> Folk Music > Songs > The Crafty Ploughboy / Jack and the Robber / Well Sold the Cow / The Yorkshire Bite

The Crafty Ploughboy / Jack and the Robber / Well Sold the Cow / The Yorkshire Bite

[ Roud 2637 ; Master title: The Crafty Ploughboy ; Laws L1 ; G/D 2:266 ; Henry H51 ; TYG 78 ; Ballad Index C283 ; Bodleian Roud 2637 ; GlosTrad Roud 2637 ; Wiltshire 62 , 1044 ; DT CRAFTYBY , CRFTFARM ; Mudcat 151894 ; trad.]

This ballad is from a family of ballads about robbers outwitted. In The Crafty Farmer (Roud 2640; Child 283) it is the farmer himself who is, er, crafty. In The Highwayman and the Farmer’s Daughter (Roud 2638; Laws L2) it is his daughter, and in The Crafty Ploughboy (Roud 2637; Laws L1) it is the farmer’s servant boy. The Traditional Ballad Index catalogues Child 283 and Laws L1 as the same song.

Steve Roud’s The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs has this as Highwayman Outwitted. The version he prints is The Yorkshire Boy, sung by Sam Fone of Mary Tavy, Devon, and collected by Sabine Baring-Gould on 4 October 1892.

Elizabeth Cronin sang Well Sold the Cow in Ballyvourney, Cork, in the early 1950s. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23). Steve Roud commented in the booklet:

Widely known across Britain and North America, and printed by many of the 19th century broadside presses, this song is often called The Yorkshire Bite or The Crafty Ploughboy. It is easily the most popular of three different ballads which relate how a country person outwits a highwayman and makes off with his loot. The others are The Highwayman Outwitted (Roud 2638; Laws L2), and The Crafty Farmer (Roud 2640; Child 283). The main difference is that in 2638 it is a farmer’s daughter who outwits the robber, and in 2640 it is the farmer himself, who has gone into town to pay his rent. Although Child only included one of the three, his notes refer to all of them, and none can definitely claim historical precedence. All three appeared in late 18th century garlands, and probably originated about the 1760s. But Bronson makes a very interesting point. He claims that despite the similarities in storyline, each of the three songs is metrically distinct from the others, and this is reflected in the tunes which are normally associated with the texts. Most of the broadside texts are very similar to each other, but Bess Cronin’s version is particularly close to an undated Irish sheet in the Madden Collection (vol. 25 item 431).

Danny Brazil sang Jack and the Robber to Peter Shepheard at Over Bridge, Gloucester, on 12 May 1966. This recording was included in 2007 on the Brazil Family’s Musical Traditions anthology Down By the Old Riverside. Another Danny Brazil version, recorded in Gloucester in 1978, is printed in Mike Yates’ book Traveller’s Joy (EFDSS 2006),

Roy Palmer’s book Room for Company (Cambridge University Press, 1971) has this song as The Crafty Ploughboy; or, The Highwayman Outwitted. R.A. Gatty collected the tune and first verse from Mr Sanderson of Braithwell, Yorkshire, in October 1907; the other verses are from a broadside printed by Pratt of Birmingham (British Museum 1876 e2). Palmer noted:

Highwaymen were popular heroes and, in songs at least, they usually came off best. But if instead of taking on a lawyer or a judge, they tried to take advantage of a ploughboy or a farmer, they were on the losing side. A ‘bite’ is a trick or stratagem. Yorkshiremen were thought to be particularly good at these, and the song is sometimes called The Yorkshire Bite.

Packie Manus Byrne sang The Highwayman Outwitted to Sean Davies in London in 1964. This recording was included on his Veteran cassette and 2002 CD, Donegal & Back. He also sang this song as John and the Farmer in London in 1974, which was included on his 1977 Topic album Songs of a Donegal Man. Mike Yates noted on the latter album:

John Sold the Cow, Well Sold the Cow and The Yorkshire Bite are all titles for our present ballad which, since its inception towards the end of the 18th century, has spread throughout Britain and North America. The ballad is related to The Crafty Farmer (Child 283), only in this ballad it is the farmer, not his servant, who outwits the would-be highwayman, and also to The Farmer of Chester which is especially popular among English gypsies (see Songs of the Open Road). According to Packie, “The song was going around long before l was born. My mother and father both knew it and, in fact, before l left home l thought that everyone in the whole world would know it!”

Ian Robb sang The Banks of Newfoundland in 1976 on his and Margaret Christl’s Folk-Legacy album The Barley Grain for Me. He noted:

The story of a thief outwitted (also known as The Yorkshire Bite or Well Sold the Cow) is always very popular with audiences, and this song exists in a multitude of variants in Britain and North America. Child ballad #283, The Crafty Farmer, describes essentially the same story and may represent the ancestor of many of these variants. This Labrador text appealed to me because of it its relative compactness—and the tune is very singable.

