Bawdy ballads, lewd lyrics, rugby songs and folk

I never liked rugby. We were made to play it for one year out of five at school, and I hated every second. I’ve never watched a rugby game but like anyone from the sixties and seventies, I do remember rugby songs. This started out trying to remember the words of a rude song, and I was referred to rugby songs lyrics online. This leads to sea shanties (or sea chanteys if you prefer), bawdy ballads, rude rounds, dirty ditties, lewd lyrics, salty songs.

I remember them from school trips, from youth club outings, even round camp fires. They ranged from the mild and acceptable at scout camps (The Quartermaster’s Store ) to the downright filthy (The Good Ship Venus, Dinah Show Us Your Leg, The Red Flag). If anyone tried to start any of the last three, the sing song would be stopped by teachers or youth club leaders or scoutmasters.

They were sung in male groups. I recall teenage parties. I’d be dancing to the Rolling Stones or The Beatles, but there’d be a group of blokes in the kitchen, next to the Party Sevens singing them … and wondering in a bemused way why the girls at the party showed no interest in them. LISTEN TO THE LYRICS. Women didn’t find them amusing. In my memory the sort of lads who liked trad jazz loved dirty ditties, but then trad has a long tradition of innuendo, with songs such as Organ Grinder Blues … the way I love your organ is when you grind it slow. That was by Clarence Williams, and dates back to 1928.

At Hull University, the Students Union hired a bus to London for the end of term, the cheapest way to get home (or for me, two-thirds of the way home). Those were mixed groups, and I never heard a rugby song on them, though we sang all the way. The most popular were songs from five or six years earlier, with Neil Sedaka’s Breaking Up Is Hard To Do the runaway favourite.

The Money Rolls In

The original song The Money Rolls In came to me (after discussing prostitution in 19th century London). It came into my memory as this, sung to the tune of My Bonnie:

My little sister Millie is a pro in Piccadilly
My mother is another in the Strand
My father sells his arsehole
in the Elephant and Castle
We’re the biggest load of bastards in the land.

My uncle’s a vicar in Stepney
Saving the young girls from sin
He’ll sell you a blonde for a shilling
And oh, how the money rolls in
Rolls in, rolls in
Oh, how the money rolls in

I looked online and this was the record rugby songs version relating to that bit … selected from eleven verses:

My brother’s a poor missionary,
He saves fallen women from sin,
He’ll save you a blonde for a guinea,
My God how the money rolls in.

My grandad sells cheap prophylactics,
And punctures them all with a pin,
For grandma gets rich from abortions,
My God How the money rolls in

My first verse isn’t in there at all, and my memory of bus trips puts the chorus after every second verse, with ‘We’re the biggest load of bastards in the land’ ending every other verse, but this has Oh, how the money rolls in after every verse.

The Quartermaster’s Store

The Quartermaster’s Store to me has no set lyric. It dates back to at least the First World War and has a Round Folk Song Index number (10508). The Quartermaster’s Store provided food and clothing, and so the song suggested it was a filthy place. The song probably dates to earlier than 1914 with suggestions tht it is mid 17th century.

Boy scout lyrics refer to animals and it’s completely innocuous:

There are rats, rats, as big as alley cats, 
At the store, at the store. 
There are rats, rats, as big as alley cats, 
At the Quartermaster’s store. 

My eyes are dim, I cannot see
I have not brought my specs with me …

Add mice eating all the rice / goats eating all the oats / butter running in the gutter etc.

But that was NOT the one we sang. It had to be made up as you went along, and the names had to refer to someone who was present in an apposite way. So:

There was Malcolm, Malcolm
Covering himself with talcum,
in the store, in the store
There was Malcolm covering himself with talcum in the Quartermaster’s Store.

My eyes are dim, I cannot see
I have not brought my specs with me …

The Malcolm I remember was rather a whispy, effete youth, which is why the lyric was chosen. So you might add:

Mike, Mike
Falling off his bike

for a clumsy youth. Or …

Pete, Pete
Trying to beat his meat


Ben, Ben
diddling with a pen

Yes, even The Quartermaster’s Store could get rude. That’s why when The Shadows recorded it in 1960 (B-side to Apache) it’s just a guitar instrumental. Their producer, Norrie Paramour, thought it a more suitable A side than Apache.

Rugby Songs

The classic Jock Strapp Ensemble albums

Rugby songs started off with three albums by The Jock Strapp Ensemble in 1964.

They were on the Surprise record label. Look at the address and catalogue number. 108 Cambridge Road … ILP 1009. Surprise was a sub-label of Island Records

They continued with Big Theo Johnson on Bawdy British Ballads. Big Theo was a Northumberland ex-sailor who was an avid song collector. Rugby Songs is advertised on the rear sleeve. It contains The Chastity Belt, The Ballad of Brian Baroo, Never Wed An Old Man and Roll Your Leg Over, as well as lesser known songs.

