> Nic Jones > Songs > Boys of Bedlam
> Steeleye Span > Songs > Boys of Bedlam

Boys of Bedlam / Tom of Bedlam

[ Roud V16366 ; Ballad Index Log172 ; DT BEDLMBOY ; Mudcat 112465 , 126639 ; words trad., music Dave Moran, Nic Jones]

This song is originally from Thomas d’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy, published 1720, where it had the title Mad Maudlin’s Search for Her Tom of Bedlam. It was in the repertoire of The Halliard at the end of the 1960’s with a tune that was “mostly the work of the Halliard’s Dave Moran with some small input from Nic Jones” (according to Julia Jones). However, they didn’t record it until 2005 for their songbook and CD Broadside Songs.

Tom Gilfellon sang Mad Tom of Bedlam in 1972 as the title track of his Leader album Loving Mad Tom. He noted:

Interest in Bedlamite songs and poems seems to wax and wane with the centuries. My personal views of the bizarre do not include the verses of this song as too outre. Rather do I see the incongruity of greed and political ambition. Bedlam may be no more but we can console ourselves with the thought that we still have the Houses of Parliament. For those with any more than a passing interest I might direct them to Jack Linsay’s book Loving Mad Tom. The tune is by Nic Jones and Dave Moran, so the legend goes! Good on yer Nic and Dave.

Steeleye Span learned Boys of Bedlam from The Halliard via the Farriers and Tom Gilfellon. They recorded it in 1971 for their album Please to See the King, and this track was later included on the Martin Carthy anthology, The Carthy Chronicles. Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior share vocals, starting singing into the back of a banjo like a primitive echo-chamber and set against simple percussion. The second verse adds Ashley Hutchings’ bass like a bell tolling. For the third track, the rhythm picks up to a jolly pace and Martin sings solo with Maddy joining in the chorus. The album’s sleeve notes commented:

The priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem at Bishopsgate founded in 1247 became the male lunatic asylum known as Bethlehem Hospital or Bedlam in 1547. In 1815 it was moved to Lambeth in the buildings now housing the Imperial War Museum and in 1931 was moved to Beckenham in Kent. The hospital of St. Mary Magdalen [pronounced Maudlin] was its female counterpart. During the 16th and 17th centuries the man in the moon was depicted as a bent old man with a staff, leading a dog, carrying a thorn bush and lantern.

Maddy Prior recorded Boys of Bedlam again in 1993 for her album Year. A live version recorded during her 1994 tour was released on the 1997 Park Records sampler Park Taster. Maddy wrote in the Year sleeve notes:

Bedlam was the popular name given to Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane. This lyric, set to music by Nic Jones and Dave Moran, has a certain Brechtian quality and is certainly one of the most grotesque and alarming images of madness that I know.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand sang Tom of Bedlam in 1977 on their Folk-Legacy album of ballads of the supernatural, Dark Ships in the Forest. They noted:

More properly titled Mad Maudlin’s Search for Her Tom of Bedlam, this song does not seem to have had much currency in the tradition. It has been dug up from print and was popularised by Tom Gilfellon of the High Level Ranters.

Strawhead sang Mad Maudlin in 1980 on their Traditional Sound album Songs From the Book of England.

Seannachie sang Boys of Bedlam on their 1986 album Within the Fire.

Martin and Jessica Simpson sang Bedlam Boys in 1987 on their Topic album True Dare or Promise.

Marilyn Middleton Pollock sang Bedlam Boys in 1988 on her Fellside album Nobody Knows You.

Old Blind Dogs sang Bedlam Boys in 1992 on their CD New Tricks, in 1999 on their Live CD and in 2007 on their CD Four on the Floor. Iain Clavey noted on the first album:

We learned Bedlam Boys from the singing of ‘Mizz Izzie’ Swanson of Aberdeen who was kind enough to supply us with the words after being plied with cider.

The Claque sang Tom of Bedlam in 2008 on their WildGoose CD Sounding Now. They noted:

Tom of Bedlam is a grand and image laden song in which the hero declares his fantastic experiences along the way of life and wonders why he’s incarcerated in such a place. A diagnosis of bi-polarity in a big way! From the singing of the great Dave Stephenson of The Songwainers.

Heidi Talbot sang Bedlam Boys on the 2010 anthology Folk Against Fascism.

Jeana Leslie and Siobhan Miller sang Mad Tom of Bedlam in 2010 on their Greentrax CD In a Bleeze. This video shows them at Studio 55 Marin in San Rafael, Marin County, California, on 23 June 2013:

GreenMatthews sang Bedlam Boys on their 2013 CD A Brief History of Music 1260-1915.

Stick in the Wheel sang Bedlam both on their 2014 EP Bones and on their 2015 CD From Here.

Steeleye Span returned to Boy of Bedlam in 2016 on their CD Dodgy Bastards. They noted:

A celebrated Steeleye favourite. It has had many incarnations over the years by many other artists as well. This version has a spoken word interlude actually written as a rap by Maddy [Prior] and Rick [Kemp]’s son, Alex Kemp. The original libretto was full-on rap with the requisite and opposite profanities that are integrated to that genre. However, not being a ‘proper’ rapper, Julian [Littman] felt that maybe he wouldn’t carry off the cussing as well as Alex so he made more of a spoken word piece without it […] and thanks to Alex’s imagery and turn of phrase it feels just as powerful.

The words are traditional but Nic Jones and Dave Moran wrote the tune.


Steeleye Span sing Boys of Bedlam

For to see mad Tom of Bedlam
Ten thousand miles I’d travel
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
For to save her shoes from gravel

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Still I sing: bonnie boys, bonnie mad boys
Bedlam boys are bonnie,
For they all go bare and they live by the air
And they want no drink nor money

I went down to Satan’s kitchen
For to get me food one morning
And there I got souls piping hot
All on the spit a-turning

My staff has murdered giants
And my bag a long knife carries
For to cut mince pies from children’s thighs
With which to feed the fairies

This spirit’s white as lightning
Would on me travels guide me
The moon would shake and the stars would quake
When ever they espied me

And when that I have murdered
The man in the moon to a powder
His staff I’ll break and his dog I’ll shake
And there’ll howl no demon louder

For to see mad Tom of Bedlam
Ten thousand years I’d travel
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
For to save her shoes from gravel

Roberts & Barrand sing Tom of Bedlam

To find my Tom of Bedlam
Ten thousand years I’ll travel,
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
To save her shoes from gravel.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Still I sing: Bonny boys, bonny mad boys,
Bedlam boys are bonny,
For they all go bare and they live by the air,
And they want no drink nor money.

I now repent that ever
Poor Tom was so disdained,
My wits are lost since him I crossed,
Which makes me thus go chained.

I went to Pluto’s kitchen
To beg some food one morning,
And there I got souls piping hot,
All on the spit a-turning.

There I took up a cauldron,
Where boiled ten thousand harlots,
Though full of flame I drank the same,
To the health of all such varlets.

My staff has murdered giants,
My bag a long knife carries,
For to cut mince pies from children’s thighs,
With which to feed the fairies.

A spirit hot as lightning
Did on that journey guide me,
The sun did shake and the pale moon quake,
As soon as e’er they spied me.

No gypsy, slut, or doxy
Shall win my Mad Tom from me,
I’ll weep all night, with stars I’ll fight,
The fray shall well become me.

So drink to Tom of Bedlam,
Go fill the seas in barrels,
I’ll drink it all, well brewed with gall,
And Maudlin drunk I’ll quarrel.