> Folk Music > Songs > The Capable Wife

The Old Man and His Wife / The Capable Wife

[ Roud 281 ; Master title: The Old Man and His Wife ; Laws Q1 ; Henry H702 ; Ballad Index LQ01 ; Bodleian Roud 281 ; GlosTrad Roud 281 ; Wiltshire 187 , 905 ; Mudcat 41847 ; trad.]

Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, etc. Sam Henry’s Songs of the People

Bernard Wrigley sang The Old Man and His Wife in 1974 on his Topic album Rough & Wrigley. He noted:

One of the original women’s lib songs. I got the words from Harland’s Ballads & Songs of Lancashire, and Harland got it from Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England (1842). It’s known in England, Scotland, pretty well all over America, and usually called Father Grumble. I wrote the tune specially with the two chord melodeon accompaniment in mind.

Cilla Fisher and Artie Trezise sang this song as John Grumlie in 1979 on their Topic album Cilla and Artie. They noted:

Cilla’s father used to sing this song in an amusing music hall style. Ray [Fisher] passed on the tune to us as she remembers it and the words are an adaption of the Aberdeenshire version.

Tundra sang The Old Man and His Wife in 1980 on their Greenwich Village album The Kentish Songster.

George Withers of Donyatt, Somerset, sang The Old Man and His Wife in 1995 on his Veteran Tapes cassette of songs of a Somerset man, The Fly Be on the Turmut. This recording was also included on the 2001 Veteran anthology of traditional folk music from rural England, Down in the Fields. Mike Yates noted:

Whether titled The Old Man and His Wife or The Drummer and His Wife, this is quite an old piece, and one that has proved especially popular in North America, be it in the Appalachians, the Ozarks or the Mid-West. In England it took on a new lease of life via a version that Cecil Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould included in their 1906 edition of English Folk Songs for Schools, although George [Withers] learnt his version from another singer, rather than from a book.

Tom and Barbara Brown sang The Farmer and His Wife in 2002 on their WildGoose CD Prevailing Winds. They noted:

This song goes back to an old broadside called The Woman to the Plough and The Man to the Corn-Mow, and has lasted well in a few versions across the intervening years. It’s just a great story which, Barbara claims, proves that men have always had a problem multi-tasking. I prefer to think of it as a warning not to shoot your mouth off to your wife—but she’s probably right!

Kate Rusby sang this song using the title The Old Man on her 2007 CD Awkward Annie.

Lady Maisery sang The Capable Wife in 2011 on their first album, Weave & Spin. They noted:

Hannah [James] found this song in Fred Hamer’s Green Groves collection. It’s our jolly take on the serious issue of the gendered division of agricultural labour.

This YouTube video shows Lady Maisery singing The Capable Wife at Beverley Folk Acoustic Roots Festival in June 2012:


Cilla Fisher and Artie Trezise sing John Grumlie

John Grumlie swore by the licht o’ the moon and the green leaves on the trees
That he could dae mair work in a day than his wife could dae in three
His wife rose up in the mornin’ wi’ cares and troubles anew
John Grumlie bide at hame John and I’ll gang haud the ploo

Chorus (after each verse):
Sing fal de la la de lal de, fal al de lal de lay
John Grumlie bide at hame John and I’ll gang haud the ploo

First ye maun dress your children fair and put them in their gear
And ye maun turn the malt John or else you’ll spoil the beer
And ye maun reel the tweel John that I spun yesterday
And ye maun ca’ the hens John else they’ll all lay away

Now John forgot tae milk the coo and churn the butter tae
And all gaed wrang and nocht gaed right and he danced wi’ rage that day
Then up he ran tae the top o’ the knowe wi’ monys a wave and shoot
She heard him and she heeded not and she steered the horse about

John Grumlie’s wife come hame at e’en and laughed as she’d been mad
Tae see the hoose in sic a plight and John sae glum and sad
Says he this work is nay for me I’ll dae nae mair guid wife
Indeed says she I’m weel content Ye may keep it the rest o’ yer life

Tae the deil wi’ that said surly John I’ll dae as I’ve done before
Wi’ that his wife’s ta’en up a stick and John made aff tae the door
Stop stop guid wife I’ll haud ma tongue I ken I’m sair tae blame
But as from noo I’ll mind the ploo and ye maun bide at hame

George Withers sings The Old Man and His Wife

There was an old man in the wood, as you shall plainly see sir,
He vowed he’d do more work in a day than his wife would do in three sir,
“If that be so,” the old wife said, “and this you will allow sir
While I go drive the plough today and you shall milk the cow sir.”

“But you must watch the speckled hen less she should lay away sir
And you must watch that spool of yarn that I spun yesterday sir.”
The old wife took the stick in hand and went to drive the plough sir,
The old man took the pail in hand and went to milk the cow sir.

But Tiny winced and fussed about and Tiny flipped her tail sir
And Tiny gave the man a kick that milk ran from the pail sir.
“Oh Tiny pretty Tiny dear, my pretty cow stand still, ah
If I milk you another day it’s sore against my will, ah.”

He went to feed the sow and pigs, which were within the sty sir,
He knocked his head agin the durn which made the blood to fly sir.
He went to watch the speckled hen less she should lay away sir,
He clean forgot the spool of yarn his wife spun yesterday sir.

He went within to get a stick, to give the pig her hire sir,
The pig ran in between his legs and tipped him in the mire sir.
And as he looked at cow and pig, he said, “I do agree sir,
If my wife never works again, she’ll not be blamed by me sir.”

Lady Maisery sing The Capable Wife

There was an old man who lived in the wood
As you will plainly see;
He thought he could do more work in a day
Than his wife could do in three.

“With all my heart,” the old dame said,
“If you will me allow:
You shall stay at home today
And I will hold the plough.”

“And mind you milk the tiny cow
Lest she should go dry,
And mind you feed the little pigs
That are within the sty.”

“And mind you watch the speckled hen
Lest she should stray away,
And don’t forget the spool of yarn
That I spin every day.”

The old wife took her stick in her hand
And went to hold the plough;
The old man took the pail in his hand
And he went to milk the cow.

But Tiny she flinched and Tiny she squinched,
And Tiny she cocked up her nose.
And Tiny she gave him a kick in the shin
Till the blood ran down his toes.

And then he went to feed the pigs
That were within the sty
He knocked his head against the shed
And it made the blood to fly.

And then he watched the speckled hen
Lest she should stray away,
But he quite forgot the spool of yarn,
That his wife spun every day.

And when his wife came home that night
He said he could plainly see
She could do more work in a day
Than he could do in three.