Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Where are the Watermelons from anyway?

My son came home from school last week singing Down by the Bay, and we made a recording here.

I cannot recall hearing this song while growing up in the 1980s in Australia, but apparently most kids in North America know it thanks to Raffi Cavoukian (his version here).

Sometimes in interview Raffi has mentioned World War I origins for the song, which is supported by the 1968 publication, Sally Go Round the Sun, where the song is credited to Songs and Slang of the British Soldier by John Brophy and Eric Partridge in 1930.

The absence of the song (to my hearing at least) in Australia is unusual, as much of the repertoire of Australian children’s entertainers, like the Wiggles, came from the UK and the US.

Sadly there was no copy of the 1930 text online, so I had to wait until going to the library today to further research its origins. I found the 1930 text, but it had several titles, including The Long Trail (which is online, a 1965 re-print).

The Long Trail – Song Page
The Long Trail – Title Page

One of the reasons I wasn’t having luck with the search is because the song in this book is titled Down by the Sea, and the singer talks about their wife, rather than their mother.

Searching for the 1930 words led me to More Tommy’s Tunes, which is a 1918 sequel to Tommy’s Tunes, published by Frederick Thomas Nettleingham (2nd Lieutenant Royal Flying Corp) in 1917.

The version in this book is titled Way down yonder in the Cornfields and begins with the line “OLD Mother Riley’s got a farm”, but has the familiar call and response structure with the sea and the watermelons.

More Tommy’s Tunes – 1918
More Tommy’s Tunes – Song

No doubt this book was widely printed during the war, but it was special to be able to hold a tattered copy in my hands and think about how much improvised song would have been used by the men and women going through the horrors of Word War I to keep their spirits up.

Unfortunately this is where the trail goes cold. It would seem most likely that this version has it’s origin in pre-war American song, either music-hall or from an African-American song, but I cannot find any reference to this.

I know that there is some association with watermelons and racism, however, none of the versions of this song that I have found indicate that racism is present in this song.


Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Will the real Ned Kelly please stand up?

Ned Kelly

I recently did this recording of a song about Ned Kelly written by Australian singer Trevor Lucas in the 1970s. The song was performed by Fotheringay in the UK (played here without Trevor, who passed in 1989) and later picked up back in Australia by Redgum.

I had heard this song some 25 years ago at a local musical production about Ned Kelly in Queensland. I’m not sure who wrote the musical, or if it was associated with Redgum or Trevor Lucas, but this song featured in it.

Like any folk hero, the stories that sprung up about the bushranger Edward Kelly during his criminal career and soon after his hanging in Melbourne in November 1880 were not always factual. The idea and image of Ned Kelly has continued to be used by various parts of society for all manner of reasons.

Most recently a 2019 film dramatization of Ned’s life, The True History of the Kelly Gang, was aired on Stan and a small cinema release in 2020.

I’m writing this blog post because someone commented on my video upload with this:

“The song is well done, but the words are based on a load of mythological nonsense, that does not reveal the true nature of Ned Kelly.”

And then again on someone else’s comment:

But the words are based on fictitious rubbish.”

I thought it would be instructional to go through the lyrics of the Trevor Lucas songs and have a look for this ‘fictitious rubbish and mythological nonsense’.

I won’t bother with the chorus, as it doesn’t really say anything disputable. But will go through the verses.

Verse 1

Eighteen-hundred and seventy-eight,
Was the year I remember so well.
They put my father in an early grave
And slung my mother in gaol.
Now I don’t know what’s right or wrong
But they hung Christ on nails.
Six kids at home and two on the breast:
They wouldn’t even give her bail.

So was Ned Kelly’s mother made a widow by the police and trying to raise six children and refused bail? The fact that Ned was one of 7 children is not in dispute, and the story of his father John ‘Red’ Kelly being deported from Ireland for stealing pigs is also not up for debate. This excerpt:

“the officer in charge of that district . . . should endeavor, whenever they committed any paltry crime, to bring them to justice and send them to Pentridge even on a paltry sentence, the object being to take prestige away from them, which was as good an effect as being sent to prison with very heavy sentences, because the prestige those men get up there from what is termed their flashness helped them to keep together, and that is a very good way of taking the flashness out of them.”

(Perth Mirror, 11 July 1953)

of direction from the Assistant Chief Commissioner to Police in the area that the Kellys settled in makes it very clear that the effort to keep them and those like them in poverty was carefully thought out. The impact on Ned, his brothers, sisters, father and mother was very real. To be of a convict background, and Irish, in the Australia of the 1870s meant that a peaceful life, surviving off the fruit of honest labour, was near impossible.

Update: Thanks to Sam’s post below, here is a link to an instance of Ellen Kelly being given bail from May 1878. Of course, this doesn’t prove that she was not refused bail on another occasion, given her frequent run-ins with the police.

Verse 2

You know I wrote a letter ’bout Stringy Bark Creek
So they would understand
That I might be a bushranger
But I’m not a murdering man.
I didn’t want to shoot Kennedy
Or that copper Lonigan.
He alone could have saved his life
By throwing down his gun.

There is no debate here, the Jerilderie Letter is real, copies exist and it has been analysed in detail. You can read the full text of the letter here. A brief excerpt below, which confirms that in at least Ned’s own mind, he saw his life played out as part of the ongoing English oppression of the Irish people.

What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishmen that has got command army forts of her batterys, even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish. Would they not slew round and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the color they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and rise old Erin’s isle once more from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke, and which has kept in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy’s coat. What else can England expect, is there not big fat necked unicorns enough paid to torment and drive me to do things which I don’t wish to do without the public assisting them.

(Jerilderie Letter)

Verse 3

You know they took Ned Kelly
And they hung him in the Melbourne Gaol.
He fought so very bravely
Dressed in iron mail.
But no man single-handed
Can hope to break the bars.
It’s a thousand like Ned Kelly
Who’ll hoist the flag of stars.

