Article MT241

To Be a Farmer's Boy

song as a reflection of change and stability

On 24th June, 1630, a blackletter broadside, titled A Pleasant new Ballad you here may behold, How the Devill, though subtle, was gull'd by a Scold, was entered in the Stationer's Registry in London.  Today we know the ballad as The Devil and the Farmer's Wife (Roud 160.  Child 278) and the late Walter Pardon's version began with the opening lines:

It's of an old farmer as I've heard tell,
Had a wicked old wife and he wished her in hell.1
In fact, the ballad has nothing really to do with the man's occupation.  One line, The Devil he came to the old man at plough, is the only other reference to the man's line of work and the song could easily have been written about, say, a carpenter, a shoemaker or a mason.  In fact, there are quite a number of songs that fall into this category - songs which mention a farmer in the first verse, but which, as the song progresses, show that the man's occupation is irrelevant.  Take, for example, this song that Mabs Hall of Billingshurst in Sussex used to sing:
There was a jolly farmer came out of Gloucestershire
And all his intentions were to court some lady fair
Whose eyes shone like the morning star, whose hair was crimp and gay
She had grace within her face that was mixed with modesty.

As these two lovers stood talking, they loved each other well
Some person overheard them and her father they did tell
He promised her he would send him, far over the raging main
That he may no longer keep his fond daughter company.

It was in the springtime of the year, when pressing first began
In the thickest of the battle then, they placed the farmers son
Where he did receive a dreadful wound, in the hollow of his thigh
In the veins, he felt such pains, he was wounded dreadfully.

Then he was safely protected up to a sergeant laid
And the one he fixed his eye upon was the sergeants pretty maid
Most tenderly she dressed his wounds and bitter they did smart
Then said he, "One like thee was the mystery of my heart."

Straight up to his commander and offered very large
It was "Five hundred sovereigns to buy my love's discharge."
"No money shall be wanted, farewell forever do
You can spend your days in old England and roam abroad no more."

And when she came to her father's gate where they had both been before
So happy that young couple were to think they were safe on shore
Saying "Father I have found him, and I've brought him safe on shore
We will spend our days in old England, and go to sea no more."2

Far from being a song about a farmer, we can say that this is actually one of those songs in which a resourceful young girl rescues her sweetheart from the army or the navy.  The couple, as is usual in such pieces, then returns home to marry.  Occasionally, though, we do find a song or two where the farmer's occupation receives more than a passing mention.  Walter Pardon again:

As I walked out one May morning,
When may was all in bloom,
I walked into some meadows gay
To take the sweet perfume.
I walked into some flowery fields,
I turned my head awry,
There I saw Cupid the ploughboy,
There I saw Cupid the ploughboy,
That did my heart beguile.

As Cupid was a ploughing
Those furrows deep and low,
Breaking those clods to pieces,
Some barley for to sow.
And as he was a-ploughing,
These words I heard him say:
"No life is like a ploughboy,
No life is like a ploughboy,
In the pleasant month of May."

A worthy rich young gentleman
A-courting to me came.
Because I would not marry him
My parents did me blame.
Adieu young man for ever,
And for ever adieu.
It's Cupid the pretty ploughboy,
It's Cupid the pretty ploughboy,
Who has caused my heart to rue.

Should I write him a letter,
My tale to him unfold?
Perhaps he will take it scornful
And think it is full bold.
I wish he would take it kindly
And return my heart again,
It's Cupid the pretty ploughboy,
It's Cupid the pretty ploughboy,
With his arrows sharp and keen.

The ploughboy heard this lady
In sorrow and complain,
Said he, "My darling jewel,
I'll ease you of your pain.
If you would wed a ploughboy,
Forever I'll prove true.
For you my heart has wounded,
For you my heart has wounded,
And I'll have none but you."

The lady very soon gave consent
To be his lawful bride.
They went into the village church
And there the knot was tied.
And now they live in plenty,
They have got gold in store.
The ploughboy and his lady,
The ploughboy and his lady,
Each other do adore.3
This song, Cupid the Pretty Ploughboy, to give the broadside title, was known in the late 18th century (there is a version in Timothy O'Connor's manuscript songbook, which was complied in 1777 - 79 and which has been published in George Gibson Carey's A Sailor's Songbag.  University of Massachusetts Press, l976.  pp.  40-41).  John Pitts published it as a broadside during the first quarter of the 19th century and other sheets were issued by Birt, Disley and Fortey (all of London) and Walker of Newcastle.  Almost all collected sets have come from the south and south-west of England (there are versions in the collections of the Reverend Sabine Baring Gould, Henry Hammond, George Gardiner, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp) although the composer George Butterworth did find it being sung in Yorkshire during the period 1907-08.  There are only a few sighting outside of England.  These include versions from Newfoundland (see Elizabeth Bristol Greenleaf & Grace Yarrow Mansfield's Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland. Harvard University Press. 1933, p.162.) and the Ozark Mountains of North America (see Vance Randolph's Ozark Folk Songs. State Historical Society of Missouri. Volume 1, p.344).

