> Folk Music > Songs > The Black Velvet Band

The Black Velvet Band

[ Roud 2146 ; Master title: The Black Velvet Band ; Ballad Index R672 ; Bodleian Roud 2146 ; Wiltshire 263 ; DT BLACKVEL , BLKVEL2 ; Mudcat 19899 , 51692 ; trad.]

The Singing Island

Harry Cox of Catfield, Norfolk, sang The Black Velvet Band to Ewan MacColl in 1955. This recording was included in 2000 on his Topic anthology The Bonny Labouring Boy. Steve Roud noted:

This is one of Harry’s songs which became popular in the post-war folk song revival, usually without acknowledgement. Surprisingly few versions have been noted—only half-a-dozen in England and Ireland but more in Australia. The subject-matter and the presence of cant words in some versions have led some to guess at a stage origin for the song, which is certainly possible. The few known broadsides printings point to an origin about 1840. The mention of Belfast in the first verse of most traditional versions has led some to presume an Irish origin, but the earlier versions invariably place the action in Barking, Essex.

Ewan MacColl sang Black Velvet Band in 1957 on his and A.L. Lloyd’s Wattle EP Convicts and Currency Lads and in 1957 on his and Peggy Seeger’s Riverside album Bad Lads and Hard Cases. He also sang The Black Velvet Band in 1960 on his Topic album Chorus From the Gallows, which recording was included in 2003 on his anthologies The Definitive Collection (2003) and An Introduction to Ewan MacColl (2018). He noted in 1960:

Harry Cox, the Norfolk folksinger, says this was a popular song with farm workers more than half a century ago. It has been collected as far away as Australia and, in the United States was a favourite hobo ballad—both as recitation and song. It still survives in England. Its history is rather obscure but it appears to have originated in the second half of the 19th century.

The Bushwhackers sang Black Velvet Band in 1957 on their Wattle EP Australian Bush Songs. They noted:

The Black Velvet Band bears the mark of the street ballad singer. It is still known to many folk singers in Ireland, in the North at any rate, and a version collected in England can be heard on Wattle recordings A9 and B2, where it is sung by Ewan MacColl. This version was learnt by Alec Hood a few years ago, from a timber worker in Western Australia. Van Diemen’s Land, of course, was an early name for Tasmania, in use during the days of the convict settlements there.

Brian Mooney, Martyn Wyndham-Read and David Lumsden sang The Black Velvet Band in 1963 on their Score album Moreton Bay.

A fragment of Caroline Hughes singing The Black Velvet Band to Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in between 1963 and 1966 was included in 2014 on her Musical Traditions anthology Sheep-Crook and Black Dog.

Luke Kelly learned Harry Cox’s version of The Black Velvet Band at a Ewan MacColl singing workshop in London. He recorded it in 1967 with The Dubliners for a single, one of their best-known songs.

The Halliard sang The Black Velvet Band on their 1967 album It’s the Irish in Me.

Cyril Poacher sang The Black Velvet Band to Tony Engle at home in Grove Farm, Blaxhall, Suffolk, on 8 August 1974. This recording was included in the following year on his Topic album of traditional songs from Suffolk, The Broomfield Wager, and in 1999 on his Musical Traditions anthology Plenty of Thyme. Rod Stradling noted in the accompanying booklet:

Henry Parker Such printed The Black Velvet Band on a broadside during the period 1869-86. His lengthy version, without chorus, is full of slang and cant terms which at times obscures the plot. The later musi -hall no doubt added the chorus providing us in the process with a song which is still popular today. Cyril Poacher learnt the song in the 1950s from Alf Moseley of Harwich when the latter took his summer holidays in Blaxhall. As with The Faithful Sailor Boy, this common song has a few variations on the ‘standard’ melody—whether these are Cyril’s or Alf’s is not known, but the result sounds, to me, like what Cyril seems to enjoy doing with a tune everyone knows.

