Chapter Seven

Hey Ho Raggedy-O

CHAPTER 7:    An Abundance of Comicalities

Robert Billy Barlow – The Song called The Blue-tail’d Fly – The Thomas Family’s Billy Barlow – S.S. Billy Barlow – The Author’s Memories of Showboats, Banjos, and Minstrels.

This chapter has been revised in September 2008 because of new information available about Robert “Billy” Barlow. Valda Low has been a clever sleuth as well as a wonderful playmate during the rewriting of this chapter.


Robert Billy Barlow ~ The Inimitable Blue-tail’d Fly

It appears that no one has yet told the story of this man who, I believe, deserves a place in Australia’s history, and who fits into the story of the Billy Barlow phenomenon. With increasing access to newspaper articles and advertisments it is possible to follow the career of this talented and interesting man. There are, however, still some gaps in his story, and so far no picture of him has turned up. His life was full of adventure, of music and song, of fortunes won and lost on at least three goldfields. Above all, he had a tenacity and an unsinkable quality that seem to have typified many of the Billy Barlows of the 19th century.


From the obituaries of Robert Barlow and his wife Jane, and from a newspaper article about their diamond wedding celebration, there are accounts of their life together, spanning fifty-two years. As well, there are the many news items and advertisements from England, China, Australia, and New Zealand. Almost certainly, there will be items in newspapers, not yet available, from America, Canada, and South Africa. It’s a matter of putting the pieces together. Sam Cowell’s wife Emilie left us a diary. A wonderful diary. I suppose it’s unfair to wish that Jane had written one too. Or Barlow himself. Their life must have been chaotic and unsettled.

I have found out very little about Jane, and very little about the Barlow’s only child, Jane Margaret. Robert Barlow married Jane Matthews early in the 1840s, and Jane Margaret Drummond Barlow was born in 1850. In Jane’s obituary we read how she shared her husband’s stage-life and was beside him through all his wanderings and adventures. Jane was sometimes his only accompanist. She also assisted with make-up and costumes. Daughter Jane Margaret gave her occupation as “vocalist” on her marriage certificate, but neither she nor her mother appear on any programs available so far. Except for Jane Margaret’s marriage, and the articles already mentioned, there is no mention of them in newspapers either.

Robert Barlow was born in England in 1819. He was on stage from childhood, and performed, in Dublin, his first solo “Entertainment” at the age of eighteen.

He used the name Billy Barlow on stage and often in private life as well. After the 1840s he was also known as The Blue Tail’d Fly.

From that first solo show in Dublin, in 1837, which, it should be noted, preceded George Coppin’s first appearance there in 1841, Barlow was hailed as one of the greatest monologists in the world. His obituary notes that,
“… for some years he was the rage in London and the provincial towns of England, where ‘Billy’ Barlow and the Blue-Tail Fly were known from one end of England to divthe other.”

It appears that, although he took the name, the character of Billy Barlow was part of his repertoire only occasionally. The song Billy Barlow is rarely noted on programs and in news items relating to Barlow. The one song with which he is constantly identified is The Blue Tail’d Fly. He was called by this name more than by any other, often with the cognomen “The Inimitable”. In an age of superlatives this was his advertising niche. The song, The Blue Tail’d Fly was his signature song. “His master piece”. More of that later.

In 1847 the first two of a series of songsters was advertised in the Theatrical Times of London.

“… Barlow’s Nigger Melodist. Each consisting of Fifty new and choice Darky Ballads, most of which are so spicy, that the Virginny Niggers can’t sing ’em without sneezing.” (The Virginia Minstrels/Virginia Serenaders were formed in 1843)

“American Barlow’s being the only Copyrighted Series of the genuine Darky Chaunts published in England, they contain the Originals of which all other professed Nigger Song Books are but miserable imitations….”

The advertisement goes on to warn against infringement of copyright.

From 1847, for the next ten years, there are frequent references to Barlow as “The American Barlow”. These come from English and Australian newspapers. The implication is that he toured in America between 1845 and 1847 and returned as a minstrel with a new act and a new popular song as his signature piece. Did he add the title, “American”, in the sense that he was “American” by conquest? This idea comes from classical times. Nineteenth-century audiences understood such references.









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


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