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Billy Boy

[ Roud 326 ; Ballad Index R104 ; VWML JHB/2/2 ; Bodleian Roud 326 ; trad.]

A Dictionary of the Isle of Wight Dialect Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs The Idiom of the People One Hundred English Folksongs The Sang's the Thing

Bod Davenport sang Billy Boy in 1964 on the Topic anthology Farewell Nancy which was reissued with bonus tracks in 1993 as the CD Blow the Man Down. A.L. Lloyd noted:

Sailors were likely to adapt any sort of song for their own purpose—“nigger minstrel” songs, hymns, even nursery rhymes. Billy Boy first appeared in print as a sentimental song, My Boy Tammy, in 1791, and we're told that an Edinburgh actress of the time, Miss Duncan, made a big hit with it. Various nursery parodies, all more or less daft, quickly appeared. Some of these drifted aboard ship and got back into adult currency as work songs. On account of its opening line, some learned men have associated Billy Boy with Lord Randall. The evidence is slender.

Caroline Hughes sang Billy Boy to Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in 1963 or 1966. This recording was included in 2014 on her Musical Traditions anthology Sheep-Crook and Black Dog. Another recording of Billy Boy by Caroline Hughes and her daughter, made by Peter Kennedy in her caravan near Blandford, Dorset, on April 19, 1968, was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology I'm a Romany Rai (The Voice of the People Series Volume 22). Rod Stradling noted in the first album's booklet:

Mrs Hughes’ version certainly predates the one recorded commercially by Frank Crummit in 1925; indeed, the earliest known sets are from Scotland, one version being included in the Herd manuscript of 1776, whilst another appears as My Boy Tammy in Johnson's Scots Musical Museum of 1797, and many are claimed to have been written by Hector MacNeill and first published in 1791.

When Baring-Gould collected a traditional version in 1885 from a West Country nurse, he attributed the words to the first part of the old ballad Lord Randal (Child 12) and later scholars, including Bronson, have tended to agree with him, although it seems that the evidence for this is rather thin. Roud has a surprising 318 examples—mostly from North America.

Christina Stewart sang My Bonnie Tammy in a recording made by Bill Leader in 1967 on the 1968 Topic anthology of the Stewart family, The Travelling Stewarts.

Tom Gilfellon sang Billy Boy in 1968 on the High Level Ranters' Topic album of dance and song from the North-East of England, Northumberland For Ever.

Billy Conroy played Billy Boy on the whistle on the 1972 Topic album of Ballads and Songs from Newcastle and thereabouts, Canny Newcassel.

Martin Carthy sang Billy Boy on his 1974 album Sweet Wivelsfield and reissued on Rigs of the Time. He sang it also on the Wood—Wilson—Carthy CD. Martin Carthy commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

The words of Billy Boy come from James Reeves' [The Idiom of the People] and the tune from the magnificent Mrs Marina Russell of Upwey, Dorset whose predilection for tunes in the Dorian mode, whilst being a delight to people like me, is probably a source of some annoyance to those academics who like to say the English, as a race, like this or that kind of a tune (and make charts to prove it). She was one of Sharp's more extraordinary ‘finds’ in his hunt for traditional song, music and dance, being by all accounts an incredibly gifted and inventive singer (and person). From her also, comes Mary Neal of which she had three verses, so I took the liberty of filling it out from other printed sources.

and in the Wood—Wilson—Carthy sleeve notes:

When the Dorset singer Mrs Marina Russell sang Billy Boy to the Hammond brothers in the early years of the century, (she actually sang Bonny Lad Highland Lad), she gave them just the last verse with its little numbers game at the end. You too can add up the numbers to find that they make three score and ten, or one complete life span. Sometimes even the apparently lightweight songs reveal an intriguing depth, but then she had an intriguing repertoire.

Johnny Doughty sang My Boy Billy in his home in Brighton, Sussex, in Summer 1976. This recordings by Mike Yates was released a year later on his Topic album of traditional songs from the Sussex coast, Round Rye Bay for More, and included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs and music from the Mike Yates Collection, Up in the North and Down in the South. Mike Yates commented in the accompanying booklet:

Johnny had My Boy Billy from Alice Cox, a blind paper seller who pitched by Brighton's West Pier, some eighty-odd years ago and her version certainly predates the one recorded commercially by Frank Crummit in 1925. The earliest known sets are from Scotland, one version being included in the Herd manuscript of 1776, whilst another appears as My Boy Tammy in Johnson's Scots Musical Museum of 1797, and many are claimed to have been written by Hector MacNeill and first published in 1791. When the Reverend Baring-Gould collected a traditional version in 1885 from a West Country nurse he attributed the words to the first part of the old ballad Lord Randal (Child 12) and later scholars, including Professor Bronson, have tended to agree with him, although it seems that the evidence for this is rather thin. Roud has a surprising 223 examples—mostly from North America.

Anni and Jim Mageean and Johnny Collins sang Billy Boy as a capstan shanty live at a festival for traditional Dutch sailing barges in Workum, Friesland. This recording was released in 1983 on their Greenwich Village album Strontrace!

Eliza Carthy sang and played a very similar version of Billy Boy on her 1998 album Red, followed by the tune The Widow's Wedding. This track was reissued in 2003 on Eliza's anthology The Definitive Collection.