Bawdy British Ballads: Big Theo Johnson, Surprise (Island) LP

Chris Blackwell We launched (Surprise) in Britain in 1964, responding to an adult-only niche market we thought we’d spotted, which we hoped would be good for cash flow. Bawdy British Ballads contained the kind of dirty songs you’d hear sung in rugby clubs and it created a nice bit of controversy when a clergyman from Coventry said it should be banned, which helped us shift a few copies and boosted our finances when we were in real trouble. There is a world in which Island Records might never have happened without the grievances of a provincial priest.
Chris Blackwell, The Islander, 2022

It wasn’t that surprising, as Island had earlier produced raunchy Jamaican discs from the likes of Lord Kitchener.

Budget labels rapidly caught on. Given that none of the songs were copyright and that they were usually sung unaccompanied or with very simple piano, they were very cheap to record, so budget labels spawned endless imitations. Having a girl in the picture was a popular choice for the budget labels. The thing is that the same songs were endlessly recycled.

My question is this. Are rugby songs part of the folk tradition? Are they folk songs? Folk? What?

  • They often borrow a well-known tune to carry the words.
  • They are passed on orally.
  • No one knows who wrote them and they change continually over the years as people add bits.
  • They can be sung unaccompanied (which would have appealed to Pete Bellamy and The Young Tradition).
  • The melodies are easy for poor singers (which would have pleased Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger).

Take The Mayor of Bayswater. This is an old Welsh folk tune, The Ash Grove with new lyrics:

The Mayor of Bayswater has got a lovely daughter
And the hairs on her dicky di do hang down to her knees
One black one, one white one
And one with a bit of shite on
And one with a fairy light on
To show us the way

The recording (don’t worry, I didn’t buy a copy, but it’s been on YouTube) BLEEP out ‘shite.’

Stag Party songs

The American equivalent was Stag Party records, with many appearing from Adam magazine. Early on they had illustrated covers, but then changed to photographic busty nudes. They were on the FAX label (For fax sake?). The first in the series dates from 1959.

They did EPs too:

Note the cover blurb: Lusty folk songs and erotic ballads that have titillated fun-loving adults for generations.’ An explicit folk reference!

It contains Black Eyed Suzie, and this will be a lyrically modified version of an English folk song that was first noted in 1588. It’s also called Morris Off and reputed to be the first Morris Dancing tune. There were anodyne versions by the Guy Mitchell Singers as Pretty Little Black Eyed Suzie in the 1950s.

Eskimo Nell

Legend has it that Noel Coward wrote Eskimo Nell in 1919 when he is said to have performed it in cabaret in Paris. It’s a deliberate pastiche of Robert Service’s “Yukon” ballads.

When a man grows old, and his balls grow cold,
And the tip of his prick turns blue,
When it bends in the middle like a one string fiddle
He can tell you a tale or two

Supporting the Noel Coward tale, the rhymes are elegant!

Barrack Room Ballads

This is a category that pre-dates “Rugby Songs.” Bob Cort’s Eskimo Nell & other Barrack Room Ballads was released in 1959, then they reissued it in 1960 and 1962, each release getting a lighter shade of blue than the previous one. Bob Cort was famed as a skiffler, dating back to The Six-Five Special, and here recorded with a chorus and orchestra, directed by Billy Munn, which is decidedly un-folky. When I started at university, one of the traditional all-male dinner and gown halls of residence carried on the “smoker” tradition from its earlier incarnation as an RAF barrack block of seven or eight years earlier. This was a gathering where filthy songs were sung, beer was drunk in speed competitions, and farts were lighted on the small stage. I was fortunately in a modern self-catering block with none of that stuff. We paid to attend a heavily-advertised one and never went again.

Eskimo Nell & Other Barrack Room Ballads: Bob Cort Decca LP 1962 reissue of 1959 LP

It was also released as an EP. This focussed on The Good Ship Venus.

Barrack Room Ballads (P): Bob Cort, Decca, 1960

In 1966 low-budget label Summit offered Up The Foc’sle, allegedly by the Lower Mess Deck Chorale Ensemble. They included Eskimo Nell (Recitation), The Good Ship Venus, Jenny Wren Bride, Roll Your Leg Over as well as The Old Red Flannel Drawers That Maggie Wore.

Barrack-room Ballads are the same sort songs with an army sleeve design. Hallmark’s 1971 effort was credited to ‘Grandad’s Army’ (cf. Dad’s Army). Hallmark was a cheap branch of the already budget label, Pickwick. I’m surprised they got away with this sleeve … not the main picture, but the ones stuck on the wall.

Bawdy Barrack-Room Ballads: Grandad’s Army, Hallmark LP 1971

Traditional folk songs

English Folk music has always had a lusty man-and-his-maid, harvest festival in the haystack aspect. It’s what people sang about. Th serious collections take care to distance themselves from salacious stuff.