Or course Ned Kelly was hung at Old Melbourne Jail on 11 November 1880. Saying that he had ‘iron mail’ is a poetic license stretch as his armour was plate metal, most likely ‘bush forged’ from stolen plough mould boards.

Whether Ned Kelly was brave, or fought bravely, is a matter of opinion. It is clear from history that Ned’s life was a result of English power and money seeking to ensure that the children of Irish convicts could never prosper in the country.


I am no historical scholar, or expert on Ned Kelly, but I have read many of the stories, plays and song that appeared in Australian newspapers in the 140 years since his death, and feel I can say with some confidence that the accusation that this particular ballad is ‘fictitious rubbish’ is absolutely false. I am happy to look at any evidence presented to the contrary.


Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

Four Treasures of Ireland

I have been working my way through The Secret Rose and Other Stories, which is a compilation of several short stories and essays by William Butler Yeats. As a ballad collector and writer I was very pleased to find many songs within the text.

The full stories of Red Hanrahan are part of the book and are available here. It was the first in this series of stories about a semi-fictional Irish bard that prompted me to write this song.

Incidental to this post, I have been writing a song (almost) every week as part of the Positive Songs Project. It is great motivation as a songwriter and also an opportunity to hear the work that others are doing while we are unable to play live in-person events.

Red Hanrahan is a fictional character but based on the life of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (Owen Roe O’Sullivan) who lived in the 1700s. It is not clear how much is Yeats creation and how much of Hanrahan was Owen’s own alter-ego.

In one of the stories, Yeats attributes one of my favourite Irish songs, Casadh an tSúgáin (Twisting the Rope) to O’Sullivan. A song that I spent some considerable time trying to learn to sing like Michael O’Domhnaill does.

In the first Red Hanrahan story, Yeats tells how Hanrahan was at a barn being used as a pub when he received word that he could marry his true love if he quickly returned to the house of her recently deceased mother. It is Samhain eve and instead of leaving Hanrahan is convinced to play cards with a strange old man and ends up following a magic rabbit out into the night.

Hanrahan ends up in the heart of Slieve (mount) Echtge with a fairy queen/goddess, the mountains namesake (the mountains are also known as Slieve Aughty). Four old women carry the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Hanrahan is deemed unworthy, possibly for refusing the advances of Echthge. There seems to be little written about this goddess Echthge, other than that her name means ‘awful one’ and she eats her children. Elsewhere Echthge is referred to as the daughter of Nuada of the Silver Hand.

It is fitting that Echthge is Nuada’s daughter as he is the owner of the Sword of Light (Claíomh Solais), one of the four treasures.

In the story, Hanrahan returns to the world but his lover is long dead as many years have passed. This incident haunts him throughout the rest of his life.

Yeats (or O’Sullivan) cleverly foreshadowed the appearance of the four treasures by having the old man mutter ‘Spades and Diamonds, Courage and Power; Clubs and Hearts, Knowledge and Pleasure.’ before the card game.

It was the linking of the Playing Card suits that I found most interesting in this story. I love it when we are casually reminded of the pagan origins of the everyday items that people take for granted.

A student of Wicca or Ceremonial Magic (as Yeats was) would immediately recognise the link between the four items and the four elements, Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and the four cardinal points.

The four treasures, brought by the Tuatha Dé Danann from their islands in the north (maybe Atlantis) were the Cauldron of the Dagda, the Sword of Light, the Stone of Destiny and the Spear of Lugh.

The connection between the Cauldron of the Dagda (and Morrigan), the Wiccan Chalice and the Tarot Suit of Cups is clear. The association of the suit for hearts and the cauldron with pleasure makes a lot more sense when you watch this video of how Vikings cooked with a cauldron. In the Bronze Age, the ability to eat and the association of the cauldron with food and the dream of an eternally full cauldron makes a lot of sense for people on a subsistence diet. The Cornucopia is also an interesting counterpart to this cauldron.

The Sword of Light previously mentioned is linked to the suite of Clubs and the Athame (ritual knife) in Wicca. Interesting that in Wicca the knife is associated with fire, but with air for some ceremonial magicians. In the story, the club (sword) is associated with knowledge, possibly with the idea of cutting through illusion. Interesting that the word for fire brand and sword are interchangeable in several languages, originating from Old Norse, brandr.

The Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil) has a clear association with power, as it was used to confirm the kings of Ireland until 500 AD. The association with the suit of diamonds is less clear until you realise the diamonds are stones. The pentacles or coins suit in the Tarot looks exactly like the pentacle used to symbolise earth for Wiccans. In the Waite-Smith tarot, the magician is shown with each of the four magical tools and the pentacle suit symbol on the altar.

The final item, the Spear of Lugh, is easily associated with the suit of spades, which look like a Bronze Age spearhead. I am fascinated by the similarities between Lugh’s spear and the arrow carried by Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy. Lugh’s spear can be directed to hit its target and return on its own. One of the stories suggests that Lugh demanded it from a king of Persia. We know that the Bronze Age was a time when some areas of the world were developing advanced metal working techniques. Some Viking swords came from Afghanistan and the quality of high carbon steel blades and spear heads would have seemed like magic to warriors with bronze weapons. In Wicca and Ceremonial magic the spear has been replaced by a wand or a feather, and is associated with the element of Air. The spear is associated with courage in Hanrahan’s story, which aligns with the idea that the holder of the spear will always succeed in battle. The story of lightening coming from the spear and its ability to return gives it a strong connection to Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. In the Tarot, the suit is various called wands or staves. The spear is said to be made of Yew, which is poisonous and associated with death (something that Harry Potter got right).

The four treasures associated with Ireland also have a parallel in the mythology of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The four elements of the grail mythology are the Cup of Christ, the Spear of Loginus, the sword Excalibur (or another sword) and a dish (possibly mistranslated). Britain, not to be outdone, has thirteen items.







Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Ye Sons of Australia

Ned Kelly was executed at Melbourne gaol on 11 November 1880.

