Chapter One 1

Hey Ho Raggedy-O

Chapter 1 – page 2




There is no clown called Billy Barlow among the fools of the English court, although his type is familiar there as the apparently simple-minded innocent who gives good advice — the wise Fool-servant. This type of servant is perhaps the ancestor of the comic English butler who comments on the behavior of his master and advises him. There is no clown using the name Billy Barlow in any of Shakespeare’s plays, either, even though he would fit comfortably there.

Fools are an important part of Folk Drama all over the world. They used to play important roles in everyday life as well as during ritual festivals. The European Fool came into his own in the Middle Ages, where he performed in the great courts. He was often attached to the courts, but sometimes he was a traveling performer. From the courts, the country fairs, and the street shows, the Fool stepped easily onto the stage.

In the British Isles the Fool had an important part in the performance of the Morris dances, mummers’ plays, and sword dances, where sometimes he seems to have played the part of Sacrifice — killed to be instantly reborn. His fellow performers often blacked their faces with soot as a form of disguise..




The various characters of the ritual folk-play skipped in and out of formal theatre well into the 19th century. Maybe their archetypes, if not their names, are there still.

The costume of the British Fool is well known from paintings. He (and rarely she) wore outfits that shared many characteristics with Tricksters, wandering holy men, shamans, and other Fools of different cultures. His clothes were tattered and mismatched. The ragged look was formalised into brightly-coloured patches and odd stockings of different colours. Odd footwear was also seen. The custom of wearing odd-coloured stockings and shoes, or even one boot and one shoe, was common as a fashion in the 15th century for wealthy fops, and it can be seen in some of the paintings of the period. The English Fool may have acquired the look then. His familiar costume seems to be based on fashions of that time.

At least two of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings show men in one boot and one shoe. One is a gryllus — a strange little cricket-man with only a head and legs. The other is a beggar and is clearly not a fashion-conscious fop. Of course in the world that Bosch unveils for us, these two characters are among the more normal types.




Diddle diddle dumpling my son John
Went to bed with his trousers on,
One shoe off and one shoe on.
Diddle diddle dumpling my son John.

Nursery Rhyme. Anon.

There is a description from the American Civil War of General Sherman, as he appeared to his men on top of Pine Mountain, wearing one boot and one shoe.




It would seem that the wearing of one boot and one shoe signifies poverty (with opportunism in the gathering of footwear), eccentricity, or a disordered mind. Billy Barlow may have used all of these ideas, including a reference to the costume of fools, when he chose his footwear. Alternatively it may just be that “one boot and one shoe” rhymes nicely with “how do you do“.

Can the name Billy Barlow be linked to Billy Blin, an earlier supernatural household spirit ? If it can, then a tangled thread just might lead us into the distant past, to a time long before this spirit became domesticated, to the great Woden himself. We can see the remnants of the connecting fibers in old traditional songs. They are there, frayed as they may be, between the great god Woden and semi-supernatural spirits called Billy Blin, Belly Blind, Blind Barlow, or Burlow Beanie.

It’s the nature of the folk-ballad to be vague about the difference between the dead and the living, the Faerie shape-changer and the human. Talking birds, ghosts, and supernatural beings of various types come and go without the need for explanation. There is one thing, though, that never seems to happen to an Otherworld being, and that’s the permanent leap-of-no-return into human society.

It is just possible that Billy Barlow did make that leap, quietly and unnoticed. What seems certain, whether he sprang up new-born in the early part of the 19th century, or just reinvented himself then, is that he is no longer around in the form of Billy Barlow the raggedy clown. He has vanished like the Billy Blin before him. It may be, though, that before he went he founded a whole dynasty of ragged Tramp and Hobo clowns across the United States. We’ll follow that trail later.






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

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