There are erudite annotated collections, such as The Bird In The Bush: Traditional Erotic Songs by A.L. Lloyd, Anne Briggs and Frankie Armstrong (Topic LP, 1966).

A.L. Lloyd: This record offers songs of sexual circumstance. I wouldn’t call them bawdy songs, because ‘bawdy’ implies something coarser than these pieces, which are delicate in their candour beside being loving and joyous. Certainly they’re not pornographic (or is the word pornomelic?) because downright pornographic song with its proliferation of gross sexual detail is very rare in folk tradition proper, residing mainly on the margin of that tradition, among pieces created by half-grown students, uprooted men-without-women such as soldiers, sailors and prisoners, and by middleclass ‘outsiders’ like those who provided the more sniggering items in ‘Pills to Purge Melancholy’ and ‘The Merry Muses of Caledonia’.
Sleeve notes to Topic LP

Pills to Purge Melancholy was an American collection by Will Holt (Stinson 10″ LP, 1959). The titles include The Surprised Nymph, The Dumb Wife, Blow The Candle Out. It has equally erudite notes on Thomas D’Urfey who published the lyrics in six volumes of Pills to Purge Melancholy between 1719 and 1720, though they’re not all from D’Urfey and it adds similar songs.

The Merry Muses of Caledonia : A Collection of Favourite Scots Songs was by Robert Burns from 1799. Ewan MacColl, who had worked extensively with A.L. Lloyd had recorded a selection in 1962. Surely A.L. Lloyd was not dissing the esteemed MacColl? It was on the Dionysus label, and sung unaccompanied.

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger did their own collection on the Argo label in 1968 as The Wanton Muse:

Ewan MacColl takes a different view:

Ewan MacColl: All the songs recorded for this album have in common the theme of sexual encounter and desire, a theme which is shared by the overwhelming majority of English and Scots folksongs.

Then Down Among The Barley Straw: Seduction Songs From the Baring-Gould Manuscripts by Cyril Tawney (Leader LP, 1971) finds a different set.

On the sleeve, Cyril Tawney discusses folk archivist the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1934-1924) who was regarded as ‘a narrow-minded Victorian prude.’ Tawney has collected songs which prove otherwise. He says:

Cyril Tawney: In every case, the sex act is either expressed through symbolism, such as the lock and the key, the threshing flail, seeds, the blackbird in the bush and so on, or it is glossed over gently, without explicit detail. These are not jock-strap ditties for rugby hearties.
Sleeve notes to Leader LP, 1971

The Chastity Belt

So go back as far as you like, folk singers were always fond of mildly salacious bits. In my early to mid-60s folk club days, a staple at any folk club was The Chastity Belt. It was cod-Elizabethan in style. To sing it you needed a hairy beard and a hairy polo-neck sweater, but neither items were rare. The oddity for me that it would then be followed by two serious girls with Joan Baez length hair warbling Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) a significant change of mood.

The following notes come from Fred Hessell on Narkive website.

There’s a lot on the song, also known as Sir Oswald Sodde. It appeared in a South African musical, WAIT A MINIM! in 1962 attributed to Jeffrey Smith as writer. The lyric was published in Sing! magazine in 1962, and It was recorded by Rory and Alex McEwen and Carolyne and Dick Farina on a 1963 mono EP called “Four For Fun” on the Scottish Waverley Records label.  It was NOT recorded on the WAIT A MINIM! cast record in South Africa but can be found in the later London [1964] and New York [1966] cast recordings. If the song was written in South Africa and came to the UK by 1962, it made it on its own merit and by a folk process since no recordings existed.

The words below are the rugby song version. They differ from the original Sir Oswald Sodde in detail throughout. Did they “grow” or did someone rewrite them? This version appears on several sites:

This is it. A Yale lock skewers any claims to genuine antiquity:

Oh say, gentle maiden, may I be your lover
Condemn me no longer to moan and to weep
Struck down like a hawk, I lie wounded and bleeding
Oh let down your drawbridge, I’ll enter your keep
Enter your keep nonie nonie, enter your keep nonie nonie
Let down your drawbridge, I’ll enter your keep

Alas gentle errant, I am not a maiden
I’m married to Sir Oswald, that cunning old Celt
He’s gone to wars for twelve months or longer
And he’s taken the key to my chastity belt
Chastity belt nonie nonie, chastity belt nonie nonie
Taken the key to my chastity belt

Fear not gentle lady for I know a locksmith
To his shop we will go, on his door we will knock
And try to avail us of his technical knowledge
And see if he’s able to unpick your lock
Unpick your lock nonie nonie, unpick your lock nonie nonie
See if he’s able to unpick your lock

Alas sir and madam, to help I’m unable
My technical knowledge is to no avail
I can’t find the secret to your combination
For the cunning old bastard has fitted a Yale
Fitted a Yale nonie nonie, fitted a Yale nonie none
The cunning old bastard has fitted a Yale

I come from the wars with dire news of disaster
A terrible mishap I have to confide
As my ship was a passing the Straits of Gibraltar
I carelessly dropped the key over the side
Over the side nonie nonie, over the side nonie nonie
Carelessly dropped the key over the side

Alas and alack I am locked up forever
Then up spoke the page boy “Leave it to me”
If you will allow me to enter your chamber
I’ll open it up with me duplicate key
Duplicate key nonie nonie, duplicate key nonie nonie
Open it up with me duplicate key

The Sir Oswald Sodde version is on YouTube (LINKED HERE)

Track 5: Sir Oswald Sodde is the official title
London LP of Broadway Cast, 1966

The original cast recording has different characters for each verse.

