A version of this article was published in English Dance and Song Volume 66 part 2
Published here by permission of the current editor, Derek Schofield

The Sea Crabb

a.k.a The Lobster Song, Roud 149

For the next three articles we venture into the realms of bawdry.  Although the genre of bawdy songs and ballads overlaps into other forms of literature far removed from the realms of folksong, a sizable proportion has been found in the oral tradition; indeed such is the appeal of this genre that it overlaps seamlessly into that body of songs which we nowadays regard as folk.  In fact many of these songs exhibit exactly the same characteristics as folksongs, having been through exactly the same processes.  But, where folksong has had to undergo several revivals in order to preserve it, the bawdy ballad / rugby song has needed no such revival and thrives even to this day wherever young men are thrown together and left to their own amusement, as in the armed forces and among sports teams.  This does not necessarily exclude the fair sex, but by and large these songs are performed less self-consciously in single-sex gatherings.

Whilst we can all differentiate between the slightly risqué tale of an amorous encounter and a piece that is out-and-out pornography, the large body of songs between these two are much more difficult to place because it all depends on fashion and taste.  Many of the songs found in this corpus we accept today as folksongs, as they were part and parcel of the everyday repertoire of our source singers when these songs were being collected, although they were then deemed unsuitable for publication.

The rugby songs, perhaps at the bottom of the pile, are notorious for their preoccupation with genitals, copulation and bodily functions, are very explicit and seldom contain much wit or subtlety; nevertheless they are an integral part of our oral tradition in all of the English-speaking world and we can learn much from their study.  The vast majority of them are not very old, being parodies of popular songs dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. They seldom have their own tunes, having acquired them from popular songs and marches, much like their close relatives the football chants.

However, a few can be traced back over many centuries in one form or another.  Some of the themes which qualify for this treatment are so complex and interesting I will leave them for future issues.  Some of them are so well-known and well-documented that they need only a mention here, e.g. the Jolly Tinker theme, versions of which usually contain the thinly disguised euphemism of the tinker mending pots and pans by knocking in nails and mending rusty holes; and The Merry Cuckold / Seven Drunken Nights, which hardly qualifies as bawdy except in the most explicit versions.

Almost all bawdy songs, as opposed to bawdy ballads, are of the 'catalogue' type (see Renwick, Recentering Anglo/American Folksong, 2001, chapter 3), either enumerative (each stanza is autonomous, therefore there is no progression and stanzas can appear in any order, e.g. The Good Ship Venus); iterative (as enumerative, but each stanza uses to some degree a repeated pattern of phrases, e.g. Dinah, show us a leg); incremental (contains some kind of simple progression, i.e., each repetition produces a slight change in the topic's condition, e.g. Roll me over in the clover), or accumulative (e.g. Old King Cole).  Renwick identifies a fifth subgroup, dialogue, but this is uncommon in bawdy song (e.g. Bollocky Bill the Sailor).  To these five I add a sixth, decumulative, which only has, to the best of my knowledge, one example, the very simple but effective Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me!, in which, of course the lines get progressively shorter to hilarious effect if delivered with the appropriately exaggerated expressions of ecstacy.

Probably the most widespread and oldest bawdy ballad which still thrives today is The Crabfish / Lobster Song.  It has existed in story and ballad form for many centuries and in many parts of the world.  Its many versions have been carefully traced and studied by Roger de V Renwick and published as chapter five in his excellent book Recentering Anglo / American Folksong, University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

I first encountered the song as part of an uncle's repertoire of forces songs from the Korean War period and then I came across similar versions in my rugby-playing days.  Later on, in the Folk Scene, I heard more complex Irish versions and encountered the version Mrs Overd sang for Cecil Sharp in 1904 (See Renwick p142).  It was then with great interest I found the sixteenth century version in the Percy Folio Manuscript and here it is barnacles and all!

The Sea Crabb
Itt was a man of Affrica had a ffaire wiffe,
Ffairest that ever I saw the dayes of my life:
With a ging, boyes, ginge! Ginge, boyes, ginge!
Tarradidle, ffarradidle, ging, boyes, ging!

This goodwiffe was bigbellyed, & with a lad,
& ever shee longed ffor a sea crabbe.

The Goodman rise in the morning, & put on his hose,
He went to the sea side, & followed his nose.

Sais, “god speed, ffisherman, sayling on the sea,
Hast thou any crabbs in thy bote for to sell me?”

“I have crabbs in my bote, one, tow, or three;
I have crabbs in my bote for to sell thee.”

The good man went home, & ere he wist,
& put the crabb in the chamber pot where his wife pist.

The good wife, she went to doe as shee was wont;
Vp start the crabfish, & catcht her by the cunt.

“Alas!” quoth the goodwife, “that euer I was borne,
The devill is in the pispott, & has me on his horne.”

“If thou be a crabb or crabfish by kind,
Thoule let thy hold goe with a blast of cold wind.”

The good man laid to his mouth, & began to blowe,
Thinkeing therby that they crab wold lett goe.

“Alas!” quoth the good man, “that euer I came hither,
He has ioyned my wiffes tayle & my nose together!”

They good man called his neigbors in with great wonder,
To part his wiues tayle & his nose assunder.

Mrs Overd's version, without mention of the wife's pregnancy, finishes with the line '& the baby were born with crabs on his belly' which would seem to be an addition from elsewhere had we not got versions like the one above.

By the way, the 'crabs on his belly' is a version of the 'identify father by birthmark' motif which can be found in several ballads and music hall songs.

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services  Updated: 19.9.05