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The Threshing Machine

[ Roud 1491 ; Ballad Index RcThraM ; VWML CJS2/9/165 , CJS2/10/98 ; Bodleian Roud 1491 ; trad.]

[Note: Though I prefer the modern spelling threshing I've copied it faithfully as thrashing when citing song titles, verses or notes.]

Cecil Sharp collected The Thrashing Machine from William Nott of Meshaw, Dover, on January 9, 1904. James Reeves included this version in 1958 in his book of English traditional verses from the mss of Cecil Sharp, The Idiom of the People. It was also included in 2007 in The Folk Handbook. Reeves noted:

Sharp's unpublished ms. appears to be the only source for this song. The suggestion in the third stanza is that the farmer has already been cuckolded.

The threshing machine would have been topical during the early years of the nineteenth century. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th edition), “A workable threshing machine was invented late in the eighteenth century and was gradually coming into use early in the nineteenth; it was driven by water or wind power, sometimes by horse labour, and later by steam. But it was not until the '30s of the nineteenth century that steam began to be applied at all extensively to agriculture.”

Anne O'Neill from Belfast sang The Thrashing Machine on August 1, 1952 to Peter Kennedy (BBC recording 18592). This recording was later included on the anthology Songs of Seduction (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 2; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968).

George Spicer of West Hoathly, Sussex, sang The Thrashing Machine in 1973 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in 1975 on the Topic anthology of countryside songs from Southern England, When Sheepshearing's Done, at the end of the 1980s on the Veteran Tapes cassette of traditional singing in Sussex, Ripest Apples (VT 107), and in 2001 on the Veteran anthology of traditional folk music from rural England, Down in the Fields. Mike Yates commented in the Topic album sleeve notes:

The Thrashing Machine is a well known, if not often reported, song. The poet James Reeves has suggested that it dates from the early part of the 19th century when mechanical threshing machines first became available and, in fact, it was printed in the 1830s by William Walker of Durham. Although the song exists in many manuscript collections it has often been prudishly overlooked by collectors who felt that they could not include such a song in their printed collections.

and in the Veteran CD notes:

One of the most popular songs of its type—well, popular with singers if not collectors!—and versions have been heard throughout Britain and Ireland. Mechanical threshing machines were first introduced into the countryside in the late 18th century, although it was not until the 1830s that use of the steam threshing machine became widespread, and the song probably dates from this period. Almost all singers, including George, use the melody of Villikins and Dinah to carry the words. Annie O’Neil, an Irish traveller, also sang a fine version.

Joe Davies from Devon sang The Thrashing Machine in between 1974 and 1976 to Sam Richards, Tish Stubbs and Paul Wilson. This recording was included in 1979 on the Topic anthology Devon Tradition. The album's liner notes commented:

The ubiquitous Thrashing Machine turns up in an explicit version from Joe Davies, rather cleverer than the rugby club one, but not far off in many respects.

Dougie Scott from Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, sang The Threshing Machine to Mike Yates on January 5, 2003. This recording was included in 2003 on Yates' anthology of ballads, songs and tunes from the Scottish Borders, Borderers. He noted:

A “wee thread o blue”. Mechanical threshing machines came into service in the 1830s and the song, which dates from shortly after this time, was published on a number of broadsides. It is extremely well-known to folksingers and sets have been collected throughout England and Ireland. Dougie picked up his version while serving in the King's Own Borderers.

Harry Upton from Balcombe, Sussex, sang The Thrashing Machine in 1975 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in 1978 on Upton's Topic album Why Can't It Always Be Saturday? and in 2015 on the same-named expanded CD on the Musical Traditions label Why Can't It Always Be Saturday?. Yates noted:

A lot of songs are sung to the tune of Villikins and Dinah and I would often ask singers whether or not they knew any words to the tune. In Harry's case there were at least two such songs, The Thrashing Machine and I Come from the Country.

Faustus sang Thrashing Machine in 2013 on their Navigator CD Broken Down Gentlemen. They noted:

An amalgam of three version recorded by, and in the private collection of, Gwilym Davies:

  1. Reg Prothorough, Charlton Kings, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, May 18, 1977.
  2. Dave Russell, Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, September 10, 1979.
  3. George Orchard, Staverton, Gloucestershire, 1993.

Saul [Rose] has used George Orchard’s melody and most of his text.

Lyrics

William Nott sings The Thrashing Machine

It's of a farmer near London 'tis said,
He kept a servant, a blooming young maid.
Her name it was Molly, she was scarcely sixteen,
She would work very well at the thrashing machine.

Chorus (after each verse):
Fal de ral fal de dee

“O Molly,” said Master, “the time are hard.
Will you go with me into the farm yard?
You harness young Dobbin, you know what I mean,
I think we can manage the thrashing machine.”

“O Master,” says Molly, “what will Missus say?”
“Never mind,” says Master, “she's making of hay.
And while she is spreading the grass that is green
We can be working the thrashing machine.”

So the barn doors were open, young Dobbin stood inside,
The farmer got on the machine for to ride.
“O Master,” says Molly, “you thrash very clean,
I think we can manage the thrashing machine.”

So young Dobbin got tired of going round,
He hangs to the traces, he bows to the ground.
Altho' once in good order, he's now got a wen
Through working so hard at the thrashing machine.

O Molly says smiling, “we have had a loss,
I think it requires a much stronger horse.
If Dobbin was strong as before he has been
I think, why we would keep working the thrashing machine?”

Six months it passed over and truth for to tell,
Molly's front parlour began for to swell.
And that shortly after she had got her wen,
The fruits of her labour with the thrashing machine.

George Spicer sings Thrashing Machine

There was an old farmer in Dover did dwell,
He had a fine servant, her name it was Nell.
He had a fine servant of sweet seventeen
When he showed her the way of his thrashing machine.

One day while the men were away in the hay
The Farmer saw Nell and to her he did say,
“Come into the barn where we cannot be seen
And I’ll show you the way of my thrashing machine.”

The barn door stood open, they both went inside,
Nell laid her two cogs on the handle with pride.
She pulled on the lever, she gave him full steam,
For that was the way of his thrashing machine.

The first three months things went very well,
Then Nellie’s old belly a story could tell.
For under her apron ‘twas plain to be seen,
Some chaff had blown there from his thrashing machine.

The Judge he stood there with a pen in his claw,
“Why you dirty old farmer, you’ve broken the law.
There’s no turning today for the fields are so green,
Pay three quid a week for your thrashing machine.”

Harry Upton sings Thrashing Machine

There was a young farmer I knowd'd him quite well,
He employed a land girl, her name was sweet Nell.
𝄆 Sweet Nelly, my darling, she was only sixteen
And he showed her the works of his thrashing machine. 𝄇

The barn doors was open, they both went inside.
He pulled off his harness, “Prepare for a ride.”
𝄆 He opened his throttle, went off with full steam,
And he showed her the works of his thrashing machine. 𝄇

Three months had gone by and they're both doing well,
Poor Nelly's belly began to swell.
𝄆 And under her apron you can plainly see
The wonderful works of his thrashing machine. 𝄇

Nine months had gone by and they went for an op,
Poor Nelly's belly went down with a flop.
𝄆 And now in the cradle you can plainly see
The wonderful works of his thrashing machine. 𝄇

“You randy old farmer,” the magistrate said,
“You worked this poor girl till she was very nearly dead.
𝄆 Your hay is not cut and your corn is still green,
But you'll have to pay for your thrashing machine.” 𝄇

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Req: Thrashing Machine: ‘I knew a farmer…’.