Week 129 – Jack Williams

Another robber meets a sticky end…

Here’s a very first outing for a song which I’ve only just learned. I discovered it a few years ago on a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, leafing through the bound volumes of Cecil Sharp’s Folk Tunes and Folk Words. I think I first came across the song as noted from Harry Richards of Curry Rivel in Somerset, then sought out a fuller version, which led me to this version, from Mrs Elizabeth Smitherd (or is it Smilhard?) of Tewkesbury.

I am a boatman, noted by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Elizabeth Smitherd, Tewkesbury, 11 Apr 1908. Image copyright EFDSS.

I am a boatman, noted by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Elizabeth Smitherd, Tewkesbury, 11 Apr 1908. Image copyright EFDSS.

I have collated Mrs Smitherd’s words with texts from several sources – broadside printings from the Bodleian’s collection (such as the one shown below), and North American versions including one from Ballads and sea songs from Nova Scotia by William Roy Mackenzie, the words of which are reproduced on this Mudcat thread. A bit further down that same thread, Malcolm Douglas says “The song had reached America by at least 1835, when it appeared in The Forget Me Not Songster, between The Rambling Soldier and Canada I O.” And you can now see that version (in an 1840 printing) online, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

You can find several broadside versions of the song at Ballads Online and in the Full English archive.

Jack Williams, the boatman, from the Bodleian Broadside collection, Printed by J.K. Pollock, North Shields, between 1815 and 1855.

Jack Williams, the boatman, from the Bodleian Broadside collection, Printed by J.K. Pollock, North Shields, between 1815 and 1855.

As for the oral tradition, the Full English site has three versions collected in the early twentieth century by Sharp, one by Alfred Williams and one by George Butterworth, all from Southern England.

Most versions have a happy ending, but I just don’t buy that. No convincing explanation is given as to how Jack Williams manages to break free from prison, just “and then I escaped”. So in my version, I’m afraid, he is left not only complaining about his perfidious lover, but contemplating an unhappy fate.

Jack Williams

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