Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, October 2005)

I told you, a few months back, that I have no appreciation of art. I have never, in my life, put up a painting on my wall or any such thing.

I've now changed that, a little. I don't have paintings, though; what I have is photographs of old illuminated manuscripts and books: The Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer. The Harley Lyrics. A Gutenberg Bible. I'm still looking for a decent photo of the Bible manuscript 1739. And so forth.

Odds are, I won't be putting up many prints of traditional songs. Not because they aren't old enough. Because they generally aren't worth looking at. There are quite a few broadsides to be found on the Web these days. They are, almost always, miserable examples of printing.

And yet, they worked. Quite a few well-known folk songs originated in the broadsides and songsters and such. Including, ultimately, this one. Last month, Lyle gave us the New Prisoner's Song. That song, like this one, is one of an incestuous family of prison and transportation songs that have swapped verses and plots till it's almost impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins.

As a song family, they very likely began with something like the song we now call Here's Adieu to All Judges and Juries. It is at least partly responsible for Dalhart's Prisoner's Song, which gave a title to Lyle's song last month.

But it's had plenty of other offspring, including this one. This is, of all things, a music hall song, from Little Jack Shephard, which appeared in 1885. Nonetheless, it's become a genuine folk song -- Vance Randolph, in fact, found a version in the Ozarks, and there are hints of others in this country. And the larger portion of the lyrics are still those of Judges and Juries.

The song is, obviously, a transportation ballad, so named because they describe the British policy of "transportation" -- of sending a convicted felon to an overseas prison colony, at once getting him out of the way and helping build up settlement in that area. It seems to be nearly forgotten that several U. S. states were colonized largely by transportees -- Georgia was founded for that purpose. (That's right, fellow Anglo-Americans, we're all descended from felons. Those of us who aren't descended from heretics, anyway.) When the Americas rebelled against Britain, the British founded the Australian colony as a substitute in 1788 (and the Australians haven't forgotten their heritage, whatever that tells us).

One irony of the transportation songs is that most of them, especially the ones found in America, are inaccurate. There was no prison colony at Botany Bay, e.g., although there were plans to found one; the first expedition found the site too inhospitable, and moved to Sydney.

The inaccuracies arose because most of the songs arose in Britain. There are some accurate transportation songs in Australia, but by and large they stayed there. It's the songs that originated in England and Ireland -- Judges and Juries, The Black Velvet Band, The Wild Colonial Boy -- that are known the world over.

I first learned this from a recording by John Greenway, I think, though I've met many other versions over the years. I used a text from the Digital Tradition to try to get a full set of words; it didn't list a source. I've corrected it in a few places toward what I recall learning.
Botany Bay

Complete Lyrics:
Farewell to old England forever,
Farewell to my rum culls as well.
Farewell to the well known Old Bailey
Where I used for to cut such a swell.

Singing too-ra-li oo-ra-li add-it-y,
Too-ra-li oo-ra-li ay,
Too-ra-li oo-ra-li add-it-y,
We're bound for the Botany Bay.

There's the captain as is our commander,
There's the bosun and all the ship's crew,
There's the first and the second class passengers,
Knows what we poor convicts go through.

'Taint leaving old England we cares about,
'Taint cause we mis-spells what we knows,
But because all we light-fingered gen-i-try
Hops around with a log on our toes.

For seven long years I'll be staying here,
For seven long years and a day,
All for meeting a cove in an alley,
And stealing his ticker away.

Oh, had I the wings of a turtle dove,
I'd soar on my pinions so high,
Slap bang to the arms of my Polly love,
And in her sweet presence I'd die.

So come all you young Dookies and Duchesses,
Take warning from what I've to say,
Mind all is your own as you toucheses,
Or you'll join us in Botany Bay.

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