It is clear that the song Cupid the Pretty Ploughboy must once have been an extremely popular song.  Why else would so many broadside printers have continued to print it?  What interests me about this song, though, is the story that it tells.  Here we have a song that must date, at least, from the latter half of the 18th century, in which a lady rejects a worthy rich young gentleman, preferring, instead, to marry a poor ploughboy.  Presumably the lady was as rich as her rejected suitor, because now they live in plenty and have got gold in store.  In other words, one day you could be a poor ploughboy working in the fields for a pittance, in all kinds of weather, and the next day you could be swept off your feet and married to a rich heiress.  And this is not the only song to follow this 'rags to riches' theme.  Take the similar, though less well known, song The Rich Lady Gay (Roud 1714) that Harry Upton of Balcombe in Sussex, once sang to me.

It was of a rich lady she had gold in store.
She was loved by the rich and was good to the poor.
As she was a-riding in the plough fields one day
Upon a young ploughboy she fixed her bright eye.

"I've a letter for someone, but I know not for who.
You're the likely young fellow.  I think it's for you.

He took it and he read it and unto her he did say.
"I think you're mistaken, my rich lady gay.
It must be for some other much higher renowned,
But not for a young fellow that follows a plough."

As he was a-ploughing his furrows deep and low,
Breaking clods to pieces for some barley to sow.
She rode up to the young man and unto him she did say,
"How are you this morning?  Pray tell me, I pray."

"I've been reaping and scraping all the days of my life
And I think you're too good for a poor man's wife."

"Do you think you could love me?" this lady did say.
"Do you think you could love me a bride for to be?"
"Oh, yes I could love you all the days of my life."
So the lady consented to be his young wife. 

Now to church they then went, was married the next day,
With the ploughboy so trim and the lady so gay.
Now, into holpen (helping) house-keeping the rest of her life. 
For she loved this young ploughboy as dear as her life.4
Here, again, we find a lady who had gold in store falling in love with, and marrying, the penniless ploughboy.  Harry learnt The Rich Lady Gay from his father sometime during the Great War of 1914 - 18, and he had no trouble believing the song's story-line.  "Could such a thing have really happened?" I asked him.  "Why not." he replied, "Those sort of things do happen, you know."

Occasionally we find the honest, though poor, farm labourer being rewarded, not by a sweetheart, but by a rich nobleman, as in this version of the song The Nobleman and the Thresherman (Roud 19) as sung by the splendid Yorkshire singer Frank Hinchliffe:

A nobleman met with a thresherman one day,
He kindly did accost him, and unto him did say,
"Tha's a wife and seven children, I know it to be true,
Yet how does thou maintain them all so well as thou do?"
Repeat final line.

"Sometimes I do reap and sometimes I do mow,
And other times a-hedging or a-ditching I do go.
There's nothing comes amiss to me, to the harrows nor the plough,
But still I get my living by the sweat of my brow."

"When my day's work is over, I go home at night,
My wife and my chil-der-en, they are of my delight.
My children are a-pratt-el-ing and playing with their toys,
And that is all the pleasure that a poor man enjoys."

"My wife she is willing to join in the yoke.
We live just like two turtle doves and seldom do provoke,
Sometimes we are hard up, sometimes we're very poor,
But still we keep those raging wolves away from our door."

"So well has thou spoken of thy wife.
I'll make thee to live happy, all the rest of their life.
I've fifty acres of good land, I'll freely give to thee,
To maintain thy wife and thy loved family."5
In 1792 Robert Burns contributed a version of this song to The Scots Musical Museum, but the song is even older, as blackletter versions can be found in both the Roxburgh and Euing collections.

But perhaps the best-known of all the songs where a poor farm lad comes into the money, is also one of the best-known songs in the English tradition.  This is The Farmer's Boy.

The sun went down behind yon hill, across yon dreary moor;
Weary and lame a boy there came up to the farmer's door;
Can you tell me if any there be, that will give me employ,
For to plough and sow, for to reap and mow, and be a farmer's boy?"

"My father's dead and mother's left with her five children small.
And what is worse for my mother still, I'm the oldest of them all;
Though little I am, I fear no work, if you'll give me employ,
For to plough and sow, for to reap and mow, and be a farmer's boy."

"And if that you won't me employ, one favour I've to ask.
Will you shelter me till the break of day from this cold winter's blast?
At the break of day I'll trudge away, elsewhere to seek employ,
For to plough and sow, for to reap and mow, and be a farmer's boy."