While I don’t consider myself and Australian songwriter (I was born in New Zealand, and am more drawn to the songs of Ireland and Scotland), it was a little odd for me to have recorded and uploaded 700 songs, mostly folk, to YouTube without ever a mention of this Australian folk hero.

Hero only to a small portion of the population, and likely a hero to different parts of that population and for different reasons over the 140 years since his death.

I’m not a Ned Kelly historian, and there are been plenty of recreations and retellings of his life and exploits in film and in song. Most recently The True History of the Kelly Gang aired on Stan earlier this year. It can be called a ‘true history’ in the same way that Trainspotting was a ‘true history’ of drug use and crime in Scotland.

The reason for this post is my recent recording of the ballad Ye Sons of Australia, prompted by the suggestion of Ewan Lawrie from the Canberra Shanty Club. I was intrigued by the fact that you can’t find this song anywhere on Spotify or iTunes and the author is listed as anon. It was recorded by Martyn Wyndham-Read and Danny Spooner in the 60s/70s but very much out of print now. Jason and Chloe Roweth recorded this as ‘Kate Kelly’ on their 2003 album, As Good as New. Some of the very helpful Australian folk community have assisted me in trying to track down the author, but to no avail.

I found this very interesting, for a song with such a famous character as its subject.

John Meredith captured a snippet of the song being sung by Gladys Scrivener around 1953-1961, available at the National Library here. John Meredith went on to publish the song in his book, Songs of the Kelly Country, published in 1955. Gladys was credited with passing on a number of songs to the Bush Music Club in Sydney during the 1950s and says that many of the songs were learnt from her grandfather. This Mudcat thread indicates that Gladys’ Grandfather was J M Power, of West Maitland who learned them while working in Northern New South Wales. No further details of his life are available, but if he was collecting songs as a young man, it would have been around the time of Ned Kelly.

One fascinating aspect of this particular ballad is that it focuses strongly on the exploits of Ned’s sister, Kate Kelly. It seems clear that it was more likely to be Ned’s other sister, Maggie, who was responsible for acts of daring in support of the Kelly Gang. Maggie had especially good reason to be bitter after her husband was falsely imprisoned after the Fitzpatrick incident and never returned to her or his children.

The Kelly Gang - Coming Home for Christmas
The Kelly Gang – Coming Home for Christmas

George Washington Lambert painted The Kelly Gang – Coming Home for Christmas in 1908. George was just seven when the siege at Glenrowan occurred, so the event must have been in the public consciousness in 1908 enough for him to warrant doing this painting.

The feelings that inspired the painting match well with the style and tone of the ballad, suggesting that it could have been in circulation then. Kate painted as a rescuing hero, defying the police and trying to help her brothers to freedom during the siege of Glenrowan is an odd way to represent the fate of violent outlaws.

This article in The Bulletin in 1953 by Douglas Stewart highlights the extreme difficultly that song collectors were having linking songs to authors at the time. This is confusing when the likes of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were having their work published far and wide. This article from the West Australian in 1904 describes a play called the Outlaw Kelly, which seems to incorporate Kate riding bravely on her horse. Maybe this was the inspiration for George Lambert and the author of the ballad?

Another play by E. C. Martin, Ostracized, was reviewed in August 1881, less than a year after the Glenrowan siege.

It is possible that the class warfare between the English and Scottish Protestant power holders and the Irish Catholic ex-convicts and working people meant that authors of songs like this chose to remain anonymous for their own safety.

In 1880, Ned represented a violent response to corrupt police and laws designed to make it difficult for people on the fringes to make a living. The memory of the Castle Hill Rebellion in 1804 and the Eureka Rebellion of 1854 were likely to still be strong in the minds of these people. Much as the singing of Irish rebel songs could lead to death or imprisonment in Ireland, singing the praises of Ned Kelly in the 1880s probably came with the same risks. As stated, I am not a Ned Kelly historians, there are many papers that can be read on that subject.

I would love to hear from anyone who knows something more about the history of authorship of this ballad. I am reasonably sure that the attribution to J. K. Moir here is an erroneous reading of the Douglas Stewart article I quote above.

Update: After publication of this article, Chris David Woodland provided a copy of the song as it was in circulation in the 1960s.

Update 2: Thanks to Sandra from the Bush Music Club for sending me a link to the second page and better quality images from the song as it appears in Bushwacker Broadsides.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Love in a Tub – Roud#556

I have been listening to Rachel McDonough’s renditions of ballads from the Francis Child collection for about four years. These ballads are mostly of English/Scotts/Irish origin from the 1600-1700s or earlier.

While many of these ballads were revived/re-discovered in the 1960s by the likes of Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy or collectors such as Albert Lloyd they were often truncated or censored to make them suitable for radio. It is usually these truncated versions that end up being endlessly re-recorded by folk/pop musicians.

I think the work of the YouTube community recording and sharing these ballads in their original state is important. Not many artists are going to put the 27-minute-long Will Steward and John on their album, so we are lucky to have Raymond Crooke’s rendition.

I have only recorded 21 of the 305 Child Ballads, but Rachel recently highlighted that beyond the Child collection there are many other ballads catalogued in the Roud index (of 25,000 songs) which do not have published recordings. The index was created and is maintained by Steve Roud.

This post documents my research in putting Roud #556, Love in a Tub, or The Old Miser Outwitted to music. Love in a Tub appears as a broadside around 1764. The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library hosts the Roud index and here is the entry for #556. In some cases the Roud entry is just a reference to an entry in another catalogue document, for example this 1905 catalogue of broadsides and chapbooks at Harvard.

Incidentally, is an absolutely incredible resource for the ballad researcher. With a library of over 2.6 million scanned and indexed (i.e. you can search for words) books it is possible to find an entry in a catalogue and then track down the referenced chapbook or possibly the broadside at the Bodleian Ballad database.

The two references to Love in a Tub in the Bodleian database do not suggest a tune, but do have consistent lyrics apart from the ‘long s’ (which fell out of use by the 1800s) in one of the versions.

