Chapter Thirteen 6

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 13 – page 7  


Where did 19th-century Billy Barlow come from?


His name seems to connect through Blind Barlow, Belly Blind, and Burlow Beanie with the old semi-supernatural household spirit — Billy Blin. By the time Professor Francis James Child made his collection of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, the Billy Blin survived only in a few old traditional songs from the area around the border between England and Scotland. It’s likely that in earlier times he would have been more widespread. The name Billy Blin occurs in Scotland as the name of the children’s game, Blind Man’s Buff. Child thought that the Billy Blin was a manifestation of the Germanic god Woden.

The character, costume, and makeup of 19th-century Billy Barlow may have come from one or more of the clowns of the Commedia dell’Arte through the English burletta, the forerunner of the pantomime. The court fools and the wandering players of the Middle Ages and many of Shakespeare’s clowns have characteristics in common with Billy Barlow. Ragged London street-characters were numerous in 19th-century English theatre and also in the novels of Charles Dickens. The character Billy Barlow, as he is seen in the 19th century, may have been developed from the early Billy Barlow broadsides.

The song words of the Billy Barlow songs are found on British broadsides that could date from as early as 1813, but are more likely to be from around the early 1820s. The form and metre changed very little over the years. Even the song, Let’s Go a-huntin’/ Billy Barlow, which uses a different tune, is basically unchanged in metre and in verse-length, although there is reason to suspect that this is a newer song that uses Billy’s name. In all but this song, Billy retains his persona as a ragged clown who comments on topical events and who sings a version of Hey Ho Raggedy O! as a refrain. Sam Cowell and George Coppin wrote or adapted a large proportion of the Billy Barlow song words found from after 1840.

The tune used for all of the Billy Barlow songs, (except for the song collected in America as Let’s Go a-huntun‘), may have been an old tune or a cleverly composed new tune based on old ideas. It is written as modal often enough to suggest this. The change of one note can place it in a minor key, making it appear more modern. The tune used for Billy Barlow in Australia shows this change. The fact that the tune sounds Irish to modern ears is not necessarily an indication of its actual origins.

The interesting point about the Billy Barlow songs is that the tune remained surprisingly constant over a period of at least one hundred years. This is note worthy when we take into account the many different Billy Barlow songs sung by many different performers, in countries as far apart as the British Isles, America, and Australia.

The Let’s Go a-huntin‘ song is still a puzzle-piece that doesn’t quite fit, but I will mention in passing that it is possible to sing this song to the tune of the other Billy Barlow songs and vice-versa. The phrasing is the same. You can even add to the experiment the words and melody of The Cutty Wren, of which Let’s Go a-huntin‘ seems to be a parody, and you’ll find that any set of words will fit with any one of the three tunes. The melody used for Let’s Go a-huntin’ is very close to The Campbells are Coming, a song also popular in the 19th century, so that it too can be added to the mix — but enough!

The most likely place where Billy Barlow’s name, his character and his song came together is London. In fact, if I were a gambler I would be even more specific, and lay odds on either an East End London tavern, or the Adelphi theatre, which was also in the East End of London. (Many of the printers of broadsides were in the East End). However it could have been in any of the big cities of the American Eastern Seaboard, or Edinburgh, or Dublin.

Wherever it was, at the time of his birth, Billy Barlow was by nature a poor Londoner, and he probably already existed as a character in a song.

Who was the first 19th-century Billy Barlow?

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898 edition, claims that Billy Barlow was:

A street droll, a Merry Andrew, so called from a half-idiot of the name, who fancied himself some great personage. He was well known in the East of London, and died in Whitechaple Workhouse. Some of his sayings were really witty, and some of his attitudes really droll.

This sounds like the earlier street performer referred to by Henry Mayhew’s “Billy Barlow impersonator”. Mayhew’s Billy said that he based his act on this earlier Billy Barlow. He also said that the:

“original Billy Barlow” street-clown took his name from one of the songs he sang — Billy Barlow, “which was popular at the time”.


I remain unconvinced that the song — Billy Barlow, was not performed in character before this. The song was certainly sung well before. There are two American sheet-music booklets, (with pictures of Billy on the covers), many British broadsides, and one American broadside that predate the London street-tramp. The earliest date I’ve found so far, on record, for a performer singing a Billy Barlow song is — “Himself” on the 28th of May 1834 where Billy sang “with unbounded applause at the Western and Southern theatres”. The publication is American. The music was arranged by P F Fallon. Does that suggest that Fallon is “Himself”? There are broadsides, one of them American, that are older than this sheet-music, and I think that there would have been actors performing as Billy before 1834 — but that’s a studied guess.

English actor John Reeve was singing the Billy Barlow song in America in 1835 or 1836. He was probably singing it in character well before this in London, (that’s another studied guess) where he was a member of the Adelphi Theatre company. Reeve played Jerry Hawthorn in the popular play Tom and Jerry or Life in London when it was staged for the first time in 1821. He continued to play Jerry until his death in 1838. Life in London has characters who have connections with English ritual theatre — Dusty Bob and Black Sal — as well as characters out of the Commedia dell’Arte — like Harlequin, Columbine and Clown. It is also full of London street people. Although there is no mention of Billy Barlow in the cast, his name and his persona would fit neatly, as a minor character, into this play. There is also the interesting connection between Jemmy Green from the same play and Billy Barlow in Australia. John Reeve performed one-man acts involving many comic types on the same bill as the Adelphi plays.

If John Reeve was not the first Billy Barlow he must have been one of the first.





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

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