Remembering the Old Songs:

The Banks of Claudy

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, March 1997)

Strange, strange are the ways of folklorists. Consider how I decided to print this song. I was thinking, "I need an Irish song for Saint Patrick's Day. But I also want something about flowers" (to follow up on last month's A Rose in Grandma's Garden).

The obvious solution? The Irish murder ballad The Banks of Red Roses."

Only one problem. Red Roses never made it big in America. But it reminded me of The Banks of Claudy," which is well-known on this side of the water.

Now if you want further proof of the oddities of folklorists, consider that we might describe this as a "Riley/no token." Sounds like some strange sort of mixed drink, right? Well, not exactly....

A "Riley Ballad" is a song in which a man leaves his girlfriend behind, then returns years later. To test her faithfulness, he disguises himself and tries to get her to marry him. She refuses, he reveals himself, and they live happily ever after. (Apart from the brief moment when she conks him in the head for tricking her; apparently that part is forgotten in the folk songs.) These messes are called "Riley Ballads" because in about half the cases the hero (if you can call him that) is named Riley.

Many Riley songs are also "broken token" ballads - songs in which the two lovers break some token (a ring, a coin, a kerchief; in Art Thieme's parody "That's the Ticket" it's a shoe repair contract!) in two. This allows them to identify each other when they are reunited.

So last month's song, if you notice, was a "broken-token/no Riley" ballad; this time it's "Riley/no token."

The Banks of Claudy is one of the best-known Riley ballads -- and, yes, there are a lot of them; Malcolm Laws lists fully sixteen of them. This piece, Laws's N40, is one of the best known; originally Irish, it has been printed frequently in Britain, and in this country has been collected in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Missouri (as well as in Canada and Australia). It's one of only about four Riley ballads to be firmly fixed in the old-time tradition.

Several tunes are known for this piece; this one, also known as The Handsome Cabin Boy, is one of the most fun. It's in the Mixolydian of D (that is, it's in D, but uses C naturals rather than C sharps). The text is rather similar to the "A" text printed in Randolph's Ozark Folksongs.

Banks of Claudy

Complete Lyrics:

As I stepped out one evening all in the month of May,
Down by a flower garden I happened for to stray.
Twas there I heard a female in sorrow to complain
About an absent lover who plowed the raging main.

I stepped up to her, I took her by surprise.
I own she did not know me, I being in disguise.
Oh where are you going, my own heart's delight?
Oh where are you going, this dark and dreary night?

I'm hunting for a young man, young Johnny is his name,
It's on the banks of Claudy I'm told he doth remain,
It's on the banks of Claudy, if you would please to show
And pity a poor female, for there I'm bound to go.

These are the banks of Claudy, dear girl, on which you stand,
But never mind young Johnny, for he's a false young man.
No, never mind young Johnny, for he'll not meet you here;
Just stay with me in the greenwood; no danger need you fear.

It's three long years and better, now, since Johnny left the shore,
He's sailing on the ocean where the foaming billows roar.
He's on the field of battle for honor and for gain;
The ship's been wrecked, so I've been told, all on her way from Spain.

When she heard this dreadful news she fell into despair,
With wringing of her lily-white hands and tearing of her hair,
Saying, If my Johnny's drowned, no other will I take,
But to the hills and mountains I'll wander for his sake.

When I heard this joyful news I could no longer stand;
I took her in my arms, saying, Molly, I'm the man;
Molly, I am the young man that caused you all this pain,
And since we've met on Claudy banks we'll never part again.


As noted, this item is number N40 in Malcolm Laws's American Ballads from British Broadsides. Laws lists a total of thirteen American printings (Belden/MO; Chappell/NC; Cox/WV; Eddy/OH; Gardner/MI; Hudson/MS; Owens/TX; Pound/IN; Randolph/MO; Scarborough/VA; also Mackenzie/NovaS and two articles in JAF). The traditional versions seem to be mostly Scottish (Christie, Ford, Grieg, Kidson, Ord), but there are several British broadsides.

A good Irish version appears on page 313 of Sam Henry's Songs of the People, which lists several Irish collections and a number of recordings (it omits, however, the recording by Minnesota-based Irishman Dáithí Sproule, who recorded a version similar to this, with this tune, on A Heart Made of Glass

An Australian version is found in Meredith and Anderson's Folk Songs of Australia.

Those who wish to look up Riley ballads are directed to Laws' bibliographies of the following songs (among others): "Willie and Mary (Mary and Willie; Little Mary; The Sailor's Bride)" [Laws N28]; "A Seaman and His Love (The Welcome Sailor)" [Laws N29]; "William Hall (The Brisk Young Farmer)" [Laws N30]; "Lovely Nancy (I)" [Laws N33]; "The Dark-Eyed Sailor (Fair Phoebe and her Dark-Eyed Sailor)" [Laws N35];"John (George) Riley (I)" [Laws N36]; "John (George) Riley (II)" [Laws N37]; "The Mantle So Green" [Laws N38]; and the best-known of all, "Pretty Fair Maid (The Maiden in the Garden; The Broken Token)" [Laws N42] (often known as "John Riley").

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.