Chapter Eight 1

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 8 – page 2


Some of the British Singers of Billy Barlow Songs


Many British singers and actors at least at some time in their careers sang Billy Barlow’s songs. Many of them performed in character as Billy. John Reeve, and the little that is known about Mr. Wills, have been discussed in Chapter three. Some of the others known to have sung Billy’s songs were:
John Sims Reeves

There was the famous tenor John Sims Reeves, who was classically trained in Paris and Milan and was at one time professor of singing at the Guildhall School of Music. He was known to have sung Billy Barlow and other popular songs in the theatres and music halls. Come into the Garden Maud was his specialty.

Come into the garden, Maud
For the black bat, Night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.

Come Into the Garden Maud by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Music by J D C Parker.

Did he really dress up as Billy Barlow, this serious singer of serious songs who was to become known as Britain’s Premier Tenor? Probably not, there are no pictures of him as Billy, but he did sing Billy Barlow. Reeves toured extensively all his life, and performed on tour in South Africa, in 1860, when he was seventy-eight.


W G Ross


Other singers of popular song included Billy Barlow in their repertoires. One was W G Ross, who was better known for his wild eye-rolling performances of Sam Hall, the grim story-song of a chimney-sweep condemned to the gallows.

Then I ‘it ‘im on the head
With a damned great lump of lead
And I left ‘im there for dead
Damn his eyes.

From Sam Hall as sung by W G Ross

Ross came to the theatre from a worker’s background. He terrified audiences at the Coal Hole for years with Sam Hall. Straddling a backwards-facing chair, he would lean on the chair-back and fix his gaze on his victims, his sad grimy face, under its workman’s cap, frightening to behold. There was always stunned silence as he told his wholly believable tale.

“On 10 March 1848 Percival Leigh noted the following account of an evening’s entertainment in an early Music Hall: ‘After that, to supper at the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane, where in was much Company, great and small, and did call for Kidneys and Stout, then a small glass of Aqua-vitae and water, and thereto a Cigar. While we supped, the Singers did entertain us with Glees and comical Ditties; but oh, to hear with how little wit the young sparks about town were tickled! But the thing that did most take me was to see and hear one Ross sing the song of Sam Hall the chimney-sweep, going to be hanged: for he had begrimed his muzzle to look unshaven, and in rusty black clothes, with a battered old Hat on his crown and a short Pipe in his mouth, did sit upon the platform, leaning over the back of a chair: so making believe that he was on his way to Tyburn. And then he did sing to a dismal Psalm-tune, how that his name was Sam Hall and that he had been a great Thief, and was now about to pay for all with his life; and thereupon he swore an Oath, which did make me somewhat shiver, though divers laughed at it. Then, in so many verses, how his Master had badly taught him and now he must hang for it: how he should ride up Holborn Hill in a Cart, and the Sheriffs would come and preach to him, and after them would come the Hangman; and at the end of each verse he did repeat his Oath. Last of all, how that he should go up to the Gallows; and desired the Prayers of his Audience, and ended by cursing them all round. Methinks it had been a Sermon to a Rogue to hear him, and I wish it may have done good to some of the Company. Yet was his cursing very horrible, albeit to not a few it seemed a high Joke; but I do doubt that they understood the song.’ “

From The Voice of the People – Song Notes








A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)


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