> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > The Devil and the Ploughman
> Waterson:Carthy > Songs > The Devil and the Farmer

The Devil and the Ploughman / The Farmer's Curst Wife / Kellyburn Braes / Lily Bulero

[ Roud 160 ; Child 278 ; G/D 2:320 ; Ballad Index C278 ; Bodleian Roud 160 ; Wiltshire 982 ; trad.]

Everyman's Book of British Ballads Marrow Bones Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs The Folk Handbook The Oxford Book of Ballads The Seeds of Love Room for Company The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs

This song was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1903 from Henry Burstow, Horsham, Sussex, and published by him and A.L. Lloyd in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. In 1960, A.L. Lloyd recorded it for the album A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs with concertina accompaniment by Alf Edwards. Like all tracks from this LP it was reissued in 2003 on the CD England & Her Traditional Songs. Lloyd wrote in the album's sleeve notes:

The tale of the shrewish wife who terrifies even the demons is ancient and widespread. The Hindus have it in a sixth century fable collection, the Panchatantra. It seems to have travelled westward by Persia, and to have spread to almost every European country. In early versions, the farmer makes a pact with the Devil and hands over his wife in return for a pair of plough oxen. Vaughan Williams got the present ballad from the Horsham shoemaker and bell-ringer, Henry Burstow. Mr Burstow whistled the refrains that in our performance are played by the concertina. Whistling was a familiar way of calling up the Devil (hence the sailors' dread that whistling may raise a storm).

Bill and Belle Reed sang The Old Lady and the Devil in a 1928 recording that was included in 2015 on the anthology if British songs in the USA, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.

Texas Gladden from Virginia sang The Devil and the Farmer's Wife to Alan Lomax in 1946. This recording was included in 2001 on her Rounder anthology Ballad Legacy.

Horton Barker from Chilhowie, Virginia, sang There Was An Old Man (The Farmer's Curst Wife) in September 1950 to Maud Karpeles, and Mrs J.L. (Leila) Yowell from Charlottesville, Virginia, did it on 5 August 1955. Both recording were included in 2017 on the Musical Traditions anthology of historic recordings of Appalachian singers and musicians, When Cecil Left the Mountains.

Harry Duffy sang Kellyburn Braes to Hamish Henderson at Blairgowrie, Perthshire, in 1954. This recording was included in the 1960s on the Prestige International album Folksongs & Music from the Berryfields of Blair.

Thomas Moran from Mohill, Co Leitrim, sang The Farmer's Curst Wife to Seamus Ennis in December 1954. This BBC recording 22035 was also included on the anthology The Child Ballads 2 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 5; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968).

Martha Reid from Birnam, Perthshire, sang The Farmer's Curst Wife to Maurice Fleming in 1955. This recording was included in 2011 on the Greentrax anthology Songs and Ballads from Perthshire Field Recordings of the 1950s (Scottish Tradition 24).

Dominic Behan sang The Women Are Worse Than the Men in 1959 on his Topic album Down by the Liffeyside. He noted:

This jaunty ballad, common all over the British Isles and the U.S.A. enshrines a libel against womankind the origins of which, are lost in the mists of antiquity but which comes with perennial freshness from the lips of male singers. A classical lady who went to Hell and came back again was Alcestis; but her errand was to fetch home her husband. She is no relation of the virago of this song. Some versions have a whistled refrain, perhaps a relic of the ancient superstition that whistling summons the devil.

The Reivers sang Kellyburn Braes on their 1960 EP The Work of The Reivers Volume 2. The liner notes commented:

The tale of the wife whose temper was too hot even for Hell to hold is found all over the English-speaking world. In America it is known as The Farmer's Cursed Wife: it is found in England and it has frequently been attributed to Burns, who certainly collected it. The Reivers use the Irish chorus form.

The Ian Campbell Folk Group sang The Devil and the Farmer's Wife on the 1963 Decca album Edinburgh Folk Festival Vol. 1.