The Witches of Elswick sang Billy Boy in 2005 on their second and last album, Hell's Belles. They commented in their liner notes:

The prequel to Lord Randall? This popular song can be traced back to a Northumbrian sea shanty. Bry found this version in a selection of songs collected by Vaughan Williams but no detail was given about its origins. Gillian thinks that the verse about the plate of fish is a bit mucky.

James Findlay sang Tommy O in 2009 on his first album, As I Carelessly Did Stray. He noted:

This song is really a reminder of some basic questions you must ask about your partner before you consider marrying them. I’ve sung this song this for ages. I’m sure I got it from the Child Collection but can’t for the life of me find it.

Also known as Billy Boy all research seems to link this song to Lord Randal. The only link I can see is that in both songs Tom, Randal or Bill are getting a grilling from their nosy mother. Maybe Lord Randal is a sequel to Tommy O and it just didn’t work out for the two lovers.

Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer sang Billy Boy in 2011 on their WildGoose album Stones on the Ground. They noted:

The best known version of this song was collected by Sharp in Somerset 1904 from the singing of Lizzie Welch [VWML JHB/2/2] . Standard versions cover the evening and night of Billy and Nancy’s courtship. This version [verses 5-7 by Jonny Dyer] carries on to the end of their lives.

Michelle Burke sang My Boy Billy on her 2014 album Step into My Parlour.

Lyrics

Martin Carthy sings Billy Boy Eliza Carthy sings Billy Boy

“Where have you been all the day, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Where have you been all the day, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“Oh I have been all the day
Walking with a lady gay,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Where have you been all the day, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Where have you been all the day, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“I've been out all the day
Walking with a lady gay,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Is she fitting for your wife, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Is she fitting for your wife, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“She's as fit to be me wife
As the haft is to the knife,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Is she fit for your wife, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Is she fit for your wife, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“She's as fit to be my wife
As the haft is to the knife,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“And did she ask you to sit down, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Did she ask you to sit down, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“Well she asked me to sit down
Then she curtsied to the ground,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“And did she ask you to sit down, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Did she ask you to sit down, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“Well she asked me to sit down
Then she curtsied to the ground,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Did she light you up to bed, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Did she light you up to bed, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“Yes she lit me up to bed
With a nodding of her head,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Did she light you up to bed, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Did she light you up to bed, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“Well she lit me up to bed
With a nodding of her head,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Did she lie so close to you, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Did she lie so close to you, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“Yes she lay so close to me
As the bark is to the tree,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Did she lie close to you, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Did she lie close to you, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“Well she lay so close to me
As the bark is to the tree,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Do you want to know her age, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Do you want to know her age, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“She is twice six seven,
She is twice twenty and eleven,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

“Do you want to know her age, bonny boy, Billy Boy?
Do you want to know her age, o my dear darling Billy O?”
“She is twice six seven,
She is twice twenty and eleven,
Isn't she a young thing lately from her mummy O?”

Johnny Doughty sings My Boy Billy The Witches of Elswick sing Billy Boy

“Where have you been all the day, my boy Billy?
Where have you been all the day, Billy won't you tell me?”
“Where have I been all the day?
Talking to me Lady Jane
But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.”

“Oh, where have you been all the day, my boy Billy?
Oh, here have you been all the day? Bonny Billy, tell me.”
“I have tell you where I've been all day,
I've been courting with a lady gay,
𝄆 But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.” 𝄇

“Can she bake, can she stew, my boy Billy?
Can she make an Irish stew, Billy won't you tell me?”
“She can bake, she can stew,
She can make an Irish stew
But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.”

“Oh, can she bake and can she brew, my boy Billy?
Oh, can she bake and can she brew? Bonny Billy, tell me.”
“Yes, she can brew and she can bake,
Why, she can make fine wedding cake,
𝄆 But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.” 𝄇

“Oh, can she cook a plate of fish, my boy Billy?
Oh, can she cook a plate of fish? Bonny Billy, tell me.”
“Yes, she can cook a plate of fish
And wipe her fingers round the dish,
𝄆 But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.” 𝄇

“Oh, can she sow and can she spin, my boy Billy?
Oh, can she sow and can she spin? Bonny Billy, tell me.”
“Yes, she can sow and she can spin,
Why, she can make most anything,
𝄆 But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.” 𝄇

“Can she make a feather bed, my boy Billy?
Can she make a feather bed, Billy won't you tell me?
Can she can make a feather bed,
Fit for any lady's head?
But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.”

“Then she can make a feather bed, my boy Billy?
Then she can make a feather bed? Bonny Billy, tell me.”
“Yes, she can make a feather bed
As fit for anyone man's head,
𝄆 But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.” 𝄇

“But is she fit to be your wife, my boy Billy?
But is she fit to be your wife? Bonny Billy, tell me.”
“Yes, she's as fit to be my wife
As my pocket's fit to hold my knife,
𝄆 But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.” 𝄇

“How old is she then, my boy Billy?
How old is she then, Billy won't you tell me?”
“Twice one, twice two,
Twice eleven, but twenty-two.
But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.”

“But how old, tell me, might she be, my boy Billy?
Then how old, tell me, might she be ? Bonny Billy, tell me.”
“She is one, she is two,
Twice eleven, twenty-two,
𝄆 But she's still too young to be taken from her mummy,
But she is too young to be taken from her mummy.” 𝄇

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: Billy Boy.