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(The Little) Ball of Yarn

[ Roud 1404 ; Ballad Index EM089 ; trad.]

Ben Willett sang The Little Ball of Yarn in a recording made by Bill Leader in 1962 on The Willett Family's Topic album The Roving Journeymen. Chris Willett sang The Little Ball of Yarn in another recording made by Peter Kennedy at Paddock Wood, Kent, on September 4, 1963; this was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology of Southern English Gypsy singers, I'm a Romany Rai (The Voice of the People Volume 22). The former album's sleeve notes commented:

A song of rural seduction that is very typical of the genre.

This song has not appeared in printed collections until Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas was published in 1961. However, in bawdier forms the song is widely known, notably among servicemen and rugby football players. It is the only song that Ben Willett can be persuaded to sing.

The melody here, a different one from Hugill's, is a 19th century music hall tune—Nellie Ray. It has been attached to a large number of texts, mostly ribald.

May Bradley sang The Little Ball of Yarn in a recording made by Fred Hamer in Ludlow, Shropshire, in 1959, 1965 or 1966. This was included in 2010 on her Musical Traditions anthology Sweet Swansea.

Martin Carthy sang Ball o' Yarn in 1966 on his Second Album. He commented in the album's sleeve notes:

The ball of yarn as a symbol of virginity is probably as old as spinning and weaving themselves. Though the story of Theseus and Ariadne in the labyrinth of the palace of Minos might seem to suggest a nobler ancestry than usual, this is probably pure romantic conjecture. This version was collected in Dorset by Cyril Tawney.

Mary Ann Haynes sang The Ball of Yarn in a Mike Yates recording made in 1972-75 on the 1975 Topic album Sussex Harvest: A Collection of Traditional Songs from Sussex. This track was also included in 1998 on the Topic anthology There Is a Man Upon the Farm (The Voice of the People Volume 20), and in 2003 on the Musical Traditions anthology Here's Luck to a Man: Gypsy Songs and Music from South-East England.

Geoff Ling sang Little Ball of Yarn in a recording made by Keith Summers in 1975-75 on their 1975 Topic album Singing Traditions of a Suffolk Family.

Bob Davenport sang Ball of Yarn on his 1977 Topic album Postcards Home.

Bob Roberts sang The Little Ball of Yarn in a recording made by Tony Engle in August 1977 at Ryde, Isle of Wight. This was released o year later n his Topic album Songs from the Sailing Barges.

Cyril Tawney sang Ball of Yarn live at the Holsteins Folk Club in Chicago on May 31, 1981. This concert was published in 2007 on his CD Live at Holsteins. This song can also be found on his 2007 anthology The Song Goes On compiled for the “Celebrating Cyril” Day held at Cecil Sharp House, London, on April 14, 2007.

Charlotte Renals sang Ball of Yarn in a recording made by Pete Coe in 1978. This was published on a Veteran tape published in 1987-93; in 1993 on the Veteran CD Stepping It Out: Traditional Folk Music, Songs and Dances from England, and in 2003 on the Veteran/Backshift CD Catch Me If You Can: Songs from Cornish Travellers.

Gordon Woods sang Ball of Yarn on a Veteran tape published in 1987-89; this was also included in 2000 on the Veteran CD Songs Sung in Suffolk: Popular Folk Songs, Old Songs and Ballads. John Howson commented in the liner notes:

I have always seen this as the classic English folk-song, and most collectors have come across it, yet it does not seem to appear in print very often. Even so, it has been recorded in many southern English counties and has survived particularly well in East Anglia. Other versions worth hearing are by Geoff Ling (Topic 12TS292), Bob Roberts (Topic 12TS361) and Mary Ann Haynes (TSCD670). In the notes to the latter record A.L. Lloyd mentions that the American folklorist Vance Randolph, who found versions in the Ozark Mountains, suggested that the ‘ball of yarn’ might refer to the vinegar-soaked wadding used as a primitive contraceptive device. As Lloyd comments “Maybe; if so, ineffectual in this case.”

Ray Harland sang Ball o' Yarn on a Veteran tape released in 1987-95 and on the 2006 Veteran anthology It Was on a Market Day—Two: English Traditional Folk Singers.

