Chapter Nine 4

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 9 – page 5


This, apparently traditional, song is in itself of some interest to folklorists. Wren-hunting songs appear in many forms, with and without question-and-answer dialogue. It is said to be about the custom of Hunting the Wren on Saint Stephen’s Day — the 26th of December, but it has the feel of a pagan rite with a Christian overlay. Young men caught and killed a wren and bore it, on a stick, around the village. They all wore decorations of green and red, and used a stick hung with greenery to carry their small victim, who was treated with the utmost dignity. As practised now, the custom has local variants, and can be seen, although maybe as a revival, in Suffolk, The Isle of Man, in Northern Ireland, and in the Northeastern United States. The song has been used as a Wassail song and as a protest song. A. L. Lloyd thought it was a sarcastic poaching song, with exaggeration of the size of the prize.

The oldest extant printed version of The Cutty Wren seems to date from 1776, when it was collected and published by David Herd in his book Scots Songs. He gives no title and no explanation. The hunters are Fozie Mozie, Johnie (sic) Foslin’ ene, Brother, and Kin. The wren is given as: the WREN. In this, as in all of the dialogue versions, and to some degree in all versions, the story seems to be a parody of a ritual sacrifice, with exaggeration as part of the joke.

Does the song that Herd collected have connections with a Winter Solstice rite, maybe with John the Red Nose playing the part of Jack Frost? Do the wren-hunting songs belong with songs like The Darby Ram? It’s impossible to hear the Cutty Wren and not feel the magic of ancient archetypal images, regardless of where its origins lie. If Billy Barlow fits somehow with the wren-hunt, and I think he does, his connection seems a fairly straightforward one.

Straightforward, that is, unless Woden’s sacrifice of himself,
on a tree, in pursuit of knowledge, is somehow echoed here.
That would tangle things nicely.

Let’s go hunting, says Risky Rob
Let’s go hunting, says Robin to Bob
Let’s go hunting, says Dan’l to Joe
Let’s go hunting, says Billy Barlow.

What shall we hunt? says Risky Rob
What shall we hunt? says Robin to Bob
What shall we hunt? says Dan’l to Joe
What shall we hunt? says Billy Barlow.

Let’s hunt coons, says Risky Rob.
Possum for me, says Robin to Bob.
Let’s catch rabbits, says Dan’l and Joe
I’m huntin’ rats, says Billy Barlow.

How shall we divide him? says Risky Rob
How shall we divide him? says Robin to Bob
How shall we divide him? says Dan’l to Joe
How shall we divide him? says Billy Barlow.

I’ll take shoulder, says Risky Rob
I’ll take thigh, says Robbin to Bob
I’ll take back, says Dan’l to Joe
Tail-bone mine, says Billy Barlow.

How shall we cook him? says Risky Rob
How shall we cook him? says Robin to Bob
How shall we cook him? says Dan’l to Joe
How shall we cook him? says Billy Barlow.

I’ll fry mine, says Risky Rob
I’ll broil thigh, says Robin to Bob
I’ll take back, says Dan’l to Joe
Tail bone raw! says Billy Barlow.

From The Folk Songs of North America. Alan Lomax, 1960.

In the 1940s song-collector John Lomax found this song, which he named Let’s Go A-Huntin’, in Fort Spunky, Texas. Alan Lomax, son of John, included the song in his collection, The Folk Songs of North America, published in 1960. In his notes about Let’s Go A-Huntin‘ he claims that: “In New York State the wren song was once sung on St Stephen’s Day, but in most American versions a squirrel, a rat, or some other little animal takes its place, and the song becomes a nonsense piece for children.” He gives no explanation of how the song may have migrated to Texas, and no information about how widespread or well-known it was.

The song Let’s Go A-Huntin/Billy Barlow as it is sung today comes from the singing of Alan Lomax, from Peggy Seeger, Pete Seeger, and from many others. The verse about possums, coons, and rabbits is omitted, and several verses about different aspects of the hunt have been included. These added verses reflect back to The Cutty Wren as if there has always been a folk-memory of how the song should go.

How shall we kill him? with the answer from Billy, Borrow a shotgun.
and How shall I haul him? with Billy’s, Go borrow a wagon.








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


NOTE: in order to read the notes please allow pop-ups for this site


This e-book is being made available free of charge but we would welcome a purchase from our shop.