Remembering the Old Songs:

"Billy Taylor" [Laws N11]

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

Last month, Lyle gave us a song about a woman who actually came out on top in a man's world. There are other such songs -- one of these days, I'll find an American version of "The Maid on the Shore," and make all the male chauvinists sick. But it's certainly not common. Most of the time, the men are creeps, and they leave the women desolate or pregnant or dead or some combination of the above.

Once in a great while, the woman gets her own back.This is, perhaps, the key example of that relatively rare genre.

I'm not going to say much about the song; it speaks for itself. I suppose that I should point out that impressment ("pressing") was the British policy of grabbing young men off the streets and forcing them to work aboard naval vessels.

My problem with this piece is that, although it's very common in America (thirteen versions in Laws, plus broadsides), the only people who still sing it seem to be British. And the versions diverge significantly.

I first learned this in basically a capella form, which I managed to move to the mountain dulcimer. Then I picked up at least two other versions, with somewhat different words and notably different tunes. One of those versions, by the Irish group Déanta, I can trace (though I can't figure out how they came up with a version practically identical in form to one collected by Randolph in the Ozarks); the other one I can't even remember where I heard it.

Finally I tried playing the thing on the guitar. The result is completely different from the dulcimer drone version, and also from all the others. I suppose this makes what follows an "arrangement," but it's really just the result of a bunch of stuff going into the song grinder and something having to come out the other end.

The result of this mess is still fairly similar to the Randolph version. In fact, I thought about giving you that -- except that the Ozark singer fouled it all up by chopping off the ending and sticking on some moralizing thing where the girl kills the guy and ends up dead herself. What's the fun in that?

So the final verse here is pretty much as given by Cilla Fisher and Artie Trezise; it's the one with the best punch line. It's always great fun to sit next to someone who has not previously heard the song when that final stanza rolls around. You can just watch the shock and surprise.

The rest of the text is mostly out of Randolph, with "William Taylor" changed to "Billie Taylor." (If you really think the guy deserves a formal name, go ahead, call him "William.")

This version may be a bit too high to sing for some people; A would be a better key. But I really like the way it plays out of C chord positions. So I wrote it that way; you can do whatever suits your voice (and your fiddler, if you have one).

Billy Taylor

Complete Lyrics:

Billy Taylor was a sailor,
Full of joy and beauty gay.
'Stead of Billy getting married,
He was pressed and forced away.
     Fol rol rol de fol rol li do,
     Fol rol rol de fol rol lay.
But the bride soon followed after
Under the name of Richard Carr;
Snow white fingers, long and slender,
All covered o'er wi' pitch and tar.
     Fol rol rol de fol rol li do,
     Fol rol rol de fol rol lay.

One day in the heat of battle
Shot and shell was flying there,
A silver button flew off her waistcoat
Left her snowy white breast bare.
Then up spoke the gallant captain,
"What ill fortune brought you here?"
"I come in search of Billy Taylor
Whom you pressed the other year."

"If you'll rise early in the morning,
Early by the break of day,
There you'll see your Billy Taylor
Walking out with a lady gay."
She rose early the next morning,
Early by the break of day.
There she saw her Billy Taylor
Walking out with a lady gay.

Gun and pistol she's commanded,
Gun and pistol by her side.
She has shot young Billy Taylor
Walking out with his new-made bride.
When the captain did behold her
And the deed that she had done,
He has made her chief commander
O'er a ship and a hundred men.


Laws lists thirteen American versions (Belden, Cox, Flanders & Brown, Greenleaf, Mackenzie, Randolph, Sharp, JAF) and eight from Britain. He lists six broadside versions.

To these add two Irish versions from Sam Henry: H213 and H757.

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