Roy Guest sang Kellyburn Braes at a folk concert in Edinburgh that was released in 1964 on the Waverley album The Hoot'nanny Show Volume 2.

Martyn Wyndham-Read sang The Devil and the Ploughman on the 1966 Australian album A Wench, a Whale and a Pint of Good Ale.

Willy McPhee sang The Devil He Cam tae the Man at the Ploo at the Kinross Festival in September 1975. This recording was included in the following year on the Springthyme festival anthology Scots Songs and Music 2.

Hobert Stallard from Waterloo, Ohio, sang The Devil and the Farmer to Mark Wilson and Annadeene Fraley on 29 August 1973. This recording was included in 2007 on the Musical Traditions anthology of folk songs of the Upper South, Meeting's a Pleasure Volume 1.

Nimrod Workman from Chattaroy, West Virginia, sang The Devil and the Farmer to Mike Wilson and Ken Irvin in March 1976. This recording was released in the same year on his Rounder album, Mother Jones' Will, which was reissued in 2011 on Musical Traditions. Rod Stradling noted:

This old humorous song (Child: The Farmer's Curst Wife) is extremely popular in America and pops up in a wide variety of settings, including versions with whistling refrains (see Hobert Stallard, and his daughter Nova Baker on Rounder 8047)). Horton Barker's Library of Congress version (which resembles the 78 recording by Bill and Belle Reed) is justly celebrated (a later version appears on Folkways 2362). Texas Gladden and Jean Ritchie supply nice versions on Rounder 1800 and Folkways 2302 respectively.

Brian Dewhurst sang Lillibulero in 1977 on his Fellside album Follow That With Your Sea Lions.

Alfred ‘Fred’ Welfare recited The Farmer's Wife to Mike Yates at his farm in North Chailey, Lewes, Sussex in 1977. This recording was included in 2015 on the Musical Traditions anthology I Wish There Was No Prisons. Mike Yates noted:

A.L. Lloyd traced this ancient piece to the 6th century collection of fables, The Panchatantra, and suggested that this tale of the shrewish wife who terrified the Devil spread to Europe via what was then the Persian Empire. Fred Welfare’s father had written the text out on a piece of paper, together with the additional ‘Epitaph’, and Fred had always known the piece as a poem, rather than as a song. Some singers, including old Henry Burstow of Horsham in Sussex, would whistle a refrain, while others stamped their feet, these actions being used to scare away the Devil, should he be listening in on the song. (In other ballads, singers would list magical herbs in the refrain—Parsley,sage, rosemary and thyme, for example—as another way of protecting the singer and his/her audience from evil.

Roger Nicholson played Lillibulero on the 1978 Transatlantic The Leader Tradition album The Dulcimer Players.

Walter Pardon sang The Devil and the Farmer's Wife at home in Knapton, Norfolk, to Mike Yates on 26 June 1978. This recording was released in 1982 on his Topic album A Country Life. It was also included in 2000 on his Topic anthology A World Without Horses and in 2009 on Topic's 70th anniversary anthology, Three Score and Ten. Mike Yates noted on the original album:

Walter regards The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife as little more than a humorous song, although his text—similar to that printed as The Sussex Farmer by John Pitts in the early 1800s—tells basically the same story as one recorded in a 6th century Hindu collection The Panchatantra. Perhaps at one time the farmer had made a pact with the Devil—a promise of help in exchange for a member of his family?—and there is certainly more to the song than is first apparent. Some singers have a whistled refrain—possibly as a charm against mentioning “Old Nick” by name.

Other recorded versions can be heard sung by Ted Ashlaw of New York State, by Thomas Moran of Co. Leitrim, and Nimrod Workman.

