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The Oxen Ploughing

[ Roud 686 ; Master title: The Oxen Ploughing ; Ballad Index PECS002 ; VWML CJS2/10/469 , RoudFS/S218071 ; DT OXENPLOW ; Mudcat 19505 ; trad.]

Frank Rowe sang the Ox Plough Song on the 1971 EFDSS album Garners Gay: English Folk Songs recorded by Fred Hamer.

The Ian Campbell Folk Group sang The Ox-Plough on their 1972 album Something to Sing About. Ian Campbell noted:

Like the one which follows [The Haymakers], this song reflects the static and orderly rural society which was to be disrupted by the industrial revolution. Land was the basis of wealth, the land worker was the pillar on which a stable society depended. Every man knew his place and was expected to be satisfied in it. The rhythm of life and work was as regular and predictable as the seasons of the year.

Johnny Collins sang The Oxplough Song in 1973 on his Traditional Sound Recordings album The Traveller’s Rest. This track was also included in 2002 on the Fellside anthology Seasons, Ceremonies & Rituals: The Calendar in Traditional Song, and in 2006 on the Free Reed box Midwinter: A Celebration of the Folk Music & Tradition of Christmas & the Turning of the Year. Johnny Collins noted:

Probably one of the songs in which the plough boys sang their own praises in the course of their procession through the streets on ‘Plough Monday’ (the first Monday after Twelfth Night). This set was collected in Cornwall from Frank Rowe and appears in Fred Hamer’s Garners Gay: English Folk Songs recorded by Fred Hamer.

White Hart sang The Ox-Plough Song in 1979 on their Traditional Sound Recordings album In Search of Reward. This track was also included in 2001 on the Fellside anthology Voices in Harmony: English Traditional Songs.

Tom Brown sang Cornish Ploughboys in 2000 on his and Barbara Brown’s WildGoose album Where Umber Flows. He noted:

A version of the Cornish Ox-driver’s Song—more usually known in the version collected at Mawgan in Pyder from Joseph Dyer. I had this version from Dave Huthnance at the folk club that Mervyn Vincent and Charlie Bate used to run at the Bridge on Wool in Wadebridge back in the 1960s. I was only 16 at the time—Dave Huthnance was only 15! I suspect that, in this form, the song owes a fair bit to Ralph Dunstan.

Bob Lewis sang The Oxen Ploughing at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2009. This track was included a year later on the festival CD There’s Bound to Be a Row (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 6).

John Kirkpatrick sang The Oxen Ploughing in 2011 on his Fledg’ling CD God Speed the Plough. He noted:

While working with heavy horses on the farm is known to date back a few hundred years, working with oxen is know to date back a few thousand. They might not be as intelligent and as versatile as horses, and as they are the eunuchs of the cattle world they can lack a certain drive, but they are strong, placid, and easy to keep. The traditional ox-driving cries which you get the chance to sing in this chorus are there because they need constant chivying, and the lad who steps alongside the ox-man has a long sharpened stick at the ready to give them a bit of a poke if they look as though they are grinding to a standstill.

All the traditional versions of this song have been found exclusively in the South Western counties of England, which is a little surprising as it appears that the last area where oxen were still being used regularly, right up until the 1920s, was in Sussex. Bob Copper has written delightfully about his father, Jim Copper, going to work with the local ox-man in the 1890s, and I have altered the usual form of the chorus to include the details he gives us about the teams of oxen always being yoked together in the same pairs, with names that start with the same letter. I have also added a couple of verses, to cover aspects of the work not otherwise touched in the song.

This YouTube video shows John Kirkpatrick singing The Oxen Ploughing at the Royal Oak Lewes on 7 October 2010:

James Findlay sang the Ox Plough Song in 2012 on his Fellside album Another Day Another Story. He noted:

A pretty little generic song with lots of similar versions across the south of England. I first came across this song when I started singing at 17, with a couple of friends who ran the local folk club in the village of Kilmersdon, Somerset. The chorus includes the names of the oxen of the farm and in some cases remained unchanged for generations. Hence “Here comes the ploughboy with Spark and Beauty, Berry. Goodluck, Speedwell, Cherry.”

Nick Dow sang Oxen Ploughing on his 2016 album The Devil in the Chest. He noted:

I first heard this sung by Mick Bramwich but traced it to Roy Palmer’s English Country Songs and then to Baring-Gould’s informant Adam Landry of Trebartha in Cornwall [VWML CJS2/10/469] . The chorus imitates the ploughman calling and encouraging the oxen to do their job. Bob Lewis sings a fuller version of this song to a slightly different tune.

Danny Spooner and Duncan Brown sang The Ox Plough Song in 2016 on their CD of songs of the working life, Labour and Toil. The album’s notes commented:

This song reflects the orderly rural society before the disruption of the Industrial Revolution. The land worker was the pillar on which a stable society depended—everyone knew their place- The rhythm of life and work was as regular and predictable as the seasons of the year. Of course rural work was also a hard grind, out in all weathers, with long hours and often poorly paid. There were employers however who cherished their labourers, took care of them and even boasted about them. The writer of this song seems quite happy with his lot! Duncan learnt the song from a recording by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.

Jim Causley sang The Oxen Ploughing on his 2021 CD Devonia. He noted:

Known throughout Devon at the beginning of the 19th century. Baring-Gould said that every old singer had heard it in their boyhood. This version is from Mr Lake, farmer of Worlington [VWML CJS2/10/469] .


Johnny Collins sings The Oxplough Song

Come all you sweet charmers and give me choice,
There’s nothing to compare with a ploughboy’s voice.
To hear the little ploughboy singing so sweet
Makes the hills and the valleys around us to meet.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
For it’s hark! the little ploughboy gets up in the morn.
Move along, jump along.
Here comes the ploughboy with Spark and Beauty, Berry,
Goodluck, Speedwell, Cherry,
And it’s move along.
We are the lads that can keep along the plough,
We are the lads that can keep along the plough.

In the heat of the day what a little we can do!
We lay by the plough for an hour or two,
On the banks of sweet violets where we take our rest
While the cool stormy winds blow around us so fast.

If the farmer has no corn, no corn can he sow,
Then the miller has no work for his mill also,
And the baker has no bread for the poor to provide.
If the plough should stand still we should all starve alive.

And now to conclude, my song must here have an end,
I hope the little ploughboy won’t ever need a friend.
Here’s health unto the ploughboy wherever he may be,
Here’s health to the ploughboy and God save the Queen.