The link is that The Chastity Belt also appears on rugby songs collections. So is it a musical comedy number? Or a folk song? Or a rugby song?

The theme may owe something to the old bawdy jazz standard You’ve Got The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole, as recorded by George Melly in 1956 with Mick Mulligan’s JazzBand.

It’s a pastiche, I suppose, much in the same way that Long Black Veil is a pastiche of Appalachian murder ballads. There are words that a modern composer will pepper in to get he effect … maiden, fair, especially fair maiden. swain, alas, lord, lady, and obviously hey nonnie nonnie.

Bob Dylan had a go too on Belle Isle (This is from the Self Portrait review on this site):

The lyrics combine echoes of a traditional English ballad (maidens and damsels)  with Irish music (the banks of Lough Erin … my blooming bright star of Belle Isle – remember Belfast was originally Belle Fast – good harbour) or maybe it’s Scots (Loch Erin  not Lough Erin), or is it in fact American?

Young maiden I wish not to banter
Tis true I come here in disguise
I came here to fulfil my last promise
And hoped to give you a surprise!

The last line is suddenly modern English (and forced), and you can almost here the chuckle in his voice.  Michael Gray devotes a whole page to the song in The Art of Bob Dylan and says of this line:

The fourth line brings the fall – that ludicrously bad distribution of syllables, the awfulness of the rhyme and the bathos of the hope expressed … it has all been perfectly timed. It is brilliant clowning.

Dead right, Michael. I see it in a folk club setting. The previous act had done Chastity Belt and as he sings And hoped to give you a surprise … he winks, and the beardies roar with laughter and make obscene gestures. Dylan knew the folk club scene, and this is pure pastiche. However, Gray’s later research for articles on the song revealed that it was indeed a genuine Appalachian ballad. But I’ll bet the lyrics were doctored,

Folk clubs liked a bawdy ballad. The nascent Transatlantic label followed their first LP (a sex instruction manual) with Isla Cameron and Tony Britton singing Songs of Love, Lust and Loose Living in 1962.

Mucky Minstrels

The Chastity Belt, if it dates from 1962, was right in the “mucky minstrels” area. Both Benny Hill and Kenneth Williams specialized in such ‘wink wink, say no more’ comedy songs. Right at the start of his career, among the very first things I saw on a 12″ black and white TV, Benny Hill would don the motley (dress up as a jester) and sing songs with a Mummerset accent while holding a lute. Later it would be as a rural swain for The Harvest of Love.

Benny Hill also created ‘modern comedy’ songs from Transistor Radio to The Harvest of Love to Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West.) Most was straight pastiche pop, so that Harvest of Love combines a poppy arrangement in Frankie Vaughan style with the lyric:

I rise at six and then I feed the chicks,
And I’m feeling lonesome and blue,
And when I milk the cow it seems, somehow,
My thoughts keep straying to you.

There were two basics. First Mummerset / South-Western accents were funny. Second unusual words must be interpreted as rude.


The first principle bounced off the folk clubs. I recall going to London to clubs and see singers with RP or London accents, start singing and drop straight into Mummerset. Benny Hill, born in Southampton, evacuated to school in Bournemouth, at least had an excuse for a South West accent. (For a weird folk connection, Peter Bellamy was born in Bournemouth, and some of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s sources for Traveller’s Songs was Kinson in north Bournemouth). Mummerset always irritated me (and Fairport Convention are not immune here), mainly because it’s my region and I know when it sounds fake.

Accents are an issue. The “classical and folklore” crowd in the earlier half of the twentieth century seemed quite content to sing the traditional songs they found in mannered advanced RP. Try out Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten on piano, bellowing out The Miller of Dee with rolling Rs.

My ex-co author John Curtin was over twenty years older than me, and as well as being a puppeteer in Spain, he taught singing and used traditional songs much in the Pears / Britten style … he greatly admired them. He sang them in clear RP with florid piano accompaniment. As an aside here, piano is a much ignored instrument on the folk scene. Adrian McNally of The Unthanks is the highly-rated exception. As he would quickly point out, in a 19th century pub, a piano was more likely to be found than an acoustic guitar. That’s even true in the early 19th century. In the strict discipline folk clubs of the 60s, where even a Spanish guitar was considered too high-tech, pianos would have been anathema, but those purists are just plain wrong. (I won’t go as far as stating that SingalongaMax is in the folk tradition …)

Jon Pertwee

Jon Pertwee Sings Songs For Vulgar Boatmen, Philips LP 1962
Not quite The Song of The Volga Boatmen, Milly Balakirev, 1966

This is the sort of thing A.L. LLloyd meant by ‘middleclass outsiders’ sniggering at the folk area.

