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The Bonny Black Hare

[ Roud 1656 ; G/D 7:1427 ; Ballad Index RL042 ; Bodleian Roud 1656 ; trad.]

A.L. Lloyd sang The Bonny Black Hare accompanied by fiddler Dave Swarbrick in 1965 on the Topic theme album The Bird in the Bush: Traditional Songs of Love and Lust. He noted:

Psychiatrists tell us the cowboy's ready gun is a “potency affirmation”. Well, maybe. Certainly, to identify sex-relations with ordnance display is an old joke. Cupid with his bow and arrows is but the fore-runner of those sailors in the bawdy songs who fire their cannon and hole their girl amidships and fall asleep with an empty shot-locker. Here, suitably enough, the central image is a sporting gun with its punning target the black hare. Not many erotic songs put the matter so delicately and yet graphically as this good-natured open-air piece, whose sly humour is accentuated by the elusive bichronal rhythm of the tune. Is the song Irish? It was got from an immigrant potato-lifter near Walberswick, but he learnt it in England. Vance Randolph found a version among the Ozark hillfolk, too coarse to publish.

Martin Carthy sang The Bonny Black Hare on his and Dave Swarbrick's 1967 album Byker Hill; this was reissued on their compilation album This Is... Martin Carthy: The Bonny Black Hare and Other Songs. An early live recording with Dave Swarbrick at the Folkus Folk Club in 1966 is available on Both Ears and the Tail. Another one, with Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick singing in duet at the Albert Hole, Bristol, in 1993 was included in the Dave Swarbrick anthology Swarb!. A solo live recording at the Sunflower Folk Club, Belfast, on 20 October 1978 was released in 2011 on the CD The January Man. Martin Carthy commented in the original recording's sleeve notes:

The notion of identifying intercourse with ordnance, as in The Bonny Black Hare, is as old as Cupid with his bow and arrow. Just as old is the intuition connecting the images of love and hunting, as in the jokey southern counties song called The Furze Field. Restoration bucks were fond of making songs on this theme but were only annexing an ancient (perhaps sacred) piece of folk symbology. The song seems rare although it has been reported in an unmistakably British form in upper Arkansas. This version was collected from an Irish labourer, Mr Morrow, at Walberswick, Suffolk, in 1938. His tune is a member of the widespread melody family called Lough Lein but his rhythm was not very clear. Some versions he sang in a standard 9/8 (3+3+3) others a bit curtailed into a 'mixed' 8/8 (3+2+3).

Fairport Convention sang Bonny Black Hare on their 1971 album Angel Delight and as the B-side of their single Rubber Band / Bonny Black Hare (Simons PMW 1, 1980). Later live recordings can be found on the charity compilation Feed the Folk and on the CD SwarbAid.

Jiig sang The Bonny Black Hare in 2005 on their eponymous album Jiig. Ian Robb noted:

The November 2004 election of George Bush with the help of the so-called s‘‘moral majority’ in the USA had me thinking about society s changing values and in particular how even the folk music community has become overly earnest and prudish in the last few years. I’m not a fan of songs in which sex is gratuitously represented as abusive or exploitive, but the English song tradition is quite rich in gloriously bawdy accounts of lusty women and men each enjoying the other, so to speak. The Bonny Black Hare is one such song, and its use of firearm and hunting symbolism in no way disguises what is going on. I believe I first heard it sung by A.L. (Bert) Lloyd about 35 years ago, and assumed the odd rhythm and phrasing was due to Mr Lloyd’s fascination with Eastern European music. However, according to Martin Carthy—who also recorded it—the song was collected from an Irish labourer in Walberswick, Suffolk, in 1938. The source, a Mr Morrow, apparently sang some parts of the song in 9/8 and some in a “mixed 8/8 rhythm (3/2/3)”. Happily, Mr Morrow probably didn’t concern himself with such analysis.

Pete Wood sang The Bonny Black Hare on his 2014 CD Young Edwin. He noted:

This is a rare traditional song, brought to life by the tune given it by Bert Lloyd in the 1960s. An exquisite mixture of bawdiness and tenderness.


Martin Carthy sings The Bonny Black Hare

On the fourteenth of May at the dawn of the day
With my gun on my shoulder to the woods I did stray
In search of some game if the weather proved fair
To see could I get a shot at the bonny black hare.

Oh, I met a young girl there, with her face as a rose.
Her skin was as fair as the lily that blows.
I says, "My fair maiden, why ramble you so?
Can you tell me where the bonny black hare do go?"

Oh, the answer she gave me, her answer was, "No,
But under my apron, oh, they say it do grow.
And if you'll not deceive me, oh, I vow and declare
We'll both go together to shoot the bonny black hare."

Oh, I laid this girl down with her face to the skies.
I took out my ramrod and my bullets likewise.
I says, "Lock your legs round me, and dig in with your heels.
For the closer we get, love, the better it feels."

Now the birds they were singing in the bushes and trees.
The song that they sang was, O she's easy to please.
I felt her heart quiver and I knew what I'd done.
Says I, "Have you had enough of my old sporting gun?"

Oh, the answer she gave me, her answer was, "Nay.
It's not often, young sportsman, that you come this way.
But if your powder is good and your bullets play fair,
Why don't you keeping firing at the bonny black hare?"

"Oh, my powder is wasted and my bullets all gone.
My ramrod is limp, and I cannot fire on.
But I'll be back in the morning, and if you are still there,
We'll both go again to shoot the bonny black hare."

Digital Tradition version

One morning in autumn by the dawn of the day
With my gun in good order I straight took my way
To hunt for some game to the woods I did steer
To see if I could find my bonny black hare

I met a young damsel, her eyes black as sloes
Her teeth white as ivory, her cheeks like a rose
Her hair hung in ringlets on her shoulders bare
Sweet maiden, I cried, Did you see my bonny black hare

This morning a-hunting I have been all around
But my bonny black hare is not to be found
The maid she then answered and at him did stare
I never yet heard of, or saw, a black hare

My gun is in good order, my balls are also
And under your smock I was told she did go
So delay me no longer, I cannot stop here
One shot I will fire at your bonny black hare

His gun he then loaded, determined he was
And instantly laid her down on the green grass
His trigger he drew, his balls he put near
And fire one shot at her bonny black hare

Her eyes they did twinkle and smiling did say
How often, dearest sportsman, do you come this way
There is few in this country can with you compare
So fire once again at my bonny black hare

His gun he reloaded and fired once more
She cried, draw your trigger and never give o'er
Your powder and balls are so sweet I declare
Keep shooting away at my bonny black hare

He said, my dear maiden, my powder is all gone
My gun is out of order, I cannot ram home
But meet me tomorrow, my darling so fair
And I'll fire once more at your bonny black hare


The Byker Hill version was transcribed from the singing of Martin Carthy by Greer Gilman.