Most of the songs that I’ve posted on this blog I could sing more or less at the drop of a hat. With others I would need a bit of time to mug up on the words and/or accompaniment. And although I do sometimes sing with the words in front of me – particularly when recording a song where I’ve only just worked out the concertina arrangement – that’s purely a practical measure to avoid mistakes, and having to do multiple takes, in a week when the time I have available for recording might be in short supply. So far there has been only one song posted here where I have never known the words – and that was a bit of an exception, as I’d been unaware of the song’s existence until a few days before recording it.
This week, however, I’ve recorded a song the words of which I’ve never made any attempt to learn and, in all probability never will. But it’s appropriate for the season, might entertain a few listeners, and if I don’t record it there’s a pretty good chance that no one else will!
I came across the song on the Bodleian Broadside Ballads website, when looking for possible additions to the Magpie Lane Christmas repertoire, and provided the words with a tune (I briefly entertained the idea that it might be a suitable song for Ian to sing, somewhat in the style of ‘Stuff Your Guts’).
According to Broadside Ballads Online, the song was printed by T. Birt, wholesale and retail, of 10 Great St. Andrew-Street, Seven Dials, London, between 1828 and 1829. It describes the various tradespeople who were (or thought themselves) entitled to receive a “Christmas Box”, and the various other ways in which they would entertain themselves once they had benefited from their customers’ largesse (chiefly in eating and drinking – nothing changes!).
Interestingly, there’s another ballad in the Bodleian’s collection, ‘Boxing Day in 1847’, which mourns the decline in Christmas boxing customs over the intervening twenty odd years.
Verse 5 of ‘Boxing Day’ has Dick setting off “to see George Barnwell at the Surrey”.
This refers to The London Merchant (Or The History Of George Barnwell) written by playwright George Lillo and first produced in 1731. This was Lillo’s greatest hit and still popular a century after the play first opened – it features in Great Expectations in a way which clearly suggests that Dickens expected his readers to be familiar with the play and its plot.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature (accessed via www.oxfordreference.com) describes the play thus:
A prose tragedy by George Lillo, produced 1731, based on a popular ballad. A young apprentice, Barnwell, is seduced by the heartless Sarah Millwood, who encourages him to rob his employer and murder his uncle. For this crime both are executed, he penitent and she defiant. The play was frequently performed as a moral warning to apprentices. It was admired by Alexander Pope, though Oliver Goldsmith mocked it as a ‘Tradesman’s Tragedy’ for its commercial focus. The play had a European impact and was commended and imitated by G. E. Lessing and Diderot.
The University of Cambridge Staging Crime site has this to add:
The story of George Barnwell, who robbed and killed his uncle to fund his relationship with a prostitute, was one of the most popular of the nineteenth century, though when Barnwell lived is difficult to say. His tale is first recorded as a ballad in the 1650s, and in 1731 was turned into a play, The London Merchant; it was staged almost 100 times in its first ten years and was printed in as many editions by the end of the century. At about the time this edition was printed, the essayist Charles Lamb drew attention to the strong moral tone of the story, calling it “a nauseous sermon”.