Jon Pertwee’s venture into the genre is surprisingly collectable … Blame Dr Who. He was famed for his role as a Petty Officer in the long-running radio sitcom, The Navy Lark which is the sea shanty connection. Backed by Ivor Raymonde? Read the sleeve notes above. It’s pastiche rather than real, and in 1962 around the Chastity Belt era. All the songs are written by George Evans and / or Ivor Raymonde. As with Benny Hill, it references “The Elizabethan Era” on the sleeve without saying “the second one.” Three songs have “maid / maiden” in the title.

The instrumentation consists of guitars and violin and accordion, but when you get to a chorus it sounds as if the entire George Mitchell Singers or whatever come in like a Christmas record in a shop in December, as on The Buxom Country Maid. Pertwee doesn’t use his Worzel Gummidge voice, but puts on a Mummerset-ish accent and elongates words. On The Sailor and The Mermaid he does a funny high mermaid voice. On Old MacLeod he uses a Scots accent and the chorus tune is borrowed from Knees Up Mother Brown. What A Shame chorus is Mockney (mock Cockney) and he does the funny girlie voice again.

A Ship Is Like A Maiden has a fruity Advanced RP narration.

The sleeve notes place it clearly as comedy.

“the voice of a South East Tibetan monk singing Sea Shanties, however skilfully done, would destroy a certain amount of authenticity inherent in this type of song. Above all we needed a man unshackled by trained musical technology, and need we say that Jon fitted the bill.”

Then they lampoon the Ewan MacColl style research:

The Devonshire Maid is an old Cobbery song found at Beesmouth in ’25. In this Jon accompanies himse;f on the 12 string rattern. London Town is a “swyped” song from the Boston Tea Party period. What A Shame, The Sailor and The Mermaid, Portsmouth Town and Lucky Jack are all Hampton Shanties.

“Hampton” is Cockney rhyming slang. Short for Hampton Wick = dick or prick.

Double entendres tumble over each other. It must have been aimed at those erudite enought to have heard of Song of The Volga Boatmen. Copies online range from £20 to £50. The hi-fi is lo. Or rather it’s lo-fi.


Any unusual words are rude? Mangel worzels? Hilarious. Furtwangler? Crying with laughter. It’s a pantomime tradition … it’s an English tradition. The Two Ronnies were experts at it. The New Vic theatre company excelled. I still recall a line in The Hunchback of Notre Dame where a character runs on and says, ‘I’ve been castigated by the burgers!‘ and the whole cast goes ‘Oooh!’ swiftly joined by the audience when the line reappears later.

See the track list for Kenneth Williams’ Rambling Sid Rumpo album:

Green Grow My Nadgers Oh! was based on Green Grow The Rushes, O, placing it firmly in the borrowed tunes lobby.

One Rambling Sid Rumpo epic relates to crude carols later:

Good King Boroslav looked out,
On the night of grungers,
Saw them whirdling round about,
Armed with rubber plungers,
Brightly shone their artefacts,
Red their possets glowing,
He knew not from whence they came, 
But ‘e knew where they were going!

Topical Tuppers

Then there’s Ivor Biggun. He was a BBC sound engineer, who started out as Doc Cox on the TV programme That’s Life (1982-92) singing smutty songs weekly. Having topical songs on current affairs programmes was a tradition, going back to the daily Tonight show with Cliff Michelmore, when Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor would do folk songs, and Cy Grant did daily topical calypsos. Then on That Was The Week That Was, Millicent Martin did jazz-flavoured topical comedy. Calypsos link to folk … Harry Belafonte did both on record.

Doc Cox, as Ivor Biggun, had a hit record with The Winker’s Song (Misprint) which was #22 in the charts. This is most obviously related to George Formby’s ukulele songs. As more than half the hits on this blog are from North America, I should explain that this sign in Nevada could never be displayed in Britain. I parked to take the picture and a guy from a nearby bar came over and asked why so many British visitors photographed the sign. ‘Wank’ is masturbate. A wanker is an inept and useless person.

Sign: Nevada, 2012

Ivor Biggun followed it with Bras on 45 (Stars on 45 was a popular series of medleys) credited to Ivor Biggun and The D-Kups. This is not subtle stuff, and is nowhere remotely near folk but mock disco. The Majorca Song is summer pop along the lines of Viva Espana. Then The Yodelling Winker sounds like a German drinking song. What with songs like my Brother’s Magazine, Ivor Biggun had just the one basic joke. I always thought he was a wanker in the derived sense, rather than the basic sense.