John Bowden and Vic Shepherd sang Jack the Cowboy on their 1982 album A Motty Down. They noted:

Another song for which we have to thank Ian Robb. Although this version comes from Labrador, it’s very British in feel, and we enjoy the neat twist in the story, as well as the full text and very singable tune. The story also goes under the titles of The Yorkshire Bite and Well Sold the Cow.

Ben Moss and Laurel Swift sang Highwayman Bold on their 2014 EP Ben Moss & Laurel Swift.

Dave Lowry sang The Crafty Farmer’s song on his 2024 WildGoose album Songs of a Devon Man. Bill Crawford noted:

Dave learnt this song from a book he found in Exeter library; he only recalls that it wasn’t a folk song book.


Elizabeth Cronin sings Well Sold the Cow

Come listen unto me and a story I will tell
Concerning a farmer in Yorkshire did dwell.
He had a youthful boy; he hired him as a man,
All for to do his business. His name it was John.

Chorus (after each verse):
To me fol-the-day lido,
Fol-the-day lee

Early one morning he called to his man,
And John to the master he immediately ran.
“John,” said the master, “take this cow to the fair,
For she’s in good order and her I can spare.”

John drove the cow out of the barn,
And off to the fair he immediately ran.
He was not long there when he met with three men,
And he sold them the cow for five pound ten.

He went into an ale-house all for to drink,
And the three men they paid him and down on the chink.
“What shall I do with the money?” he did say,
“Ah, where shall I put it, landlady, I pray?”

“To the lining of your coat I will sew it,” said she,
“For fear on the road and robbed you might be.”
A robber in the room he drinking up his wine
And says he to himself, “Sure, this money shall be mine!”

John took his leave and he started for home.
The robber he followed him straight out of the room.
He soon overtook him along the highway,
“I’m glad of your company, young man,” he did say.

“Now,” said the robber, “you’re better for to ride.
How far have you to go?” and poor John he replied,
“Three or four miles, as far as I know.”
He jumped up behind him and off they did go.

They rode all along till they came to a lane.
“Now,” said the robber, “I’ll tell you quite plain
To deliver up your money without any strife,
Or in this very moment I’ll take away your life!”

“Now,” says John, “there’s no time to dispute.”
He jumped off his horse without neither fear nor doubt.
From the lining of his coat he pulled the money out,
And among the green grass he threw it all about.

The robber he alighted down off his horse.
Sure ’twas little he thought that it was to his loss.
When gathering up the money that was thrown among the grass,
John jumped in the saddle and he’s rode away his horse.

Now one of the servants saw John coming home,
And it’s into her master she immediately ran.
“John,” said the master, “did you make a swap
Or how did my cow turn out to be a horse?”

“Indeed! And, my dear master, the truth I will unfold.
I was followed and robbed by a highwayman so bold.
While gathering up the money which I threw among the grass,
For to make you some amends, I brought you home his horse.”

The saddle-bag was opened and in it were found
One hundred bright guineas in silver and in gold.
A fine case of pistols. the farmer did avow,
Saying, “John, my dear fellow, you have well sold the cow!”

Danny Brazil sings Jack and the Robber

There was an old farmer I’m going to tell you plain,
He had a servant boy and Jack was his name;
For he said to him, “Jack, take the cows to the fair,
For she’s in good order for all I can spare.”

Chorus (after each verse):
With me fol the diddle I do,
Fol the diddle ay.

Jack drove the cow straight out of the barn,
And in to the fair the cow simply run;
He wasn’t there long before he met three men,
And there he sold the cow for thirteen pound ten.

Jack went in the public for to get a drink,
And then to the landlady in ready money jinked;
“Where shall I put this money,” to the servant he did say,
“For I’m feared on the road it is robbed I shall be.”

“In the lining of your coat, you may sew it so,” says she,
“I am feared on the road it is robbed you will be.”

For the robber in the room he sat drinking up his wine,
And he swore to hisself, “All this money shall be mine!”

Now Jack left the public and started for home,
The robber followed after him straight out of the room;
“I’d be glad of your company, young man,” he did say,
And he jumped to the saddle and he rode straight away.

For they both jogged along together ’til they came to the bine of a lane,
“And now,” said the robber, “I’m going to tell you plain;
You come ’liver up your money without any more delay,
For this very same moment your life I’ll take away!”

Jack throwed the money out, out the lining of his coat,
And all about the green grass he sowed it all about.
While the robber was picking up the money that was sown amongst the grass,
Jack jumped to the saddle and he rode away his horse.

For it’s one of the servants saw Jack coming home,
And in to the master he simply did run;
“Oh master, oh master, oh here comes Jack and I think he’s had a swap,
And how did the old cow turn into a horse?”

“Oh master, oh master, I mean to tell you plain,
I met a bold robber on the highway that I came.
While he were picking up the money that was sown amongst the grass,
For to bring you home commission, sir, I brought you home his horse.”

When the saddlebags was opened it’s there I’ll behold,
Five hundred bright guineas and some silver and some gold;
A good pair of pistols, the old farmer dewelled,
He said, “Well done, Jack, for you well sold the cow.”