In my last post at Folklife Today, I wrote about a folksong that connected my appearances on some important radio shows. Since then, some of my Library of Congress colleagues (some current and some retired) have expressed interest in the song, stemming from their own experiences as radio listeners. Given their interest, I thought I’d talk about it some more, and include more versions from AFC’s collections and elsewhere.
In case you missed the last blog (and don’t want to read it right now at this link), the song in question is the old ballad that Francis James Child called “Our Goodman” and gave the number 274. It also goes by many other titles, including “Three Nights’ Experience,” “Seven Drunken Nights,” “Cabbage Head Blues,” and “Coming Home Late.” This humorous and sometimes ribald ballad tells the tale of a man who comes home on one night or a succession of nights to find evidence of another man’s presence in his house…only to have his wife cleverly explain the evidence away. But usually there’s a nagging detail about each piece of evidence that doesn’t jibe with his wife’s explanation, and leaves him still suspicious.
As an example, let’s hear a version recorded by Anne Grimes from singer and guitarist Bob Gibson in the early 1950s. This song, and the story behind it, are included in Grimes’s book and the accompanying CD. Gibson later became one of the best known singers of the folk revival, but at the time he was building a reputation and visiting folklore conferences to learn interesting material. Hear it in the player below.; I’ll transcribe the lyrics below the player.
Last night as I come home, drunk as I could be
Found another mule in the stable where my mule ought to be
“Tell me, Honey, baby, explain yourself to me
How come another mule in the stable, where my mule ought to be?”
“Now crazy, now silly, can’t you plainly see?
It’s nothing but a milk cow that my grandma gave to me!”
“Traveled this wide world over, a million times or more,
A saddle upon a milk cow, I never did see before.”
Other night when I come home, as drunk as I could be
Found another coat on the coat rack where my coat ought to be
“Honey, baby, explain this thing to me
How come another coat on the coat rack where my coat ought to be?”
“Honey, oh silly, can’t you plainly see?
It’s nothing but a bed quilt that your grandma gave to me!”
“I’ve traveled this wide world over, a million times or more,
Pockets on a bed quilt, I never saw before.”
Well, the other night when I come home, as drunk as I could be
I seen another head on the pillow where my head ought to be
Said “Honey, baby, explain this thing to me
How come another head on the pillow where my head ought to be?”
She says “Honey,” she says, “Baby, can’t you plainly see?
It’s nothing but a cabbage head that my grandma gave to me!”
“I’ve traveled this wide world over, a million times or more,
A hat on a cabbage head, I’ve never seen before.”
Gibson’s version, like J.E. Mainer’s in the last post, is short and sweet: just three verses and a simple tune. Where Gibson is surprised to find a “hat on a cabbage head,” Mainer’s narrator wonders about the mustache! Some versions are much longer, and have the husband find more and more evidence…including boots, hats, canes, pipes, swords, cloaks, britches, and in some cases items we can’t publish in a family-friendly blog!
In Gibson’s version, the husband is so gullible because he’s very drunk, and this is a common plot element; in fact, the song often goes by titles such as “Four Nights Drunk,” “Drunkard’s Special,” and “Seven Drunken Nights.” But drunkenness is not the only explanation available for the husband’s foolishness. The other version I shared in the last blog, Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Wake Up Baby,” simply has the husband “as tired as I could be.” Other singers have more involved explanations. Will Starks, for example, performed a version with an elaborate backstory for Alan Lomax in 1942. In his version, the husband has recently been cured of blindness! (This suggests the song might have interacted in his mind with another ballad about an unfaithful wife, “Marrowbones” or “The Wife of Kelso.”) You can hear Starks’s version of “Our Goodman” in the player below.