Leon Rosselson specialized in topical comedy, (FOLLOW THIS LINK) though that tended to political and current affairs instead of smut.

Judge Dread had hits with rude reggae, but that was a ska / reggae tradition too, dating back to the Jamaican singer Lord Kitchener.

Rude rustics & Bucolic bawdery

Scrumpy & Western(EP) Columbia, 1967

Furtwanglers and worzels

The cause of rural rudery was taken up by Adge Cutler & The Wurzels from Somerset, and then by The Yetties from Dorset. Both had long careers and packed in the crowds at County Fairs, pubs, Cider Festivals, the Great Dorset Steam Rally … and also rock festivals and folk festivals. Dressing up in smocks and having beards and red noses helps. Is it folk? Or just raucous rural pub singing? Note The Wurzels used a tuba for bass and an accordion in the 60s … shades of 00’s folk. By the 2000s it’s down to a three piece, with drums, electric bass guitar and Fender Stratocaster. In practical terms, if you’re playing small festivals electric instruments are much easier to cope with than mic’ing a load of acoustic ones.

Check out Twice Daily live from 2010 on YouTube. The lyrics are perfect for the rural rudeness genre AND they vary: The singer goes out to fork hay. He meets a maid who goes there twice daily. Soon he’s “forking twice daily.” (Live, though not on the TV recording). They continue to describe themselves as ‘A scrumpy and Western band.’ (Scrumpy is rough cider).

The Yetties started on folk specialist, Acorn, and even got on to Decca’s Argo label, reserved for folk, spoken voice and, er, steam locomotive and even paddle steamer noises. The Yetties are much closer to mainstream folk. On Argo’s The World of The Countryside they share space with Cyril Tawney, Frankie Armstrong and Bob Arnold.

For Irish folk, it was a Booze and Bawdy style which The Dubliners could embrace at times though they were also excellent on songs like the Patriot Game. There’s not that much difference between Seven Drunken Nights and Adge Cutler’s Drink Up Thy Zyder.

If a folk singer, however serious, adopts an accent for a song that is not their own, are they not in the same section as The Wurzels?

But seriously … All the nice girls love a sailor.

All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor was popular on youth club outings, back of the bus, and it was tacitly agree that we would clap instead of the filthiest bits. It’s what ELT teachers call a gap-fill, unfortunately in this case:

All the nice girls love a candle
All the nice girls love a wick
Cos there’s something about a candle
That reminds them of a (CLAP CLAP)
Nice and greasy, slips in easy
It’s the nice girls’ pride and joy
When they’re walking along the front
With a candle in their (CLAP CLAP)
Ship ahoy! It’s a boy (buoy?)

Seaside postcard. Early 1970s

Sea shanties were all-male choral singing. Some connect to American folk blues, in that they were also used as working rhythms on ships … Haul away me hearties. The striped shirt, pipe, floppy hat and accordion are the instant mental picture. In the 21st century, Bellowhead and The Demon Barbers recorded some marvellous sea shanties, so much so that Bellowhead’s version of New York Girls hovers around my often tweaked Desert Island Discs selection.

Hal Wilner: So first of all a sea chantey (often spelled shanty) is a work song that was sung on the ol’ ships in the day. Rhythmically they matched the activity speed of these men hauling on the line. Many of them are really filthy. Many are very beautiful.
Sleeve note to Rogue’s Gallery,

Were sea shanties (like rugby songs) sometimes sexist bordering on misogynist? They did objectify and stereotype, but then after they had been six weeks at sea, who are we to judge? The alley right behind the custom house on Poole Quay is called Paradise Street. In the 19th century, sailing ships were lined along the quay fifty yards away.

Hal Wilner was renowned for his themed stellar tribute albums … Leonard Cohen, Charles Mingus, the Music of Disney. In 2006 Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski were ‘executive producers’ for a double CD by Hal Wilner, Rogue’s Gallery. I might prefer to shift the apostrophe for multiple rogues. It was successful enough for a sequel, Son of Rogues Gallery (no apostrophe at all). Wilner said he wanted an almost punk take on pirate songs. The Depp connection would be the Pirates of The Caribbean sereis of films starting in 2003, with Pirates of The Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl. Depp played Captain Jack Sparrow, basing the character on Keith Richards. The albums are subtitled Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys.

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s life for me

Pirates are definitely raucous male-only misogynists. The Pirates of The Caribbean films were based on the Disneyland / Disneyworld ride. I remember travelling on it in Orlando and Paris. Why are those men chasing those girls round and round the fountain? is a question which it’s hard to answer to a seven year old. Rape and pillage? Torture? Then they’re auctioning the captured women. It’s odd that it was ever thought a cheerful happy kiddie ride.

It had to be PC’d in 2017, eradicating Auction: Take A Wench For A Bride with a redhead displaying her attractions. The chasing scene was somewhat diluted by giving the women trays of food, implying that was the pirates’ goal.