Maggie Murphy of Tempo, Co Fermanagh, sang Killyburn Brae to Keith Summers in 1979. This recording was included in 1996 on her Veteran CD Linkin' O'er the Lea and in 2004 on the Musical Traditions anthology The Hardy Sons of Dan. Rod Stradling noted:

A version of the well-known ballad of The Farmer's Curst Wife, which gets 233 Roud entries, although most are from North America. Robert Burns composed the ballad of Killyburnbraes from the older ballad version. Maggie is one of only five named singers from Ireland. Eddie Butcher, of Magilligan, had a version, and Seamus Ennis sang it. Hugh Shields recorded it in Antrim and Derry, and a version sung by Margaret Dunne of Bellanagh, Co Cavan can be heard on the European Ethnic cassette Early Ballads in Ireland 1968-1985.

It was fortunate that Keith recorded it, as Maggie rarely sings it nowadays. This version is not unlike that which was issued on 78 in the 1930s by Richard Heyward.

Fiddler's Dram (the future Oysterband) sang The Farmer's Cursed Wife on 1980 on their eponymous Dingle's album Fiddler's Dram.

Barry Dransfield sang Lily Bulero in 1994 on his CD Be Your Own Man. He noted:

I heard this from Joe Skeaping, a wonderful early music player, in a Mayfair restaurant in the seventies. The song has Celtic connections in the lyrics and is more usually heard from the Irish (The Devil and the Farmer's Wife). The tune is reckoned to have been William of Orange's marching tune as he came up from Cornwall.

Alan Reid sang Kellyburn Braes on the 1996 Linn anthology The Complete Songs of Robert Burns Volume 1.

Hector Gilchrist and Liz Thomson sang Kelly Burn Braes in 1996 on their WildGoose album The Lea Rig.

Roy Harris sang Lillibulero in 1997 on the extended CD reissue of his 1977 Fellside album of “life in the lower ranks 1750-1900 through soldiers' songs” The Rambling Soldier.

Martin Carthy sang The Devil and the Farmer in 2002 on Waterson:Carthy's fourth album, A Dark Light. He commented in the record's sleeve notes:

The Copper Family, Packie Manus Byrne, Séamus Ennis, Sam Larner, Almeda Riddle, Cecil Sharp and A.L. Lloyd, who, in this case, co-produced The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, were some of the people who had a profound effect on one or other of us at some stage in our musical lives, and, in part, this CD reflects that involvement. In the end all our choices wouldn't fit on to one balanced CD and there were glum faces at the end of the sessions. But, since everybody lost something, we ended up sort of happy.

For myself, there were two people in the late 1950s whose unforgettable wildly different performances—one at the Troubadour Folk Club in Earl's Court and the other at Ewan MacColl's Ballads and Blues Club in the upstairs room of a pub in the Edgware Road (the name of which I can't remember)—decided for me the musical direction which my life was going to take. That pub, close to the old Metropolitan Theatre, may lie buried along with that famous theatre under the flyover which leads on to the M40 westway, but the memory will never, ever fade. The people I'm talking about are Séamus Ennis, whose version of The Devil and the Farmer starts this CD off, and Sam Larner, whose mighty telling of the Henry Martin story in Lofty Tall Ship was probably the single moment that ensured—bewildered though I was by what I thought of at the time at its baffling tune—that this music would embed its hooks into me for life.

Brian Peters sang The Farmer's Curst Wife in 2008 on his album of Child ballads, Songs of Trial and Triumph.

Crucible sang The Devil and the Farmer's Wife in 2003 on their WildGoose album Changeling. They noted:

Our reworking of Child Ballad 278, The Farmer's Curst Wife. Jess [Arrowsmith] and Helena [Reynolds] found this one and liked it for the story, especially the sentiment in the final verse…

Cath & Phil Tyler sang the Devil Song on their 2008 CD Dumb Supper.

Jon Boden sang Lillibulero as the 19 May 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He also sang it in 2012 on Bellowhead's CD Broadside. and on their 2016 CD+DVD The Farewell Tour.

