Chapter Seven 6

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 7 – page 7


The Song ~ The Blue Tail’d Fly


My father, the descendant of a Cornish miller-farmer, taught me the song in 1949. He was a singer of 19th-century songs, and a man who never said anything that he wasn’t absolutely sure of. He told me that Jimmy was the olden-days name for the Crow, and that the chorus was about Jimmy (or Jim) the Crow cracking and eating the corn. He said that the word corn is an old word for any grain. Parrots cracking-open seeds in wattle trees are a familiar sight in Australia even for a city kid, far from the ancestral farm. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what the chorus of this song was about, but these days there is much conjecture about the phrase, “Jimmy crack corn”.


It happened that my father was born in the same part of Victoria where Robert “Billy” Barlow first settled. Our family had been there from the 1850s — roughly as long as him. In fact my great-great grandfather drove Cobb and Co coaches there, at the time of Barlow’s many coach-trips to venues in the area. His name, coincidentally, was also Robert. Did they meet? Were they friends? Robert Hook and Robert “Billy” Barlow.

The version of The Blue Tail’d Fly that I learned in 1948 was made popular by Burl Ives, and was from an American collection. His recording of it, in the 1930s, obliterated, from most minds, all other variants that were still extant in the English-speaking world. My father was a builder of radios, and there was always one going in his workshop. Although most of the songs we sang together in the evenings were from a pre-radio past, The Blue Tail’d Fly had been recently revived, and it would not have been surprising if Dad had updated his version of it.

There is a song collected in Australia, by song-collector Rob Willis — The Bloke from Forbes — that is to the tune of Early in the Morning. It shares verses with The Blue Tail’d Fly. The singers — Anina Brice, Maysie Tucker, and Gwen Negus — call the song Early in the Morning. The tunes of both songs are polkas and are very similar. Both have come to be thought of as children’s songs, and both would have been used as dance tunes. The ladies have a repertoire of songs, learned from their grandparents, that predates the recordings of Burl Ives.

Early in the morning
Early in the morning
Early in the Morning
About the break of day.

In America, a song which seems to be on a parallel path with The Blue Tail’d Fly, uses the chorus and the tune of that song but is about birds in the cornfield. The last line of the chorus is phrased slightly differently, accentuating the polka rhythm. It begins with a verse well-appreciated by a Lark married to an Owl:

Big old owl with eyes so bright
On many a dark and starry night
Often heard my True-love say,
Sing all night and sleep all day.

Jimmy crack corn — I don’t care!
Jimmy crack corn — I don’t care!
Jimmy crack corn — I don’t care
Master’s gone away.

Said the corn-crake to the crow
Down to the cornfield let us go
For the corn has been our trade
Ever since Adam and Eve was made.

Said the sheldrick to the crane,
When do you think we’ll get some rain?
The creek’s so muddy and the farm’s so dry
If it wasn’t for the tadpoles we’d all die

(It finishes with the first verse of the more familiar song)

When I was young I used to wait
Upon the master and bring the plate
Pass him the bottle when he got dry
And brush away the blue-tail fly

From the singing of Peggy and Mike Seeger


I can’t help mentioning that collector Vance Randolph found a rather naughty version of this song in the Ozarks. It suggests, in earthy language, a more active pursuit for the owl’s night-life.

The many early references to the song The Blue Tail’d Fly would seem to indicate that this popular song, in many forms, with many different sets of words, had wide currency in the British Isles, America, and Australia during the 19th-century.








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


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