Rogue’s Gallery

Rogue’s Gallery, 2 CD set 2006

These guys had serious connections. The first collection features Bono, Sting,. Bryan Ferry, Nick Cave, Lou Reed and Martin Carthy. Not known, apart from Martin Carthy as folk singers

Those are the ones listed on the sleeve sticker, but Rogue’s Gallery adds Richard Thompson, Teddy Thompson, Eliza Carthy. It also adds Rufus Wainwright, Van Dyke Parks, Lucinda Williams, Richard Greene, Jarvis Cocker.

You’re talking about hundreds of things we were considering. Eventually I shortened it to about forty, and then I started to cast people. Most singers I sent six choices to, but sometimes I had a specific idea and sometimes they had something they’d like to do. Volume one was very easy. We went to England and put together a band there. Kate St. John and Roger Eno and Andy Newmark. I made calls to singers and they were all in town: in one day, we got Dave Thomas, Nick Cave, Bryan Ferry, Martin Carthy. I love that kind of thing. I remember at one of the concerts we did later, Beth Orton said that she had forgotten why she wanted to be in this business, and this reminded her.”
Hal Wilner interview, The New Yorker 8 February 2013

Son of Rogues Gallery 2 CD set 2012

The second, Son of Rogues Gallery in 2012 has Tom Waits, Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Patti Smith & Johnny Depp, Michael Stipe and Courtney Love on the front sticker. Add Shane MacGowan, Ivan Neville, Macy Gray, Ed Harcourt, Beth Orton, Sean Lennon, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, Dr John, Marc Almond, Todd Rundgren, Marianne Faithful with Kate and Annie McGarrigle and Angelica Huston. Half of it dates from the earlier sessions for the first set.

It was less well-received:

The first volume (same title, minus the ‘Son Of’ bit) harnessed the definitive shanty classics. This one has had to dig a bit deeper for its treasure, and no-one is going to spend long listening to Macy Gray covering a song that even hardcore Elizabethan pirates probably thought would work better as a B-side. 
Kevin Perry, New Musical Express 8 March 2013

This follow-up to the original 2006 Rogue’s Gallery sea-shanty compilation is slightly less salty but just as broad-ranging musically. Apart from Iggy Pop’s stern delivery of “Asshole Rules the Navy”, maritime sexual proclivities are kept discreetly under wraps, in favour of more outré interests – Shilpa Ray’s investigation of equal-opportunity piracy in the company of Nick Cave & Warren Ellis on “Pirate Jenny”, Dr John’s tragic account “In Lure of the Tropics” and Todd Rundgren bringing autotune and FX to bear on “Rolling Down to Old Maui”. But the most interesting take blends Gavin Friday’s dark baritone with Shannon McNally’s fluting melisma on “Tom’s Gone to Hilo”.
Andy Gill, The Independent, 22 February 2013

You can’t argue that these songs don’t have folk connections. Some are modern in inspiration. Marianne Faithfull does Flandyke Shore which fits the ‘mock-medieval’ genre, and is credited to Nic Jones, from the essential 1980 folk classic album Penguin Eggs. On that album it’s credited as Round 2636, so collected by Cecil Sharp from Somerset. It was in print by 1907.

Wedding Dress Song / The Handsome Cabin Boy is an instrumental by Frank Zappa, and was first released on Mystery Disc in 1998, though it dates from the original Mothers of Invention

Many of the songs are unarguably folk … Richard Thompson on General Taylor. In spite of the instrumentation, Michael Stipe of REM is certainly faithful to Rio Grande.

The GoodShip Venus

LP version

So to the really filthy. CD2 of Rogue’s Gallery has Good Ship Venus, sung by Loudon Wainwright III.

Hal Wilner: Among the filthiest series of limericks ever collected and written down, this gem was first put to paper by Christopher Logue in Count Palmiro Vicarion’s Book of Bawdy Ballads, courageously published by the notorious Olympia Press (Maurice Girodias) in 1956. Maurice was a much persecuted man. He also published Lolita and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Old time sailors would surely have been proud.
Sleeve notes to Rogue’s Gallery.

There was an earlier Bawdy Ballads and Lusty Lyrics by John Henry Johnson, published in 1935. According to ABE Books this has eight chapters:

 Villains, Gin and Sin, Damsels, Amorous Bards, Sailors, Sealing Wax and Cabbages, Army, and In Timely Tempo. 

Loudon Wainwright III got the lyrics closer to what I knew, though he had far more verses. I’d have counted it as a Recitation rather than a song, along the lines of The Lion & Albert, Christmas Day In The Workhouse or Brown Boots.

