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The Cunning Cobbler

[ Roud 174 ; Master title: The Cunning Cobbler ; Ballad Index CoSB224 ; Bodleian Roud 174 ; trad.]

George Spicer of Copthorne, Sussex, sang The Cunning Cobbler on 4 February 1956 to Peter Kennedy. This BBC recording 23093 was also included on the anthology Songs of Seduction (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 2; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968). Another recording made by Brian Matthews on 12 November 1959 at The Oak Tree, Ardingley, was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology Just Another Saturday Night. Rod Stradling commented:

This looks like a fairly common song, having 53 Roud entries, but closer examination reveals that only 15 named singers provided these—the remainder being broadside examples. George learned it from Ike Harvey, landlord of The Rose, West Langdon, who “had the words on a broadsheet”. It appears to be known fairly widely in southern England, from Devon to Essex, with only Walter Pardon (Knapton, Norfolk) and William Short (Lincolnshire) being outside that area.

[…] The present recording, made only three years after this well-known one by Peter Kennedy, includes an extra verse (v. 7) and makes me wonder whether George hadn't met Gordon Hall at some point in the intervening years!

With its gratuitous violence, it isn't surprising that the version which was once so popular amongst revivalists omitted the final verse—though it does make the butcher's rough handling of the little cuckolder seem slightly more justified.

A third recording made my Mike Yates at George Spicer's home in Selsfield, West Hoathly, Sussex, in 1974 was published in the same year on Spicer's Topic album of traditional songs and ballads, Blackberry Fold.

Alex Bloomfield sang Cunning Cobbler to Keith Summers in between 1971 and 1977. This recording was published on the 2006 Veteran CD of traditional folk songs, Music Hall songs, and tunes from Suffolk recorded by Summers, Good Hearted Fellows.

Walter Pardon sang The Cunning Cobbler on 24 August 1980 to Pat Mackenzie and Jim Carroll. This recording was published in 2000 on on his Topic CD A World Without Horses. Mike Yates noted:

This forerunner of the Whitehall farces first appeared sometime around 1830 when a dozen or so broadside printers issued the song on their respective sheets. These included Birt, Catnach, Disley, Fortey, Hodge and Such, all of London; Walker and Ross, both of Newcastle; Forth of Hull; Wheeler of Manchester, Jackson of Birmingham; Harkness of Preston and Willey of Cheltenham. According to folklorist Gerald Porter there was more to the humble cobbler than might first have been suspected. “A shoemaker's songs, like himself, can be simultaneously admired, copied and ridiculed and the significations of the occupation can be displaced, challenged or appropriated… Everyday order is challenged and opposites are mingled.” (Folk Music Journal, 1995).

Brian Peters sang The Cunning Cobbler in 1985 on his Fellside album Persistence of Memory.

Chris Foster sang The Cobbler and the Butcher in 2004 on his Tradition Bearers album Jewels.

Pete Wood sang The Cunning Cobbler on his 2014 CD Young Edwin. He noted:

Very definitely an Arthur Knevett song, it's jolly, bawdy, and jaunty. The idea of a tailor, traditionally ridiculed, managing a butcher's wife is particularly potent. However, an entirely possible scenario.

Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly sang The Cunning Cobbler on their 2019 CD Changeable Heart.


George Spicer sings The Cunning Cobbler

This is just a little story a story but the truth I'm going to tell,
It does concern a butcher who in Dover Town did dwell.
Now this butcher was possessed of a beautiful wife
But the cobbler he loved her dearly as his life.

Chorus (after each verse):
Singing fol the riddle-i-do, fol the riddle-ay

Now the butcher went to market for to buy an ox,
And then the little cobbler, as sly as any fox,
He put on his Sunday coat, and courting he did go
To the jolly butcher's wife because he loved her so.

Now when the little cobbler stepped into the butcher's shop,
The butcher's wife knew what he meant and bade him for to stop.
“Oh,” says he, “My darling, have you got a job for me?”
The butcher's wife so cunning says, “I'll go up and see.”

