This song was recorded in 1954 by Sean O’Boyle and Seamus Ennis from Mrs. Martha Gillen, Co. Antrim. I remember Dave Townsend singing it at the Heritage Folk Club in Oxford, in the early 1980s, and learned it soon afterwards from Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain & Ireland.
It’s originally an American song, recorded by the likes of old-time singer and banjo-player Grandpa Jones – you can hear his version on the Internet Archive. This Mudcat thread cites examples of the song in print going back to the 1870s, as well as an 1885 appearance in the wonderfully-named Marchant’s Gargling Oil Songster. Further details are provided, meanwhile, in The Alabama Folk Lyric edited by Ray Broadus Browne, along with a couple of versions recorded from oral tradition in Alabama.
Mrs Gillen’s version however is, I suspect, the only one to refer to the old saying “A mole in the arm’s worth two in the leg”, which is probably the line which first attracted me to the song.
All the other versions in the Roud Index are from North America – apart from one recorded by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie from Walter Pardon in 1989, and one fragment recorded from an unknown singer by John Howson at The Railway Tavern, Finningham, Suffolk, which you can hear on the British Library website.
I have, I think, always followed the song with a tune which I also learned from Dave Townsend. It was printed, as ‘Sussex Polka’, in his First collection of English country dance tunes. Dave learned it from Vic Gammon, and it would appear to be a slightly misremembered (by Dave and/or me) version of ‘What a Beau My Granny Was’.
The Bald-Headed End of the Broom / What a Beau My Granny Was
Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina