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Of Babies, Buses and Barristers: How “Ridge’s Food” Caught My Eye AND Ear

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Print of the Royal Exchange, London, in the late 19th century, with horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians in front.
The Royal Exchange, between 1890 and 1900. Photographer unknown; Detroit Publishing Company. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Find out more about the print here.

A little before Christmas, I published a blog featuring the above image of the Royal Exchange in London, which is an important location in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. At the time I didn’t notice a tiny detail: one of the horse-drawn buses in the center of the frame has an advertisement on it for “Ridge’s Food,” a product that also features centrally in a humorous song from the American Folklife Center’s archive. The connection between the photo, the song, and folklore sent me down a rabbit hole, exploring legends, etymology, history, and folksong. In this post, I’ll talk about the song, which (it turns out) has an interesting and contested history.

The American Folklife Center’s version of “Dr. Ridge’s Food” was collected in August 1939, in Tuolumne County, California. It was recorded by Sidney Robertson (later Sidney Robertson Cowell), from the singing of a gold miner named John Stone. Stone was one of her most interesting performers, singing mostly 19th century popular songs and playing dance music on the fiddle and harmonica. Our AFC colleague Cathy Kerst spoke about him in her presentation at the Library of Congress on Sidney Robertson’s collection:

One character she recorded was John Stone. He was a fiddler, a harmonica player, and he had performed medicine show routines earlier in the century and in the previous century. She had a hard time finding him because he was up in his cabin somewhere up in the mountains and he would give cryptic reports on where he was going to be the next day, and she finally found him. But she recorded this selection called “Dr. Ridge’s Food” in addition to all kinds of other things that John Stone performed.

In her notes, Cowell counted “Dr. Ridge’s Food” among “‘contemporary’ ballads of an earlier era,” and said it was “amusing as a sociological record.” She also noted that Stone had learned it “during a stage of his colorful career when he functioned as come-on man for a medicine show.”

So what’s the song about?  It’s simply the tale of a father who is left in charge of his crying baby boy. In an attempt to soothe the baby, he promises him Dr. Ridge’s Food.

During the song, Stone pauses for spoken-word segments praising the food itself, and complaining that his wife doesn’t do enough work. This puts the song into the category of “cante-fables,” performances that are partly sung and partly narrated in prose.

Hear the song in the player below–then read the lyrics, and keep reading to learn the fascinating history of the song!

half-length portrait of John Stone with a large brimmed hat on his head and his gold mining pan in his hands.
This half-length portrait of John Stone with his gold mining pan is captioned “Miner, fiddler, and singer, at Columbia, Tuolumne County, California.” It’s part of our online presentation California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell.

Dr. Ridge’s Food

Oh when I was a single man I had a single trouble
That was to find a single girl, my happiness to double
At last I found a charming maid, I thought her sweet as honey
But now we’re married, I’m afraid, she wasn’t worth the money

No because she makes me get up in the middle of the night to nurse the baby.
Who joins me in a vocal duet; he squalls and I sing:

Diddum, diddum, wake him up, put the little chap away
To tiddy it a piddle, Papa gets his pipe
You shall have your Ridge’s Food and bottle by and by,
A ridgy, pidgy, ducky, darling, baby don’t you cry!

Oh when this baby he was born, he seemed a little sickly
My sweet wife did not notice it, but I perceived it quickly
I thought we’d lose our little chap, if she’d not do her duty
But thanks to Dr. Ridge’s Food, he’s grown to be a beauty

Yes, I think Dr. Ridge is the best doctor I ever had in my life.
He prescribed food instead of medicine, which brought the little chap through all right.
Although I think I did a lot myself, singing

Diddum, diddum, wake him up, put the little chap away
To tiddy it a piddle, Papa gets his pipe
You shall have your Ridge’s Food and bottle by and by,
A ridgy, pidgy, ducky, darling, baby don’t you cry!

She said she’d honor and obey, but that’s just what she won’t do
And do just anything I’d say, but don’t you see, she don’t do
“I’ll light the fire,” Eliza said, “and get the breakfast early”
But now Eliza lies in bed, and laughs when I get surly

Yes, she does laugh at me when I get up in the morning to roast the fire and frizzle the meat. No I don’t mean that, I mean to frizzle the meat and roast the fire. Well you know, I don’t mean that either. I mean I’m all the time singing:

Diddum, diddum, wake him up, put the little chap away
To tiddy it a piddle, Papa gets his pipe
You shall have your Ridge’s Food and bottle by and by,
A ridgy, pidgy, ducky, darling, baby don’t you cry!

When young men talk of marrying, you cannot stop them in it
If they should ask for my advice, I’d say “just wait a minute”
Some say there’s bliss in married life, in some perhaps there may be
But not if you’ve a lazy wife who makes you nurse the baby

The Folklore and History of “Dr. Ridge’s Food”

A broadside showing an image of a soldier and the words to "Poor Man's Labour Never Done." the transcribed lyrics can be found at the link in the caption.
Broadside printing of “Poor Man’s Labour Never Done.” This image from the National Library of Scotland was shared on their website with a Creative Commons license.

“Dr. Ridge’s Food” might seem to be an advertising song or jingle, without much of a relationship to folksongs.  But in fact, it draws heavily on folklore, and is interesting to folklorists mostly because it’s a commercial use of folkloric themes. The song is an example of whole genre of songs common in British and American folk tradition, in which men and women complain about their lazy or unsympathetic spouses. Examples of such songs can be found in various online collections as transcribed lyrics or sound recordings. Songs from the man’s perspective include “Poor Man’s Labour Never Done,” “A Warning to Bachelors,” and “I Wish I Was Single Again,” while women’s songs include “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “When I Was Single,” and  ”Labouring Woman.”

To elaborate on just one of these comparisons, in “Poor Man’s Labour Never Done,” as in “Dr. Ridge’s Food,” the thing the man resents most is having to take care of a baby while (in his opinion) his wife neglects it. As in “Dr. Ridge’s Food,” he dandles the baby when it wakes up in the night, trying to get it back to sleep. In some versions, like the one on the broadside at right, he has to change the “hippens,” or diapers, as well. Note the tease that occurs in the broadside when his hands get covered with something that is not mentioned, but that rhymes with “fit!” Note also that this is the only verse repeated twice. Apparently, the broadside printer thought this particular “dirty joke” bore repeating!

There are even closer parallels to “Ridge’s Food” in the oral tradition. For example, there are other cante-fables with the exact theme of “Ridge’s Food,” and a similar structure. You can hear one in this licensed YouTube video, performed by Robin Morton and Cathal MacConnell of the band The Boys of the Lough.

Songs on similar themes with shared features show that whoever composed the “Ridge’s Food” song drew from, and contributed to, a lively tradition of English-language folksongs and cante-fables on the topic of the harried father left in charge of a crying baby. This theme was itself a subset of a larger tradition of songs about unhappy spouses. But how did the idea of “Ridge’s Food” get added to the song? This leads us to an even more basic question: what is it, or was, “Dr. Ridge’s Food?”

We can glean from the song and from John Stone’s comments that “Ridge’s Food” was a popular brand of baby food. To be more precise, much of its advertising declared it a “food for infants and invalids.” Ads for “Ridge’s Food” are very vague as to what it actually contained, but contemporary writers in both the health and home economics fields analyzed it and declared it a “farinaceous” food: it was about 80% cereal starch dehydrated by roasting and ground into a powder—in other words, it was very much like a coarse flour. Directions suggested that it should be mixed with milk, so the prepared version of “Ridge’s Food” was essentially a milky pap or porridge. It could also be used as flour in other recipes, and one ad states, “Recipes for Blanc Mange, Puddings, Custards, &c. accompany each can.”

Although the food itself sounds boring, its grandiose advertisements were not. Trade cards for the product typically featured beautiful colored engravings showing babies or elderly people being fed Ridge’s Food by loving mothers or nurses. Some had more whimsical details, such as cherubs preparing Ridge’s Food in a cauldron over an open flame. The backs of the cards made strong claims about the product in pseudoscientific language that seemed designed to both impress and alarm potential buyers, including:

Ridge’s Food for Infants and Invalids has received the most unqualified approval from Physicians, Matrons, and Mothers of the highest character and responsibility, in this and other countries. MULTITUDES OF INFANTS are slowly starving at a period of infancy when development and growth are remarkably active, because of inability of mothers to furnish the necessary nutriment, on account of overtaxing the nervous system, and by prolonged lactation, thus lowering the standard of health in both. Ridge’s Food, from a chemical standpoint, is nearer to human milk than any other preparation.

Of course, this is nonsense; if contemporary analyses of Ridge’s Food are accurate, its only similarity to human milk came from the cow’s milk the consumer added to it. But the idea that her infant might be slowly starving, while she herself was subjected to an overtaxed nervous system, might have made any mother consider buying a formula like Ridge’s Food! It just goes to show that the people behind marketing this product were creative and clever, if not entirely honest. And although they were somewhat ruthless, they also had a quirky sense of humor.

Three ads for "Ridge's Food" on the left an elderly man is being attended by a young woman while a child looks on. On the right, two cherubs prepare "Ridge's Food" in a cauldron over a flame. In the rising steam we see a family feeding Ridge's Food to an infant. The center ad contains inspirational quotations about Ridge's Food.
These ads for Ridge’s Food were published in the 19th century and are in the public domain.

It’s not a surprise, then, to find out that the quirky and sardonic song about Ridge’s Food began life as an advertisement, bought and paid for by the Ridge’s Food company. Although I’ve always assumed this to be the case, I’ve only recently been able to confirm it. In particular, the song was the subject of a copyright lawsuit in 1881, in which most of the mysteries about its authorship and early life are cleared up.

Coote V. Judd and Another: The Ridge’s Food Song Lawsuit

In 1881 a singing group called Haverly’s Minstrels toured in England, and created a printed program for their performances. In this program, the “Dr. Ridge’s Food” song appeared, not as an example of their repertoire but as an advertisement. The owner of the song’s copyright sued the printer of the program for copyright infringement, and the lawsuit was referred to as Coote v. Judd and Another, or sometimes simply Coote v. Judd. We can read about Coote v. Judd and Another in various law reviews of 1881, including The Law Times Reports and the delightfully titled The Law Reports: Cases Determined by the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice, and by the Chief Judge in Bankruptcy, and by the Court of Appeal on Appeal from the Chancery Division and the Chief Judge, and in Lunacy. I’ll summarize the case here with particular reference to what we can glean about the early history of the song.

Cover for the sheet music of "Put Me Some Jam-Roll By, Jenny" with a head-and-shoulders portrait of Harry Hunter wearing a suit and a bow tie.
Harry Hunter, author of “The Beautiful Baby, or Dr. Ridge’s Food” occasionally had his portrait published on sheet music. This print was published in the 19th century, and is in the public domain.

According to testimony in the case, the song we know as “Dr. Ridge’s Food” was created in 1874, after Peter Rumney, an employee of a firm he called “Dr. Ridge & co.,” contacted publisher George Shore. Clearly, though Shore’s business was classed as a publisher, he was what we would today call a publicist. Rumney asked Shore to create a song, set to a lively air, in praise of Dr. Ridge’s Food, and to arrange for it to be performed 50 times by a singing group. Shore contacted Harry Hunter, who was the proprietor and manager of a singing group called The Mohawk Minstrels. Hunter wrote the lyrics, and paid Walter Redmond to write the music, obtaining a receipt from Redmond specifying that Hunter had purchased all rights to the music. The song’s original title was “The Beautiful Baby, or Dr. Ridge’s Food.” Hunter put the song in the Mohawk Minstrels’ active repertoire, and it was sung enough times for his contract to be fulfilled.

In further correspondence, Harry Hunter arranged with George Shore that he himself would have the song printed, and that Shore would buy copies of the sheet music from him. This went forward for several months, with Shore buying copies from Hunter and reselling them to Rumney for the Ridge’s Food company to use as promotion. Then, in June 1875, Hunter sold his interest in the song to music publisher Charles Coote of the firm Hopwood and Crew, in exchange for a royalty on the sale of each copy.

At this point it seems that Rumney believed the rights to the song were owned by the Ridge’s Food company, but Coote thought they belonged to Hopwood and Crew. Rumney continued to use the copies of the words and music of the song he had bought from Shore as advertisements. He bought ad space in the Haverly’s Minstrel’s program, and provided the sheet music as ad copy. Seeing the song appear in the program, Coote initiated a lawsuit against Judd, who was the printer of the program.

This was obviously a thorny situation: Judd wasn’t ethically to blame for printing the song, since it had been given to him as simple ad copy and he had acted in good faith. But could he be legally liable? The ad copy was supplied by Rumney, who believed that his company owned both the rights to the song and the physical copy he had supplied to be printed. But DID they own the rights? After all, Coote believed HIS company owned the rights to the song, since they had bought those rights from the song’s acknowledged author, Harry Hunter.

Two double-decker horse-drawn buses. One of them has an ad for "Ridge's Food" on the upper deck.
Detail from the above photo of the Royal Exchange, between 1890 and 1900, showing the “Ridge’s Food” bus. Photographer unknown; Detroit Publishing Company. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Find out more about the print here.

The case was heard by the prominent judge Sir James Bacon, Vice Chancellor of the Court of Chancery. Judge Bacon was a colorful character in British judicial history, and though the position of Vice Chancellor had been eliminated in 1875, he was allowed to retain the title until his retirement at the age of 88. At the time of this case, he was 83.