The farmer said, "I'll try the lad, no further let him seek,"
"Oh yes!  dear father," the daughter said, while tears ran down her cheek;
For them that will work it's hard to want, and wander for employ,
For to plough and sow, for to reap and mow, and be a farmer's boy."

At length the boy became a man, the good old farmer died;
He left the lad the farm he had, and his daughter to be his bride;
And now the lad a farmer is, and he smiles and thinks with joy,
Of the lucky, lucky day when he came that way, to be a farmer's boy.6
Collectors have noted over150 versions of the song, which has been sung to well over a half dozen tunes, the most popular of which is known as Ye Sons of Albion.  I have seen it suggested that the song dates to the latter part of the 18th century, but this seems unlikely, bearing in mind that Ye Sons of Albion was originally the tune to an anti-Napoleonic song of that title, and that the earliest known text was that printed on a broadside by James Catnach, as The Lucky Farmer's Boy, who listed it in his 1832 catalogue.  The song, as I said above, was certainly popular with folksingers and was still being sung in the second half of the 20th century.

If we assume that blackletter versions of The Nobleman and Thresherman were being sung in the mid 17th century, that both Cupid the Ploughboy and The Rich Lady Gay date from the second half of the 18th century, and that The Farmer's Boy, which was written in the first quarter of the 19th century and was still being sung in the middle and latter parts of the 20th century (as, indeed, were versions of all these songs) - then we can say that the 'rags to riches' theme has been on the go for some four hundred years at least.  And, we might add, that these four hundred years have seen some of the most violent and unstable periods in our history.  There were revolutions in the Americas and in France, unrest in Britain, and wars in Europe and, indeed, across the globe.  And yet, throughout all these great, tragic, events, people still seemed to believe that a poor man could come into almost unbelievable wealth, either by marrying a rich heiress, or else as a reward for a life of hard, honest, toil. 

What can we make of these ideas?  Well, the first one, marrying a rich heiress, does sound rather unlikely.  And yet, today we buy millions of lottery tickets each week in the hope, and against unbelievable odds, of finding a financial fortune.  Do we think this a strange idea?  No, of course not.7  So why should we think it strange that people would believe that they too could improve their lot almost by chance, as songs such as Cupid the Ploughboy or The Rich Lady Gay suggest?  The second idea, of gaining wealth through hard work, is slightly more complex.  English society has always been stratified and those at the top have always been keen to retain their privilege for themselves.  How can people justify such a situation?  Here, of course, we find an answer provide to us by an arm of the establishment, namely the Church.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
This is, of course, from the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, first published in 1848.  It was written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, wife of the Bishop of Armagh and Protestant Primate of Ireland.  In fact, the words promote a heresy, in that, if God creates all people equal, and that poverty is not a result of the will of God but a result of the evil of the world, then God could not have created the division between rich and poor, as the hymn suggests.

But, the Church does preach solace, in that reward can come from toil (if not in this world, then in the next!) So, there is a chance, perhaps faint, but a chance nevertheless that the poor can improve their station in life through hard work.  Or, as the German philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin succinctly put it, "It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us."8

I said before that these songs were created during periods of great social upheaval, sometimes when there was a great fear that revolution could come to Britain as well.  Fear, that is, by those in power.  Initially, when the French Revolution began, many in Britain supported the idea, believing that it would weaken 'the old enemy' and create a new constitutional state.  Robert Burns' mighty poem Scots Wha Hae was inspired by the French Revolution and others, including Charles James Fox, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, were all for the Revolution.  However, by 1791 things and opinions had changed, and the English establishment was shocked when Tom Paine published his The Rights of Man, with its proposals for individualist and democratic reform.  It was doubly shocked two years later, in 1793, when France declared war on Britain and Napoleon Bonaparte began rattling his sabre at Britain.  What could the British Government do in these circumstances? 

One solution may have been to promote unity within Britain by encouraging the popular press - and this includes the broadside press - to produce anti-French works that could unite the British people.  And we do find many jingoistic pieces against Napoleon being produced during this period.  Songs, such as Boney in England (which begins: Should Boney come hither, some Englishmen swear/They'd flog the dog with his buttocks all bare/While others have vow'd they'd hang him as high/As Haaman who swung between earth and the sky.9) were clearly trying to whip up feelings against the French.

I also wonder if songs such as The Nobleman and Thresherman, Cupid the Ploughboy, The Rich Lady Gay and The Farmer's Boy were also encouraged, showing, as they did, an idealized picture of rural Britain, one where the labourer knew his place, and where honest toil gained its reward.  In other words, these songs were preserving the status quo and, like the church, offering a possible way out to those who were prepared to accept things just as they were.  The Government did not want revolution within Britain.  It wanted stability and support.  It also wanted soldiers (the British army was totally unprepared, understaffed and under funded for a war against France) and this may go some way to explain why so many songs about soldiers and army life began to appear during this period of history.

