Chapter Seven 7

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 7 – page 8


The Old Crow-scaring Songs


For centuries British children worked at various tasks around family farms, and often their first job was that of shooing birds away from the crops. The custom was continued there and in America up until the 20th century. There has been some collecting of the songs these little workers sang. Reference is often made to the use of clackers as accompaniment. A connection with Mr. Bones of the minstrel line-up? From collections, we know that many of these songs refer to the fact that “Master” will be cross if he comes home to find his crops eaten.

Eat, birds, eat, and make no waste,
I lie here and make no haste;
If my master chance to come
You must fly and I must run.

In 1616 Ben Johnson wrote a small poem that began: “Buzz quoth the Blue Fly”, which goes on to describe a bee and the fly getting into an ear and a nose. I mention it just to point out that Blue Flies were known, in poetry, for their provocative behaviour.

I can’t help wondering if — a simple crow-scaring song, about a worker and a master, without a story, but with a catchy chorus, from the singing of rural children in the British Isles, somehow found its way out of the folk-community and into the repertoire of singers in London. Barlow, while still developing his act as a blackface minstrel, could have written a song around a familiar chorus using the new “plantation dialect.” In any case, regardless of the author of this song, the chorus may well have it’s roots in a crow-scaring song. A theory. Just speculation.
The earliest printed copies of The Blue Tail’d Fly are dated 1846, well after Barlow began his career as a song-writer and performer.

Aboriginal Billy Barlow

There is a story, told by Bill Thomas, that may relate to Barlow. Mark Thomas has helped with the publishing of his father’s story on-line. Bill’s story is beautifully told, bringing to life one family’s true tales of tears and laughter, of hardship and adventure. It takes in, as well, part of the tragic story of the impact of white settlement on the Aboriginal Australians.

Bill takes us to the wild, remote Atherton Tablelands of Northern Queensland, in the 1880s, with his Grandparents Annie and James Thomas. It was here that they settled soon after arriving in Australia. Along with all of their possessions they brought with them their two little girls, babies still, who travelled in kerosene-can panniers on a mule. The settlement of this area was marked by fear and hostility displayed by both Black and White communities, and by skirmishes and murders. It was a retaliatory attack, carried out by white settlers, that brought Billy Barlow into the Thomas family, after the killing of his mother. James Thomas passed down the story in all its horror, although much later, readers of Billy Barlow’s obituary were to be given a sanitized account.

James brought back home from the raid a tiny Aboriginal baby, safely cocooned in a mia mia. His wife Annie named the boy Billy Barlow, and raised him along with her own children. Billy lived all his life in the White community as part of the Thomas family, and was well-known and liked on the Tableland. When he died over seventy years later it was noted that he was one of the last of his tribe.

Bill’s grandmother did not mention where she got the name Billy Barlow — or if she did, it has been forgotten amid other more interesting stories, but it’s almost certain that Robert “Billy” Barlow, the blackface singer, was known all over Queensland. Whatever her reasons, Annie Thomas could not have bestowed on her adopted son a better name. Billy Barlow in all his manifestations was one of life’s winners. How lucky you are Bill and Mark to have a Billy Barlow in your family.

The Showboat Billy Barlow

Before leaving the Australian story of Billy Barlow there is a little showboat that deserves a mention. The SS Billy Barlow was one of two paddle-steamers built at the Davis family shipyard at Nambucca Heads, New South Wales. Edward Davis established the company here on the beautiful bay in the Nambucca Valley in 1880. This bay is well-placed to serve the towns dotted up and down the whole long Northeast Coast from Sydney to the towns of Far-North Queensland. The Davis family ran three sailing-ships and two paddle-steamers up and down this coast, carrying passengers, and supplies of everything from food and wool to coal and timber. Other ships of theirs were used on the coasts of New Zealand, and between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Their two steamers were designed along the lines of the grand Mississippi paddle-steamers, with shallow hulls that rode high in the water, so as to be more able to clear sandbars. One of the Davis steamers was SS Trilby and the other SS Billy Barlow. Trilby was the familiar heroine of the play of the same name, written in 1894.

The paddle-steamers of the Mississippi, as well as transporting goods, were at times floating theatres, and the ring of banjos and the rattle of bones from the minstrel troupes could be heard from the banks of the mighty river.

Ring, ring the banjo! I like that good old song
Come again my true love, oh where you been so long?
Ring Ring the Banjo : Stephen Foster

In time these ships came to be called showboats. Occasionally calliopes — because of the musical steam whistles. They were used to a lesser extent in Australia on the larger rivers, as well as along the shallow coastline of the east coast. I don’t know if the SS Billy Barlow ever carried a minstrel troupe — or if the SS Trilby ever hosted a travelling theatre-company performing melodrama. I’d like to think that sometimes they did.

The Author’s Memories of Minstrels and Showboats

banjo club

My own memories of the great era of the showboats is of playing a banjo-mandolin (not a good substitute for a real banjo, but more affordable at the time) along with a hundred or so other little girls and boys on the river Yarra in Melbourne. We were members of the Victorian Banjo Club, an organization that sold cheap but durable instruments and gave lessons to working-class kids on how to play them. You can still pick a now-ageing former member of the club by the way their right hands can still do a mean tremolo on a mandolin.

We sat in rows on the deck of a beautiful fairy-light-studded showboat. Our outfits were pure white with red trimmings. Ribbons of red, white, and blue fluttered from the tuning pegs of our banjos, and from the girls’ hair. As we chugged downstream, the crowd on the banks, that surely included the ghost of my Dad, clapped and cheered. On that cool clear night in 1955, I think we were the last brave echo of an era already gone, when the songs of the Minstrel Show found their way into the hearts of the people of Australia.

Poster’s peelin’ underneath
Last summer’s morning glory vine
Old white hat and stump of cigar
Empty bottle of wine

Lay me down, Carolina, lay me down.
Don’t want to wake up in the morning no more
Sing me one slow sad song, for this one last old time
Before they close the Minstrel Show.

Banjo’s got a busted string.
Don’t expect I’ll get to fix it now
Ain’t got no more songs to sing
I’m rusty anyhow.
From – The Last Minstrel Show: by Bob Coltman.

nextNotes Pertaining to Chapter 7







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


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