Part 3: Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo
As we have seen, the folk-song world can be a dangerous and violent one. For all the fiddles and diddles, the body count is fairly high. Women are, more often than not, the victims in murder ballads. At least in those cases, there is usually some degreee of sympathy for them. In the frequent domestic-violence-ditties, they are usually treated as ridiculous, asking-for-it, or of no account.
The familiar and jaunty Scots jig, ‘The Wee Cooper o’Fife’ has the heroic diminutive maker of barrels, justly exasperated at his wife’s snobbish failure to bake, brew, card, spin, wash or wring. He beats her, amusingly putting a sheepskin across her back, then saying he is merely thrashing his own sheep skin’ when he beats numerous bells out of her. The song ends by advising anybody who has a similarly ‘gentle wife’ to send for the wee cooper! Part of the same dysfunctional song-family can be seen in the English folk song world: ‘ Ruggleton’s daughter of Iero’ (Sharp no. 70) follows a similar pattern. The husband here is a ploughman, whose wife will not have his dinner ready when he comes in from work, the slattern! She refuses to bake and brew as well. In an entirely reasonable, and frankly damned amusing, response (or so the tone of the song would have us think) the husband declares that she will brew and bake, and takes ‘a stick down off the rack; And on [her] back went rickety rack’. This beating causes the woman to agree to bake, brew and cook for her delightful husband. How we laughed!
There is wife- beating, too, in ‘The Birmingham Boys’ (FBI no. 195). In this number, a husband goes to sea, and while he is away, his wife spends lots of money and carouses with ‘the Birmingham boys’. When he gets home, he beats her with a stick. She agrees to behave in future. So all’s well that ends well, or something.
In ‘Good Ale’ (FBI no 273) the male singer vows that; If my wife should me despise, How soon I’d give her two black eyes’. Go on my son, we are supposed to think.
Particularly violent is the beating of the wife in ‘The Wearing of the Britches’ (FBI no. 215) in which Paddy Keane’s wife insists on ‘wearing the britches’, and they fight often. She, being much shorter comes off worse: ‘Her hide with blows I have left black’ and ; Her head comes often to the wall’, She dies in the end, and he’s not bothered. She was, after all, asking for it.
For all those scholars of ‘masculinities’ out there, there are role-reversal songs too (it’s, like, an inversion, innit?). The ‘Bald-Headed End of the Broom’ (FBI no 193) is a warning to young men against getting married, for they will end up being beaten with the aforementioned bald headed end of the broom. Odd. Why not use the big brushy end? No doubt I am missing something (see, I know Foucault about masculinities).The poor down-trodden husband is once more the theme in ‘The Scolding Wife’ (FBI no, 214), in which a poor man’s life is made a misery by a hard-drinking, tyrannical, cheating wife, who beats him with a poker. Really, when you come to think of it, the wife-bashing husbands were probably just getting their pre-emptive strikes in. Those women, eh? Make a chap’s life a misery.
Violence is not the only approach adopted by your lovable folk-song male to the ladies. There is also deception and theft. ‘Up to the Rigs’ handles as a likeable rogue a man who went to Cheapside in London, spent the night with a girl and then robbed her, leaving her locked up in a room. (FBI no. 192). He recommends others do the same.
The sexual threat of men is seen in the fairly astounding story of ‘Blackberry Fold’ (FBI no 314). Here, a young squire in Bristol pursues pretty milkmaid Betsy. He threatens to kill her with his sword if she ‘denies him’ his way with her in the open field. She protests, loving her virtue ‘as I love my dear life’. She takes out a secreted dagger and stabs him, to protect the aforementioned virtue. She is then sorry and he gets medical help. He recovers and they are married. The moral is – keep him waiting and you willl be made a lady ten thousand times o’er. Naturally, one forgives a man a little matter like attempted rape and threats of murder. Marriage has to be worked at, you know.
A similar situation ends rather differently in ‘Sweet Lovely Joan’. Our Joan seems to be a vulnerable, simple milkmaid. We fear for her when a kinght comes by, checks she is alone, and tries to press her into marrying him, ‘whether [she] will or no’. She is determined to marry her own true love, however, and manages to rob the knight of his gold and his horse. In the end she gets away to her love, and he is delighted that they can marry, ‘And I will be the knight instead’. Would be nice if she could keep it and buy a tavern or something, but it’s a lot better than poor Betsy’s ending in Blackberry Fold.
Joan is a rare exception to the generally negative view of women found in folk songs. We know that women can be the ruin of a man (see the highwaymen songs and ‘The Black Velvet Band’), that they can be fierce, and that they can nag. In ‘Rocking the Cradle’ (FBI no, 212), we find that they can make a man’s life a misery by their sheer tartiness, and, damn it, the law is on their side. This one tells the tale of an unfortunate man who is left rocking the cradle of a baby who is – shock – not his own, while his wife is out gallivanting at balls and parties, and presumably sleeping around. He notes that ‘by the law Harry, if ever you marry, They’ll give you a babbie and swear it’s your own’. There is a suggestion that all women are equally inconstant and a warning against marrying. It rather ignores the fact that, until the twentieth century, matrimonial law was deeply sexist, enshrining a double standard in which men could divorce for adultery, whereas women had to prove more than that. A chap had needs, after all.
A consideration of folk songs’ treatment of women is important, if we wish to have a balanced picture of the mental world of the folk song. Whilst it is easy enough to make excuses for, or even to applaud, the glorification in folk song of poachers and highwaymen – laughing harsh laws to scorn and fighting against an oppressive establishment – we have to remember that exactly the same culture harbours songs which laugh at wife-beating. Only the truly boneheaded sexist could be comfortable with most of the songs mentioned above. Or perhaps that’s just political correctness gone fa la la.
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).