“Our Goodman” is usually performed humorously, presenting a burlesque of husband-wife interactions that’s familiar from other folksongs such as “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” “When I Was Single,” and the aforementioned “Marrowbones.” In many versions, male singers adopt a shrill falsetto to suggest a stereotypical scolding wife. The Mainer recording in my previous post lists Mary Mainer as one of the singers, but if it is a woman singing the wife’s part, she has adopted the tone of a man imitating a woman. You can hear the same technique, this time definitely performed by a man, in Colon Keel’s rendition below.
Notice also that Keel almost has the husband say a swear word, but shifts abruptly to the song “Rye Whiskey” so the swear is suggested only by the rhyme. This technique is sometimes known as a “tease,” and is often found in tame bawdy songs. In this case, it also functions to establish the husband’s character more firmly as an enthusiastic (or perhaps desperate) drunkard.
“Our Goodman” is one of relatively few “Child ballads” to become popular with African Americans. Both urban and country blues adopted the song early on, with Lena & Sylvester Kimbrough’s 1924 “Cabbage Head Blues” (on Youtube at this link) and Coley Jones’s 1929 “Drunkard’s Special,” which seems to have been Bob Gibson’s source (on Youtube at this link), as respective examples. In 1934, John and Alan Lomax recorded Percy Ridge singing an African American cowboy version, which you can hear below.
Interestingly, both my colleagues who remembered hearing versions heard blues takes on the song—one heard Williamson, and the other heard Professor Longhair. Longhair’s version is not available online, but his (white) protégé Dr. John’s version can be heard at this link. African American versions of “Our Goodman” have stayed alive in oral tradition as well; I’ve heard a version collected by my teacher Roger Abrahams from African American youths in Philadelphia in the 1970s, who performed it essentially as a rap.
So what are the roots of this widespread folksong? The earliest printed versions of “Our Goodman” date to the later 18th century. Scholars tend to say the song is Scottish in origin, but that’s really just a guess. It’s true that the first printed version for which we know a precise date comes from David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (1776), but Herd was printing a manuscript of unknown date, and it may represent a version he collected himself from oral tradition, so we don’t know how old his text was in 1776. At about the same time, a version called “The Merry Cuckold and Kind Wife” was printed on an English broadside whose date is not known. Some sources, such as the ballad archives at UCSB ascribe it a date range beginning in the 1760s and ending in 1775, making this earliest English version probably—but not provably—older than the first Scottish one.
“Our Goodman” was definitely collected from oral tradition before the close of the 18th century as well. Scottish engraver and music publisher James Johnson saw the song in Herd’s book and considered it an old song worth preserving. Johnson enlisted a musician friend, Mr. Clarke, and the two set about finding the song. (In the days before recording devices, song collectors often traveled in pairs, so one person could write down the words and the other notate the melody.) In a later printing of Johnson’s book The Scots Musical Museum, Johnson’s successor as editor, William Stenhouse (1773-1827), included a delightful account of that 18th century fieldwork:
The words of this extremely curious old ballad were recovered by David Herd and printed in his Collection in 1776. Johnson, the publisher of the Museum, after several unavailing researches, was at length informed that an old man of the name of Geikie, a hair-dresser in the Candlemaker-row, Edinburgh, sung the verses charmingly, and that the tune was uncommonly fine. Accordingly, he and his friend Mr. Clarke took a step to Geikie’s lodgings, and invited him to an inn to crack a bottle with them. They soon made him very merry; and on being requested to favour them with the song he readily complied and sung it with great glee. Mr. Clarke immediately took down the notes and arranged the song for the Museum, in which work the words and music first appeared together in print [in 1797]. Mr. Anderson, music engraver in Edinburgh who served his apprenticeship with Mr. Johnson, informs me that Geikie died about four days after the tune was taken down.
Stenhouse’s account contains a common motif of metafolklore, or folklore about folklore: the collection of an item of folklore occurring just in time, mere days before it would have been lost forever, in this case through Geikie’s death. In truth, though, the song doesn’t seem to have been in any danger of disappearing; it has survived with several different tunes in many corners of the world. In fact, it’s one of the most popular of the classic old ballads. Steve Roud and Julia Bishop describe it as “an immensely widespread song, probably known all over the English-speaking world.” Roud lists over 400 oral and broadside versions in his folksong indexes, which give it the number Roud 114.
