> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > Old Billy Riley

Old Billy Riley

[ Roud 4701 ; Ballad Index Hug452 ; Mudcat 46593 , 50732 ; trad.]

A.L. Lloyd sang the halyard shanty Old Billy Riley in 1957 on his and Ewan MacColl’s Tradition Records album Blow Boys Blow. He noted:

A fierce song, made to fit the rhythm of fast pulling and quick breathing. A ‘drogher’ was a ship in the West Indies sugar trade (etymology 17th century Dutch, so I’m told). The sail would need to be light, or the occasion desperate, for men to haul at the halyards to the beat of such a fast song as Bill Riley.

Roy Harris sang Old Billy Riley in 1974 on the Topic anthology Sea Shanties.

Jim Mageean sang Old Billy Riley in 1978 on his Greenwich Village album Of Ships…and Men. He noted:

A halyard shanty with a remarkable tempo which must have been quite tiring to work to. It is probably of negro origin, coming from the sugar or cotton trade.

Johnny Collins with Dave Webber and Pete Watkinson sang Old Billy Riley, again noted as “a halyard shanty which is probably of Negro origin coming from the sugar or cotton trade”, in 1996 on their CD Shanties & Songs of the Sea.

Jeff Warner sang Old Billy Riley in 2012 on the S&A/WildGoose CD Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 3: Sea Songs of a Watchet Sailor. The liner notes commented:

Both Sharp [English Folk-Chanteys, London, 1914] and Terry [The Shanty Book Part II, London, 1924] comment that they have not come across any version other than Short’s—although Fox Smith [A Book of Shanties, London, 1927] and Colcord [Songs of American Sailormen, New York, 1938] (who published later) both give versions. Hugill [Shanties From the Seven Seas, London, 1960] notes the “remarkable resemblance between Billy Riley and Tiddy High O!” and feels that “it probably originates as a cotton-hoosiers song.” It may be that it was an early shanty that became less and less used, for Fox Smith states that: “I have come across very few of the younger generation of sailormen who have heard it.”

All versions seem fairly consistent and what words there are in Short’s text fit the usual pattern and so have been augmented from the other sources. Sharp’s notes, after the text, say: “and so on, sometimes varying ‘Walk him up so cheer’ly’ with ‘screw him up’ etc.”


A.L. Lloyd sings Old Billy Riley

Old Billy Riley was a dancing master
    Old Billy Riley oh

Old Billy Riley’s master of a drogher
    Old Billy Riley oh

Master of a drogher bound for Antigua
    Old Billy Riley oh

Old Billy Riley has a nice young daughter
    Old Billy Riley oh

Oh Missy Riley, little Missy Riley
    Old Billy Riley oh

Had a pretty daughter but we can’t get at her
    Old Billy Riley oh

Screw her up and away we go, boys
    Old Billy Riley oh

One more pull and then belay, boys
    Old Billy Riley oh