Remembering the Old Songs:

My Bonnie Black Bess [Laws L9]

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 2000)

Last month, Lyle gave us a song about cards. The amazing thing is, it was actually about cards. If you study most traditional songs about games, especially those from Britain, they're actually about sex. In the long run, though, it rarely matters whether the song is about cards or sex, because either one can get you in lots of trouble. And the only escape may be to turn outlaw and run.

It's hard to say if Dick Turpin (1706?-1739) was really such an oppressed hero. But he was a real outlaw; the English authorities went after him in 1735, and he was hanged in 1739.

Little else of the legend is historical. Turpin never rode from London to York in twelve hours, though there is a report (unverified) of someone making the ride in sixteen hours.

Turpin became, after Robin Hood, the greatest outlaw-hero in English history; there are actually two traditional songs about Black Bess (though the other, Laws L8, is very literary and not really all that good). There is also a song, Dick Turpin and the Lawyer [Laws L10], in which Turpin relieves the lawyer of his cash by pretending to be another refugee from Turpin. I've also seen Turpin broadsides.

What is surprising is that all these songs made it to America. This song has been found in Arkansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Nova Scotia, and Lomax and Ohrlin have cowboy versions (the latter a conflation of the two Black Bess ballads).

The version I'm printing here is out of the Digital Tradition, but it's effectively the same as the one I learned.

The tune is, well, tricky. The way I learned it, it feels like a gallop. I even managed, without really planning to, to develop a guitar style which simulates the gallop of the song. (I say "without really planning to" because it's exhausting. The melody is on the thumb, while two of my other fingers sit there pounding away like the horse's hooves. By the time I'm done playing the thing, my fingers are usually ready to fall off). The result really can't be transcribed in proper music notation; I was sitting there getting into smaller and smaller subdivisions of the time, but it just doesn't help. The tune shown here is technically correct, but just can't convey the long-short-short feel of the tune. Wish I could recommend a recording; unfortunately, the one I learned this off is out of print - and the singers divorced and, I'm quite sure, never want anything to do with each other again. And I'm not sure who got possession of this song. Lawrence Older recorded an old-time version, but I haven't learned it yet.

Bonny Black Bess

Complete Lyrics:

When blindness did guide me, I left my abode.
When friends proved ungrateful, I took to the road.
For to plunder the wealthy and relieve my distress
I bought you to aid me, my bonnie Black Bess.

How nobly you stood, when a coach I have shook
And the gold and the silver from its inmates I took.
No poor man did I plunder or ever yet oppress;
No widow, no orphan, my bonnie Black Bess.

O'er hills and o'er valleys, through glens I rode you;
From London to Yorkshire, like lightning you flew.
No toll bars could halt you as rivers I breast
In twelve hours you reached it, my bonnie Black Bess.

Hark! the bloodhounds are howling and bugle's loud sound
But the likes of my noble will never be found.
To part with you now it does me oppress
But my hand shall not waver, my bonnie Black Bess.

As the ages roll onward, and I'm dead and gone
This tale will be told from father to son
And some they will pity, while others confess
Through friendship I shot you, my bonnie Black Bess.

No one will dare say that ingratitude dwelt
In the breast of Dick Turpin; 'twas a vice he never felt.
So I'll die like a man, and soon be at rest
Then farewell forever, my sweet bonnie Black Bess.


Laws lists four American versions of this piece: Randolph (Arkansas), Brown (North Carolina), Gardner (Michigan), Lomax. In addition, he lists a Nova Scotia version (from Mackenzie) and three broadsides

To this add a version in Fife & Fife, Cowboy Songs, and another in Ohrlin. Also the recording by Lawrence Older on Folk-Legacy.

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