I think the woodblock image in the first version is trying to show the process of building the woman into the barrel, which would be quite a time consuming challenge, if you look closely you can see the woman’s head poking out the bottom of the barrel. This video showing the construction of barrel’s shows how challenging this might be.

Another version, found in New York is referenced at the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballad Project.

In the Roxburghe Ballads index there is a reference to Love in a Tub, suggesting that it was a new song in 1684 and that it should be sung to the tune of Daniel Cooper. This means that the song was already almost 100 years old when it was printed in the 1764 broadside.

I did find a very scratchy 1942 recording of Harvey Murchie (from Houlton, Maine), part of the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection, singing the song with lyrics clearly modified from the broadside. The lyrics were most likely modified through the ‘folk process’. It amazes me that this recording is possibly the only time the song had been sung since its popularity in the 1700s, possibly passed down through Harvey’s family and carried with them when they emigrated from Ireland (I am assuming this from the accent, as I can find no biographical details on Harvey).

I did have a go at transcribing the 1700s music notation in this broadside of Daniel Cooper, but couldn’t get the tune to scan with the lyrics. Interestingly, there is a dance called Daniel Cooper  which was popular with the Russian court and even got a mention by Tolstoy in War and Peace.

There are echos of the tune from the Daniel Cooper broadside in the Russian Dance tune, and it is fascinating that a ‘Cooper’ features in the Love in a Tub story. None of the tunes on with names matching the ones referred to in the Daniel Cooper ballad seemed to relate to the annotated melody.

I am not sure what the connection is, but there was a play by Sir George Etherege called Love in a Tub written around 1660. I read through most of the play, but could find no correlation between the story in the ballad and the story in the play.

The idea of hiding a woman in a barrel in order to procure her as a wife seems like a trope that would have captured the popular imagination and founds its way into other poems and songs. Sadly I can find no references to putting people in barrels apart from the brutal execution of St Eulaia of Barcelona 303 C.E.

I ended up setting the ballad to my own melody. The final result is available here. Text of the broadside and chords provided below:

G         C         G            C
Let every one that is to mirth inclin’d
      C            G       Am      C
Come draw near I pray and listen awhile,
G              D        C        D
Tis witty and pretty, diverting new,
C               G        D           G
And tho’it is merry, it is certainly true.

In the City of London there lately did well,
A topping-wine merchant that’s known very well;
He had but one Daughter, a Beauty most bright,
Who was all his Comfort and all his Delight

A handsome young Vintner lived very near,
Who dealt with this Merchant for Thousands a Year;
And being invited to Supper one night,
He happened to see this Beauty so bright.

Instead of his stomach he feasted his eyes
On the charms of her beauty which did him surprise
But that very night fortune prov'd so kind,
That he to the lady discover'd his mind.

Young cupid so cunningly acted his part,
That with the same passion he wounded her heart,
So that when he began to discover his mind,
He found that to love she was quickly inclin'd.

Said she, sir, your stock you know is but low,
Some hundreds of pounds to my father you owe,
And I am a lady of noble estate,
How do you presume to talk at this rate?

Dear madam, said he, had I thousands a year,
I'd part with it all for the sake of my dear,
Then let not true love be despised for gold,
For riches can't buy it, 'tis not to be sold.

She granted hm love, and to him she reply'd,
My dear, I would have you be well satisty'd;
'Tis fitting my father consents we should wed,
Not a farthing of portion else is to be had. 
(this line missing from the broadside I sung from)

If you will be true, my dear jewel, he said,
A politic fancy I have in my head, 
And when you do hear it, I fear not, says he,
But unto the project you will quickly agree.

You see in a vault where your father's wine stands
There are some empty casks on the left hand;
The cooper's my friend, I can trust him said he,
I'll give him ten guineas in gold for his fee.

He shall head you up in a hogshead this night, 
Your father will think it is good Lisbon white, 
And I'll come and buy the same as it stands;
And pay him the money down at his demands.

She liked the project and both were agreed,
The cooper was sent for, he came with all speed,
He took the young lady without more delay,
And into the hogshead he put her straitway.

He headed it up all secure and nice,
Then strait came the vintner up in a trice;
And seeing the merchant, said sir at this time
I am in great want of a hogshead of wine.

Then to the wine cellar they both did repair,
To taste of the liquors, but when they came there
He knowing the hogshead did make this reply,
Sir, this for my money, if any, I'll buy.

When I was here last, if the truth I may tell,
I tasted the liquor, and liked it well,
For the same they agreed, the money was paid,
He turned him round to the merchant and said:

Sir, all in the hogshead I've bought, it is mine,
But only the staves and the hoops they are thine:
Yes, yes, said the merchant, and I am content,
Then straitway to taste of the liquor they went.

He then took a piercer, and pierced the fame,
But never a drop from the hogshead there came;
The vintner said what a bargain is this,
For never a drop in the hogshead there is.

Nay, nay, said the merchant,'the bargain is good’,
For you bought the hogshead just as it stood,
Let what will be in it, either beer, ale, or wine,
You've bought it, paid for it, so it shall be thine

They open'd the hogshead, the lady came forth,
The old man he star'd and rap'd out an oath,
If this be your bargain, e'en take her, said he,
Sure never poor old man was bubbl'd like me.

It is but a folly to fly in a rage,
I find that youth is too cunning for age;
You bought her, I sold her, so love her, said he,
Three thousand pounds portion I’ll freely give thee 

The vintner he loves her as dear as his life,
And as 'tis reported, the proves a good wife
He follows his calling of drawing good bub,
By this you may see there is Love in a Tub;



A Factory Lad - Project · Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

A Factory Lad – Part 4

B-250 Tractor

Wherever you go in society, politics are sure to come up. After spending a day listening to the Australian Folklore conference speakers at the National Library on 18 April and speaking with more people who were part of the Australian folk scene in the 60s and 70s, it seems clear that there were circles within circles, which always leaves some folks on the outside.