Walter Pardon sang Little Ball of Yarn in a Mike Yates recording on his 2000 Musical Traditions anthology Put a Bit of Powder on It, Father. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

Another song which has remained popular with country singers into the present day, with 15 of the 38 known examples being sound recordings. It was much collected in Missouri/Arkansas area (inevitably—given its subject matter—by Vance Randolph), and a scattering in other parts of the US, Canada and Australia. Travellers seem to particularly like it: Win Ryan sang it in Ireland, Mary Ann Haynes in Sussex, and numerous others across much of southern England. Several Suffolk singers had it in their repertoires, but Walter is the only example from Norfolk. It starts unusually with hints of female masturbation, but gets confused and fragmented as it progresses.

Keith Kendrick sang Ball o' Yarn on his 1997 Fellside album Home Ground.

Jim Causley sang Little Ball o' Yarn in 2011 on his WildGoose album of Devon songs, Dumnonia.

Andy Turner learned The Little Ball of Yarn “from Peter Kennedy’s massive tome Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, which at the end of the 1970s I had on almost permanent loan from my local library.” He sang it as the October 23, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Lyrics

Ben Willett sings The Little Ball of Yarn

Sure in the merry month of May when the men were making hay
When I strolled across my grandfather's farm
There I spied a pretty maid and to her I gently said
May I wind up your little ball of yarn?

On no kind sir, said she, you're a stranger unto me
And no doubt you have some other lady charm
On no my turtle dove, you're the only girl I love
May I wind up your little ball of yarn?

Sure I took that pretty maid and I laid her in the hay
Not intending to do her any harm
Sure it was to my surprise when I looked into her eyes
Then I wound up her little ball of yarn.

Sure I pulled down all her clothes and I slipped across the green
Not letting anyone know that I'd been there
It was nine months from that day, when I met that pretty maid
And she had a little baby at her breast
There I said my pretty miss, now you did not expect this
When I wound up your little ball of yarn.

Now its all you young maidens that goes walking in the morning
When the blackbirds and the thrushes
They go warbling through the bushes
Keep you hand right on your little ball of yarn.

Martin Carthy sings Ball o' Yarn

In the merry month of May when the birds begin to play
I took a walk quite early in the morning.
There I met a pretty maid, she was knitting all of her trade,
And I asked her, could I wind her ball of yarn.

Oh no kind sir, she said, we are strangers, you and I,
It's and you might have any other darling.
And besides I've friends in town, they have money all bright in store
And it's there they wind me little ball of yarn.

I put me arm around her waist and I gently laid her down,
I meant to do this fair maid no harm.
In the middle of the green, where I knew I would be seen,
It was there I winded up her ball of yarn.

So come all you fair young maidens and a warning take be me
Don't take your walk so early in the morning.
Where the blackbird and the thrush they are singing all in yon bush
Keep your hand all on your little ball of yarn.

Gordon Woods sings Ball of Yarn

In the merry month of June,
And all the flowers were in bloom.
I met a pretty miss,
And I asked her for a kiss,
And to wind up her little ball of yarn.

“Oh no kind sir,” said she,
You're a stranger unto me,
Perhaps you have some other little charm.”
“Oh no, my turtle dove,
You're the only one I love,
Let me roll up your little ball of yarn.”

Sure, I took this fair young maid,
Just to dwell beneath the shade:
No intention of doing her no harm.
And I gave her a big surprise,
As I rolled between her thighs,
And I wound up her little ball of yarn.

For 'tis twelve months since that day,
That I last passed this way,
And I saw her with a baby on her arm.
And I said, “My pretty miss,
Who would ever've thought of this,
When I wound up your little ball of yarn?”

Walter Pardon sings Little Ball of Yarn

In the merry month of May
When the birds they sing all day
I rose up very early in the morn.
A pretty maid I spied
And she lay there on her side
She was winding up her little ball of yarn.

Chorus (twice after each verse):
The blackbird and the thrush
They sang out on every bush:
“Keep your hand on your little ball of yarn.”

As soon as it was o'er
Then the maid pulled down her clothes
And straightway to her mother she did go.
I ran across the green
For fear I should be seen
Winding up her little ball of yarn.

Now all you maidens fair
Take a warning from me here
And never rise too early in the morn
When your front-line starts to swell
You will wish that bloke in hell
Keep your hand on your little ball of yarn.

Acknowledgements

Transcribed by Garry Gillard. Thanks to Philip Stanley for help.