, I suppose, the idea of a working chap becoming an MP was not an impossibility, but still something so unlikely as to be faintly preposterous. That’s the sense I get from the last verse of the song, in any case.

Walter Pardon learned the song – and it’s worth noting that the tune is different not only from the Newfoundland version, but also from that on the printed sheet music – from his uncle, Billy Gee “who, in his turn, learned it from a local man at one of the regular singing sessions following an Agricultural Workers Union meeting in North Walsham, Norfolk some time around the end of the 19th century” (thanks to Jim Carroll, for that, via Mudcat). It was included on – indeed it provided the title for – Walter’s first LP, A Proper Sort. Both that, and his other record on Leader, Our Side of the Baulk, have of course been unavailable for many years. Most of the songs on them have been made available through other collectors’ recordings on CDs on Topic and Rod Stradling’s Musical Traditions label. But ‘Old Brown’s Daughter’ never seems to have made it onto CD. Perhaps Bill Leader and Peter Bellamy were the only people to have recorded Walter singing it.

Old Brown's Daughter - sheet music from the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music

Old Brown’s Daughter – sheet music from the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music

Old Brown’s Daughter

2 Comments to “Week 125 – Old Brown’s Daughter”

  1. Not the only people: http://www.vwml.org/record/RoudFS/S247094 refers to a recording made by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie at a club in London on April 16, 1977.

  2. Thanks for that. And now I’ve had a proper look, I can see that a couple of recordings of the song, made by Bill Leader, are available on the British Library website:
    http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Reg-Hall-Archive/025M-C0903X0061XX-0200V0
    http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Reg-Hall-Archive/025M-C0903X0128XX-0200V0

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