16 June 2014

Widdecombe Fair (Disturbing Folk Songs that kids love)

We sing with our kids and have sung to our kids quite a bit since they were wee, little. When my oldest child, Luther, was very small, we bought a copy of a book called The Fireside Book of Folk Songs. It’s out of print, but you can still pick up used copies, and it is amazing. It has many of the more popular folk songs as well as some that are lesser known, at least in this country.

It was this book that made be realize that most folks songs aren’t rainbows and sunshine. They’re all fun to sing, and they’re all catchy, but a large number of them are somewhat…well…disturbing. And the funny thing is that the more disturbing they are, the more kids tend to love them. Here’s a case in point.

Widdecombe Fair

The song begins with what seems to be a not-too-unreasonable request from a group of friends to borrow Tom Pearce’s old grey mare. Apparently this group of people, comprised of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Daniel Whiddon, Harry Hawke, and Old Uncle Tom Cobley, need the mare so that they can go to Widdecombe for the fair. Tom Pearce is a bit concerned about lending his mare out and enquires when they will bring it back. They respond that it will be back by Friday at the earliest or noon on Saturday at the latest.

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

And when shall I see again my grey mare?
All along, down along, out along lea.
By Friday soon, or Saturday noon,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

So they harnessed and bridled the old grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
And off they drove to Widecombe fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Okay, so far not terribly exciting material for a song (although the list of names is fun to sing). But soon we learn that something has gone terribly wrong!

Then Friday came, and Saturday noon.
All along, down along, out along lea.
But Tom Pearce's old mare hath not trotted home,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Oh no, the untrustworthy fiends have no returned the mare to Tom Pearce by the agreed-upon time? What is Tom to do? Well he sets out to find his mare, but he doesn’t get far before he sees his mare, and she’s not in the best condition.

So Tom Pearce he got up to the top o' the hill.
All along, down along, out along lea.
And he seed his old mare down a-making her will,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

So Tom Pearce's old mare, her took sick and died.
All along, down along, out along lea.
And Tom he sat down on a stone, and he cried
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

So the old grey mare ends up dying, and we have good reason to suspect that Bill Brewer and co. are somehow responsible for mistreating the poor animal. So there you have it folks, what started as a simple jaunt down to the fair turns into a case of animal cruelty. Tom is left without a mare and I’m sure that he’s no longer friends with the ruffians who killed her. And so you see that folks songs can be quite disturbi… wait. What’s that? There’s more?

But this isn't the end o' this shocking affair.
All along, down along, out along lea.
Nor, though they be dead, of the horrid career
Of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Wait, this isn’t the end? We’re told the horrid career of Bill - Uncle Tom Cobley is not over even though they are now dead! So some time has passed and the group responsible for the mare’s death are also dead themselves. How can this not be the end of the song?

When the wind whistles cold on the moor of the night.
All along, down along, out along lea.
Tom Pearce's old mare doth appear ghastly white,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Don't mind me children. Just an image from your favorite
folk song/nightmare.

And all the long night be heard skirling and groans.
All along, down along, out along lea.
From Tom Pearce's old mare in her rattling bones,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.



If you thought your kids were
afraid of that Santa at the mall...
Wow, so a song that started as a goofy story about some people who borrowed and ill treated an old mare has turned into an all out zombie/ghost/horror tale. The skeletal mare now spends her nights on the moor galloping about and rattling her bones, while the unfortunate dead who killed her are condemned to run after her for all eternity. Sleep well tonight kids!

If you want to hear the song in its entirety, click here!

Who am I kidding, our kids love this song. But what sort of culture develops this kind of song, this rollicking happy tune with such a horrific ending? Well, first of all, some researchers believe that the list in the song refers to real people. What those people did to get memorialized in this song as animal abusers and zombies is anyone’s guess. Also, some have connected the mare in the story to the custom in western England of parading the “Grey Mare” or, as it is called in Wales, the Mari Lwyd.

You see, around the time of Epiphany  (Jan. 6) in Wales, there is an anicent custom that still continues in some places today of decorating a horse skull and following it from house to house asking for food. Since it happens near Christmastime, it’s sort of like wassailing…with a dead horse.

Nothing unusual here. No sir. Just move along.

The woman on the left is clearly this far from
screaming and jumping off the bridge.


2 comments:

Erica said...

You know, I don't think I'd ever actually heard that song.

A lot of kids' songs are really horrifying, aren't they? Babies falling out of trees, grey horses and geese dying, Johnny going off to war and coming back legless...Although to be fair, they turned that last one into a song about ants. But they should have come back legless too.

S Stewart said...

You may be interested in knowing that Bill Brewer was my great grandfather and was a travelling evangelist.