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The Lincolnshire Shepherd

[ Roud 1469 ; words Jesse Baggaley, music Maurice Ogg]

The Watersons sang The Lincolnshire Shepherd with Mike Waterson in lead on their 1981 album Green Fields. A.L. Lloyd commented in the sleeve notes:

The words of this song were got from Jesse Bagaley of Lincoln by Maurice Ogg of Colby, Lincs. The tune seems to be Mr Ogg's. The “yan tan tethera” refrain is said to be a distorted version of numerals used before the English language was spoken, and which for some reason survived among shepherds and schoolchildren. It's doubtful if many shepherds employ it today for scoring their sheep, but example of it may still be heard in playgrounds, especially in Cumbria, where it is used for counting-out.

Roy Palmer noted in his Everyman's Book of English Country Songs (London : Dent, 1979):

The ancient, Celtic-style numerals were used by shepherds until relatively recent times. They ran as follows, in Lincolnshire at any rate, from one to twenty: yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp, sethera, methera, hovera, covera, dik, yan a dik, tan a dik, tethera dik, pethera dik, bumfits, yan a bumfits, tan a bumfits, tethera bumfits, pethera bumfits, figgits.

The words of this song were written in the 1930s by Jesse Baggaley (1906-1976) of Lincoln, and the tune was added by another Lincolnshire man, Maurice Ogg, in 1977.

Lyrics

Everyman's Book of English Country Songs version

(The Watersons sing a slightly altered version, omitting verse 6.)

Chorus (after each verse):
Yan, tan, tethera, tethera, pethera, pimp.
Yon owd ewe's far-welted, and this ewe's got a limp
Sethera, methera, hovera, and covera up to dik,
Aye, we can deal wi' 'em all, and wheer's me crook and stick?

I count 'em up to figgits, and figgits have a notch,
There's more to being a shepherd than being on watch;
There's swedes to chop and lambing time and snow upon the rick,
Sethera, methera, hovera, and covera up to dik.

From Caistor down to Spilsby from Sleaford up to Brigg,
There's Lincoln sheep all on the chalk, all hung wi' wool and big.
And I, here in Langton wi' this same old flock,
Just as me grandad did afore they meddled with the clock.

We've bred our tups and gimmers for the wool and length and girth,
And sheep have lambed, have gone away all o'er all the earth.
They're bred in foreign flocks to give the wool its length and crimp,
Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp.

They're like a lot of bairns, they are, like children of me own,
They fondle round about owd Shep afore they're strong and grown;
But they gets independent-like, before you know, they've gone,
But yet again, next lambing time we'll 'a' more to carry on.

Yan, tan, tethera, tethera, pethera, pimp,
Fifteen notches up to now and one ewe with a limp.
You reckons I should go away, you know I'll never go,
For lambing time's on top of us and it'll surely snow.

Well, one day I'll leave me ewes, I'll leave me ewes for good,
And then you'll know what breeding is in flocks and human blood;
For our Tom's come out o' t' army, his face as red as brick,
Sethera, methera, hovera, and covera up to dik.

Now lambing time come reg'lar-like, just as it's always been,
And shepherds have to winter 'em and tent 'em till they're weaned
My fambly had it 'fore I came, they'll have it when I sleep,
So we can count our lambing times as I am countin' sheep.