Whether the lines are drawn around religion, social class, morality and ethics or the ‘right’ way to play the Mudgee Waltz (very enjoyable talk by Dave de Hugard), all communities seem to find ways to divide themselves.

I continue to hear from many new people with re-collections of Colin and some have been kind enough to put their memories in an email or share them over the phone.

I spent a few days listening to four of the songs Colin did on the Mike Eves collection. I decided not to attempt Colin’s version of the Sheffield Grinder because his tempo and guitar skills are beyond me. I hope it gets published soon, as it demonstrates the range of Colin’s talent. This isn’t the ‘music hall’ version of the song, but instead this version from 1847. Here is a 1975 Scottish folk rock group called Finn Mac Cuill doing the song, but to a different melody.

The four songs that I recorded, after listening to Colin’s versions in the car for a week, are nicely mirrored in the songs that he wrote, Sither and Pit Boy. Two of the songs are about weaving, and two about mining. I suspect that Colin would have heard these songs while growing up in Yorkshire.

In each case, Colin sings these songs in a unique way; not like Ewan MacColl, who was recording them in the 1950s, but with a visceral artistry. Colin was able to embody the emotion of the song, rather than just repeat words to a melody.

I have not been able to find anyone else performing these songs quite the way Colin did. I have included detail about each of the songs in the video description.

Four Pence a Day – is a song about young children working in the lead mines of Teesdale prior to 1842.

The Blantyre Explosion – is about an 1877 mining disaster at High Blantyre in Scotland

Poverty Knock – describes that plight of, mostly, women weavers in the 1860s in Yorkshire

Four Loom Weaver – is a re-working of a much earlier ballad (1805) applied to the Cotton Famine in Lancashire in 1861.

Each of these songs are performed in a different style by Colin, but each in a way that would make a room fall silent.

Colin’s connection to working people’s songs was not an affectation, his most well-known song, Factory Lad, was most likely autobiographical. The B-250 tractor was being manufactured in Bradford, Yorkshire when Colin was there. One of the people who knew Colin describes his intense response to seeing one of these tractors on a farm in Australia, saying “this is what we were making”. Here is a site with some history of the International Harvester tractor factory in Bradford, Yorkshire where Colin most likely worked before coming to Australia in 1965.

I only have a few more songs to re-record, and will then be ready to publish my album.

A Factory Lad – Part 5


Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Stand and Deliver

Daoiri Farrell’s latest CD includes the ballad, Valentine O’Hara, sung here in 1978 by Frank Harte. While doing some research before making a recording I came across this thread linking the song to Allan Tyne of Harrow. To me this sounded like a mystery to be solved, involving highwaymen and possible appropriation of Irish culture by the English. The game is afoot!

Highwaymen are by no means a novel subject of poems, songs and stories. With the antics of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and Dick Turpin (1705-1739) immortalised in penny dreadful and broadsides and even the great bard himself includes Falstaff as a highwayman in Henry IV Part 1. And of course one cannot forget the Blackadder episode Amy and Amiability.

So to the task at hand, there are at least three different incarnations of this ballad, with different sets of victims and protagonists.

I’ll include the text of one of the ballads for reference, from the Bodleian library:

Daring Highwayman  

I am a daring highwayman likewise a gallant rover,
From London town I surely came since I became a rover,
For a maid who proved with child for England I sailed over,
I left my parents almost wild since I became a rover.

How many battles I’ve been in thro’ France and Spain and Flanders,
And always fought with courage bold under my brave commanders,
But thro’ the usage I received no one shall e’er control me,
Resolved for my liberty strong wall ne’er should hold me.

Back to England’s shores I came as fast as wind could blow me,
Resolved for my liberty, no one should e’er control me,
Back to England’s shores I came and found my name deserted,
My parent’s heart was almost broke and I was much more frightened.

For want of money and a friend, then poverty came on me,
For want of money and a friend it brought destruction on me,
The very first man I ever robbed it was a lord of honour,
The nobleman I did insult all in a roguish manner.

Give me your gold my lord and make no more denial,
If you resist it is my design with powder and ball to fire,
I put my pistol to his breast which made him for to shiver,
Two hundred pounds in bright gold to me he did deliver,

Besides a gold repeating watch to me he did surrender,
I thought I had a noble prize to be thus be-friended,
With a hundred guineas in bright gold I bought a famous gelding,
He could jump over the turnpike gate I bought him of Jem Sheldon.

Now mounted on my gallant steed I looked bold and daring,
Resolved on the road to go no man I e’er did fear him,
The very next man I robbed it was in Covent Garden,
And in two hours after in Newgate I was fasten’d.

I have robbed both lords and dukes of silver plate and money,
All for to maintain myself and my dearest Polly,
But now in Newgate cells I lie until I am convicted,
For my folly I now mercy crave for I am sore afflicted.

This Daring Highwayman appears in several broadsides with the same title and same lyrics, publication dates range from 1819-1844 and 1828-1829.

A Scottish book published in 1826 includes Allan Tine O’Harrow along with Highland Laddie and Bonnie Wood of Craigie lea. While the lyrics are almost identical, several differences are included:

Protagonist: Allan Tine O’Harrow
From: Hills of Tarrow
Horse Bought From: Mr Fielding
Victim(location): Lord Arkinstone (Covent Garden), Earl of Warren, Revenue Collector (Turnham-green)
Death: Confined at Newgate, executed at Tyburn Hill

The same version was published in 1825, alongside Jack in his Element and The Beds of Roses.

Here is where the story gets weird, this un-dated broadside has a song titled Valentine O’Harra, with almost exactly the same lyrics and story except for:

Protagonist: Valentine O’Harra
From: Hills of Tarra
Horse Bought From: Mr Shielding
Victim (location): Lord Edgers (near Covent Garden), Attorney Harding
Death: Confined at Newgate, executed at Tyburn Hill

This version, and the Tine O’Harrow, have an additional ‘Robin Hood’ verse about not stealing from the poor and also giving them money. While the broadside is not dated, it is published with a song (play?) about an accident at the Victoria Theatre that occurred in 1859; a gas explosion after a Christmas play that killed 15 people, reported in Australia here.

