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> Cyril Tawney > Songs > Ball of Yarn

(The Little) Ball of Yarn

[ Roud 1404 ; Ballad Index EM089 ; GlosTrad Roud 1404 ; trad.]

Roy Palmer: Everyman's Book of British Ballads Steve Roud, Julia Bishop The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs

The Southern Melody Boys of Charlotte, North Carolina, sang Wind the Little Ball of Yarn in a February 1937 recording that was included in 2018 on the Musical Traditions anthology of Anglo-American songs and tunes, A Distant Land to Roam. Mike Yates noted in the accompanying booklet:

Wind Up the Little Ball of Yarn is a bit of a mystery. The song has been collected from several English singers all of whom know what happens after the man has been winding up the girl’s ‘little ball of yarn’, as this verse from the singer Mary Ann Haynes shows:

Oh, six long months did pass
And the three it come at last,
She had a dainty babe all in her arms.
“Oh,” I said, ”my little miss.
I did not expect this,
As I rolled you round my grandfather's farm.”

Some of the song’s lines could be based on a Scot’s song which Robert Burns knew as The Yellow, Yellow Yorling—a ‘yorling’ being the Scots word for the yellow-hammer. However, in 1884 Earl Marble & Polly Holmes published a song in Boston, under the title of Winding up Her Little Ball of Yarn, the text of which is printed below.

As I say, it is all a bit of a mystery! Clearly traditional singers are not singing [this] text, but it could be that this text provided the basis for a parody, namely the bawdy song which is now so popular with singers. Cecil Sharp collected an English version in 1904 (the earliest known collected version—still unpublished) while other collectors have also noted it down. According to Steve Roud there are no known English broadsides of the song, a fact which suggests a late date of composition. A note in the The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop, 2012, p.441, only adds to the confusion:

In his book on American pop music, Lost Chords (1942), Douglas Gilbert, used the bawdy Ball of Yarn as an example of the type of song sung in taverns in the 1870s, and if this were true it would suggest that the copyrighted song published by Marble and Holmes was a cleaned-up version of an already existing song.”

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 4 September 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 collection of traditional songs from Sussex, Sussex Harvest. 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 of Gypsy songs and music from South-East England, Here's Luck to a Man.

John Goodluck sang Little Ball of Yarn in 1974 on his Traditional Sound album The Suffolk Miracle.

Geoff Ling sang Little Ball of Yarn in a recording made by Keith Summers in 1974-75 on their 1975 Topic album Singing Traditions of a Suffolk Family.

Nora Cleary sang Little Ball of Yarn at The Hand, near Milton Malbay, in July 1976 to Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie. This recording was included in 2004 on the Musical Tradition anthology Around the Hills of Clare. Carroll and Mackenzie noted:

Gershon Legman [Roll Me in Your Arms, Vance Randolph, ed. Gershon Legman, University of Arkansas Press, 1992] claimed this as a distant relative of the song The Yellow, Yellow Yorlin (Yellowhammer) which is to be found in Burns's Merry Muses of Caledonia (1800), while sea-song expert Stan Hugill had it as a pumping shanty and suggested that balls of yarn were more likely to be associated with the sea rather than the land.

Legman also linked it to a custom in the Ozarks, where a young woman who wished to find who she was to marry threw a ball of red yarn into a ‘haunted’ house. Keeping hold of one end, she would call out “Who'll wind my ball of yarn?” and a ghostly voice from within was believed to have come up with the answer.

Danny Brazil sang The Little Ball of Yarn to Gwilym Davies at Staverton, Gloucestershire, on 5 May 1978. This recording was included in 2007 on the Brazil Family's Musical Traditions anthology Down By the Old Riverside.

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.

Walter Pardon sang Little Ball of Yarn in a June 1978 recording by Mike Yates 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: [Winnie] 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.

Charlotte Renals sang Ball of Yarn in a recording made by Pete Coe in 1978. This was releases on a Veteran tape published in 1987-93; in 1993 on the Veteran CD of traditional folk music, songs and dances from England, Stepping It Out, and in 2003 on the Renals/Legg family Veteran/Backshift CD of “songs from Cornish Travellers”, Catch Me If You Can.