Now she went to the bedroom door and gave the snob a call:
“I have got a easy job if you have brought your awl,
And if you do it workman-like some cash to you I'll pay.”
“Oh thank you,” said the cobbler and began to stitch away.

But as the cobbler was at work a knock came at the door,
The cobbler scrambled out of bed and laid upon the floor.
“Oh,” said she, “My darling, what will my husband say?”
But then she let the policeman in along with her to play.

Now the cobbler laid a-shivering and a-frightened to move.
The policeman said, “Me dear, oh me darling, oh me love”.
The cobbler thought within himself, “Oh how he treats his wife.”
He really thought the bed would fall—he did, upon his life.

But the butcher came from market in the middle of the night,
The policeman scrambled out of bed and soon got out of sight.
The butcher's wife so nimbly locked the bedroom door
But in her fright she quite forgot the cobbler on the floor.

But the butcher soon found out when he lay down in bed.
“Something here is very hard,” the butcher smiled and said.
She says, “It is my rolling pin.” The butcher he did laugh,
“How came you for to roll your dough with a policeman's staff?”

Now the butcher threw the truncheon underneath the bed,
There it cracked the piddle-pot and hit the cobbler's head.
The cobbler cried out, “Murder!” Said the butcher, “Who are you?”
“I am the little cobbler who goes mending ladies' shoes.”

“If you are the little cobbler, come along with me,
I'll pay you for your mending, before I've done with thee.”
He shoved him in the bull-pen, the bull began to roar.
The butcher laughed to see the bull a-roll him o'er and o'er.

Now early in the morning just as people got about
The butcher mopped his face with blood and then he turned him out.
He pinned a ticket to his back and on it was the news:
“This cobbler to the bedroom goes, mending ladies' shoes.”

But the people all got frightened when they saw the cobbler run,
His coat and breeches were so tore he nearly showed his bum.
He rushed up to his wife and he kicked her on the floor,
Says he, “You brute, I'll never go out mending any more.”

Alex Bloomfield sings Cunning Cobbler

And a story a story to you I will tell
Of a cobbler and butcher in London did dwell.
Now the butcher possessed of a beautiful wife
And the cobbler he loved her as he loved his life.

Chorus (after each verse):
Singing fiddle all the day, boys, fiddle all the day.

He goes to the butcher’s shop, the butcher’s wife know what he wants,
He said “Have you got a job for me?”
She said “You wait a minute; I’ll go upstairs and see.”

She’d been upstairs a minute or two and she give the snob a call.
“Oh, I’ve got some easy work if you have brought your awl.
And if you do your work, some cash to you I’ll pay.”
“Oh, thank you,” said the cobbler, and started to stitch away.

All of a sudden there was such a knockin’ on the door,
The cobbler scrambled round the room and laid upon the floor.
She said “Oh, it is my husband and what will he say”
And then she let the policeman in along with her to play.

A-rap-a-tapping on the door it put them in a fight.
The old policeman scrambled down the stairs, he soon was out of sight.
And the butcher’s wife so nimbly, she locked the bedroom door
And in her fright forgot the little cobbler on the floor.

And when the butcher come to bed, he laid on something hard.
His wife said “That’s my rolling pin; you should hear the butcher laugh.
He said “Why do you have to roll your dough with a policeman’s staff?”

So he seizes the truncheon and he slings it under the bed.
There it broke the chamber pot and hit the cobbler’s head.
The cobbler, he cried “Murder!” the butcher said “Hallo,
He be the little cobbler come to mend the ladies’ shoes.”

So he locked him in the bullock’s pen, the bull began to roar
And the butcher laughed to see the bull, it knocked him o’er and o’er.

And the people they got frightened and soon the cobbler run,
His coat and britches were so torn, you saw his little bum.
He ran so fast, he hit his wife, he knocked her on the floor
And he swore he wouldn’t go out mending any more.