Judge Bacon’s findings in this case reflect British copyright law in 1881, not current American law. Nevertheless, they’re interesting and shed light on the song and culture of British song publishing at the time. The judge found, first of all, that Hopwood and Crew, Coote’s company, was indeed the legal owner of the copyright. None of the discussions among Hunter, Shore, and Rumney had mentioned copyright. Rumney and the Ridge’s Food company had always obtained copies of the song by buying them from Shore, who in turn bought them from Hunter. Hunter himself had contracted for the engraving and lithography, and kept the resulting plates and stones himself. The judge reasoned that if they believed they owned the song, the Ridge’s Food company could have obtained copies more efficiently, and their willingness to have other people handle the publishing and printing, and to merely buy physical copies, indicated that they had never intended to establish intellectual ownership of the song. Thus, the Judge concluded that Hunter, the song’s author, was also the first publisher of the song and its original copyright holder. In Bacon’s words:

Mr. Hunter, a gentleman who if not in the habit of writing songs, is certainly capable of writing them […] writes the song and provides the music […] and he undertakes to get the song sung 100 times. Mr. Hunter remains the sole owner of the copyright, and from that time until he parted with it no one can dispute his right to the ownership. He gets the song engraved, he keeps the metal plates and lithographic stone, he is the first publisher of the song, and so he remains until he sells to the present Plaintiffs for the consideration which has been stated.

So far, it was sounding good for the plaintiffs. Sadly, however, the story took an alarming turn for them next. The judge continued:

Then the Plaintiffs, becoming the owners of this property, bethink themselves of establishing their statutory right to it; and in January, 1881, they go to Stationers’ Hall, and there they describe themselves, not only as the proprietors of the copyright, but as the publishers of the song, and they give the 26th of December, 1874, as the date of the first publication. But I have no doubt that in December, 1874, they had no more to do with the song than I have. So that, although the copyright is plainly vested in them, they have not done that which entitles them to sue.

Head and shoulders portrait of Judge Bacon at about 80 years old, wearing Judicial robes and a powdered wig.
This carte-de-visite showing Sir James Bacon, Vice Chancellor of the Court of Chancery, was published in the 19th century and is in the public domain.

In his summary of the case, the judge was more explicit:

In my opinion the statute requires something more than registration of the name of the person who happens to be the publisher at the date of the registration—it requires that the name of the person who first published the book should appear—and for this best of reasons, in order that everybody connected with the registration may ascertain for himself how far the right of a person claiming from or under the first publisher may be successfully challenged. And if, as I find to be the case here, the name of the first publisher is not on the registry book, then I think a plaintiff claiming to be the owner of the copyright in the book is not entitled to sue.

In short, the judge believed that Coote should have registered the song as having been published in 1874 by Harry Hunter, and then used the clear evidence that they had bought it from Hunter to defend the copyright in court.

So ended the case of “Coote v. Judd and Another”: although Coote’s company was the legal owner of the copyright, that copyright had never been properly registered. Because the law at that time required a proper registration of copyright to establish the right to sue for infringement, Coote’s firm could not defend their intellectual property rights!

The law case, of course, is to us an interesting sidelight to the history of the song…after all, we’re not the Law Library’s excellent blog, In Custodia Legis! But it does establish a few facts that tell us a lot about the song’s early history, to which we can add what we know from our own collections.

To sum up, then, with a history of “The Beautiful Baby, or Dr. Ridge’s Food”: This humorous cante-fable was commissioned by the Dr. Ridge’s Food company as a promotional ditty. The words were written by Harry Hunter, the music by Walter Redmond, in 1874. The song’s original title was “The Beautiful Baby, or Dr. Ridge’s Food.” It was performed as part of the repertoire of minstrel shows in England in the 1870s, especially The Mohawk Minstrels, who performed it (if Judge Bacon’s figure is accurate) at least 100 times. In the same period, copies of the sheet music were being distributed by the Ridge’s Food company as ad copy, and through this process the song was printed in the programs of other minstrel shows. This continued at least until 1881. Starting in 1875, the song was also being sold commercially as sheet music. In 1881, the song was “entered at Stationer’s Hall,” which was the formal process for registering copyright in the UK at that time. This registration was defective, as a court case established in 1881. At some point the song, like Ridge’s Food itself, crossed the Atlantic and came to America. It was performed at medicine shows by pitch men, including John Stone, probably around the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries. Stone called the song both “My Beautiful Baby” and “Dr. Ridge’s Food,” retaining a title very close to the original. In 1939, 65 years after it was written, Stone sang it for Sidney Robertson in California. Robertson recorded it on an instantaneous disc, which is now in the collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. It is cataloged as “Dr. Ridge’s Food,” and anyone can hear it on the Library of Congress website–or in this very blog post!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the story behind an intriguing collection item. As I mentioned, the “Ridge’s Food” bus got me interested in other topics besides this song. So in a future post, I’ll look at a widespread legend about the origin of buses, and of the word “bus,” also inspired by the photo at the top of this post. Stay tuned!

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