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The Butcher Boy

[ Roud 409 ; Laws P24 ; Ballad Index LP24 ; Go Dig My Grave / Died for Love / The Butcher Boy at Fire Draw Near ; ButcherBoy at Old Songs ; Bodleian Roud 409 ; DT BUTCHBOY , SAILDAUG ; Mudcat 2942 , 26561 ; trad.]

Kelly Hattell sang The Butcher’s Boy in a Victor Record Company recording in New York on 7 January 1925. It was included in 1978 on the Blue Ridge Institute album in their Virginia Traditions series, Ballads From British Tradition.

Buell Kazee from Kentucky sang The Butcher Boy on a recording made on 16 January 1928 that was included in 2015 on the anthology of British songs in the USA, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.

Sarah Makem sang The Butcher Boy in two recordings made by Diane Hamilton in 1956. They were included in 2012 on her Musical Traditions anthology As I Roved Out. Another recording made by Paul Carter and Sean O’Boyle in 1967 was published in 2012 on her Topic anthology The Heart Is True (The Voice of the People Series Volume 24). Rod Stradling commented in the first album’s booklet:

The Butcher’s Boy appears to be derived from at least three separate British broadsides, namely Sheffield Park, The Squire’s Daughter (also known as The Cruel Father or The Deceived Maid) and A Brisk Young Sailor, which is also sometimes called There Is an Alehouse in Yonder Town. It’s a very well-known ballad, with 275 Round instances, 80 of which are sound recordings, but almost all are from the USA. Ireland has only one other named singer, Andy Cash, and England has only eight entries.

Frank Proffitt sang this song as Morning Fair on his 1962 Folk-Legacy album Frank Proffitt of Reese, NC. The booklet commented:

Not often found in this form, this ballad is widely popular in America as The Butcher Boy, perhaps because it was widely printed in the early songsters. Brown points out that it appeared as a stall ballad in both Boston and New York. Frank learned his splendid variant from his aunt, Nancy Prather. The ballad is usually found with the following as the final couplet:

And on my breast place a turtle dove
To show the world that I died for love.

Jean Ritchie sang Go Dig My Grave in a 1963 live recording on the Folkways album Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City. She noted:

I learned this song from two sources. The “Dig my grave” verse, really a fragment of the Butcher Boy, or Railroad Boy song, was the one usually sung by the banjo pickers in my community. They never sang the rest of the song, probably because the younger generation was more interested in the instrument than in the song. I learned some of the Railroad Boy verses from my sister Una; she’s a generation ahead of me (there were fourteen in my family and I am the youngest and Una the fourth child), and remembers it from the days when songs had the upper hand over instruments! The rest of the story I filled in, and I added the “Lordy me” refrain.

Queen Caroline Hughes sang The Butcher Boy in a recording made by Peter Kennedy in her caravan near Blandford, Dorset, in April 1968. It was published in 2012 on her CD of the Topic anthology I’m a Romany Rai (The Voice of the People Series Volume 22).

Derek Sarjeant sang Sailor Coming Home on Leave in 1970 on his album Derek Sarjeant Sings English Folk, and he and Hazel King sang Sailor Home on Leave in 1978 on their album English & Scottish Folksongs and Ballads. The first album’s sleeve noted:

Derek collected this song from an old sailor in one of the Medway Towns, and turns the familiar story (airmen and soldiers also claim it) into a real tale of tragedy.

Almeda Riddle from Heber Springs, Arkansas, sang The Butcher’s Boy in 1972 on her Rounder album Ballads and Hymns From the Ozarks.

The Bluewater Folk sang The Butcher Boy in 1981 on their Hill & Dale album A Lancashire Life; it was recorded and produced by Bill Leader.

Melcena Smith and Elias Fazer sang The Butcher’s Boy in a 1982 recording made by Stephen Storm Roberts that was included in 1999 on the EFDSS anthology Root & Branch 1: A New World.

Garret and Norah Arwood sang The Butcher’s Boy to Mike Yates on 21 May 1983 at their home in Pigeon Roost, Mitchell County, North Carolina. This recording was included in 2002 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs, tunes and stories from Mike Yates’ Appalachian collections, Far in the Mountains Volumes 3 & 4.

