This month's song, although long, is easy to remember, perhaps because the story line is clear and dramatic. The first known published version is a British broadside dated 1793. It seems to me that the way the poetry matches the tune points to either an earlier life in oral tradition or else a very talented broadside poet. I recently saw a poster picturing a woman with a black eye, along with the statement, "it's not OK, and it's not love." Given the thrust of the message, they could have added, "and it's not funny," but traditional storytellers would not agree. Infidelity and spousal violence are favorite topics, not just for storytellers (Chaucer or Boccaccio), but also for traditional children's puppet shows, such as the British Punch And Judy or the French Grand Guignol. I'll leave it to humor experts to answer the puzzle: it's not funny, but why were all those generations of our ancestors laughing?
I learned this version from a 1927 Columbia recording by Charlie Parker (no, not that one) and Mack Woolbright, a vocal duet with guitar and 5-string banjo accompaniment. I like the tune better than some other versions I've heard and, believe it or not, it's somewhat less violent. Cuckolder's rights are severely impaired, but at least the missus doesn't get beaten up. "Tattering," by the way, has an ambiguous meaning in the context of the song. It could mean to tat lace, a pastime that might require a weaver's help; but it's also a variant of "tottering," which the dictionary says means "to rock up and down, to and fro, as a ship upon the waves." "Retch," of course, is past tense of "reach."
I should point out that neither I nor the editorial staff of Inside Bluegrass condone the events depicted in this song. We are merely reporting deleterious results due to ineffective marital counseling.
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"Son, O son, O what's the matter?
Does she lie or does she patter?
Does she do the tattering-O,
On with Will the weaver, O?"
"She don't lie and she don't patter,
She don't scold and she don't flatter,
But she does the tattering-O,
On with Will the weaver, O."
"Son, O son, go home and love her,
Do not find no fault above her,
But if she does not do well,
Pick up a stick and beat her well."
He went home, and a friend she met him,
Thus she said, but just to fret him,
"Saw your wife awhile ago,
On with Will the weaver, O."
He went home in a devil of a wonder,
Knocked at the door just like thunder.
"Who is that?" the weaver cried.
"That's my husband. You better hide."
Up the chimbley Willie badgered,
Through the door her husband entered,
Searching all the walls around,
Not a soul could be found.
He set down by the fireside, weeping,
Up the chimbley got to peeping,
There he spied the wretched soul,
Sitting on the pot-rack pole.
He put on a rousing fire,
Just to suit his own desire,
His wife cried out with a free good will,
"Don't do that, for the man you'll kill."
He put on a little more fuel,
His wife cried out, "My love, why do you?
Take him down and spare his life
If you want me to be your loving wife."
He retch up and down he took him,
Like a raccoon dog he shook him,
Where he's white, he beat him red,
Made poor weaver wish he's dead.
He went home and his wife she met him,
Up with a stick and down she set him,
Where he's red, she beat him blue,
Every word of this is true.