But, returning to the songs about farmers.  It should also be noted that not all broadsides were on the side of the Government and songs such as Ye Swaggering Farmers also began to appear shortly after the Napoleonic Wars.

Come all ye swaggering farmers wherever you may be,
One moment pay attention and listen unto me.
It is concerning former times, the truth I do declare,
So different from the present times, if you wish them compare. 


Lofty heads and paltry pride - I'm sure it's all the go
For to distress poor servants and keep their wages low.
The farmers sons, they formerly used to plough and sow,
And when the summer time did come, likewise to reap and mow.
But now, they're dressed like squires sons, their pride it knows no bounds;
They mount upon a fine bred horse and follow up the hounds.10

Almost certainly, such songs gave a far more accurate description of rural life in the first half of the 19th century than songs such as The Farmer's Boy.  Interestingly some people did believe in The Farmer's Boy, because, tantalizingly, there could just possibly be a grain of truth in the song.  According to Rod Stradling:
In mid-Cheshire there is a tradition that the original 'farmer's boy' of the song was the Reverend Thomas Smith, to whose memory there is a tablet in the Baptist Chapel at Little Leigh, near Northwich.   He is said to have come to the village 'weary and lame', looking for work.   He called at Heath House Farm, was given a job, and in time married the farmer's daughter - just as the song relates.   Later he became a Baptist minister and he is buried in the graveyard of the Chapel.11
Sadly, Rod fails to provide any dates for the Reverend Smith, who may indeed be a contender for the 'original' farmer's boy, though it should also be noted that over the years a number of other names have also been suggested for this title.  One classic case of misattribution occurred when a Scottish traditional singer told me that the fiddle tune The Bob of Fettercairn, a reel that can be traced back to the mid-18th century, was written in the 1930s to describe a coach journey from the village of Fettercairn.  According to the singer, the passengers were "bobbing" up and down as the vehicle made its way along a bumpy road. 

In fact, the idea of the farm labourer who marries into wealth, or who is rewarded for his honesty and hard work, was just too good a notion for the broadside printers to ignore, and 19th century printers were soon issuing similar songs about other types of people.  Here is a broadside text of the song The Poor Smuggler's Boy (Roud 618) that was included by John Ashton in his book Modern Street Ballads, first printed in1888.

One cloudy morning, as I abroad did steer,
By the wide rolling ocean that runs swift and clear,
I heard a poor creature, that in sorrow did weep,
Saying, "O, my poor father is lost in the deep."

My father and mother once happy did dwell,
In a neat little cottage they rearéd me well;
Poor father did venture on all the salt sea,
For a keg of good brandy, for the land of the free.

For Holland we steer'd while the thunder did roar,
And the lightning flash'd vivid when far, far, from shore,
Our ship, mast, and rigging, were blown to the wave,
And found, with poor father, a watery grave.

I jump'd over board in the troubléd main,
To save my poor father—but all was in vain,
I clasp'd his cold clay, for quite lifeless was he,
Then forc'd for to leave him, sink down in the sea.

I clung to a plank, and so gained the shore,
With sad news for mother, and father no more,
For mother, with grief broken hearted did die,
And I was left to wander—so pity poor I.

A lady of fortune, she heard him complain,
And shelteréd him from the wind and the rain,
She said, "I've employment,—no parents have I,
I will think of an orphan, till the day that I die."

He well did his duty, and gained a good name,
Till the lady she died, and he master became,
She left him 2000 bright pounds, and some land,
So, if you're ever so poor, you may live to be grand.12

Other, similar, songs include The Soldier's Poor Little Boy (Roud 258), The Fisherman's Boy (Roud 912) and The Fisherman's Girl (Roud 2809).

I have tried to show that in this group of songs we can find a sense of stability within a world of rapid, and often violent, change.  I have also asked why these songs, or the theme within these songs, have remained constant during this period of history.  Did the government of the day openly or tacitly support, or allow, such songs to be printed on broadsides?  Or was it the printers themselves who chose what to print on their sheets?  Over the years governments have sought to control the freedom of the press.  For example, it has long been an offence to print or distribute printed matter without showing a printer's imprint.  This was, originally, so that printers of seditious literature could quickly be traced and, presumably, put out of business.  Broadside printers would, I'm sure, have been well aware that had they overstepped the mark, then they too could be closed down, although, as I also said, broadside printers did print songs such as Ye Swaggering Farmers which clearly called for change.  By the early 1830s Reform was certainly in the air and songs changed to reflect the mood of what was happening in Britain at that time.  During the 19th century new forms of agricultural songs did begin to appear as social conditions changed.  Workers grievances led to the formation of trades unions which, in the case of the Agricultural Worker's Union, used song as a means of unifying their members.  But that is another story and one already told elsewhere.13

Mike Yates - 1.5.10


Article MT241

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