> Folk Music > Songs > The Convict's Song / Beneath the Window of My Cell

The Convict's Song / Beneath the Window of My Cell

[ Roud 5122 , 8122 ; trad.]

Sheila Stewart sang The Convict's Song in a recording made by Bill Leader in his home in Camden Town, London, in 1964 or 1965. These recordings were released in 1965 on the Topic album of “traditional ballads, songs and pipe music by one of Scotland's great singing families”, The Stewarts of Blair. She also sang it in a recording session made by Doc Rowe in Blairgowrie, Perthshire on October 15, 1998 that was published in 2000 on her Topic CD From the Heart of the Tradition. Doc Rowe commented:

Sheila learned this song from Christina (‘Teeny’) McAllister, Ruby Kelbie's mother, at the Berryfields in the 60's. The short text effectively describes the lot of prisoners on a chain gang and has echoes of transportation ballads such as Gallant Poachers. and Van Diemen's Land. Reference to the ball-and-chain and penitentiary implies an American link and, as the last line recalls The Boston Burglar, has led many to assume that it has been adopted from a country-and-western import—this form of music being popular amongst travellers anyway. The word ‘penitentiary’, however, is quite common in Scottish usage.

[Ewan] MacColl and [Peggy] Seeger published this as The Prisoner's Song (no. 99 in Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland); and refer to the fact that all the Scots travelling folk who they heard sing this song “all appear to have learned it from the same source—an Irish Traveller named Docherty.” However, after five of six years of questioning Irish Singers, Ewan and Peggy failed to fine one who actually knew the song.

Alison McMorland and Peta Webb learned The Convict's Song from the singing of Sheils Stewart and sang it in 1980 on their eponymous Topic album Alison McMorland & Peta Webb. This track was also included in the same year on the Topic anthology of “British folk music today“, The Good Old Way.

Alasdair Roberts and the Furrow Collective sang Beneath the Window of My Cell in 2016 on their second album, Wild Hog. They commented in their liner notes:

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger published this song under the title of The Prisoner's Song (no 99 in Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland); it is also sometimes known as The Convict's Song. Few other traces of the song seem to exist, but it may be related to one called The Swallow in My Prison Cell, as recorded from Willie McElroy of Co Fermanagh, Ireland, in 1977. Our version was learnt by Alasdair from the singing of the late Perthshire Traveller Sheila Stewart MBE, who in turn learnt it from Christina (‘Teeny’) McAllister in the berryfields of Blairgowrie in the sixties.

Lyrics

Sheila Stewart sings The Concivt's Song (Roud 5122)

O, 'tis oft I strayed all my myself where the sparrow built its nest,
For to see the liberty of that bird which did me sorrows press.
It hops along from bar to bar; it's the same as it could say,
“Cheer up, old lads, and don't be sad, for some day yous will be free.”

It would break the heart of any man or the heart of any stone
To see so many strapping fellows reduced to skin and bone.
For they'd all tied round with a ring and a chain and attached to a ball of lead.
You could hear them prayin' with all their hearts and wishing they were dead.

So, come all you roving fellows, oh, a warning take by me.
Oh, never go out late at night nor keep bad company.
For if you do, you'll sure it rue, and you'll be the same as me,
For I'm doin' a seven-and-twenty years in the penitentiary.

Alasdair Roberts sings Beneath the Window of My Cell (Roud 8122)

Well, I've often strayed all my myself where the sparrow builds her nest,
To see the liberty of that bird, it did me sorrows press.
It hops along from bar to bar; just the same as it would say,
“Cheer up, old lads, and don't be sad, some day yous will be free.”

It would break the heart of any man or the heart of any stone
To see such strapping fellows reduced to skin and bone.
For they were all tied around with a ring and chain and attached to a ball of lead.
You can hear them praying with all their hearts and wishing they were dead.

So, come all you roving fellows and a warning take by me.
Never stay out late at night nor keep bad company.
For if you do, you're sure to rue, and you'll be the same as me,
For I'm serving seven-and-twenty years in the penitentiary.