It (well, Harry Cox’s version) is mentioned in The Singing Island where the editors quote Bert Lloyd’s opinion that it probably began as a stage song in the 1890s. Roud reports 12 versions from tradition plus a variety of songbook and broadside sources. The song seems particularly common in Australia and New Zealand where it has provided the basis for an emigrant ballad in which the sweetheart, with her black velvet band, is forced to remain behind. There is a also a version published by Maureen Jolliffe in the Third Book of Irish Ballads, Mercier 1970, as The Black Ribbon Band, which sets the scene of the action in Tralee. This version was taken up by Irish showbands as a sort of cover of the Dubliners/Harry Cox one—apparently, it made the hit parade there.

Finally, there is a country music standard called The Girl in the Blue Velvet Band. This is not so much a version as a rewrite. Frank Shay prints an enormous text, about 33 verses, in More Pious Friends and Drunken Companions, 1928, and it gets a mention in Bluegrass Breakdown by Robert Cantwell [1992]. Neither publication names the author, but Cantwell says it is a Bill Monroe song. It may have come from the great Cliff Carlisle—there’s a ’30s record of Carlisle singing it (superbly).

John Roberts sang The Black Velvet Band on his 1989 album Songs From the Pubs of Ireland.

Jim Reid sang The Black Velvet Band on Paul Anderson’s albums The Journey Home (1997) and Home+Beauty (2009).

Mark Dunlop sang The Black Velvet Band in 2008 on his Greentrax album Islands on the Moon.

False Lights sang Black Velvet Band on their 2018 CD Harmonograph.


Harry Cox sings The Black Velvet Band

In a neat little town called Belfast
Apprentice to trade I was bound,
And many a hour in sweet happiness
Have I spent in that neat little town.

Till bad misfortune came over me
And caused me to stray from the land,
Far away from my friends and relations,
Betrayed by this black velvet band.

Chorus (after every other verse):
Her eyes they shone like diamonds.
I thought her the queen of the land,
And her hair it hung over her shoulders
Tied up with a black velvet band.

I took a stroll down Broadway,
Meaning not long for to stay,
And who should I see but a pretty fair maid
Come tripping along the pathway.

She was both fair and handsome,
Her neck it was just like a swan
And her hair it hung over her shoulders
Tied up with a black velvet band.

I took a stroll with this pretty fair maid,
And a gentleman passing us by,
I knew she meant a doing for him,
By the look of her roguish black eye.

His watch she took from his pocket
And placed it right into my hand,
And the very next thing that I said was,
“Bad luck to the black velvet band.”

Before the judge and jury
Next morning I had to appear.
A judge he said, “Young man,
Your case to you is proved clear.

“We’ll give you seven-year penal servitude,
To be sent right away from your land,
Far away from your friends and relations,
Betrayed by a black velvet band.”

So come all you jolly young fellows,
I’ll have you take warning by me.
When you are out on the liquors, my boys,
Beware of your pretty colleen.

They’ll treat you to strong drink, my boys,
Till you are unable to stand,
And, before you have time to leave them,
They’ll land you in Van Diemen’s land.

The Bushwhackers sing Black Velvet Band

’Twas in the city of London
In apprenticeship I was bound.
And many’s the gay old hour
I’ve spent in that dear old town.

One day as I was walking
Along my usual beat,
A pretty little young maiden
Came tripping along the street.

Chorus (after every other verse):
And her eyes they shone like diamonds,
I thought her the pride of the land;
The hair that hung down on her shoulders
Was tied with a black velvet band.

One day as we were walking
A gentleman passed us by;
I could see she was bent on some mischief
by the roiling of her dark blue eye.

Gold watch she picked from his pocket
And slyly placed into my hand;
I was taken in charge by a copper;
Bad luck to that black velvet band.

Before the Lord Mayor I was taken:
“Your case, sir, I plainly can see.
And if I’m not greatly mistaken,
You’re bound far over the sea.”

Then it’s over the dark and blue ocean,
Far away to Van Diemen’s Land,
Far away from my friends and relations
And the girl with the black velvet band.