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Widdliecombe Fair / Monaghan Fair

[ Roud 666 ; Ballad Index K289 ; trad.]

Harry Cox sang Widdliecombe Fair to Peter Kennedy in Catfield, Norfolk, in October 1953. This recording was released in 1965 on his eponymous EFDSS album, Harry Cox, and in 2000 as A-Going to Widdliecombe Fair on his Rounder anthology What Will Become of England?. Peter Kennedy commented in the original album's booklet:

A Scots version called The Beggars of Coldingham Fair appears in Chamber's Popular Rhymes and an Irish version in Hayward's Ulster Songs and Ballads is titled Craigbilly or Crebilly Fair. The McPeakes sing “As i was going to Monaghan Fair who did I meet but an old beggar there” and an Essex variant published in the Journal (No. 33) is called Donnybrook Fair.

And the Rounder booklet commented extensively:

When we first visited Harry in his cottage, there was no electric light, as was still the case in most of the isolated villages in East Anglia. When Harry was young, his family had not had enough money to afford oil lamps through the winter. When the men got back from the fields, to save light, they would sit in the glimmer of what little fire they might have had. Most of Harry's memories are of little or no light, littler or no fire, and little or no bread. Fortunately, in later life, the mind tends to push those unpleasant times in the back of the brain somewhere, and Harry remembered the good times when his father reached under the bed and gout out “the music”—the button accordion—or the occasions when he borrowed a fiddle. Mostly, they sat in the dark. They sang the long ballads, taking it in turns.

But first they would sing songs that the children could join in—songs with funny names of people, songs with choruses that were hard to get your tongue around, or songs that got longer in every verse. A favourite was the one about tradesmen going to the fair, with its “tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor” kind of chorus. The name of the fair was not important—they used to change the location to keep the little ones awake.

Sean O'Boyle and I heard the McPeake family in Belfast singing about Monaghan Fair. When old McPeake sang “Who did he meet but an old baker there,” he made it sound like “an old bugger there”. In fact, most versions of this songs are about all the different beggars who turn up at the fair. Place names mentioned in other versions are widely distributed or don't exist at all. Chamber's Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1862) cites the border town of Goldingham, near Eyemouth in Berwickshire. In England, we heard of places we couldn't trace, like Maligan Fair (from a Bristol informant). In Ireland we came across both actual and fictitious places, such as Donnybrook and Crebilly.

Harry's “Widdliecombe” sounds like Widdecombe in Devonshire, the location of Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, Lend Me Your Grey Mare, the best known of all English cumulative songs—but that's another story for another evening round the fire. As Harry explains, “You need a whole lot of beggars [?] to keep that song going once you've started it off!”

Frank McPeake sang Monaghan Fair to Peter Kennedy at Cecil Sharp House in 1960. This recording was published in the same year on the HMV album A Jug of Punch: Broadside Ballads Old and New.

Tom Brown recorded Widdlecombe Fair in the mid-1980s in his home in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. This recording was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology First I'm Going to Sing You a Ditty (The Voice of the People Volume 7).

Lyrics

Harry Cox sings Widdliecombe Fair

As I was a-going to Widdliecombe Fair,
Jolly old baker I met here.
This old baker his named was Balls,
His old woman was Old Mother Bag-of-Balls.

Chorus:
Then there was Balls,
Old Mother Bag-of-Balls,
Johnny and Jumping Jones,
Jolly companions everyone.

As I was a-going to Widdliecombe Fair,
Jolly old cobbler I met here.
This old cobbler his named was Wax,
His old woman was Old Mother Balls-of-Wax.

Chorus:
Then there was Wax,
Old Mother Balls-of-Wax,
Balls,
Old Mother Bag-of-Balls,
Johnny and Jumping Jones,
Jolly companions everyone.

As I was a-going to Widdliecombe Fair,
Jolly old fiddler I met here.
This old fiddler his named was Dicks,
His old woman was Old Mother Fiddlesticks.

Chorus:
Then there was Dicks,
Old Mother Fiddlesticks,
Wax,
Old missus Balls-of-Wax,
Balls,
Old Mother Bag-of-Balls,
Johnny and Jumping Jones,
Jolly companions everyone.

Tom Brown sings Widdlecombe Fair

(And) As I was a-going to Widdlecombe Fair,
Jolly old cobbler I met here.
This old cobbler his named was Wax,
His old woman was Old Mother Balls-of-Wax.

Chorus:
Then there was Wax,
Old Mother Balls-of-Wax,
Johnny and Jumping Joan,
Jolly companions everyone.

fiddler—Sticks—Fiddlesticks

tinker—Pots—Piddle-Pots

tailor—Pins—Prickle-Pins

weaver—Cox—Shuttlebox

baker—Balls—Bag-of-Balls

butcher—Rump—Rumpatump