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The Crabfish / The Lobster

[ Roud 149 ; Ballad Index EM005 ; The Crabfish at Fire Draw Near ; MusTrad DB13 ; GlosTrad Roud 149 ; DT CRAYPOT ; Mudcat 15048 ; trad.]

An extensive study of this old song appears in Musical Traditions as Dungheap No.13—The Sea Crabb.

Harry Cox of Catfield, Norfolk, sang The Catfish on 9 October 1953 to Peter Kennedy. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23).

Nora Cleary of The Hand, Milton Malbay, Co. Clare sang The Codfish at home in July 1976 to Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie. This track was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology of rural fun and frolic, First I’m Going to Sing You a Ditty (The Voice of the People Volume 7), and in 2021 on Ian Lynch’s anthology of Irish traditional song and music, Fire Draw Near.

Frank Purslow and John Pearse sang The Crabfish in 1960 on their album Rap-a-Tap-Tap.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand sang The Crayfish in 1973 on their album Across the Western Ocean. They noted:

This is undoubtedly one of the most widespread ditties of the English language, though its coarseness, and perhaps its superficial lack of literary value, have kept it from appearing too often in print. Although versions have been reported in the Journal of the Folk Song Society, only the tunes are printed, the words being dismissed as too coarse and vulgar even for that scholarly publication. Sometimes known as The Lobster or The Crabfish, The Crayfish as sung here is in fact Australian, coming to us via John ‘Fud’ Benson, who learned it in Newport, RI from Jock Stirrock, a sailor an one of the recent Australian America’s Cup contenders.

Percy Ling sang The Lobster in Snape in 1975 to Keith Summers. This recording was included in 1977 on the Ling Family’s Topic album, Singing Traditions of a Suffolk Family, and in 2007 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs recorded by Keith Summers in Suffolk, A Story to Tell.

Bob Copper sang The Fisherman in 1977 on his Topic album of countryside songs from the South, Sweet Rose in June. Mike Yates noted:

The Fisherman is likewise old. As The Sea Crab it was found in the mid 1600s by Bishop Percy in a “scrubby” and “shabby” manuscript “lying dirty on the floor under a Bureau in ye Parlour” of Humphrey Pitt. But, as Gershon Legman has pointed out, it is possibly based on a joking tale of Levantine origin revealed first in Italy by Sacchetti at the start of the 15th century.

Danny Brazil sang The Crabfish to Gwilym Davies at Staverton, Gloucestershire on 5 May 1978. This recording was included in 2007 on the Brazil Family’s Musical Tradition anthology Down By the Old Riverside.

Charlotte Renals of the Orchard family sang The Crayfish to Pete Coe in 1978. This recording was included in 2003 on the family’s Veteran CD of songs from Cornish Travellers, Catch Me If You Can. Mike Yates noted:

This humorous song, concerning the adventures of a pregnant wife with a craving for a crab, appeared in Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, where it is titled The Sea Crabb. The manuscript was probably compiled sometime between 1620 and 1650 and the song is based on an earlier prose tale that was known in various forms throughout Europe and the Middle East. The earliest known text is an Italian version, told by Franco Sacchetti, c.1330-1400, that was reprinted by Gaetano Poggiali in 1815. In the 1760’s Charles Churchill, a London man-of-letters, turned the story into a long narrative poem, The Crab, that is far removed from Charlotte Renals’ more down-to-earth treatment of the story. For a number of centuries the tale/song appeared to have been the exclusive property of male performers, although this had changed by the beginning of the 20th century, when Cecil Sharp collected versions from Mrs. Emma Overd, of Langport, in Somerset, and Mrs. Kathleen Williams, of Puddlebrook in Herefordshire.

Charlie Stringer sang Tommy Doddler on the 1984 Home-Made Music album of traditional songs and melodeon tunes from Central Suffolk, Who Owns the Game? (reissued on CD by Veteran in 2001). This track was also included in 2007 on the CD accompanying The Folk Handbook.

Cyril Barber of Felsham, Suffolk, sang Jimmy Johnson on the Veteran Tapes cassette Songs Sung in Suffolk Vol. 2 (1987-1989) and Veteran CD Songs Sung in Suffolk (2000). John Howson commented in the accompanying booklet:

A.L. Lloyd in his book Folk Song in England (1959) says that “The venerable and indecorous Crabfish song seems to have been amusing European audiences at least since about 1400 when its story first appeared in a collection of Italian joking-tales.” That tradition has of course carried on into this century and most classic East Anglian singers who have been recorded in recent years have had a version of this song with its fishy surprise in the chamber pot. Usually a crabfish, often a lobster and in Charlie Stringer’s version “Tommy Doddler”, a codfish. It seems also to have often turned up too, as a barrack-room song in other parts of the country. Cyril’s version was learned from his brother Sonny.