The Sex Pistols had recorded a version as Friggin’ In The Riggin’ on The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle back in 1980. Surprisingly, their lyrics aren’t as filthy as the rugby song / Loudon Wainwright version:

It was on the good ship Venus
By Christ, ya should’ve seen us
The figurehead was a whore in bed
And the mast, a mammoth penis

The Sex Pistols used orchestral backing and a tuba or sousaphone to carry it. They also did it closer to the recitation model. They fit Hal Wilner’s concept that sea shanties were akin to punk.

Loudon Wainwright went for a folkier backing and added a dainty melody:

On the Good Ship Venus
By Christ you should’ve seen us
The figurehead was a whore in bed
Sucking a dead man’s penis

Wainwright goes for:

The Captain’s name was lugger
By Christ, he was a bugger

I always knew it as ‘The Captain of this lugger …’ what with a lugger being a type of ship, though not a large one.

The Sex Pistols and Wainwright agree on one of the funnier verses:

The cabin boy was Kipper
By Christ he was a nipper
He stuffed his ass with broken glass
And circumcised the skipper

Believe me it gets much worse. Both versions are on YouTube and the lyrics of both are online.

Crude carols

I don’t think any of these were actually recorded, but there was a similar tradition of changing the words of carols, and these mutated over years. A typical setting was a school assembly with hundreds of voices with a lad or two near the back singing the alternative versions for the amusement of their neighbours. They were never that dirty. Lines included …

We three kings of Orient are
One on a taxi, one in a car
One on a scooter, blowing his hooter
Following yonder car …

or worse:

We three kings of Leicester Square,
Selling Ladies underwear,
Quite fantastic, no elastic
Very unsafe to wear ..

Whilst shepherds washed their socks by night all hanging on the line
The angel of the lord came down and said “Those socks are mine”

or worse:

As shepherds washed their socks by night,
Whilst sitting on a bank,
The angel of the lord came down,
And taught them how to wank

Brightly shone the stars that night, though the frost was cruel
When an old man came in sight, fiddling with his tool …

It extended to children’s songs as in:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he
He called for his wife in the middle of the night
And a jolly good fiddle had he …

Rum, Sodomy & The Lash

On the punk-folk connection, Shane MacGowan does The Leaving of Liverpool. It’s a song I know well, in that we needed a song for a busker in our Double Identity ELT video, and we also needed one without copyright fees. The Leaving of Liverpool turned out to have been copyrighted by our video publishers, Oxford University Press, back in 1926. MacGowan turns it into a punkish rant.

Rum, Sodomy & The Lash: The Pogues, LP, 1985

Which continues the connection to his band, The Pogues, with Rum Sodomy & The Lash, a UK album hit (#13) in 1985. Discogs describes it as Folk rock, Celtic punk, Punk.

Winton Churchill: Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy , prayers and the lash.
1913, when First Lord of The Admiralty

This relates to a 19th century saying:
Ashore it’s wine, women and song. Aboard it’s rum, bum and concertina.

I’d love to hear Ewan MacColl’s opinion on what The Pogues did to his song Dirty Old Town. This most snotty of self-appointed folk purists loathed what Roberta Flack did to The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. He might like it. Shane MacGowan’s delivery brings out the lyric. Then we have banjo, mandolin, acoustic bass guitar, fiddle, bagpipes and penny whistle.

Adam Sweeting: This (album) is, apart from anything else, music to hang on to other people by to stave off brutal fact and the weight of history. While The Pogues make music for drunks as well, probably, as anyone has they’re also dragging an oft-ignored folk tradition into the daylight with an altogether improbable potency … Rum … has soul, if not a great deal of innovation, and somewhere among the glasses and the ashtrays lie a few home truths
10 August 1985, Melody Maker.

Ah, an oft-ignored folk tradition. That’s where we started.

So, our rugby songs part of a long folk tradition?


4 thoughts on “Bawdy ballads, lewd lyrics, rugby songs and folk

  1. “Rum, bum and concertina” was the name of George Melly’s autobiography dealing with his years in the Royal Navy at the end of the Second World War.

    And as for bawdy songs in the folk tradition … “The cuckoo’s nest” and “The bonny black hare” spring to mind. The first can be found on “Morris On” (and probably several other places) whereas BBH is on Fairport’s “Angel Delight”. I was a folkie in the early 70s.


  2. To the tune of Greensleeves
    There was a dusky Eurasian maid
    In old Karachi she plied her trade
    And in Calcutta, and in Madras
    And by special request, up the Kyber Pass.

    There came a soldier boy, fully grown
    Who until this time, had held his own
    She took that soldier boy, well in hand
    And she showed him the way, to the promised land

    Black Velvet was full of Joy
    For every British soldier boy
    She guaranteed to please,
    And all she would charge you was five rupees


  3. Excellent article and it brought back so many memories. I had no idea of the Noel Coward link to Eskimo Nell, I always thought it actually was Robert Service. I suppose it says something that I can recite many of its verses while the words of the Lake poets have all drifted away.

    One thing, do we actually have County Fairs in this country
    ? I associate them with American and Mr Bojangles. Agricultural shows were what I grew up with.


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