Chapter Eleven 1

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 11 – page 2


Sam Cowell’s Amercan Tour


Sam Cowell, his wife Emilie, and their daughter Sidney, set out for a tour of America in 1860. Many English performers toured successfully there, but the timing of this tour was not to be good. For Cowell it was a home-coming, and no amount of persuasion, with the lure of top pay and conditions in London, could change his mind. Emilie Cowell kept a diary of the tour, and it is a wonderful glimpse of America, both North and South, in the year before the commencement of the Civil War and of the first months of the conflict.

Often when the Cowells arrived in a town, and especially when Sam was to sing in one of the big cities, a newspaper advertisement would appear in the local paper. It would be an invitation to the good citizens of the place to attend a series of lectures by the famous “William Barlow esq.” Before his shows, Cowell made a point of meeting the important and best-known members of the community, so that Billy Barlow could include references to them in his songs. He also quickly studied up on local topical events for the same reason. George Coppin used all of these same ideas.

Emilie mentions Billy Barlow only occasionally. She had learned to accept him along with her husband’s other low-comedy characters, but she probably never actually liked him very much. For one thing, Billy and his like took “her boy” out of the theatres and into the drinking establishments, where alcohol flowed freely, along with the music. Her generous and gregarious man could not resist either.

Cowell was never aggressive; he was sweet and gentle in his manner, but he could be loud and boisterous, if amiable, when he was in his cups. Emilie never faltered in her support of, and absolute faith in, the genius who was her man. She would have preferred him to stay with the legitimate theatre, but she was there for him in the lowest of establishments in America, where the tobacco-juice spittle from the floor stained the hems of her home-made crinolines.

The whole American tour was a round of pawning family watches and jewellery to pay the debts, collecting pay — usually far less than promised –, redeeming pawned possessions, and moving on to start over in another town. There was always some other big function going on that kept large numbers of Cowell’s potential audience away. An annual Firemen’s Ball, or a flower show, and, by the end of the tour, marches and balls held to farewell the soldiers leaving for the battlefields of the Civil War. It was said, however, that at that particular time in America, Sam Cowell was the only entertainer who could be guaranteed an audience at all. In the big cities the audiences still numbered in the hundreds, and the Cowells’ lack of income there was more due to swindling by some of the tour-managers. Also, Sam was always very generous with money when he did have any.

If the tour was a disaster financially, it had other benefits. Everywhere he went, Cowell was admired, even adored. Americans loved his Billy Barlow especially, and insisted on Billy being part of every show.

In New York, Billy shared the stage with Blondin the tight-rope walker, remembered for his balancing acts on a rope stretched terrifyingly high over Niagara Falls. Blondin re-enacted his walks on stage, with a painted backdrop of the Falls behind him. Emilie doesn’t give us the whole Billy Barlow song sung that night, but she notes that the ” ‘Billy Barlow’ verses were received ‘with roars’.” She gives us four lines that refer to Sam’s father, Joe Cowell.

And since I’ve come back I’m happy to add,
You’ve been kind to the man as you were to the lad,
And across the Atlantic the news it shall go
How you’ve welcomed the efforts of Billy Barlow.
Oh, dear ; Raggedy oh!
’twill cheer up the heart of the veteran, old Joe.


Blondin and His Ducks

Blondin’s stage act must have been hard to follow, even though it was tame compared to the feats he performed over the actual Niagara Falls. A woodcut from a Paris newspaper shows how it was presented on stage. The backdrop is a painted scene of the falls and the surrounding forest of pines. At the bottom, where the water falls away over a precipice, you can just make out a little group of splashing ducks.


Towards the front of the stage, a dancing girl in high-heeled sandals demurely kicks up her skirts to reveal full frilly petticoats. She wears a bodice buttoned to the neck and a long-sleeved peasant blouse. On either side of her are two groups of similarly dressed dancers. They all seem completely unaware of the drama being enacted above and slightly behind their heads. There, above the head of the lone dancer, is Blondin, balanced on a thin tightrope, wearing only soft shoes and a skimpy pair of acrobat’s shorts. Each hand holds a flag high in the air. Miraculously, each flag is blowing in a different direction. Perhaps he is waving them. Ten flying water-birds are about to drop a halo-wreath over his head. The wreath is much too big and will surely fall down around his ankles, throwing him off-balance and sending him into the arms of the dancing-girls. Then, to my mind the most wonderful touch of all, there are six little ducks walking along the rope with Blondin. Three are following duck-like behind him, and three face him, approaching from the opposite direction. The leader of the contrary ducks is standing rampant, his wings waving. Who will give in and turn around? Blondin and his three followers or the maverick troop?


Billy Barlow and the Fire

It was also in New York that a terrible catastrophe occurred. The grand theatre, Canterbury Hall, where Cowell was performing, burned down. It happened in the early hours of the morning, so that it was empty of people, and nobody was hurt. The Cowell family were sleeping next door, and by a miracle their hotel escaped damage. The real tragedy was that all of Sam’s costumes and music and most of the studio photographs that he had had taken during the tour were lost. The tour was almost over, and these photographs were never to be replaced.

Also lost to the flames was his Billy Barlow costume.

Emilie put it this way:
“All Sam’s music and cloths (clothes) at the Hall are burned. — ‘Billy Barlow’s’ was priceless to him. All his beautiful pictures except three, are also burned….”

Originals of these three photographs are preserved today at the University of Texas. One is Sam as Lord Lovell, another as The Railway Porter and the other is Sam as Billy Barlow. It should be noted that it was from Texas that the Billy Barlow song, Let’s go a-hunting, and also the song, Lord Lovell were collected in the 20th century. The Railway Porter would have had less relevance in America, and is mainly known today – if it’s remembered at all – in its Scottish form, rewritten with Cowell’s permission by the comic singer Arthur Lloyd.

Cowell’s audiences refused to let Billy Barlow die, and a few nights later, Billy and Sam’s other characters were back on stage, their outfits now makeshift costumes borrowed from friends and improvised by Emilie, their makeup drawn on with India ink and pencil from daughter Sidney’s drawing equipment. Emilie wrote out the music for the accompaniment of all of Sam’s songs, and the shows went on. The tour lasted another three months, so, presumably, new outfits were acquired somehow.





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

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