I am a jovial heckler boy
And by my trade I go;
I trudge the world all over
And get my living so.
I trudged this world all over,
A pretty maid I spied;
I asked her if she would go with me
And be my lawful bride.
The pretty fair maid denied me,
And said, “If I do so,
I shall be ruined for ever a day
And shall be loved no mo.”
"Oh how will you be ruined?"
The heckler boy replied,
"For I am sure I will marry you
As soon as work I find."
"Now hold your tongue from clattering
And tell me none of your tales,
For you are a jovial heckler boy
And that’s your only trade."
"How do you know me so, my dear,
And how do you know my trade?"
"I know you by t’ fringes of your apron,
Of your apron," she said.
"The fringes of your apron
And by your slender shoe;
Your stockings they are as white as snow,
So that’s how I know you."
I could not help for smiling
To hear the girl say so;
I threw my arm around her waist
And along we both did go.
She brought a glass all in her hand
And filled it to the brim;
"Here’s to the health of each heckler boy
That calls my true love his."
This is a traditional song
In 1864, twenty-five years before he started song collecting in earnest in his native West Country, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was vicar of Horbury near Wakefield and came into contact with mill lasses who sang him this song. He then sent the full text to Notes and Queries where it was duly published in the Third Series, Part 9, January 20th, 1866, p57, as The Jovial Reckless Boy. Though he did not include the tune there he described it as ‘a tune with an ancient character’. Martin Graebe, who has done an enormous amount of work researching the life and works of Baring-Gould, found the tune in one of the ‘Rough Copy’ manuscripts that B-G gave to Plymouth Library, together with a note confirming that it came from Yorkshire. It was inevitable that we should ask such a fine singer as Martin to record the song for us. This was the first English folk song that B-G published. We cannot be certain whether he made any changes in the song but its lack of polish suggests that it is a reasonable record of what was sung.
In the introduction to B-G’s English Minstrelsie, Volume 7, p ix, he wrote ‘The other day, in 1896, I was back in Horbury, and I went to see old friends I had not seen for thirty years or more. One of these my first singers came running to see me when "‘t mill loosed" at noon. "Eh, lass!" said I, "dost remember singing to me the Jovial Heckler’s Boy?" She laughed, and her eyes danced as she said, “Aye—but if thoul’t stay a bit I sing thee a score more.”
Frank Kidson gives a fragmentary version called The Roving Heckler Lad in his Traditional Tunes, 1891, p146. We can do no better with the background to the song than quote directly from it:
‘In the days of handloom weaving a ‘Heckler’ or ‘Hackler’ was a man who heckled flax to make it ready for the distaff or spinning wheel. It was a labour which required some degree of exertion and skill, and therefore a heckler would, to ply his trade, travel from village to village to heckle the flax which many householders who had suitable land would grow themselves. The process of heckling was carried on thus: a series of hackle pins, which are stout steel points the size of darning needles, were fixed upright on a board in front of the heckler, who flung the mass of flax upon them, drawing it then towards him through the pins, so that, by this method, the fibres of the mass were separated….The hecklers were famous for wearing a fancy linen apron with an ornamental fringe hanging from it….his trade is superseded by machinery….The song….used to be popular in the clothing districts round about Leeds.’
The tune Kidson got from Benjamin Holgate of Headingley, Leeds, who remembered it from his own youth. It is similar to that noted by B-G and sung here. However, in Kidson’s posthumously published Folk-Songs of the North Countrie, 1927, p38, a three-stanza version was given with words much revised by his niece, Ethel Kidson.