Chapter Nine 5


Hey Ho Raggedy-O

 

Chapter 9 – page 6

 

Among the many English versions of wren-hunting songs that seem to derive from The Cutty Wren, there is one that uses the names Robin and Bobbin, and another that has Dandrum Dart. Could these be variants that form the bridges from the British Isles to America?

How did Billy Barlow get into an American parody of an old Scottish song? Well, there are some tantalizing stories surrounding Billy Barlow the rat-hunter. In the 1840s Sam Cowell was singing the enormously popular, previously mentioned, Rat-Catcher’s Daughter. When he toured America in the early 1860s he sang it there. This song was just as big a hit in America as it was in Britain. It was published in Boston by Oliver Ditson. On the front cover of Ditson’s music-booklet is a lithograph by a young apprentice by the name of Winslow Homer. It depicts Sam Cowell, as a rat-catcher, dressed in a ragged outfit. There is no date on the sheet-music, but Winslow Homer began his career as an artist working for a lithographic company in 1855. He left Boston in 1859 and subsequently marched out of New York with the Northern troops during the Civil War, armed with his paints and canvases, to record the scenes of camp-life and battle.

Is there a connection between the song about a rat catcher, sung by raggedy-dressed Cowell, and Let’s Go A-Huntin’? Did Cowell write the song as a parody on The Cutty Wren? Let’s Go A-Huntin‘ is not listed by that title in his repertoire, but it could have been just another one of his many Billy Barlow songs. Let’s Go A-Huntin‘ has not turned up in print before Alan Lomax’s publication of it, but so many composed songs of the 19th century have been lost, or buried in private collections, that this is not unusual.

The tune used for Let’s Go A-Huntin’/Billy Barlow may provide another clue, or it may lead into another dead end. Interestingly this tune, in a simplified form, is the first part of the Scottish song, The Campbells are Coming. This rallying song of Clan Campbell dates from 1715. The Campbells migrated to Pennsylvania in the early part of the 19th century, bringing with them their song, by now translated from Gaelic into English.

By the time Sam Cowell’s songs, and with them his Billy Barlow songs, were being sung in the cities of the Northern Seaboard, Clan Campbell was well established not too far away.

Place together in the melting-pot that was Northeast America in the 19th century: a raggedy rat-catcher; another raggedy character called Billy Barlow, who may have had Scottish ancestors; an old comic hunting-song in its Scottish form; and a good Scottish tune. Mix well, and maybe you get an interesting new song.

The supernatural element has quite gone from Let’s Go A-Huntin’. Billy and his friends are rural Americans who could be from New England, where tall-tales abound, or from the wild mountain settlements of the South.

Hildebrand

Whatever its origins, it is the only Billy Barlow song that is firmly rooted in rural America. This isn’t to say that it might not have been originally composed for the stage. Its form is even more clever than Herd’s Cutty Wren. It has kept the old alliteration in the first two lines of each verse, and added the alliterative name, Billy Barlow, in the fourth line. The verses are now composed of two rhyming couplets.

Of all the Billy Barlow songs, and whatever its origins, this is the one that appears to have escaped most successfully from the formal area of the stage — if in fact it was ever there — to dwell in oral tradition.

In the 1960s, when folk music briefly became part of popular culture, Let’s Go A-Huntin’ — always called, by now, Billy Barlow — was part of many a folk-singer’s repertoire. By this time, the Lomaxes had collected another quite different song using the title Let’s Go Huntin’, and this may have necessitated the name change.

Hildebrand, singer of traditional songs around Boston at this time, co-wrote and sang this parody, a 1960s update of a topical Billy Barlow song. Hildebrand was born and raised in the Midwest in a singing family, but he had never come across Billy Barlow during his childhood.

He first heard it in Boston in 1961, sung by Robert L Jones. Risky Rob?.

Billy Barlow the Viper

The teevee got broken, says Risky Rob.
And also it’s raining, says Robin to Bob
What shall we do? says Dan’l to Joe
Let’s turn on! says Billy Barlow.

Where shall we get it? says Risky Rob
Where shall we get it? says Robin to Bob
Where shall we get it? says Dan’l to Joe
Club *** says Billy Barlow.

How shall we smoke it? says Risky Rob
How shall we smoke it? says Robin to Bob
How shall we smoke it? says Dan’l to Joe
We’ll borry a hookah! says Billy Barlow.

I’m gettin’ dizzy, says Risky Rob
I’m walking on jelly, says Robin to Bob
Time’s standing still, says Dan’l to Joe
YOU’RE ALL UNDER ARREST!
Says Billy Barlow.

By Hildebrand and Jeff Gerber, Boston, c. 1962.
*Name of Club deleted.

 

 

end

 

IN THIS SECTION:

 

 

HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:

 

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

 

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