Lau sang The Butcher Boy on their 2007 album Lightweights & Gentlemen.

Duncan Wiliamson sang The Butcher Boy in a recording made by Mike Yates in Ladybank, Fife, on 14 August 2001. It was in included in 2002 on the album of songs, stories and ballads from Scottish Travellers on Yates’ Kyloe label, Travellers’ Tales Volume 2.

Natalie Merchant sang The Butcher’s Boy on Kronos Quartet’s 2017 CD Folk Songs.

Lankum sang Go Dig My Grave in 2023 on their Rough Trade album False Lankum. They noted:

Go Dig My Grave is a member of a family of songs (Died for Love, The Butcher Boy, The Brisk Young Farmer etc.) which seem to be largely made up of what are known as ‘floating verses’. Many of these verses were originally composed as stanzas of various different ballads, such as Robert Johnson’s A Forlorn Lover’s Complaint, which dates back to c.1611. What separates the various ballads in this family is the order in which the verses appear. One element that most of them share is the description of the maid’s epitaph, like this one from a broadside dating to c.1790:

Dig me a grave, both wide and deep;
Place a marble-stone for to cover it,
And in the middle a turtle dove,
To show young virgins I dy’d for love!

Radie [Peat] learnt this particular version from the singing of Jean Ritchie, who recorded it in 1963 on the album Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City (FA 2426).


Sarah Makem sings The Butcher Boy

In London city where I did dwell
A butcher boy, I loved right well
He courted me, and me heart away
And then with me, he would not stay.

I wish, I wish, but it’s all in vain
I wish I was a maid again
A maid, a maid I ne’er shall be
’Til cherries grow on an apple tree.

I wish my baby it way born
And smiling on its daddy’s knee
And I poor girl to be dead and gone
And the long green grass growing over me.

She went upstairs to make her bed
And calling up her mother said
“Get me a chair ’til I sit down
A pen and ink ’til I write down.”

At every word she dropped a tear
And every line cried, “Willie dear.
Oh, what a foolish girl was I
To be led astray by a butcher boy.”

He went upstairs and the door he broke,
He found her hanging from a rope.
He took his knife and he cut her down
And in her pocket, these lines were found.

Dig my grave wide large and deep
Put a marble stone at my head and feet
And in the middle, a turtle dove,
That the world may see I died for love.

Frank Proffitt sings Morning Fair

As I woke up one morning fair
To take a walk all in the air,
I thought I heard my true love say,
“Oh turn and come my way.

“You told me tales, you told me lies,
You courted a girl worth more than I.
But gold will fade and silver will fly,
My love for you will never die.

“Oh, tell me, Willie, oh tell me please,
Do you take her upon your knees
And hug and kiss her all so free
And tell her things you won’t tell me?

“Is it because that I am pool
That you turn me far from your door
To wander out in a cruel dark world
Because you love a rich man’s girl?”

“She gave me cake, she gave me wine,
I rode out in her carriage fine;
She set herself upon my knee
And begged and kissed me all so free.

“Her father gives to me his land
And also of his daughter’s hand;
To give it up, a fool I’d be,
To trade it all for the love of thee.”

She went upstairs, up to her bed;
A aching was all in her head;
A rope she tied around the sill;
They found her hanging, cold and still.

There in her bosom was this note,
All with her pen these words she wrote:
“Heap up my grave so very high
So Willie can see as he rides by.”

Queen Caroline Hughes sings The Butcher Boy

Oh, at London town where I did dwell,
Oh, the butcher boy I loved so deep.
He courted me my life away
And that same town where I could not stay.

“Oh, mother dear, you do not know
What pains and sorrows that I’ve had to bear.
You get me a chair and I’ll set down
And pen and ink I will write it down.”

Now, her father come home late one night.
He found his house without of light.
Upstairs he goes in his daughter’s room,
Found her hanging by her beside by a rope.

Oh, with a knife he cut her down
And in her left breast that note were found.
Oh, what a silly girl she were
To hang herself for a butcher boy.

“Now, mother dear, you order my grave,
You order it neat and very long.
You’ll put white lilies now head and foot,
And in the middle you placed a dove
To show this wide world I died for love.”