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John Hobbs

[ Roud 21966 ; Ballad Index JRUI144 ; Bodleian Roud 21966 ; trad.]

The Rigs of the Fair

Jon Raven sang John Hobbs in 1975 on his Broadside album Ballad of the Black Country. And he incluced this song in his 1977 book The Urban and Industrial Songs of the Black Country and Birmingham.

Jon Wilks sang John Hobbs in January 2018 in his Grizzlyfolk blog Folk from the Attic, in 3 April 2018 as a digital single, and on his 2018 album Midlife. On the album, this is followed by Bandy-Legged Lett, and Jon noted on both songs:

The first of two rather sinister songs that deal with the unpleasant subject of “wife selling”, which was so common in the Midlands in the late 1800s that a genre existed around it. I should point out that I’m not endorsing the selling of spouses by exploring these songs. Just as Shallow Brown reintroduces us to the heartbreak of those smuggled onto slave ships, these songs give us pause for thought on the harsh fates of those who lived here before us.

That said, there seems to have been a side to “wife selling” that wasn’t quite as sinister as the name suggests. Often, the woman would also be seeking a way out of the marriage, and at a time when divorce was heavily frowned upon, this seemed like a way of getting things done. In fact, records of the time suggest it was common for the woman’s lover to be present at the market to conclude the transaction. Everyone left happily, it seems, apart from the Church, who eventually clamped down on what was deemed licentious behaviour.

The two songs here show versions of both the dark side of this practice and the more frivolous nature. Both are taken from The Urban and Industrial Songs of the Black Country and Birmingham, edited by Jon Raven.

For more info on the song itself, see Jon’s Folk from the Attic blogpost John Hobbs (a wife-selling song).

Steeleye Span sang John Hobbs in 2019 as half of their track Domestic on their 50th anniversary album, Est’d 1969. They noted:

There are lots of songs in the tradition about relationships between men and women. Many come from a time where women had little power, and strength in a woman was twisted to the negative image of a harridan. These two songs ale slightly different.

The first has echoes of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy’s novel which opens with a man selling his wife. This is more of a comedic view of the situation, where the man is more hapless than malicious.

The second song (My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him), which I first sang with June Tabor as the Silly Sisters, is the only song I can think of that addresses the possible inadequacies of men.


Jon Wilks sings John Hobbs

A jolly shoemaker, John Hobbs, John Hobbs,
A jolly shoemaker, John Hobbs.
He married Jane Carter,
No damsel looked smarter;
But he caught a tartar, John Hobbs, John Hobbs.
He caught a tartar, John Hobbs.

He tied a rope to her, John Hobbs, John Hobbs,
He tied a rope to her, John Hobbs.
To escape from hot water
To Smithfield he brought her,
But nobody bought her, Jane Hobbs, Jane Hobbs.
They all were afraid of Jane Hobbs.

“Oh who’ll buy a wife?” says Hobbs, John Hobbs
“A sweet, pretty wife” says John Hobbs
But somehow they tell us:
Those wife-dealing fellas
Were all of them sellers, John Hobbs, John Hobbs.
And none of them wanted Jane Hobbs.

The rope it was ready, John Hobbs, John Hobbs,
“Come give me the rope!” says John Hobbs,
“I won’t stand to wrangle,
Myself I will strangle
And hang dingle dangle,” John Hobbs, John Hobbs.
He hung dingle dangle, John Hobbs.

Down his wife cut him, did Hobbs, Jane Hobbs,
Down his wife cut him, Jane Hobbs.
With a few hubble-bubbles
They settled their troubles
Like most married couples, John Hobbs, Jane Hobbs,
Like most married couples, The Hobbs.

Steeleye Span sing John Hobbs

A jolly Shoemaker was Hobbs, John Hobbs,
A jolly Shoemaker, John Hobbs.
He married Miss Carter,
No lady was smarter.
But he caught a tartar did Hobbs, John Hobbs,
He caught a tarter, did Hobbs.

He took her to market did Hobbs, John Hobbs,
He took her to market, John Hobbs.
She made such a ruction,
He threatened destruction
Or sell her by auction would Hobbs, John Hobbs,
He’d sell her by auction, would Hobbs.

“Who’ll buy a wife?” said Hobbs, John Hobbs,
““A very good wife,” said Hobbs.
But somehow they tell us
These wife dealing fellows
Are most of them sellers like Hobbs, John Hobbs,
They’re most of them sellers, like Hobbs.

“Bring me a rope,” said Hobbs, John Hobbs,
“A very strong rope,” said Hobbs.
“I’ll not stand to wrangle,
Myself I will strangle.”
He hung dingle dangle did Hobbs, John Hobbs,
He hung dingle dangle, did Hobbs.