Chapter Nine 1

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 9 – page 2


The Old Ballads and the Singers in the Appalachians


The isolated people of the Southern Appalachian Mountains were a special case. It was here that the poorest English and Scots-Irish immigrants settled in the late 18th century. The Scots-Irish had been in Ireland less than a century — moved from their Scottish homeland into Northern Ireland by the English — when poverty spurred many of them to migrate to North America. The old ballads, many of them from the border country between England and Scotland, travelled into the American mountains with the settlers, to be preserved like precious gems. These beautiful songs lived on in oral tradition long after they had been lost, or changed into urban songs in their home country.

There was little contact by these mountain singers, even into the 20th century, with the popular music of the cities. The “song-catcher” collectors of the 20th century were to find the old songs and marvel at their beauty, at the strange sorrowful sound of the old modal tunes, and at the simple way in which they were sung. Sadly, though, the supernatural beings within these old ballads often failed to make the crossing of the Atlantic. They are sometimes there in disguised form, but usually they became mere mortals, some good, some evil. It is no surprise that Billy Barlow in his 19th-century form does not seem to be found in the more isolated parts of America. He was a city-dweller, and he arrived too late. His possible ancestor, the Billy Blin, who is known to have frequented the Border Country, may be lurking in the mountains somewhere, but if he is, he remains elusive.


Sam Cowell and Billy Barlow


Sam Cowell was born in London England, into a family of actors, on April 5th, 1820. At the age of two he was taken to America, where he lived until he was twenty. From his earliest days he learned the songs of the black slaves, imitating their style and accent.

Hey get along, get along Josey;
Hey get along, Jim along Joe.

From Jim Along Josey. American Traditional.

He claimed to have written Sandy Holler, a version of Old Zip Coon, but it’s more likely that he adapted it, as he did with so many of the songs that became “his”. The English, Scottish, and Anglo-American songs of his family and friends also influenced him, along with their acting. At the age of nine the young performer appeared with his actor father, Joe Cowell, at a Boston theatre. This happened in spite of his father’s reluctance to allow any of his children onto the stage. Joe Cowell had, “….long experience of the consequences in afterlife of forcing precocious talent”.

While Joe Cowell was playing the theatres of Boston, his long-time friend and fellow-actor Junius Brutus Booth was visiting the Cowell home. Booth was being entertained by the Cowell children and he accidentally discovered that the young Sam was word-perfect in the part of Crack in the play, The Turnpike Gate, which his father was acting at the time. He was able to sing all the songs and play the part in an exact imitation of his father. It was found that Sam had also memorised most of his father’s other stock characters. At Booth’s insistence, Sam was allowed to begin his acting career, performing at irregular intervals as he desired. Sam’s strong presence on stage was apparent from the start, and his voice was to later get him a place in The London Opera Company. By the time he was twenty he was a veteran of the American stage, performing in both comic and tragic roles, and also becoming known as a singer. He was referred to as “The American Roscius”.

In 1840, when he was twenty, Cowell sailed for the British Isles. He appeared on stage at the Edinburgh Adelphi, a theater owned and managed by his uncle. From the start, he upstaged all of the other actors in any play in which he had a part, including on one occasion Grimaldi’s student, the clown Tom Matthews. Cowell met his future wife, Emilie, in Edinburgh and married her in 1842, the same year that the polka was first danced in Scotland.

Cowell went on to become a successful opera-singer and actor in London, but changed direction again in the mid-1840s to return to his first passion — singing comic songs in character in his own one-man act. This seems to be what he was born to do. Through the early days of British music-hall, and on until his death, Sam Cowell was the highest-paid performer in the British Isles.

He came to be remembered for his characterization of the little battler called Billy Barlow, who appeared dressed in patched trousers and a ragged overcoat tied with rope. It doesn’t seem to be noted anywhere just when Cowell played Billy for the first time. Cowell’s last appearances in America before going to Edinburgh were at the Theatre St Charles in New Orleans. Part of his childhood had been spent in this city.

The forgotten Mr. Wills and the almost-forgotten John (Jack) Reeve were playing Billy Barlow in the theatres of Eastern America in 1836. Did the young Sam Cowell see Billy Barlow as performed by Mr. Wills? By Jack Reeve? Did Sam’s father ever perform as Billy Barlow? At any rate, it’s quite likely that Sam saw Billy Barlow many times. Did he work up his own version of Billy before he left America?

Sam Cowell wrote, adapted, borrowed, and appropriated hundreds of parodies based on well-known songs and folktales of the past, and city-born songs of his time. His songs were delivered in a highly dramatic style, with parts spoken and other parts sung. He also specialized in comic and dramatic Shakespearean scenes, and excerpts from topical melodrama.








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


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