This would seem to lend itself to the theory that a generic Highwayman song from 1825 was reworked into Allan Tine of Yarrow, and then later re-imagined 30 years later with an Irish protagonist, whose name is based on the Mondegreen Valentine O’Harra with the politically motivated inclusion of a ‘Robin Hood’ verse.

The fly in the ointment here is this entry in the Ulster journal of archaeology, which references the publication in 1802 of a song book featuring A Second Song in Favour of Henry Meade Ogle along with  Adventures of Valentine O’Hara and the Flying Irish Highwayman. This predates both the Daring Highwayman and Allan Tine by 25 years. Unfortunately I cannot find any links to text from 1802.

I made some efforts to search both the list of executions at Tyburn Hill (1196 until 1783) and the proceedings of the Old Bailey (1674-1913). Other than a small-time highwayman called Patrick O’Hara, executed in 1763, there is no mention of either a Valentine O’Hara or an Allan Tine/Tyne.

Correspondingly, the victims named in both later versions of the ballad do not appear to be real people, a Lord Arkinstone/Lord Edgers would have been listed in the peerage, but are absent. This would suggest that the names are fictional and made up for the ballad.

If this particular highwayman is a concoction, were there any real Irish highwaymen? Based on the 1799 book by J. Cosgrave, A Genuine History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Rogues and Rapparees, yes, there were many to choose from. The life of Redmond O’Hanlon is quite fascinating and bears some similarity to Valentine O’Hara with impoverished origins (thanks to Cromwell) and a stint in the army. However, rather than a mere highwayman, Redmond was the mafia boss of Ulster. Unfortunately he was shot (by his foster brother) rather than hanged and there is no record of him using Valentine as a pseudonym or needing to flee to England after getting a girl pregnant.

William Macquire (alias Irish Teague) has more similarity in that he was an Irish highwayman in England and was hanged at Tyburn in 1691. James Butler was born in Kilkenny, but fought in Spain and deserted before briefly becoming a contract killer in Florence. James ended up robbing on the highway in England and was hanged at Tyburn in 1716. Any of these three men could have been the subject of an early 1800s ballad about real Irish highwaymen.

A note of interest made within Cosgrave’s book is that in some cases the real family name of a highway robber was suppressed if they were from a noble family.

So the conclusion here, short of finding a copy of the 1802 text, is that this ballad is probably entirely fanciful, re-made twice, once for English and once for Irish audiences.

Edit: Thanks to the work of Martin Nail (comment below) it looks like the Irish win, with the 1802 ballad supporting Valentine O’Hara as the earliest version of the song.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Poetry

Who was Ossian Macpherson?

When a certain flavour of fundamentalist Christian has a public and pious rant about the satanic evils of Halloween, I cannot help but feel sympathy and sadness. It isn’t fair to blame people for their ignorance, and in most cases a logical argument about the historical evolution of this and other festivals won’t do much to broaden their view. Having grown up under this ideology, I would have made the same public rants at fifteen.

The key sadness is that this is exactly the type of xenophobia and intolerance of mind which eventually escalates into crusades, racism and killings like the tragic incident in Pittsburgh this week.

Why is this worth blogging about? Well, during the course of a short social media discussion, in an effort to show that Halloween wasn’t ‘just something we imported from America in the last few years’ I found this fabulous poem published in the Hamilton Spectator on 12 November 1864, under the name Ossian Macpherson. Here is the full text of the poem:


By Ossian Macpherson.

Bright years, sad years are numbered with the past,
Since, Scotland, I beheld thy green hills last;
My hair is growing grey in manhood's prime,
With painful re-collections, not with time.
But here, once more, if not on Scottish land,
I see around a happy Scottish band.
With hills and dales, till fancy —not in vain.
Has led me back to Scotland's hills again.

Wootong,— I sought upon thy peaceful crest,
For this worn frame, a shelter and a rest.
From many a outstretched hand the welcome kind,
For ever in this heart will be enshrined;
And can I e'er forget, where'er I roam,
Whatever my lot may be, where'er my home,
The hours I passed amid the happy scene;
The mirthful crowd I joined at Halloween.

Tis not for me, too humble is my verse,
The varied fairy mysteries to rehearse;
The varied trials spread before my view,
Each one to seek if some one else was true.
But when I saw the bonny lassies there,
Each for the apple ducking wait her share,
Such laughing faces, rarely to be seen,
Hech! how it thrilled my heart! at Wootong Halloween.

'Tis not for me, else may be I might sing.
Who made the batter, and who found the ring ;
Who found the apples, and whose nuts were cracked,
Who might have stole to where the hay was stacked.
All these and more, perhaps I might unfold.
But they by Scotia's bard have all been told;
Enough for me — the hours were bright and green,
I passed that night at Wootong Halloween.

The poet tried his nuts, with anxious gaze,
And picturing one form amid the blaze;
Perhaps he thought the emblem might be true,
Alas, — his nuts were cracked ere half burnt through.
And when blindfold, before each fairy plate.
He wished— his fond desire— for gentle mate,
His hand thrice grasped the platter that was clean!
No wife for him at Wootong Halloween.

Bard of all coming time, immortal Burns,
When with each coming year that night returns;
That night that thro' all Scotland far and wide,
The midnight fairies still are wont to glide, —
With what bright fire thy spirit would have glowed,
What strains of rapture would have from thee flowed,
Couldst thous have dreamt there ever would have been
Another Scotland here and Halloween.

Thou didst not dream, when burst to life thy strains.
Never to die while Scottish life remains,
That in this land to white men then unknown,
Peopled by hideous barbarism alone,
Thou didst not reck there e'er would come the day
That, distant o'er tie ocean far away.
There, on a lovely hill top, would be seen.
The glorious revelry of Halloween.

