Article MT164, part 23 - newly written for MT.

Rock The Cradle, John

(Rocking the Baby that's none of my own)

The ancient theme of Cuckoldry has lingered long in popular music as part of the wider topic of marital discontent. An interesting subgroup of the cuckoldry ballads is that which includes husbands' laments for having to nurse and raise one or more children that are none of their own. Naturally we come across more examples of these from historical periods from which large collections of popular songs have been preserved, such as the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Undoubtedly just as many of these existed before this and in the intervening period, but collections from these times, for various reasons, are not so readily accessible at the moment. However, the advantage of posting articles like this online is that new discoveries can be added without much effort.

My main reason for presenting these readily available texts in one place is not to postulate some great thesis, but simply to show once again how themes can be followed through the centuries in popular song. In some cases as shown in previous articles the chains of songs are actually connected by plot and some are even directly related by text. In this case mostly the theme and titles are all that connect the songs presented.

The first ballad we give on the theme was entered in the Stationers' Registers for 4th November 1631 by Edward Blackmore. It was written by Laurence Price, one of the two greatest popular ballad writers of the century. There are at least two copies of the original, one in the Roxburghe Collection III 176 and the other at Pepys, Volume I, p404, 1 reprinted in Volume 7 of The Roxburghe Ballads.2

Another ballad contemporary with this one is narrated by the cuckold and in it he claims to be more than happy for his wife to father children on him and go out on the rantan as he can spend her money freely.

The above ballad is more like a prequel to the later ones in that it describes the build-up to the 'rocking the cradle' situation, and is not in effect an old man's lament like the others. It has little in common with the later ballads other than the title and burden.

The designated tune 'Over and Under' comes from a ballad registered on 13th of June that same year, 1631. It is a variation of the tune used for contemporary versions of The Jovial Tinker and Joan's Ale is New, both ballads which have survived in oral tradition down to today. The same tune was used for our next ballad, a follow-up by that other great ballad writer of the period, Martin Parker, which was registered 2nd of January 1632. We include it here as it is clearly related and for the sake of completeness.

A little later in the century in 1672 Phillip Brooksby near the Hospital-gate, in West Smithfield, London, printed the following ballad on the same theme. A copy exists in the Roxburghe Collection II. 225 and the Douce Collection I. 77. This version was reprinted in Roxburghe Ballads, Volume 8, p440.4 How these ballads relate to later ones on the same theme cannot be traced for certain, but it is known that at times broadside hacks of later centuries harked back to earlier printings for their inspiration. In this case a likely scenario is that one or more of these ballads survived in popular tradition for a generation or two and then in fading memories the chorus continued in oral tradition to spark off an idea for a new ballad a century or more later. Similar processes still continue today. That the tune proved popular enough to come down to us today could also have been a factor in the process.

We then have a gap in our knowledge of the theme of more than a century, but we can perhaps put this down to the inaccessibility of most of the street literature of the eighteenth century. Once this becomes more easily available we will possibly find other examples of the theme. Meanwhile they lie on dusty shelves in our large libraries waiting for funding and more advanced copying techniques. Having said that, slow laborious research in the British Library has turned up the next version of a song that is still being sung today. Most of the British Library eighteenth century street literature consists of garlands of 4 or 5 songs all tightly bound together in little volumes of about 80 garlands each. At ref. 11606 aa 22 (74) 1 is the following with no imprint, but on style and surrounding material it is of about 1800.

At the moment this is the earliest extant version of this song. It has all the hallmarks of oral tradition which would push back its origins into the eighteenth century. The few Scotticisms it contains simply suggest that this version was printed in Scotland. The garland has no imprint but all of the garlands in the bound volume that do have an imprint were printed in Scotland. Later versions that turn up on broadsides of the mid-nineteenth century all have some Irish connection so a possible migration is from Scotland to Ireland, a well-worn route for broadside ballads in both directions.

(Stanza 4 above seems to be an echo from that rare Child Ballad 21 The Maid and the Palmer)

The following version was printed by Nugent of Dublin. (See Bodleian Broadside Ballads website for three copies.)5

Somewhat ironically the following version, which contains an Irish phrase at the end of stanza 2, was printed in London at about the same time as the preceeding by Elizabeth Hodges.6  'Ma chroi es ma bron' is a well-worn phrase meaning 'my heart and my sorrow'. (Thanks to John Moulden and Fred McCormick for this translation and further information on other versions.)  This version lacks the 6th stanza of Nugent's version above. Not common in oral tradition, it is though widespread, versions turning up in America, Australia and Newfoundland as well as parts of the British Isles. These reduced oral versions consist of stanzas 1, 3, 5 and 7 of the Hodges version. A common variation on the final stanza is: Perhaps only a coincidence but the Harry/marry rhyme is also found in the third stanza of Price's seventeenth century ballad.

An even later variation on the theme goes under various titles and, according to Bert Lloyd in the notes to Mike Waterson's 'Charlady's Son' version, is a 'music-hall piece of the 1860s beginning Oh show me the lady that never would roam.'  Again widespread versions from America, Australia and Labrador as well as Britain show considerable variation and, rather than print them all, I have attempted a reconstruction of a likely original. When the original turns up, as it no doubt will eventually, I will replace my reconstruction with it.

Stanzas 1 and 3 adapted from Meredith and Anderson.8 Stanzas 2 and 4 adapted from versions A and B respectively in Hubbard.9

At about the same time as this song came out prolific Music-Hall song writer from Bolton in Lancashire, Joseph B Geoghegan, was resurrecting the title of Price's ballad.10  The structure of the song, the story and the chorus are so close to Price's ballad that one wonders if the song is based directly on it. As with Price and Parker's ballads, many of Geoghegan's songs can be found in oral tradition today and this one is no exception though scarcer than some of the others.

The theme appears to have continued in America. Fred McCormick and Greg Stephens tell us via the Mudcat Forum the following was a song sung by Blind Lemon Jefferson. In conclusion I make no excuses for repeating the request; if there are any other songs or ballads that match this theme please let us know and we'll include them.

Dungbeetle - 19.10.10


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