George Bregenzer sang The Codfish at Hayes, Middlesex to John Howson in 1989. This recording was included on the Veteran Tapes cassette of British soldier songs, “What a Lovely War!”, and in 2005 on the Veteran CD It Was on a Market Day—One.

The Cecil Sharp Centenary Collective sang The Crabfish in 2003 on their Talking Elephant CD As I Cycled Out on a May Morning.

Andy Turner learned The Lobster from Percy Ling’s recording and sang it as the 19 February 2016 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Belinda Kempster and Fran Foote sang Little Bugger on their 2019 CD On Clay Hill.


John Roberts and Tony Barrand sing The Crayfish

“Fisherman, fisherman, standing by the sea,
Have you a crayfish that you can sell to me?”

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
By the wayside, Aye-diddley-aye-doe.

Yes sir, yes sir, that indeed I do,
I have a crayfish that t can sell to you.

So I took him home, and I thought he’d like a swim,
So I filled up the chamberpot and I threw the bugger in.

Well in the middle of the night, I thought I’d have a fit,
When my old lady got up to wash her face.

“Husband, husband,” she cried out to me,
“The Devil’s in the chamberpot, and he’s got hold of me.”

“Children, children, bring up the looking-glass,
Come and see the crayfish that bit your mother’s face.”

“Children, children, did you hear the grunt?
Come and see the crayfish that bit your mother’s nose.”

Well that’s the end of my song and there isn’t any more,
I’ve an apple in my pocket, and you can have the core.

Percy Ling sings The Lobster

“Good morning Mr Fisherman, good morning”, said he.
“Have you a lobster you can sell to me?”

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Singing roll tiddly oll, roll tiddly oll,
Roll tiddly oll tiddly toll toe.

“Oh yes”, said the fisherman, “I’ve got two.
One is for you and the other is for me.”

I took the lobster home, I put it in a dish.
I put it in a dish where the missus used to wish.

First I heard a grunt and then I heard a scream
There was the lobster a-hanging on her front.

The missus grabbed a brush and I grabbed a broom
We chased that blooming lobster around around the room.

Now the moral of this story, the moral is this
Always have a shufti before you have a whiss.

Charlotte Renals sings The Crabfish

“Oh fisherman, fisherman, one, two, three,
Have you got a she crab you can sell to me?”
“Oh yes sir, yes sir, one, two, three,
I’ve got a she crab I can sell to thee.”

I catched the little fellow up by the back bone,
And put him in a bag and marched away home;
Singing Jimmy ing a ding a ding, Jimmy ing a ding a ding,
And the wind blew clear in the merry morning.

When I got home my wife was asleep,
And I put him in the chamber alive to keep;
Singing Jimmy ing a ding a ding, Jimmy ing a ding a ding,
And the wind blew fair in the merry morning.

My wife got out to do what she wants,
And the crab jumped up and caught her by the — ;
Jimmy ing a ding a ding, Jimmy ing a ding a ding,
And the wind blew fair in the merry morning.

“Oh John, Oh John, there’s something wrong,
The Devil’s in the chamber a-poking up his horns.”
Singing Jimmy ing a ding a ding, Jimmy ing a ding a ding,
And the wind blew fair in the merry morning.

“Oh wife, oh wife, you must be mad,
If you can’t tell the Devil from a little she crab.”
Singing Jimmy ing a ding a ding, Jimmy ing a ding a ding,
And the wind blew fair in the merry morning.

So I took the chamber and missus took the broom,
And we marched the little fellow right out of the room,
Singing Jimmy ing a ding a ding, Jimmy ing a ding a ding,
And the wind blew fair in the merry morning.

Cyril Barber sings Jimmy Johnson

There was a little man and he had a little horse,
He saddled it and bridled it and cocked his leg across.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Singing, hi Jimmy, ho Jimmy, come along with me,
Hi Jimmy, ho Jimmy Johnson.

Now across these fields he went for a ride,
’Til he came to some rocks by the water side.

Now on the rocks he a spied a large crab,
He said “You’re mine!” with one big grab.

Now he took the crab home and he couldn’t find a dish,
So he put it in the pot where the old woman wished.

Now when the old woman was singing on the pot,
The crab got hold of her you-know-what.

Now one with the hammer and the other with the broom,
They chased that poor old crab round the room.

“I’ll teach you to bite!” the old woman cried,
Chased that poor bloody crab ’til he died.

Well that was the end of the poor old crab,
Don’t you think it very, very sad.