O’d Johnny Walker’s deead and gone, deead and gone, deead and gone,
O’d Johnny Walker’s deead and gone, he never died befoor.
He used ti steal o’d stowps n’ rails, stowps n’ rails, stowps n’ rails,
He used ti steal o’d stowps n’ rails ti mak a fire on.
O’d Johnny walker ‘ad a wife, ’ad a wife, ’ad a wife,
O’d Johnny walker ’ad a wife, she died an’ then he killed her.
After that she rose again, rose again, rose again,
After that she rose again and ’ad three younger children.
These three children went to slide, went to slide, went to slide,
These three children went to slide all on a frosty morning.
The ice broke and they all fell in, all fell in, all fell in,
The ice broke and they all fell in and rest of ’em ran away.
Recorded at his home, Green Stacks, Carter Lane, Flamborough on the 29th of March, 1969. Mr Cross was an auxiliary coastguard but came from a long line of smugglers.
This is a traditional song
The interest attached to this song stems from its links to dance music and its ancient and varied history. Stanzas 5 and 6 form part of a seventeenth century broadside ballad, The Lamentation of a Bad Market, or, The Drownding of Three Children on the Thames, twenty-three stanzas crammed with puns and nonsense which appear to be based round real incidents when London Bridge was burned down in 1633, contrasted with incidents at the frost fairs when the Thames froze over. (See Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie, p118 which displays a copy of the broadside and refers to the resulting nursery rhyme.) The ballad was reprinted in various editions of D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy (See 1719 edn. Vol 4, p1) where the tune is given as Chevy Chase. The broadside designates the tune The Ladies (sic) Fall which can be traced back to the early years of the seventeenth century. However neither of these tunes bears any relationship to the modern Old Johnny Walker tune. The three stanzas relating to the three children sliding on the ice soon took on a life of their own and were very popular in the following centuries appearing in numerous collections of children's rhymes.
The tune and text of Old Johnny Walker are better dealt with separately as in no other place do they unite together other than in Flamborough. The tune first sprang to fame in the English-speaking world in 1844 in New England when it was used for one of the earliest Minstrel Troupe songs Lubly Fan written by John Hodges of the Virginia Serenaders under his stage name of 'Cool White'. A copy of the original sheet music can be seen on the Lester S Levy Sheet Music website levysheetmusic.mse,jhu.edu/.
Kilgarriff in his Sing us one of the old songs places the Virginia Minstrels in Dublin in 1844 with Lubly Fan in their repertoire. The song was almost immediately pirated by numerous copycat Minstrel Troupes under a wide variety of titles mostly named (placename) Gals after the town where they were performed, such as Bowery Gals, but it was as Buffalo Gals that it really took off and became a household name, particularly in this country, the troupes coming to perform in Britain as soon as they had made their names in America. There are seven early versions of Buffalo Gals in the Levy Collection, one published in New York in 1848, the others undated.
Alan and John Lomax, the great American folksong collectors of the twentieth century, both believed the tune to have been in oral tradition prior to 1844. Several scholars refer to its coming to America with German immigrants, but most fail to name the German tune, some claiming it comes from a composition by Gluck. Its distinct, simple repetitious structure is common to several children's game songs such as London Bridge is falling down. Another website which gives a detailed summary on the history of the tune is The Fiddlers' Companion website, http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers . To back up the Lomax theory Alan Jabbour found a tune called Midnight Serenade in George P Krauff's Virginia Reels Vol IV, printed in Baltimore in 1839, which is effectively Buffalo Gals and precedes the Minstrel song by five years. This website also refers to possible German origins.
Excepting the three children sliding on the ice stanzas we have very little background to the text. Fortunately a reference in Notes and Queries for Jan-June 1882, 6th Series,V, p432, takes us back to 1827 and Liverpool. It describes the irreverent mock-religious performance of a simple song, the likes of which can still be heard around the Sheffield outskirts using the old song Two Old Crows in the same manner. Dr. Ian Russell of the Elphinstone Institute, Aberdeen, has recordings of it. I quote all of the relevant parts of the NQ letter from 'Ellcee'(=L.C.) of Craven, Yorkshire.
'…..send it with an account of the circumstances in which I last heard it. Some time about the year 1827 I was in London and had to see a person on business in a City hotel. After a time in the coffee-room he wanted to smoke, and in the smoking-room we found a party assembled, who in turn were called on for songs. One, who was said to be a Liverpool merchant, declined, as he said he only sang psalms and hymns. On this he was more urgently pressed; then, standing up with a paper or book in his hand, he said, "Brethren, let us join in singing Hymn 73, Book iv., New Collection." He then gave out the words of this old song, two lines at a time, in a very sanctimonious tone, and sang them to one of those old-fashioned tunes in which some words are several times repeated, the company generally joining:
Old Johnny Walker, he had a wife,
She died and then he killed her;
Old Mistress Walker she rose again,
And by him had two childer.
And these two childer were as fine babes
As ever had a mother;
The first they called him Knockhimdown,
And Pickhimup the other.
Although there is no evidence here that the Flamborough tune was used, it is significant that 'some words are several times repeated' suggesting that at least the structure was probably the same. The use of the word 'childer' may also be significant as it is more Pennine dialect and Lancashire and accords with the singer hailing from Liverpool. The second stanza above is reminiscent of the American college song, Bohunkus and Josephus, unsourced to the best of my knowledge, which curiously has become attached to American versions of TYG 4 Old Grimy, a similar song to Old Johnny Walker.
We now come to the use of the song as the accompaniment of the Flamborough Sword Dance. Cecil Sharp came to Flamborough in December 1910 when William Major gave him the Old Johnny Walker tune and Sharp noted down the first stanza. Major told him this was the old original air. In September 1911 Mary Neal and Clive Carey recorded the tune and dance from Richard Major and in 1912 published it in The Esperance Morris Book Part II p33, along with the other Flamborough Sword Dance tune, again a minstrel tune , De Blue-tail Fly but widely used for many songs, notably the children's game, In and out the Windows. Neal published the two tunes as though they were all one with no break, headed 'SWORD DANCE, noted (from phonograph record) and arranged by Clive Carey' and at the bottom of the page 'Play straight through as written repeating as often as necessary.' i.e., A and B of Old Johnny Walker immediately followed by A and B of In and out the Windows. Mrs Cross sang three sets of words to this second tune, Mr Noah (An East Riding Songster, Gardham, p10), So Early in the Morning (Songs of the Ridings, Hudleston, p160) and The blackman got poor Sarah (Songs of the Ridings, p151). In January 1912 Sharp returned to Flamborough for further information from Richard Major and still declined to notate the second tune, possibly because it was so common. I have danced the Flamborough Dance on many occasions using the two traditional tunes as do the Flamborough teams who still perform today.
Nigel and Mary Hudleston recorded Tanton and Connie Cross in the mid sixties (See Songs of the Ridings, pp149, 151, 153 and 160) and Steve Gardham recorded the same songs from them a few years later in 1969 (See An East Riding Songster, pp9 and 10).
The original recording of this song is deposited in the British Library Sound Archive at C1009/3 C45 [access copy 1CDR00093256 BD20] and this recording was digitized by the British library Sound Archive as part of the Traditional Music in England project sponsored by the Heritage lottery fund. Further details can be obtained at:-
http://www.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/traditional_music.html , along with details of many other recordings of traditional songs made by Steve Gardham and others from other parts of the UK.
This version was originally published in Gardham, An East Riding Songster, Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts, 1982, p9, and a further version from the same singer in Hudleston, Songs of the Ridings, Pindar and Sons, Scarborough, 2001, p149.