Learned from the Silly Sisters LP, which I really liked in 1976, and which I still think is an excellent album – not dated at all – forty years on.
It seems that Anne Briggs was responsible for popularising this song – it was on the classic sixties album The Iron Muse, where A.L. Lloyd noted
It seems to have originated in the linen-mills of Northern Ireland but has since spread to textile workers elsewhere. The form easily allows for improvised words and many local verses are attached to the tune. A “doffer” is a worker who takes the full bobbins off the spinning machines.
Martin Carthy expands on this
“doffers” were the women who took the finished cloth from off the machines for the next stage in its production. It was work that was largely done bent double, which explains the line “she hangs her coat on the highest pin.” The Doffing Mistress was the supervisor, and, in consequence, never did the job itself. The upshot of this was that she could stand up straight, something which doffers, bent double as they were all their working lives, found difficult to do.
(Thanks to Reinhard Zierke’s Mainly Norfolk site for these quotations)
My recording of the song features a two-row melodeon accompaniment, which is not something you’ll get from me very often. Were he still around, Samuel Johnson might have compared it to a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G melodeon