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> Steeleye Span > Songs > Treadmill Song
> Martin Carthy > Songs > Gaol Song / Treadmill Song
> Dave Swarbrick > Songs > Treadmill Song

Gaol Song / Treadmill Song

[ Roud 1077 ; Ballad Index FaE022 ; trad.]

The Gaol Song was collected by H.E.W. Hammond from William Davy, Beaminster Workhouse, Dorset in June 1906. Davy's text was combined with a version of the song collected at the same time from Sam Gregory, who was also a resident in the Workhouse, with further changes made my A.L. Lloyd and Ralph Vaughan Williams when they published it in 1959 in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. For more details on William Davy's life and for specifics of editorial changes see Malcolm Douglas' reissue of this book (Classic English Folk Songs, EFDSS, 2003).

In 1960, A.L. Lloyd recorded it unaccompanied for the album A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Like all tracks from this LP it was reissued in 2003 on the CD England & Her Traditional Songs. Lloyd wrote in the album's sleeve notes:

Few prison songs have been recovered from English tradition, and most of them are Irish. We haven't found any other quite like this treadmill song, of which H.E.W. Hammond found two versions in the workhouse at Beaminster, Dorset, in 1906.

Bernard Wrigley sang this song as Treadmill Song in 1971 on his Topic album The Phenomenal B. Wrigley.

Several versions of this song involved Martin Carthy: In 1995, Roy Harris with Martin Carthy recorded the Gaol Song for the Fellside anthology, A Selection from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs; Steeleye Span recorded it in 1977 as Treadmill Song for their tenth album, Storm Force Ten; Martin Carthy sang lead vocals. And in 2006, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, recorded the Treadmill Song again for their CD Straws in the Wind. Carthy commented in the latter album's sleeve notes:

The person who wrote Treadmill Song surely had a bleak view of real life. It's a rare song, as are prison songs in England, and sounds somehow to have derived from somebody's personal experience. If people survived such a term, they must have developed huge leg muscles and probably nothing else. I say “if”. The unimaginably dull, repetitive work was expressly (!) designed to destroy the soul and the prison food was rank. Just the sight of the occasional engraving of a treadmill is enough to bring a comfortable 21st Century body out in the coldest of sweats.

This video shows Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick live at The Frazer Theatre, Knavesborough, on March 20, 2009:

Coope Boyes & Simpson combined Gaol Song with Robert Burns' The Slave Lament in 2010 on their CD As If …. The details on this song in the first paragraph above are mainly based on Georgina Boyes' comments in this album's sleeve notes.

Hannah James and Sam Sweeney sang the Gaol Song in 2009 on their CD Catches and Glees.

This video shows them at a House Gig in Bedfordshire in October 2011:

Jon Boden sang the Gaol Song as the April 6, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Stick in the Wheel sang Jail Song on their 2015 CD From Here.

Lyrics

A.L. Lloyd sings Gaol Song Steeleye Span's Treadmill Song

“Step in, young man, I know your face,
It's nothing in your favour.
A little time I'll give to you:
Six months unto hard labour.”

“Step in, young man, I know your face,
It's nothing in your favour.
A little time I'll give to you:
Six months unto hard labour.”

Chorus (after each verse):
To me Hip! fol the day, Hip! fol the day,
To me Hip! fol the day, fol the digee, oh!
Chorus (after each verse):
With me hip! fol the day, me hip! fol the day,
Me hip! fol the day, fol the digee, oh!

At six o'clock our turnkey comes in,
With a bunch of keys all in his hand.
“Come, come, my lads, step up and grind.
Tread the wheel till breakfast time.”

At six o'clock the screw comes in,
A bunch of keys all in his hand,
Step up, my lads, step up in time,
And tread the wheel till breakfast time.

At eight o'clock our skilly comes in,
Sometimes thick and sometimes thin,
But devil a word we must not say
Or it's bread and water all next day.

And at eight o'clock the skilly comes in,
It's sometimes thick and it's sometimes thin,
And never a word dare we all say,
Or it's bread and water all next day.

At half past eight the bell doth ring.
Into the chapel we must swing,
Down on our bended knees to fall.
The Lord have mercy on us all.

At half past eight the bell do ring,
And off to the chapel, boys, we must swing.
Down on our bended knees we fall,
The Lord have mercy on us all.

At nine o'clock the jangle rings.
All on the trap, boys, we must spring.
“Come, come, my lads, step up in time,
The wheel to tread and the corn to grind.”

And at nine o'clock the jangle ring
And all on the trap, boys, we must spring.
“Step up, my lads, step up in time,
The wheel's to tread and the corn's to grind.”

Now Saturday's come, I'm sorry to say,
Sunday is our starvation day.
Our hobnail boots and tin mugs too,
They are not shined nor they will not do.

Now Saturday's come, I am sorry to say,
For Sunday is starvation day.
Our hobnail boots and our tin mugs too,
They are not shined and they will not do.

Now six long months are over and past,
And I will return to my bonny, bonny lass.
I'll leave them turnkeys all behind,
The wheel to tread and the corn to grind,

When six long months are gone and past,
Then I'll return to my bonny, bonny lass.
I'll leave the turnkeys all behind,
The wheel to tread and the corn to grind.

Acknowledgements

The words are from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, eds Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd, Penguin, 1959. The variations in the actual singing transcribed by Reinhard Zierke. Thanks to Garry Gillard.