Hannah James and Sam Sweeney sang The Farmer's Cursed Wife in 2012 on their RootBeat CD State and Ancientry.

Kim Lowings sang sang Devil and the Ploughman on her 2012 CD This Life.

Jackie Oates sang The Devil and the Farmer's Wife on her 2015 CD The Spyglass & the Herringbone.

The Shackleton Trio sang The Devil and the Farmer's Wife on their 2016 CD The Dog Who Would Not Be Washed. They also sang it in the same year in the Netherlands Live at De Melkbus and in 2020 on their Live EP with Alden Patterson and Dashwood.

Compare to this the loosely related The Devil and the Feathery Wife sung my Martin Carthy on his album Out of the Cut. Both feature the farmer, his wife and the devil but the stories turn into quite different ways.

Lyrics

A.L. Lloyd sings The Devil and the Ploughman Waterson:Carthy sing The Devil and the Farmer

There was an old farmer in Sussex did dwell,
And he'd a bad wife as many knew well,
To me fal-de-ral little law-day.

Oh there was an old farmer in Sussex he dwelt,
He had an old wife he didn't love well,
With me whip fol day
Fol lickety dee folder ol dee.

The devil he come to the old man at plough,
Saying, “One of your family I must have now,”
To me fal-de-ral little law-day.

And the devil he came to the farmer at plough,
Say, “One of your family I got to have now,”
With me whip fol day
Fol lickety dee folder ol dee.

“Now it isn't for you nor yet for your son,
But that scolding old wife as you've got at home.”

“Oh see here, good farmer, I've come for your wife,
Ay, she's the bane and torment to your life.”

“Oh take her, oh take her with all of me heart,
And I wish she and you never more part.”

“Oh take her, oh take her with all of my heart,
I hope that you and she never shall part.”

So the devil he took the old wife on his back,
And lugged her along like a pedlar's pack.

So the devil he hoisted her up on his back,
Down to Hell he has gone with a crack.

He trudged along till he reached his front gate,
Says, “Here, take in an old Sussex chap's mate.”

 

There was thirteen imps all dancing in chains,
She up with her pattens and beat our their brains.

There were two little devils a-playing with chains,
She upped with her foot, she clattered their brains.

Well, two more little devils jumped over the wall,
Saying, “Turn her out, father, she'll murder us all.”

There were two little devils a-playing the ball,
“Oh take her away, father, she'll murder us all.”

So he bundled her up on his back again,
And to her old husband he took her again.

So the devil he hoisted her back on his back,
Down to the farmer he's come with a crack.

 

There were nine years going and one coming back,
Down to the farmer he's come with a crack.

“Well, I've been a tormentor the whole of me life,
But I was never tormented till I met your wife.”

“Oh I've been a tormentor for most of my life,
But I never knew how till I met with your wife.”

And now to conclude and make an end,
You see that the women is worse than the men:
If they get sent to hell, they get kicked back again,
To me fal-de-ral little law-day.

This shows up that women do better than men,
They go to hell and get sent back again.

Barry Dransfield sings Lily Bulero

There was an old Farmer in Sussex did dwell
  Lily Bulero bullen a lar
He had an old wife and she gave him hell
  Lily Bulero bullen a lar

Chorus (after each verse):
Lero, lero, Lily Bulero, lero, lero bullen a lar
Lero, lero, Lily Bulero, lero, lero bullen a lar

So the devil he came to him at the plough,
“I want your wife and I want her now.”

The devil he hoisted her upon on his hump
And down to hell with her did he jump.

Two little devils were playin' with chains;
She took up a stick and she knocked out their brains.

Two more devils looked over the wall,
They said, “Take her back or she'll murder us all.”

So the devil he put her back on his hump
And back to earth with her did he jump.

“Now I've been a devil the whole of my life
But I never know hell 'til I met your wife.”