Oh! that thy spirit would upon me rest,
And for one lonely moment till my breast;
'Twould be ere from this friendly root I part,
To speak the thanks, warm from the poet's heart
Wootong, farewell! I yet may see the day,
When back my happier footsteps yet may stray,
And treasured up in memory, I ween
'Twill be again to join in Halloween.

Konongwootong, Nov. 1, 1864.

I made a recording of this poem set to my own tune here.

So many questions arise from this find! Who was Ossian Macpherson? What was he doing in a tiny town in the middle of Victoria in 1864? Was there really a Halloween celebration or is this imaginative reverie?

To the first question, Ossian Macpherson, is almost certainly a pseudonym. James Macpherson (1736-1796) was a relatively famous Scottish writer, poet and politician who claimed to have discovered and translated a set of ancient epic poems by the (mythical?) bard Ossian. James was instrumental in the highland clearings and the veracity of his work on the Ossian poems is questioned by scholars. ‘Ossian Macpherson’ would have been a fitting pen name for any aspiring Scottish poet travelling in Australia in the 1860s.

To the second question, we first need to answer “where in the world is Konongwootong?”. I initially assumed this would have been a mining town named by Chinese immigrant miners, but it is a native phrase describing a creek in grassy land. Konongwootong is a place of sadness as the Whyte brothers who owned the pastoral run killed between 55 and 60 men, women and children of the Konongwootong gunditj clan there in April 1840 after they had taken 40 sheep. There is a memorial here. So it is likely that ‘Ossian Macpherson’ was either visiting or working in the Konongwootong on the pastoral property.

A search on Trove shows that the latest poem, A Modest Minister, published in the Hamilton Spectator, March 1874 was a biting piece of political satire directed at a local Minister (political or church?), whose name probably rhymed with Cozey, regarding the way in which he acquired his land. This shows our author remained in the area for at least another ten years and was not afraid to ruffle feathers.

A John A. Macpherson was running for the seat of Dundas in the 1871 election and appears in several Trove articles relating to property issues in the region, his fellow candidates were James Gardner and David Gaunson, possibly one of them was ‘Cozey’.

The first poem that appears by Ossian Macpherson was published on 23 December 1857 in the Kyneton Observer:


Slaking my thirst beside this cooling rill,
Uncertain what my future lot may be ;
Driven about, the sport of fortune's will
Footsore, I've wandered Ballarat to thee.
My breast is fill'd with many an anxious thought.
A stranger—in this giant infant land;
A wanderer—in these fields with riches fraught
Seeking a crust amid a varied band.
Shall I succeed?

Oh! do not droop, my heart,
Tho'all looks dark—yet fate is sometimes kind;
Do not sink now—all wearied as thou art,
For little mayst thou reck what lurks behind -
Yon sun now hid behind the blacken'd cloud,
Methinks ev'n now its voice is speaking loud,
And bids me yet a little longer wait.

For I have traversed many a spot on earth,
And climb'd full many a dreary hill in life ;
Thought that my star was darken'd at my birth,
Foreboding nought but endless care and strife
But hope is strong—and though the past has been
A chain of trials, I would fain forget;
That star would yet shine brightly and serene
And I will not despair—not yet—not yet.



So this John Alexander MacPherson, who arrived in Ballarat around 1857 seems to be a very strong candidate for Ossian Macpherson. John was born in 1833, so would have been just 24 when writing his first poem. Strangely, the Wikipedia page for John makes no mention of his likely ventures as a brilliant poet. John ended up being the Premier of Victoria for just over a year, Sep 1869-April 1870 and died in England at the age of 60 in 1894.

There are around 90 other poems penned by ‘Ossian Macpherson’, many of which look like they have never been published outside the newpaper they appeared in.

Happy Samhain/Halloween to all, I suspect there will be more to this story!

UPDATE: Since writing this post, you will see in the comments that I have been contacted by a relative of Ossian Macpherson. It looks like the John Alexander link was not to be. I have started publishing the poems of Ossian Macpherson (now under the right name) on, you can read all the poems here.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Nine Tailors make a Man

In the New York Times, on 10 December 1904, can be found a letter to the editor arguing over the origins of the phrase ‘Nine Tailors make a Man’, which was obviously in common currency at that time. The correspondent refutes an explanation that a wealthy merchant had nine tailors painted on the door of his wagon in thanks for their work and offers the suggestion that he had heard as a young boy in Scotland that Queen Elizabeth had gathered nine tailors to represent the Tailors’ Guild of the City of London to advise her on a policy issue.

Evidently the New York Times had forgotten its own backlog because it published a letter to the editor of the London Spectator on September 9 in 1882 where the correspondent corrects a review of ‘Harry Erskine and His Times’ by stating that the origin of the saying is ‘Nine Talers (tellers) make a Man’ referencing the custom where the church bell is always rung nine times when a man is buried (one for an infant, three for a girl and six for a women). This incidentally answers a question I had about the lines in The Magpie linking events to numbers.

What started all this? Well the long-form (Nobel Peace Prize nominated) journalist, Ethan Gutmann, chose a recording of Benjamin Bowmaneer to open his new podcast, The Gutmann Report. The ballad, Roud #1514, is also known by The Prancing Tailor or Benjamin Bowman / Bowlabags / Bolibus / Bolderman. The recording chosen was the one made in 1971 by The New Golden Ring, a folk group I had never heard of, but their two albums Five Days Singing Volume I & II are pretty good.

So when I did my own recording of this ballad, I had already heard Kate Rusby’s version, however, as any fans of Kate will know, her voice is so strikingly beautiful that sometimes you forget what she is singing about. When I actually looked at the lyrics I realised that they make no sense. First I thought it was a song about a war with the French, or maybe a reference to Reepicheep from Narnia or Despereaux Tiling with all the thimbles and needles.

Some trawling of the Mudcat threads here and here indicated that the song had something to do with a prevailing view that Tailors were not manly, and thus the butt of several songs and stories making fun of this perception. The Trooper and the Tailor is one example, which reminds me of Alistair Hulett’s Tinker in the Lum. Evidently, cuckholding was a national sport in England. The Butcher and the Tailor’s Wife paints the Tailor with worse cowardice as he gives up his wife at the first threat to his person. This theme reminded me of the excellent story arc of Mr Gold (Rumpelstiltskin) in the psycho-drama disguised as a children’s story, Once Upon a Time.

