Chapter Three 4

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 3 – page 5


So far only one songsheet that takes the form of a broadside has turned up in American collections. It is the Leonard Deming publication from Boston, that looks like a cousin to the London broadsides. It has twenty-two verses, beginning with:

LADIES and Gentlemen, how do you do?
I appear before you with one boot and one shoe;
I cannot get any more, I’m sorry it is so,
Now is it not hard for BILLY BARLOW.
O dear, raggeddy ho, is it not hard, &c.

O, when I was born, says old mother Goose,
He is a fine boy, but he’ll be of no use;
My father he said that to church I should go,
And there he had me christened, William Barlow.
O dear, raggeddy ho, and there, &c

There follow two more verses about Billy’s childhood, before he goes on to his adventures as an immigrant in Boston. He is cheeky and brash and, by his own account, handsome. He mixes with the swells, and flirts with the ladies, at all the fashionable places from the Gallery of Fine Arts to the Long Island Race Track. Rum-and-molasses is very much to his liking and causes him to get “…lost in going to the National ‘tother day….” He is always hungry and tired, but nothing can keep down his buoyant spirit. There is one verse that was carried over into the next two American-published Billy Barlow songs, which refers to a travelling menagerie. This kind of show was a novelty in America at the time. The images in this verse are strong and interesting

I’m told there’s a show coming into the town,
Red lions and monkeys, a porcupine’s crown;
But if they’re to be seen, I shall beat them, I know,
For they’ve never a varmint like Billy Barlow.
Oh dear, raggeddy ho, for they’ve, &c.

The porcupine lost his crown, becoming merely brown in the later versions of the song, which is a great pity.

Right down to the twenty-first verse, Billy is young and hopeful, singing for his modest living, which, however, never involves having a home of his own. Suddenly, startlingly, at the very end of the song he is old and ill and feeble — forced into drawing a cart for a living before ending up in the workhouse. Here he picks oakum — that is, he teases out old pieces of rope to be used as caulking on ships. This is the very last step before his death.

Just as startlingly, though, the last verse jolts the listener out of the depths of misery. Billy is not old and sick after all. He’ll be back again tomorrow, young and fit and happy, just like Mr. Punch, Mrs. Punch, and Baby Punch, of the Punch and Judy Show.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I bid you good bye,
I’ll get a new suit when clothes are not so high;
My hat it does look shocking bad you know,
But it sets well on the head of young Billy Barlow.
Oh dear, raggeddy ho, but it sets, &c.

It may or may not be significant that this American variant of the widespread “Mother Goose” Billy Barlow, has the — “Oh, dear Ragged(d)y ho” refrain and not — “Oh, dear lackaday Oh!” of all of the English broadsides of this version.

There are many parallels in this version of the Billy Barlow song with the real life of the London character that Mayhew’s Billy describes as the man who “originally” played Billy Barlow. They both entertained at the race track. They are both seduced by drink. Both are reduced to living in the workhouse, to finally face death there. The dates don’t quite fit, however, and Mayhew was told that this “original Billy Barlow” took his name from the song.

Billys within Billys, within Billys!
Who came first — Billy Barlow or Billy Barlow?
This way leads to madness.
Time to move on.

At the top of the Deming songsheet, there is a crude drawing of what seems to be the real Billy Barlow. It is the only picture of him on a broadside that accurately depicts the character described in the song. He looks like an early version of the American Hobo clown, with a battered top-hat, waistcoat, and ragged pants. He is slim and short. It is, of course in black and white, but it’s obvious that his large nose is meant to be red. He carries what looks like a news-sheet that is headed:LOAFER.

Behind him is the window of a bottle-shop. The costumes worn by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in the movie Easter Parade, for the routine, Just a Couple of Swells, look very similar. In the 1850s Sam Cowell, in one of his versions of Billy Barlow, was said to have worn a hat with the top loose and flapping like a three-quarters-opened soup-can — like Judy Garland’s hat a century later. The surviving pictures of Cowell as Billy Barlow give the impression of a London derelict or a scarecrow, rather than a fallen swell, but some references indicate that he changed his image over the years.

I have not been able to pin down the model for this early picture of Billy Barlow. It is too early to have been Cowell or Coppin. The English broadsides show woodcut pictures obviously chosen hastily and at random, and none of them look like the Billy of the song. Could it be that the Billy Barlow songs came before any of the flesh-and-blood Billy Barlows? The oldest of the other American Billy Barlow songs, printed as song-booklets and not broadsides, seem to be fragments of earlier songs. Two have, on their covers, detailed lithographs of Billy that may have been produced from photographs of Billy Barlow performers.

With the exception of the aberrant Billy Barlow’s Breeches, the tune is not indicated on any of the Billy Barlow broadsides. This suggests that the tune called Billy Barlow was already well-known and firmly attached well before the earliest of the still-existing Billy Barlow broadsides. That is, before 1828 or 1829. The tune is notated on American sheet music dated 1834. Billy’s tune sounds Irish to modern ears, but it could just as well be English or Scottish, or have its roots in any of several European countries. It’s in jig-time so that you can march to it, following a fife-and-drum band. If you slow it right down you can do a stately old court-dance to it. It’s a very versatile and appealing little tune, easily whistled or hummed.

When Boston police chief Francis O’Neill made his collection of Irish tunes, early in the 20th century, he found several names, as well as Billy Barlow, for this tune. The titles he gives are unrelated, indicating, probably, just that it was a popular melody well-suited to the attachment of sung words. There is a Gaelic title among the others, but there is no information about when the tune acquired this title. It is more than likely that this tune was already quite old by the beginning of the 19th century, and it seems that it was known as Billy Barlow at least by the 1820s.





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

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