> Folk Music > Songs > The Capable Wife

The Old Man and His Wife / The Capable Wife

[ Roud 281 ; Laws Q1 ; Henry H702 ; Ballad Index LQ01 ; Bodleian Roud 281 ; Wiltshire 187 , 905 ; trad.]

Bernard Wrigley sang The Old Man and His Wife in 1974 on his Topic album Rough & Wrigley. He noted:

One of the original women’s lib songs. I got the words from Harland’s Ballads & Songs of Lancashire, and Harland got it from Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England (1842). It’s known in England, Scotland, pretty well all over America, and usually called Father Grumble. I wrote the tune specially with the two chord melodeon accompaniment in mind.

Cilla Fisher and Artie Trezise sang this song as John Grumlie in 1979 on their Topic album Cilla and Artie. Their liner notes commented:

Cilla's father used to sing this song in an amusing music hall style. Ray [Fisher] passed on the tune to us as she remembers it and the words are an adaption of the Aberdeenshire version.

George Withers sang The Old Man and His Wife on his Veteran Tapes cassette The Fly Be on the Turmut: The Songs of a Somerset Man. This recording was also included on the 2001 Veteran CD Down in the Fields: An Anthology of Traditional Folk Music from Rural England. Mike Yates noted:

Whether titled The Old Man and his Wife or The Drummer and his Wife, this is quite an old piece, and one that has proved especially popular in North America, be it in the Appalachians, the Ozarks or the Mid-West. In England it took on a new lease of life via a version that Cecil Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould included in their 1906 edition of English Folk Songs for Schools, although George [Withers] learnt his version from another singer, rather than from a book.

Kate Rusby sang this song using the title The Old Man in 2007 on her CD Awkward Annie.

Lady Maisery sang The Capable Wife in 2011 on their CD Weave & Spin. They commented in their liner notes:

Hannah [James] found this song in Fred Hamer's Green Groves collection. It's our jolly take on the serious issue of the gendered division of agricultural labour.

This YouTube video shows Lady Maisery singing The Capable Wife at Beverley Folk Acoustic Roots Festival in June 2012:


George Withers sings The Old Man and His Wife

There was an old man in the wood, as you shall plainly see sir,
He vowed he’d do more work in a day than his wife would do in three sir,
“If that be so,” the old wife said, “and this you will allow sir
While I go drive the plough today and you shall milk the cow sir.”

“But you must watch the speckled hen less she should lay away sir
And you must watch that spool of yarn that I spun yesterday sir.”
The old wife took the stick in hand and went to drive the plough sir,
The old man took the pail in hand and went to milk the cow sir.

But Tiny winced and fussed about and Tiny flipped her tail sir
And Tiny gave the man a kick that milk ran from the pail sir.
“Oh Tiny pretty Tiny dear, my pretty cow stand still, ah
If I milk you another day it’s sore against my will, ah.”

He went to feed the sow and pigs, which were within the sty sir,
He knocked his head agin the durn which made the blood to fly sir.
He went to watch the speckled hen less she should lay away sir,
He clean forgot the spool of yarn his wife spun yesterday sir.

He went within to get a stick, to give the pig her hire sir,
The pig ran in between his legs and tipped him in the mire sir.
And as he looked at cow and pig, he said, “I do agree sir,
If my wife never works again, she’ll not be blamed by me sir.”

Lady Maisery sing The Capable Wife

There was an old man who lived in the wood
As you will plainly see;
He thought he could do more work in a day
Than his wife could do in three.

“With all my heart,” the old dame said,
“If you will me allow:
You shall stay at home today
And I will hold the plough.”

“And mind you milk the tiny cow
Lest she should go dry,
And mind you feed the little pigs
That are within the sty.”

“And mind you watch the speckled hen
Lest she should stray away,
And don't forget the spool of yarn
That I spin every day.”

The old wife took her stick in her hand
And went to hold the plough;
The old man took the pail in his hand
And he went to milk the cow.

But Tiny she flinched and Tiny she squinched,
And Tiny she cocked up her nose.
And Tiny she gave him a kick in the shin
Till the blood ran down his toes.

And then he went to feed the pigs
That were within the sty
He knocked his head against the shed
And it made the blood to fly.

And then he watched the speckled hen
Lest she should stray away,
But he quite forgot the spool of yarn,
That his wife spun every day.

And when his wife came home that night
He said he could plainly see
She could do more work in a day
Than he could do in three.