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

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