Cyril Tawney sang Ball of Yarn live at the Holsteins Folk Club in Chicago on 31 May 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 14 April 2007.

Hubert Smith of Thorpe Morieux, Suffolk, sang Ball of Yarn to John Howson in 1983. This recording was published on the 1993 Veteran Tapes cassette and 2009 Veteran CD of traditional music making from Mid-Suffolk, Many a Good Horseman.

Gordon Woods sang Ball of Yarn on a Veteran tape published in 1987-89; this was also included in 2000 on the Veteran CD of “popular folk songs, old songs and ballads”, Songs Sung in Suffolk. 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.

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

Will Duke and Dan Quinn sang Ball of Yarn on their 2001 CD Scanned.

Elizabeth Stewart sang Little Ball o Yarn on her 2004 Elphinstone Institute CD of songs, ballads and tunes, Binnorie. She also sang it at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2011, which was released in the following year as the title track of the festival's anthology The Little Ball of Yarn (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 8). The accompanying booklet commented:

This widely known humorous, erotic song very likely derives from a song known to Robert Burns as The Yellow Yellow Yorlin that is included in the Merry Muses. Elizabeth had her version from her mother Jean and aunt Lucy whose version was collected by American folklorist Kenneth Goldstein from the family in 1959 and which he included in his Buchan Bawdry manuscript. There are many versions known through the British Isles and in North America and the song has often been recorded.

Bill Murray sang Sweet Belinda in 2008 on his Wren Music CD Down 'pon Ole Dartymoor.

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 23 October 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Bernie Cherry sang Sweet Belinda on his 2013 Musical Traditions anthology With Powder, Shot and Gun. He noted:

I’ve known The Little Ball of Yarn since about 1966, but then I heard this “Sweet Belinda” chorus from some people from Bristol who, by some stroke of luck turned up at Cheltenham folk club. If it was you, gentle reader, thanks very much.

Lyrics

Earl Marble & Polly Holmes: Winding up Her Little Ball of Yarn

It was many years ago,
With my youthful blood aglow,
I engaged to teach a simple district school.
I reviewed each college book,
And my city home forsook,
Sure that I could make a wise man from a fool.
Mr School Committee Frye
Thought 'twould do no harm to try
To see if unruly scholars I could “larn”
When his daughter I espied,
With her knitting by her side,
As she wound up her little ball of yarn.

I was gone on her at once,
For I wasn't quite a dunce,
And she was an apple-dumpling sort of girl.
With her tender eyes of blue,
Dimpled cheeks of rosy hue,
And her teeth as bright as shining rows of pearl.
Long before the school was done,
I the maid had wooed and won,
As we hunted eggs one morning in the barn.
When her work she laid aside,
Just to please me as I sighed,
And she wound up her little ball of yarn.

Oh, those times were long ago,
And my blood has not the flow
That it had in those sweet days of auld lang syne.
But I think of every charm
That endeared me to the farm
When the maid with all her knitting work was mine.
And as round the fire we sit
In these days when shadows flit,
And her trembling hands the stockings take to darn
In my memory I live o'er
All those happy days of yore,
When she wound up her little ball of yarn.

The Southern Melody Boys sing Wind the Little Ball of Yarn

It’s in the month of May when the lambs skip and play
And the little birds are singing all along.
It’s there I met a maid and it’s to her I said,
Let’s wind up her little ball of yarn.

It’s, “Oh no, kind sir, you’re a stranger to me
Perhaps you have some other charm
I’d better go with those who have money and fine clothes
Than wind up my little ball of yarn.”

I took her by the waist and I gently sit her down
Not meaning to do her any harm
It’s when the blackbirds rush and appear beneath the bush
We’ll wind up her little ball of yarn.

It was in the month of June at twilight of the moon
I’ll be way out on the farm
Then you will weep as you go to sleep
For winding up your little ball of yarn.

We were walking through the rye
When you were stepping high and you said you would not having charm
But the rye I’m going to reap, then you will surely weep
For winding up your little ball of yarn.