The song may already have been old when first written down. The humorous story is timeless and resembles the bawdy tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio; it’s in the genre that German scholars call the schwank and French scholars the fabliau. Ballads with similar storylines exist all over Europe, including Scandinavia, Germany, Hungary, France, Italy, and elsewhere, which opens up intriguing possibilities of oral and manuscript transmission going back centuries. The fact that print versions turn up in England and Scotland at about the same time suggests it might have been circulating for some time in British oral tradition before that. Having said that, there’s no proof that the song in its current form was much more than 50 years old in 1776.
The song has survived strongly in British oral tradition, and has been adopted into the folk revival as well. English traditional versions include the fine one at this link, from George Spicer. Its many revival versions include this one sung by Martin Carthy as a member of Steeleye Span.
In Scotland, a tradition developed that the song referred to the Jacobite wars, and the wife was hiding not a lover but a dissident. Versions that make this suggestion were being published as early as 1821, in Robert Smith’s The Scotish Minstrel. In this version, the wife’s statement that she’s hiding her “cousin McIntosh” (whom her husband then labels a “Tory”) could just be another false claim like all the others, but the idea that it was a Jacobite song recalling the hiding of people for their political affiliations survived among traditional singers until the 20th century. The Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson collected the ballad from singers who earnestly claimed this was the song’s true meaning; you can hear one of those at this link. Such Jacobite versions also made it to Nova Scotia, where Helen Creighton and Doreen Senior collected and published them. The song was also popular in the Scottish folk revival; Ewan MacColl sang the version at this link. In liner notes published in the 1950s, he said he learned it from his father.
Ireland is particularly fond of “Our Goodman.” In fact, thanks to an Irish group, a version of this old ballad became an unlikely top ten hit on the UK pop charts. The version in question was “Seven Drunken Nights,” released by the Irish ballad group The Dubliners in 1967. The track, sung in the trademark gravelly baritone of the band’s frontman Ronnie Drew, was banned from radio play by some British broadcasters, and by the Irish national station RTE, because of its scandalous storyline. But it was championed by Radio Caroline, a pirate radio station operating from a ship in international waters, and with their help rose to number 5 on the British pop charts. As a result, the Dubliners performed it on TV shows such as Top of the Pops and became one of the most successful groups in Irish music. Drew’s rough-hewn voice became an iconic sound of the Irish folk revival. You can hear that version at this link.
According to a biography of the Connemara singer Joe Heaney (Seosamh Ó hÉanaí), the Dubliners learned their version of “Seven Drunken Nights” from Heaney, another crucial figure in 20th century Irish music. As luck would have it, AFC’s collections include Heaney’s version; at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, Alan Lomax recorded Heaney, singing the song with help from Liam Clancy of the world-famous Clancy Brothers. Interestingly, in Heaney’s community horses were farm animals or draft animals, and rarely ridden; people went visiting almost exclusively on foot. Therefore, he felt compelled to explain why a man would bring a saddled horse with him to visit a woman! Hear that version in the player below.
While the Dubliners’ rendition of Heaney’s “Seven Drunken Nights” was banned from Irish radio in 1967, according to his biography Heaney himself had by then succeeded in singing a version of “Our Goodman” on RTE already. This is because he knew a version of the ballad in Irish Gaelic too, and censors were less apt to understand what was going on in Irish-language songs. Such Celtic-language versions of “Our Goodman” are also relatively common; in 1951, Alan Lomax recorded Colm Keane singing “A Pheigí na gCarad (Our Goodman),” which you can hear in the player below.
In Wales, it was similarly translated into Welsh, and collected from oral tradition in the Welsh language. Hear a Welsh version at this link!
