Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, February, 2009)

This month's story about the New Mules highlights a band which is still managing to collect its own songs and tunes and bring them to the attention of the wider world.

I'm jealous.

One of the great tests of a folklorist is, of course, "What has he collected?" And, even after a third of a lifetime editing the Ballad Index, I'd never collected anything.

Well, I've finally managed to add one item to the world's folk song catalog — a portion of the song In Good Old Colony Times from John Healy Jr. in Saint Paul. It's not a full version, but it did contain a unique variant, so I'm going to give you a worked-up text based on his fragment. (The unique reading? In the last verse, he and his family sang something like the sheriff clappawed on the little tailor. Even they don't know what "clappawing" is — I was able to point out that it's probably a mis-hearing of "clapped paws" or "clapped claws").

The song is quite old — there is a broadside dated 1804 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and it's clear the song goes back well before that. The original is clearly British; early forms read something like

Three sons of whores were turned out of door
Because they could not sing,

and refers to the miscreants perhaps as three jolly rogues of Lynn (presumably King's Lynn in East Anglia) or three scamping rogues.

There does not seem to be any historical basis for the song; it just starts showing up in copies from around the start of the nineteenth century. It certainly has gotten around; Hardy quoted it in Under the Greenwood Tree, and it is alleged that Otto von Bismarck actually used it in the German Reichstag (parliament). I'd love to know what for!

There are plenty of British variants, but it seems to me that it is even more popular in the United States; my guess is that at some point after the American Revolution, someone rewrote it for colonial use, and it became popular due to inclusion in a songster. It has been found all over New England, and Brown and Chappell collected it in North Carolina, and Cox in West Virginia, and there are other Appalachian collections. I don't know of any old-time recordings, but maybe it's time someone made some....


Complete Lyrics:
In good old colony days
When we lived under the King,
Three roguish chaps fell into mishaps
Because they could not sing
Because they could not sing,
Because they could not sing,
Three roguish chaps fell into mishaps
Because they could not sing.

The first he was a miller,
The second he was a weaver,
And the third he was a little tailor,
Three jolly rogues together.

The miller he stole corn.
The weaver he stole yarn.
And the little tailor he stole broadcloth
To keep the three rogues warm.

The miller got drowned in his dam,
And the weaver got hung in his yam,
And the sheriff clapped paws on the little tailor
With the broadcloth under his arm.

[Click HERE to hear a MIDI file playing a simple, unexpressive, version of the tune.]

Note added Feb. 12, 2012: We received a message from Eamonn Noonan of Oslo, Norway:
I've been looking into the recently released sound recording of Bismarck from 1889 (NY Times & elsewhere). This starts with him reciting the first verse of this song. Google quickly led me to your 2009 piece about this song, which mentions the claim that he quoted the song in the German Parliament. Now you have pretty spectacular confirmation that he did indeed know the song!

Thanks, Eamonn.

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.