We were on the lonesome pinewhere you said you’d never be mine
And you said you would not have any charms
But you’ll surely cry when I bid you goodbye
Oh winding up your little ball of yarn.

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.

Nora Cleary sings Little Ball of Yarn

It being in the month of May
When the birds were young and gay,
I took a stroll down by the corn in the morning.
It was there I spied a maid
And she sitting in a shade,
And I asked her if I'd wind her ball of yarn.

“Oh no, kind sir”, she said,
“You're a stranger unto me,
And perhaps you might have any other darling.”
“Oh no, my lovely miss,
Take a warning unto this;
Keep your hand on your little ball of yarn.”

In the middle of the green
Where I knew I wouldn't be seen;
I didn't intend to do her any harm;
I put my hands around her waist
Then I gently laid her down
And began to wind her little ball of yarn.

Nine months came to pass,
Sure, I met this lovely lass;
She was carrying little tribblets in her arms.
Says I, “My lovely miss,
Take a warning unto this,
Keep your hand upon your little ball of yarn.”

Hubert Smith sings Ball of Yarn

Oh it was one fine summer's day, in the merry month of May,
I was strolling down my dear old father's farm.
When I met a pretty miss, and I shyly asked her this,
“May I wind up your little ball of yarn?”

“Oh no sir,” said she, “You're a stranger, I can see,
And you might do me some harm.”
“Oh no, my turtle dove, you're the only one I love;
Let me wind up your little ball of yarn.”

So I took this pretty maid, to a spot beneath the shade,
Intending not to do her any harm.
And to my surprise, when I gazed into her eyes,
I was winding up her little ball of yarn.

Now a year or two passed by, and I'm telling you no lie,
I met her with a baby in her arms.
I said, “Oh, sweet young miss, oh, I never expected this
When I wound up your little ball of yarn.”

Now all you fair young maids, take a lesson from the shade
And don't get up too early in the morning.
For the blackbird in the bush keeps on whistling to the brush,
“Keep your hand 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.

Elizabeth Stewart sings Little Ball o Yarn

One fine day in May I took a walk one day,
Doun by ma grandfather’s farm;
I met a pretty maid and this is what I said,
“May I wind up your little ball of yarn?”

I took this pretty maid underneath the shade,
Not intending for tae do her any harm;
But I took her by surprise and I layed between her thighs,
And I winded up her little ball of yarn.

This pretty maid she raise and the pulled doun her claes,
And it’s straight to her grandma she did rin;
But for me I wis never seen as I skipped across the green,
After winding up her little ball of yarn.

Come aa you young men, never stop oot aifter ten,
Not intending for tae do any harm;
For as soon as they lie doun, you’ve got tae pey your sweet half croun,
For the winding of the little ball of yarn.

Come aa you young maids tak a warnin tae what I say,
Never rise up too early in the morn;
For like the blackbird and the thrush, there’ll be someone behind the bush,
That will wind up your little ball of yarn.

Bernie Cherry sang Sweet Belinda

All in the merry month of May, when the men were making hay
And I walked across my old grandfather’s farm
There I met a pretty maid, and to her I gently said
“Let me wind up your little ball of yarn.”

Chorus (after each verse):
Sweet Belinda, sweet Belinda,
Tell me truly, tell me truly you’ll be mine
And the blackbird and the thrush, they do sing in every bush
Keep your hand upon your little ball of yarn

“Oh no kind sir she said, we are strangers you and I
And I think you have some other lady charmed.”
“Oh no my turtle dove, you’re the only one I love
Let me wind up your little ball of yarn.”

I put my arm around her waist and I gently laid her down
I didn’t mean to do her any harm
Then it was to my surprise, when I looked into her eyes
Then I winded up her little ball of yarn.

It was twelve months to the day I went walking back that way
When I met her with a baby in her arms
I said, “My pretty miss, you never expected this
When I winded up your little ball of yarn.”

So come all of you young ladies and a warning take by me
Don’t take your walk so early in the morn
When the blackbird and the thrush, they do sing in yonder bush
Keep your hand upon your little ball of yarn

Acknowledgements

Martin Carthy's version transcribed by Garry Gillard. Thanks to Philip Stanley for help.