CHAPTER 4: The Little Fat Gentleman
The First of the American Billy Barlow Sheet-Music Booklets – The Forgotten Mr. Wills – The Old Adelphi Theatre and John Reeve, Charles Matthews, Robert Keeley, and Joe Cowell – An Elephant-Actress Acquitted of a Murder Charge – Billy Barlow and Some of His Friends of the 1830s and 1840s.
Who’s that little fat gentleman,
does anyone know?
Yes, says a young lady.
That’s William Barlow!
American Billy Barlow Song-booklets
On the 28th of May 1834, an American song was published with a cover page that read :
This sheet-music comes from J G Osbourn’s Music Saloon in Philadelphia. It is more like modern sheet-music in that it is really a booklet rather than just a single page. There is a drawing of Billy on the cover, showing much more detail than the crude picture published by Deming. Billy is shown wearing one boot and one shoe. He appears round and chubby, bulging out of his waistcoat.
The lithograph is the work of “Lehman & Duval Lithry. ; T. Barincou.” The back cover has advertisements for other J G Osbourne publications.
Some of the verses are the same as those of the Deming song. Some are slightly changed. There are several new, topical verses, and several of the older ones have been omitted. The meter is somewhat changed, so the tune — “Arranged for the PIANO FORTE by P F Fallon” — doesn’t fit all that well.
There is no mention of Billy’s origins, except that he is sure he was born, but where, he can’t tell. He just appears. The travelling-menagerie owner, with his now- undescribed lions, monkeys, and porcupines, tries to buy him as part of the show, but the lions snap at him, the monkeys get jealous, and a hyena growls and looks at him. Billy decides to decline the offer.
A popular minstrel song of the period, Long Tail Blue, is mentioned where the Deming song refers to Jim Crow. Other characters, Dinah Ross and Canker the clown, are there too. Billy doesn’t grow old and never becomes destitute.
Another American song-booklet from this period, with the title Billy Barlow, comes from New York, from the printer George Endicott. It is dated 1836. Endicott was a lithographer whose delicately-drawn and beautifully-coloured pictures survive on many song sheets of the 19th century. The cover shows a quite different Billy from the Deming and the Osbourne ones. He still wears the tattered frock-coat that he wears on the Osbourne cover, but now it is tied with cord and is in a far more ragged state. His hat is low-crowned and narrow-brimmed, with a drooping feather stuck out behind. He still wears one boot and one shoe. There is the interesting effect of a second image of him, a view of his back, further into the picture, as if he is turning away from a mirror. The whole effect appears to us, viewing it one hundred and fifty years later, like a picture of a proud frontiersman in a torn and ragged fringed jacket gazing thoughtfully across an empty plain. To us there is no hint of the fallen city-swell that he is meant to be. Billy is still solidly built, but not “the little fat gentleman”. He is quite handsome, with big dark eyes. The background colour of the picture is a soft pink wash.
The song words show no major changes from the Osbourne copy, but the meter now fits well with the tune used for all but one of the surviving Billy Barlow songs, as indeed it fits with the earlier broadsides. There are fewer verses than before, and no mention, even in passing, of Billy’s origins or early life. The menagerie is mentioned briefly. There are no local or topical references at all except for the naming of Astor’s, where he is refused a bed. Billy doesn’t age, and the song concludes with him hoping to buy a new suit when times aren’t so hard. He is still well-satisfied with his hat, “shocking bad” as it is, because it “sits well on” his head.
The cover of this sheet music reads:
AT THE NEW ORLEANS THEATRES
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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