Hobert Stallard sings The Devil and the Farmer

There was an old man went out to plow (whistle)
Seen the old devil come over the mount.

Chorus (after each verse):
Sing tie-a-rattle-ring-day

He sold his plow and he started to run (whistle)
Says, “The Devil's right after my oldest son.”

“It ain't your oldest son I crave (whistle)
It's your scolding wife and her I'll have.”

“Oh, take her, old devil, with all of your heart (whistle)
I hope you and her may never part.”

He got her up all on his back (whistle)
Like a jolly coal peddler came wagging his sack.

He took her in at Hell's back door (whistle)
Gave her a kick, says, “Go in there.”

Up stepped a little devil a-rattling his chains (whistle)
She upped with a shovel and she beat out his brains.

Nine little odd devils poking their heads over the wall (whistle)
Crying, “Take her back, Pappy, she's going to kill us all.”

He got her up all on his back (whistle)
Like a jolly coal peddler came wagging her back.

Well, her old husband so sick in bed (whistle)
With her old pewter pipe she beetled his head.

What to do with her, I cannot tell (whistle)
She ain't fit for hog heaven and just from Hell.

Walter Pardon sings The Devil and the Farmer's Wife

It’s of an old farmer as I’ve heard tell,
Had a wicked old wife and he wished her in Hell.

Chorus (after each verse):
With me titty-fa-lol, wack fol-the-fol, ×2
Titty-fol-laddle-dy, Titty-fol-lol.

The Devil he came to the old man at plough,
Saying, “I want your wife and I’ll take her now.”

“Oh, take my old woman with all my heart.
I hope you and she never will part.”

He shoved the old woman into a sack
And away he went with her slung on his back.

He tipped her out when he came to Hell’s gate,
Saying, “Here’s an old woman who’ll make me a mate.”

And all the young imps they raised up a din,
“Oh, take her away, she’ll do us all in.”

He shoved the old woman into a sack
And to the old farmer he took her straight back.

So ends the story and you’ll all agree
That women are worse than men ever could be.

Maggie Murphy sings Killyburn Brae

For there was an old man about Killyburn Brae,
     Right fol, right fol, tittie fol lay.
There was an old man about Killyburn Brae,
He'd a scolding old wife for the most of his day.
     With me right fol at all, tittie fol lall,
     Fol de lall, lall lall the dol lay.

One day this old man he walked out by the glen.
     Right fol, right fol, tittie fol lay.
One day this old man he walked out by the glen.
He met an old Devil saying, “How are you then?”
     With me right fol at all, tittie fol lall,
     Fol de lall, lall lall the dol lay.

Now says he, “My old man, I have come for your wife.”
Says he, “My old man, I have come for your wife,
For I hear she's the plague and torment of your life.”

So the Devil he hoisted her up on his back,
The Devil he hoisted her up on his back,
And away he went with the old dame into Hell.

For now that they land at the Devil's hall door,
For now that they land at the Devil's hall door,
He threw her right down with a slap on her face.

There were two little devils now playing at ball,
There were two little devils now playing at ball,
She leapt with her stick and she scattered their brains.

There were two little devils now, climbing a wall,
There were two little devils now, climbing a wall,
They said, “Take her away or she'll kill us all.”

So the Devil, he hoisted her up on his back,
The Devil he hoisted her up on his back,
Nine years going away; seven days coming back.

Now says he, “My old man, here's your wife safe and well.”
Says he, “My old man, here's your wife safe and well,
For we wouldn't keep her, not even in Hell.

“For I've been a Devil the most of my life.,
For I've been a Devil the most of my life,
But I've ne'er been in Hell 'til I met with your wife.”

So it's true that the women are worse than the men,
It's true that the women are worse than the men,
For, when they go down to Hell, they get threw out again.

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Add: The Devil and the Ploughman. The Wikipedia article Lillibullero has more information on William of Orange's marching tune and has completely different lyrics.