> The Watersons > Songs > The Pretty Drummer Boy
> Steeleye Span > Songs > Female Drummer
> Peter Bellamy > Songs > Female Drummer
> Frankie Armstrong > Songs > The Female Drummer

The Pretty Drummer Boy / Female Drummer

[ Roud 226 ; G/D 1:182 ; Ballad Index DTsoldma ; Full English PG/5/219 ; trad.]

Lal & Norma Waterson sang The Pretty Drummer Boy in 1965 on the Watersons' album A Yorkshire Garland. This recording was included in 1999 on the CD reissue of Lal & Norma Waterson's LP A True Hearted Girl. A.L. Lloyd said in the original album's sleeve notes:

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was not unheard of for girls to dress as boys and enlist in the army or navy. Christiana Welsh fought for Marlborough with distinction and ended up as a Chelsea pensioner. Another bold Amazon, Hannah Snell, being wounded during the West Indies campaign against the French and Dutch, extracted the bullet from herself to avoid being unmasked as a woman. The dashing Mary Read served as both soldier and sailor before she became notorious as the Female Pirate. None of them, however, had the charm and sauciness of the female drummer boy, whose ballad, travelled as far north as Aberdeen where Gavin Greig reported it as “well known”. Percy Grainger got this present version from a Yorkshire-born singer on the “wrong” side of the Humber, at Barton [in Lincolnshire].

The Digital Tradition comments:

Collected by Percy Grainger and sung by A.L. Lloyd and the Watersons. This is one of the many songs in which a young girl dresses up as a man and joins the Army. This one is special because there's no lover involved nor does she become pregnant. The second verse refers to the habit punishing the young servicemen (drummer boys, midshipmen etc.) for petty offenses with lashes on the bare bottom while being bent over breech of a cannon. I would really like to know how she pulled off the trick of not being found out.

Steeleye Span learned this song from the Watersons and recorded it in 1971 with the title Female Drummer for their second album, Please to See the King; it was also put on the B-side of their single Rave On. The song starts with something close to a rock riff and has the melody played in Ashley Hutchings' bass with Maddy's joyful voice intermingled with Peter Knight's soaring violin. Steeleye Span performed this live for the BBC radio programme “Peel's Sunday Concert” on September 15, 1971. This programme was included as bonus CD on the 2006 reissue of Ten Man Mop or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again.

This is Steeleye Span performing Female Drummer live on Ainsdale Beach near Southport on June 30, 1971; a rare opportunity to see Martin Carthy with an electric guitar:

Norfolk singer Harry Cox sang the Female Drummer somewhat different to the Watersons' version, without the rub-a-dub chorus but with more verses and repeating the last line of each verse several times. A recording made in by Ewan MacColl at Cox's home in Catfield was included on his 2 CD Topic Records anthology, The Bonny Labouring Boy. Steve Roud commented in the liner notes:

A firm favourite with 20th century traditional singers, being found all over England, quite commonly in Scotland, but more rarely in Ireland and North America. Nearly all the major 19th century broadside printers included it on their sheets, which probably accounts for the song's remarkable textual stability across time and space. The earliest known printing is on an Evans (London) broadside of about 1810 in the Madden Collection at Cambridge University Library.

Peter Bellamy sang Female Drummer in 1969 on his third solo LP, The Fox Jumps Over the Parson's Gate. He accompanied himself on Anglo concertina. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album's sleeve notes:

Girls who dress as men and enlist in the army or the navy aren't simply a longing fantasy of soldiers and sailors starved of female company. Notably in the eighteenth century there were several examples of this in real life, and some of the many songs on the theme are based on actuality. Whatever that's so or not with the present saucy piece, we do not know, but it has been a favourite for some two hundred years. Gavin Greig reported it as “well-known” in Aberdeenshire, Percy Grainger recorded a good set of it in Barton, Lincs. […] The present version is from Norfolk, from redoubtable Harry Cox.

Mary Ann Haynes sang The Female Drummer (recorded by Mike Yates in the singer's home in Brighton, Sussex on July 7, 1974) on the Topic anthologies Sussex Harvest (1975) and My Father's the King of the Gypsies (The Voice of the People Series Vol. 11, 1998).

Walter Pardon sang Female Drummer (recorded by Bill Leader, Peter Bellamy and Reg Hall in the singer's home on August 3, 1974) on the Leader LP Our Side of the Baulk (with the title I'll Beat the Drum Again) and in an alternate take on his Topic CD A World Without Horses.

Frankie Armstrong sang The Female Drummer in 1975 on her Topic album Songs and Ballads. She also sang it live in Sweden in May 1978, which was published in 1980 on her album And the Music Plays So Grand. A.L. Lloyd commented in the first album's sleeve notes:

Evidently a great favourite, this song, not so long ago. “Well known in Aberdeenshire,” said Gavin Greig. Hammond found versions in Somerset. About the same time, Grainger heard it in Lincolnshire. Frankie got her version from the singing of Harry Cox of Catfield, Norfolk. It goes back at least to the eighteenth century, and there’s a broadside of it, c. 1790, in the Bodleian Library. The adventurous girl who disguises herself as a drummer-boy runs her risks with admirable lightness. One version of the song has: “In pulling on my breeches, it causes me to smile, To think I lay with a thousand men and a maiden all the while.”

