Remembering the Old Songs:

The Wild Colonial Boy [Laws L20]

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May 1999)

Last month, Lyle explained the difference between prison songs and outlaw songs. This song shows why there is a difference: The true outlaw never surrenders.

Most english-speaking nations have their great outlaws. England has Robin Hood. America has Jesse James. Australia has Ned Kelly and his gang. But while these outlaws are famous in song and story in their native lands, few ever have their stories told in other countries. (How many Robin Hood ballads do you know?)

The exception, curiously, is Jack Duggan (or Jack Dulan, as he is more often called), an Australian bushranger whose song has somehow managed to find its way to the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and apparently Britain as well.

What part of this song is historical (if any) is disputed. Phillips Barry thought it refers to Jack Dowling, a bushranger active around 1870­1880. Dowling, however, is an extremely obscure character (e.g. he is never mentioned in George Boxall's The Story of the Australian Bushrangers). And Sam Henry had a correspondent who heard this, as a traditional song, in 1880.

John Greenway has suggested that Jack Duggan is a sort of idealization of the historical Jack Donahue, who had two other songs written about him, one of which shares a tune, chorus, and lyrics with some versions of The Wild Colonial Boy.

I don't buy either theory. I know of exactly one bushranger song that made it out of Australia: This one. And it's so popular that Laws lists seven American versions (two of them cowboy adaptions), and I can add even more. I have to suspect that it began life as a broadside, probably in Ireland, based on God-alone-knows-what, and that Jack Donahue is actually a later variant. The Irish text then spread to Australia (interestingly, there is a "Castlemain" in both places) and North America.

I first heard this song much more than twenty years ago, but never really managed to learn the common tune (which it shares with Jack Donahue). (This despite a nice chorus, lacking in this version.) It wasn't until I heard Kendall Morse sing this (different but related) tune that I finally became comfortable with it. Wish I knew his source, but he doesn't list it (or even recall it). I fear I've mixed it up with other versions.

The key shown here (G) is ridiculously low; normal people will have to move it up to at least A (I prefer Bb or C). But it works very nicely on guitar.

The B minor chord in the second and third lines is not necessary; I just hammer an F# into the G chord. But it is the only chord I could find which contains that F# note and sounded acceptable. So play it if you don't want to do the hammer-on.

Wild Colonial Boy

Complete Lyrics:

There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name.
He was born and raised in Ireland in a place called Castlemaine.
He was his father's only son, his mother's pride and joy,
And dearly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.

At the early age of sixteen years he left his native home.
And through Australia's sunny clime a bushranger did roam.
He robbed the rich, he helped the poor, he shot James MacEvoy;
A terror to the rich folks was the wild colonial boy.

One morning on the prairie as Jack he roved along,
Listening to the kookaburra's pleasant laughing song,
Three mounted troopers came in sight, Kelly, Davis, and Fitzroy,
They vowed that they would capture him, the wild colonial boy.

"Surrender now, Jack Duggan, for you see we're three to one.
Surrender in the King's high name, you are a plund'ring son.
Jack drew a pistol from his belt and proudly raised it high.
"I'll fight but not surrender," said the wild colonial boy.

He fired a shot at Kelly which brought him to the ground.
Then turning around to Davis he received a fatal wound.
A bullet pierced his proud young heart from the pistol of Fitzroy,
And that is how they captured him, the wild colonial boy.


The basic reference for American versions of The Wild Colonial Boy is Laws's American Ballads from British Broadsides, in which this is item L20. Laws lists versions from Maine (Barry), Michigan (Beck, Gardner, Lomax), Missouri (Lomax), Barry (Maine), Vermont (Flanders & Brown), and Nova Scotia (Mackenzie). To this add the Catskills version in Cazden et al.

The song is widespread in Australia; see, e.g., Meredith & Anderson (The Wild Colonial Boy; Jack Dowling; John Doolan) and the books by Fahey.

For information about recordings and an Ulster text, see Sam Henry's Songs of the People, p. 120. John Greenway's Folkways recordings of Australian songs also has important notes.

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