‘They were a’ful cruel at that time. The laws were different’
– folk singer Jimmy McBeath, commenting on ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ (FBI p. 586)
It’s not just murder-ballads which show an alternative or anti-establishment morality. There is also plenty of interesting material on less deadly crime.
Folk songs don’t have a bad word to say about poachers. They are lovable rogues one and all, no doubt showing a widespread hostility to forest and game laws on the part of the folk-singing classes. One of the most lively folk-tunes is a celebration of the deeds of ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ (Silverman I, 68). He moves county but stays the same otherwise in ‘The Northamptonshire Poacher’ (FBI no. 258). Our man delights in his favourite pastime, and, as the song is keen to point out, uses only necessary force to escape from the keepers. Meanwhile, we rejoice as Nottinghamshire poachers get away with their deer poaching in ‘The Old Fat Buck’ (FBI no. 259) because the old woman who is to testify against them is disbelieved by the judge and jury at Nottingham Sessions.
‘The Gallant Poacher’ (FBI no. 248 makes it clear where our sympathies should lie by its title. One of the six poachers was shot by a keeper. The rest went to gaol. Again in ‘Keepers and Poachers’, (FBI no. 254) a noble picture is given of the poachers. One, William Taylor, sacrifices himself to save his fellows. Our sympathy is also invited for the poachers in the famous ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ (FBI no 262, the poachers are transported for fourteen years.
The poaching theme continues across the globe, with the celebrated, if ultimately unsuccessful, swagman hero of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (Silverman I, 292). He is cornered by the police after bagging a ‘jumbuck’, and, rather than be taken, jumps into the waterhole (billabong) and is drowned. Approval of his action is granted by letting his ghost roam about singing Waltzing Matilda’.
A poacher in a different league is dealt with in one of the most lovely of English folk songs, ‘Geordie’ (Child no. 209;Silverman I, 225). The flowing minor mode of the melody carries the tale of a young man who is to be hanged and gibbeted for taking some of the King’s deer. He is, however, as a concession to the pleading of his wife or lover, who comes to court to plead for him, to be hanged in golden chains.
Even more desperate characters are treated sympathetically. Highwaymen are a cut above poachers – flashier, more dangerous – and yet often shown as in some ways moral. As with many of the murder-ballads, however, there is something of a lack of explanation of why they turn to highway robbery.
Many of the classic elements of the highwayman song can be seen in ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ (Silverman I,56). Here, Jack Doolan, the only son of doting parents in Castlemaine, turned, for no apparent reason, to robbing coaches, including that of a judge. The highwayman was beset by troopers, killed one, but was in his turn shot by Trooper Davis. We are certainly supposed to be on Doolan’s side, since the chorus goes ‘Come all my hearties, we’ll range the mountain side; together we will plunder, together we will ride. We’ll scour along the valleys abd gallop o’er the plains, We scorn to live in slavery, bowed down with iron chains.’
Highwaymen are shown as being particularly glamourous. ‘Turpin Hero’ (FBI no. 336 ) gives one of the imagined exploits of Dick Turpin. He gets talking to a lawyer about Dick Turpin, the lawyer not knowing who he is. Then Turpin robs him.
‘Brennan on the Moor’ (Silverman I, 61) is a a’brave’ Irish highwayman. He was ‘wild’, and, in a Robin Hood style, it was wealthy noblemen he robbed. He was so impressive that he could only be taken when ‘’twas said’ he was ‘betrayed by a false-hearted woman’. The same fate befalls our hero in ‘Kilgary Mountain’ (Silverman I, 64). He enjoys his crime, noting how ‘neat and jolly’ the money looked after he had robbed a colonel. His downfall was a woman too, however – unsurprising since ‘the Devil’s in the women and they always lie so easy’. Molly, the young lady in question, filled his pistols with water, and informed on him to Colonel Pepper, whom he had just robbed. This highwayman is surprisingly concerned with due process. Although he has confessed in the song that he did in fact rob Colonel Pepper, he is affronted that ‘They threw me into jail without a judge nor writing’. He escapes, however, by bashing the jailer. He is able to resume a life of pursuing whisky and girls – girls other than Molly, presumably.
‘The Robber’ (Sharp no, 83) gives as a justification/ motive for the hero’s turning to highway robbery, the need to ‘maintain’ his new wife ‘both fine and gay’. He insists he robbed only the rich. Women were not his downfall, however. He was captured by Lord Fielding’s men whilst enjlying the play at Cupid’s garden. In a mixture of conscience and bravado, he notes the sadness of wife and family, and asks for a ‘flashy funeral’.
Most of the thieves celebrated in song are male. The most famous female subject is Maggie May – not the Rod Stewart floozy, but the lively Scouse lass who robs foolish sailors, and ends up being transported to Australia. Our sympathy is supposed to be with the daft sailor, but he is rather less interesting than the clothes-stealing scally who bewitches him.
Another tricksy vixen appears in Belfast ballad ‘The Black Velvet Band’ (FBI no. 695). She plants a stolen watch on a young man, calls the police, and he is sent to Van Diemen’s land.
Part of the reason for the sympathetic treatment in folk songs of these thieves of various sorts is knowledge of the penalties they could face. Prior to the reform movements of the nineteenth century, many such offences were punished by hanging. Folk songs give some evidence of disapproval of this as inappropriately harsh.
Hanging songs include ‘Macpherson’s Farewell’, (Silverman I, 60) in which a ‘roving boy’ of Scotland was hanged despite the fact that a reprieve was on its way. He went to his end cursing and swearing revenge on the ‘treacherous woman’ who, actually rather cleverly, caught him for the authorities by throwing a blanket over him. More fortunately, hanging is averted by a bribe in ‘The Gallows Pole’ (Silverman 1, 201) in which the condemned keeps hoping that members of his family will have brought the requisite cash, only to find that they have just come to watch the execution. Finally, however, the faithful sweetheart arrives with the money and all is well. A very similar tale is ‘The Maid Freed from the Gallows’ (Silverman I, 219). Another version is ‘The Briery Bush’ (Sharp no. 17) and ‘Derry Gaol’ (FBI no 316) too is similar. In this cse, the freed convict is male, and he is freed by the production of the Queen’s pardon. ‘Jack Hall’ (Sharp no. 81; FBI no. 322) takes the whole hanging business rather lightly. It is the ‘beyond the grave’ account of robbing chimney sweep Jack Hall, who describes in rather dashing terms his career of thieving, and his end via Newgate at Tyburn.
Folk singers, or composers of folk songs, seem, then, to have had something of a soft spot for the thieves and vagabonds of the world. Either that or else highwaymen and thieves of old spent their time between robberies in very efficient PR, composing and spreading their own propaganda. With a fol lol lol diddle diddle dee.
Silverman – J. Silverman, Folk Song Encyclopedia, 2 vol.s (New Yok, 1976).
JB – The Joan Baez Songbook NY 1964.
Child – F.J. Child The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) 5 vols.
Sharp – C..J. Sharp (ed.) One Hundred English Folksongs (New York 1916)
FBI – P. Kennedy (ed) Folksongs of Britain and Ireland (London, 1975).