Linda Adams sang The Female Drummer in 1978 on her and Paul Adams' Fellside album Among the Old Familiar Mountains. This track was also included in 2002 on the Fellside anthology Enlist for a Soldier: The Soldier in Song from the English Civil War to the Falklands.

Andy Turner learned The Female Drummer from Peter Bellamy's album and sang it as the May 27, 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

The Dovetail Trio sang this song as When I Was a Young Maid in 2014 on their eponymous EP, The Dovetail Trio. This video shows them at the Wheelhouse on January 4, 2014:

Lyrics

The Watersons sing The Pretty Drummer Boy

I was brought up in Yorkshire and when I was sixteen
I ran away from home, me lads, and a soldier I became
With a fine cap and feathers, likewise a rattling drum
They learned me to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum

Chorus (after each verse):
With a fine cap and feathers, likewise a rattling drum
They learned her to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum
With her gentle waist so slender, and her fingers long and small
She could play upon the rub-a-dub the best of them all

And it's many is the pranks that I saw amongst the French
And boldly I did fight, me boys, although I'm but a wench
And in buttoning up me trousers so often have I smiled
To think I lay with a thousand men and a maiden all the while

And they never found me secret out until this very hour
For they sent me up to London to be sentry at the Tower
And a lady fell in love with me and I told her I's a maid
And she went unto me officer and me secret she betrayed

He unbuttoned up my red tunic and he found that it was true
“It's a shame,” he says “to lose a pretty drummer boy like you.”
So now I must return to me mam and dad at home
And along with my bold comrades no longer can I roam

Steeleye Span's Female Drummer

I was brought up in Yorkshire and when I was sixteen
Oh I ran away to London and a soldier I became

Chorus (after each verse):
With me fine cap and feather, likewise me rattling drum
They learned me to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum
With me gentle waist so slender, me fingers long and small
and to play upon the rub-a-dub the best of them all

And so many were the pranks that I saw among the French
And so boldly did I fight, me boys, although I'm but a wench
And in buttoning up me trousers so often have I smiled
To think I lay with a thousand men and a maiden all the while

But they never found my secret out until this very hour
When they sent me off to London to keep sentry o'er the Tower
When a young girl fell in love with me and she found that I was a maid
She went up to me officer me secret she betrayed

He unbuttoned then my red tunic and he found that it was true
“It's a shame,” he says, “to lose a pretty drummer boy like you”
So now I must return to me mum and dad at home
And along with me bold comrades it's no longer can I roam

Peter Bellamy sings Female Drummer

I'm going to be a soldier in my uniform quite new
And if they let me have a drum I'll be a drummer too,
For to march into the battlefield with a broadsword in my hand
To hear the cannons rattle and the music sound so grand.
The music sound so grand, the music sound so grand,
To hear the cannons rattle and the music sound so grand.

Now when I was a young girl the age of sixteen
It's from my home I ran away to go and serve the Queen
And the officer who enlisted me said, “You are a nice young man;
I think you'll make a drummer, so please step this way, young man.
Just step this way, young man, just step this way, young man,
Oh, I think you'll make a drummer, so just step this way, young man.”

They led me to my officer, they lit me up to bed,
But laying down by a soldier's side I never felt afraid.
And in a-pulling off my old red coat I sometimes had to smile
For to think myself a drummer yet a female all the while.
A female all the while, a female all the while,
For to think myself a drummer yet a female all the while.

My waist so neat and slender and my fingers long and small
And very soon they taught me how to play the best of all.
I played all on my kettledrum while other drummers played,
I played all on my kettledrum and I'll beat the drum again.
I'll beat the drum again, I'll beat the drum again,
Oh, I played all on my kettledrum and I'll beat the drum again.

So they sent me up to London to be guard o'er the Tower
And there I might have been until this very day and hour,
But a young girl fell in love with me, then found I was a maid
She went straight to my officer and my secret betrayed.
My secret betrayed, my secret betrayed,
Oh, she went up to my officer and my secret betrayed.

So my officer he sent for me to hear if this was true
And I all for to tell to him a tale already knew.
“Here's a pension all for your reward,” he smiled as he said,
“It's a pity we must lose you, such a drummer as you made.
A drummer as you made, a drummer as you made,
It's a pity we should lose you, such a drummer as you made.”

So fare you well, my officers, you have been kind to me
And likewise all my comrades, you ne'er forgot shall be.
And should the British army fall short of any man
I'll put on my hat and feathers and I'll beat the drum again.
I'll beat the drum again, you know I'll beat the drum again,
I'll put on my hat and feathers and I'll beat the drum again.

Acknowledgements

Transcribed from the singing of Lal & Norma Waterson by Greer Gilman.