“Our Goodman” has traveled beyond Britain and Ireland, and not just to North America. It’s popular wherever English is spoken. In Australia, it’s sometimes known as “Shickered as He Could Be,” after a dialect word for drunk that apparently comes from Yiddish…hear Warren Fahey sing it at this link. Alan Lomax also collected a nice version adapted for group singing in the Bahamas in 1935, sung by Simeon Rolle of Andros Island, Bahamas, which is in the AFC archive. Hear it in the player below.
The story of “Our Goodman” leaves us with as many questions as answers. It certainly seems as if the wife is having an affair; yet the husband IS very drunk, or tired, or sometimes blind…is it possible he’s imagining the whole thing? His reactions, too, can be taken in two ways: does “mustache on a cabbage head I’ve never seen before” mean he’s really fooled, or does it mean he understands what’s going on and is making sardonic comments? If it’s sarcasm, is he expressing amusement because he doesn’t care, is it angry disbelief, or perhaps bitter resignation? You can’t tell from most texts of the song, which leaves it open to each singer—and each listener—to interpret.
Maybe the best example of this—maybe the best version of the song ever sung—is the one by Emma Dusenbury of Mena, Arkansas. Mrs. Dusenbury’s is different from other field recordings in several ways. In two of these ways, it resembles the English broadside version from the 1760s or 1770s: first, the action occurs as the husband walks all around the different areas of his house and yard on one night, not on a succession of nights. Second, the wife has not one but three male visitors, and they are all in the bed when the husband arrives!
In a third way, her song is nearly unique: it’s sung as a cumulative song, so each time the narrator marvels at his wife’s explanation, he lists all the unusual things he has seen so far; the list gets longer as the song goes on, culminating with:
Milk cows with saddles on and
Sucking calves with flopping ears and
Milkmaids with whiskers on and
Pudding-bags with spurs on and
Coverlets with buttons on and
Soup bowls with hatbands on
Such things I never have seen
They’re always here when I am gone,
Here they must be.
Hear Mrs. Dusenbury’s version of the ballad below!
The cumulative aspect of Emma Dusenbury’s rendition is, as I said above, “nearly unique.” But a memory of such a performance was described in connection with a text very similar to Mrs. Dusenbury’s all the way back in 1852. The context was a query about a “Shropshire Ballad” in Notes and Queries, the journal founded by “The Old Folk-Lorist,” William John Thoms. In that query, R. C. Warde of Kidderminster presents his recollections of three verses, which are not cumulative, but then adds an intriguing detail:
I have a dim recollection of a winding-up verse, in which the Milking-cows with saddles on, the Milking-maids with breeches on, and all the other bones of contention mentioned in the ballad are figured.
Based on Warde’s long-ago query, it’s certainly plausible that Mrs. Dusenbury’s version is part of a long tradition in which “Our Goodman” was sung as a cumulative song. Mentioning Warde’s query also requires a tip of the hat to the diligent reference librarian who brought it to the attention of scholars: the former head of AFC’s archive, Joe Hickerson, who has been studying “Our Goodman” for well over 50 years.
Sadly, in talking about “Our Goodman,” I can’t be comprehensive; Joe reckons he’s gathered information on over 500 texts of the song, so a full study would be hundreds of pages long. (I don’t even have space to look into the manuscript versions in AFC’s Robert Winslow Gordon Collection!) Readers who want bibliographic references to more of the published versions should look in Tristram P. Coffin’s The British Traditional Ballad in North America. For those particularly interested in bawdy versions, you can find references in Ed Cray’s The Erotic Muse. Those seeking versions collected from oral tradition should look in Bertrand Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads.
Reading these books, and listening to the versions I’ve presented here, should make one thing abundantly clear: like the husband in “Our Goodman,” the song itself has traveled many miles, and will likely travel many more. If you’ve encountered a version you remember fondly, or one you have a question about, we’d love you to drop us a comment below!