Chapter Ten 1

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 10 – page 2


Reciting Moore’s poem by candlelight with your eyes wide and your face pale with horror, it seems sufficient unto itself. The effect on you is as he intended. But ponder on it, pull it apart, and you are left with questions like:

Who was she? Who was he? What were their names? Was she perhaps a product of his imagination, and was only he real? Were they, neither of them, real? Tell us about the dream. When did it start and finish? What part did the snake play? What did it tell him? Could you really hide from Death in a cypress tree? Maybe the only questions that need answers are: What, and how much, were Moore and his new friends drinking that day in the tavern in Norfolk, Virginia? Was the legend already in existence before then? How prone were the locals to the telling of tall-tales to impressionable tourists?


Moore stayed at an Indian camp before returning to Norfolk, but he says nothing at all about Native American stories that must have still been remembered in the area at the time. The faint echo of the customs of older Swamp-dwellers remains in the use of a birch-bark canoe and a firefly lamp.

Sam Cowell, always on the lookout for a good legend to parody in his act, seized on The Lake of Dismal Swamp. Or possibly he used an intermediate poem or song that has been forgotten and lost. His parody named the couple for us, calling them Reuben Wright and Phoebe Brown. His choice of the name Phoebe Brown, given that Cowell was a clever and well-read man, may be significant. A small brown bird, of the fly-catcher family, called a Phoebe, is common in the area of Dismal Swamp. The bird has an eerie call that sounds like, “Fee beee”. This is, of course, Cowell’s name for the “death-cold maid”. (The swamp maid was later renamed Chloe in the song of that name written in 1927.)

The Cowell song, Reuben Wright and Phoebe Brown is cleverly, if loosely, connected to The Lake of Dismal Swamp. It has only one overt reference to the name of the Swamp:

Sung: So Reuben Wright and Phoebe Brown determined they would marry.
Three weeks ago last Tuesday night

they started for old Parson down the Registry, determined to enter the Dismal Swamp of Matrimony although it was tremendously dark and it

Sung: rained like Old — Harry.

but there are possibly other more oblique connections. The story is set in Manchester — presumably in America. The song is American in content and feel, and the sheet-music was published there, probably to be sold during Cowell’s tour of America. There are a pair of lovers parted by the death of the girl, with ensuing madness of the boy. The whole story ends up being just a lurid dream experienced by Reuben after he has overindulged in hot buckwheat cakes at a tea-party, so that the boy’s dream is still there in changed form. Cowell has inserted — gleefully, it appears — two murders, one by accidental gunshot, and the other by stabbing with “a tremendous jack-knife two and a half feet long”.


It is interesting, though probably coincidental, that in America the Barlow knife, a type of jack-knife, was often referred to as a “Billy Barlow”. The Barlow knife was invented and first manufactured in England, in the late 18th century, for export to America. It was soon the most popular knife of its type and it remained so for over one hundred years. Its creator was an Englishman called Barlow, but just which Barlow is a matter of conjecture.

There are no Williams in the line-up of possibilities. The knives were soon manufactured in America. They are usually referred to as Barlow Knives, but there are several references to the use of the name Billy Barlows for them. These references all post-date Sam Cowell’s American tour of 1860 to 1861. Cowell himself, at least in the sheet music for Rueben Wright and Phoebe Brown that was printed at the time of his tour, calls the knife a jack-knife.

Rueben Wright and Phoebe Brown was performed by Cowell in the style for which he was famous: half-recited in the way of a grand tragedian, and half-sung. The sheet-music faithfully records the way this was done, and in 1960 Hamilton Lobdell of Wisconsin sang and recited this song exactly as it appears in print. The song was collected from Lobdell as a “folksong of Wisconsin”, its origins long forgotten.

Back to Cindy’s great-grandfather. Cindy lives not far from the place where her great-great-grandmother, Phoebe Helmick, lived in 1863.

Phoebe lived in Pendleton County, West Virginia, although this state was part of Virginia until the same year that she gave birth to her son. She named him William D Raines (or Rains), but he was known, at least for part of his life — and maybe always — as Billy Barlow. So far, the child’s father has not been found by Cindy, so it may be that Phoebe’s child was born out of wedlock.

The time of his conception was a sad and troubled time. The Civil War raged all around Phoebe’s mountain home. Although Virginia was technically part of the South, the people of the mountains had nothing in common with the rich plantation- owners, and many sided with the Union or refused to get involved with the conflict at all. So little Billy’s father could have been a soldier from either army, or a man not connected with either side. Was he called William Raines? Billy Raines? What happened to him?

Billy Barlow was a name well-known to people from all over the East Coast of America, following Sam Cowell’s tour there in 1861, but did this child have a more than usual reason to be called Billy Barlow? Was this reason the fact that his mother bore the name Phoebe, the name used by Sam Cowell for his heroine of the not-to-distant Great Dismal Swamp? Of all the characters that Sam Cowell played, Billy Barlow was the favourite with audiences. It would seem that any number of Cowell’s songs could have been associated with him.

The place where William Raines fits in the overall picture remains uncertain, but he is certainly an interesting part of the whole Billy Barlow phenomenon.

The Will-o-the-Wisp and Sweet Williams Ghost.

As a point of interest before leaving Great Dismal Swamp, brief mention will be made of the Will-o’-the-Wisp. The ghostly form that marsh-gas takes, as it rises up from decaying vegetation in swamps, was long thought to have a supernatural explanation. This phenomenon also occurs in graveyards, where its source is decaying flesh. It may be what Australian Aborigines call the Min-Min lights.

In collections of folksongs from the British Isles, on at least one British broadside, and in oral collections from the Appalachian Mountains in America, there are several variants of a song about a ghost who comes back from the grave to claim his beloved. When he is given a name, it is almost always William, Sweet William, or Willie. This probably means that many, if not all, of the songs come from one popular source, which itself may not have been the first.

[ Here we go ’round the mulberry bush! ]

There was such a song — a broadside called The Suffolk Miracle printed in the19th century. Anyway, is Willie the Ghost related to Will-o’-the-Wisp? Are either of them related in any way to the old Billy Blin?

And she cried, Willie! Oh my dearest Willie!
Where is that colour you’d sometime ago?
Oh Molly, darling, the clay has changed me
I’m but the ghost of your Willie-o.

Lover’s Ghost – from the singing of Hildebrand.








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


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