So is the version of the story in question, Benjamin Bowmaneer, just a case of making fun of Tailors because they pretend that killing a flea (or louse or mouse) is brave sport? There is another interesting aspect to this song, and it is related to the story that Malcom Douglas relays in this Mudcat thread. It could just be one of many fanciful ‘collection’ stories used to justify insertion of songs into books, but the story goes that Mary Spence’ great aunt heard a traveling tailor singing the song around 1804 and memorised it.

This could well be an example of the folk process, with misheard lyrics accounting for the un-intelligible lyrics of the song version in question. Some key phrases that have alternatives in Malcom’s post of The Proud Tailor.

The Proud Tailor                                                       Benjamin Bowmaneer

How the world began                                                   How the war began
Nine Tailors make a man                                         England fought to a man
Low cast away                                                               Castors away

Unfortunately I don’t have a way to decide which is the original and which is the poorly heard copy, except that The Proud Tailor was collected around 1928 and Benjamin Bowmaneer was published in 1959 but probably collected well before that.

From Hester Burton’s 1962 book, Castor’s Away!, about the battle of Trafalgar, and the fact that a beaver is also called a castor, it is likely that the line in the Benjamin Bowmaneer version is probably the correct (original) one. However, if the practice of throwing your beaver hat into the air was particularly nautical, why would the reference appear in a song about a tailor? It seems this ballad just keeps asking more questions than it asks. I haven’t even looked at why there are more than six different surnames starting with B for Benjamin.

In any case, it was a pleasant song to sing and as long as you can get past occupation stereotyping, the lyrics have a certain mysterious quality to them.

(image from the British Museum – Creative Commons)

Tailors Hunting a Louse – 1811

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Lyrics and Chords · Poetry · Spirituality and Philosophy

The Stolen Rhyme

I have always loved the haunting ethereal beauty of Loreena McKennitt’s setting of William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, to music. I tried to practice singing the song before doing this recording for my YouTube channel, but even after 4-5 days I just couldn’t get the verses to flow.

This fired my curiosity, and so I looked a little deeper into the structure of the poem. For reference, here is the complete poem:

The Stolen Child – W.B. Yeats, 1886

    Where dips the rocky highland
    Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
    There lies a leafy island
    Where flapping herons wake
    The drowsy water rats;
    There we’ve hid our faery vats,
    Full of berry
    And of reddest stolen cherries.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand.
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

   Where the wave of moonlight glosses
    The dim grey sands with light,
    Far off by furthest Rosses
    We foot it all the night,
    Weaving olden dances
    Mingling hands and mingling glances
    Till the moon has taken flight;
    To and fro we leap
    And chase the frothy bubbles,
    While the world is full of troubles
    And is anxious in its sleep.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

   Where the wandering water gushes
    From the hills above Glen-Car,
    In pools among the rushes
    That scarce could bathe a star,
    We seek for slumbering trout
    And whispering in their ears
    Give them unquiet dreams;
    Leaning softly out
    From ferns that drop their tears
    Over the young streams.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

    Away with us he’s going,
    The solemn-eyed:
    He’ll hear no more the lowing
    Of the calves on the warm hillside
    Or the kettle on the hob
    Sing peace into his breast,
    Or see the brown mice bob
    Round and round the oatmeal chest.
    For he comes, the human child,
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

I realised that what was causing me the problem is that the length of verse and rhyming pattern within the last lines of each verse is not consistent. Note the rhyming structure in the first verse:

Where dips the rocky highland, Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island, Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats; There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berry, And of reddest stolen cherries.

Yet in the next stanza we have:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses, The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses, We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances, Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.

There are an extra three half-lines, and their rhyming doesn’t fit the model. Verse three is similarly muddled, yet verse four goes back to the structure of the first verse.

As a ballad singer, I am acutely conscious of the way that repetition in metre and rhyme makes it much easier to memorise and perform songs. I imagine that William B. Yeats would have been very familiar with the work of the Irish Bards and the use of this style of verse.

It could just be that this poem is intended to be read, not sung, and the discontinuity was intended as part of the work. However, the confusion goes beyond just the rhyme structure. The third verse is about gushing water, which seems to align with the ‘frothy bubbles’ in verse two. This phrase appears to be out of place in verse two, which is about pagan dances in the moonlight.

Yeats purists will probably chide me, but in my ballad version I have restructured the verses so that they are all four line stanzas with a repeated rhyming structure. So verses two and three become:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses the dim grey sands with light
By far off furthest rosses we foot it all the night
Weaving olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight To and fro we leap

Where the wandering water gushes from the hills above Glen-Car         
In pools among the rushes that scarce could bathe a star            
We seek for slumbering trout, leaning softly out 
Hoping to find Fintan, knowledge for to gain

From ferns that drop their tears, over the young streams
And whisper in their ears, giving them unquiet dreams
And stir the frothy bubbles, whilst the world is full of troubles
Eyes blind but open, and anxious in their sleep.

The bold lines are my own additions. As students of Irish mythology will know, Fintan is the Salmon of Knowledge. I immediately thought of this on first reading of the verse about tickling trout. I have moved the ‘frothy bubbles’ to the line about streams. Interestingly, there was a note with the published version of this poem, indicating that there is a place in The Rosses where those who lay down to sleep may have their souls stolen by the fairies.

This site has a beautiful photo of the waterfall at Glen-Car. It is definitely the type of place in which one could imagine the fairy folk coming to visit. Yeats would have visited this site in his childhood.

On this lovely site there is a story about using the starlight reflected in forests pools to create powerful wands.

A review of the huge tome of work that Yeats has left us here, will show that he was both very well read and from his work A Vision, he was no stranger to the mystic arts. I wonder what other messages he hid in this and other works.