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.
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:
Falling off his bike
for a clumsy youth. Or …
Trying to beat his meat
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.
The classic Jock Strapp Ensemble albums
Rugby songs started off (I think) with three albums by The Jock Strapp Ensemble in 1964. 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 he 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.’
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!
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 iwa 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  and New York  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.
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 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?
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 be the lyrics were doctored,
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 …)
Furtwanglers and worzels
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.
Rude rustics & Bucolic bawdery
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?)
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 shaty) 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 seres 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 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.
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
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 Roud 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
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 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
Sacking 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.
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.
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?