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The Bonny Labouring Boy

[ Roud 1162 ; Master title: The Bonny Labouring Boy ; Laws M14 ; Henry H576 ; Ballad Index LM14 ; Bodleian Roud 1162 ; GlosTrad Roud 1162 ; Wiltshire 76 ; DT BABORBOY , LABORBO2 ; Mudcat 3563 ; trad.]

Paddy Beades sang The Bonny Labouring Boy accompanied on fiddle and piano accordion in a recording studio in Dublin on 25 March 1946. This recording was originally released on a 78 rpm disc on the Regal Zonophone label. It was also included in 1998 on the Topic anthology Come All My Lads That Follow the Plough (The Voice of the People Series Volume 5).

Harry Cox of Catfield, Norfolk, sang The Bonny Labouring Boy in 1953 to Peter Kennedy who printed it in his book Folksongs of Britain and Ireland (Cassell, 1975). Another recording made by Charles Parker and Ewan MacColl in the mid-1960s is the title track of Harry Cox’s double CD set issued on the Topic label in 2000, The Bonny Labouring Boy: Traditional Songs and Tunes From a Norfolk Farm Worker. It was also included in 2009 on Topic’s 70th anniversary compilation Three Score and Ten.

Shirley Collins recorded The Bonny Labouring Boy several times. Two BBC archive recordings made by Alan Lomax on 20 October 1957 (one unaccompanied, one accompanied by herself on banjo) were released on the occasion of her 80th birthday in July 2015 on the 7" EP The Bonny Cuckoo. She also recorded this song in 1959 for her first LP, Sweet England. A live performance recorded in Dublin in 1978 was published on the three albums, Harking Back (1998), Snapshots (2006), and Within Sound (2002). The latter anthology also contains her 1957 London recording mentioned above.

Shirley Collins also sang The Bonny Labouring Boy at the end of the National Theatre’s play Lark Rise, as shown in this except of a 1979 BBC TV documentary of Ashley Hutchings and the Albion Band:

Sadly this song didn’t find its way on the Lark Rise to Candleford album. However, in 2008 the Lark Rise Band re-recorded it with Ruth Angell singing for the CD Lark Rise Revisited.

Derek Sarjeant sang The Bonny Labouring Boy in 1970 on his album Derek Sarjeant Sings English Folk. The album’s sleeve noted:

This old song enjoyed great popularity around the turn of the century, but Derek says he first heard it sung on the BBC “Country Magazine” radio programme a few years ago.

Bob Blake sang The Bonny Labouring Boy in a recording made by Mike Yates in 1972-75. It was included in 1975 on the Topic anthology of traditional songs from Sussex, Sussex Harvest and in 2004 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs and tunes from the Mike Yates Collection, The Birds Upon the Tree.

Sinéad Caher sang Bonny Labouring Boy in 1978 on her Mulligan album Flower of Magherally. Cathal O Boyle noted:

This is the simplest type of love song combined with a lovely tune, rather like P.W. Joyce’s Irish Girl, but with a delightful upward turn at the end of the third line to carry it through to the last line as one piece.

Tony Harvey sang The Bonny Labouring Boy on the Veteran cassette Songs Sung in Suffolk Volume 3 (ca. 1987-89). This recording by John Howson was also included in 2000 on the Veteran anthology CD Songs Sung in Suffolk.

Jeff Wesley sang The Bonny Labouring Boy in another recording made by John Howson at Whittlebury, Northamptonshire, in 1989. It was published on Wesley’s Veteran cassette Brisk and Bonny Lad and it was also included in 2001 on the Veteran anthology CD Down in the Fields The liner notes commented:

Many folk songs from the early 19th century had the theme of the ploughboy who falls in love with the rich man’s daughter and is subsequently pressed to sea by the girl’s outraged father. In its day The Bonny Labouring Boy was printed on many ballad sheets, enjoying great popularity. In the 20th century it occurred in the oral tradition in many areas of the country and has been recorded frequently. Probably the best known East Anglian version is that sung by Harry Cox.

Martin Hall sang The Bonny Labouring Boy in 1992 on his Fellside cassette Ringing the Changes. He commented:

From the fine singing of Donal Maguire, a story of classless love.

Gwilym Davies recorded Harry Driscoll singing The Bonny Labouring Boy on 27 October 1993 in Dulwich, London. This recording was included in 2008 on his anthology Wild, Wild Berry. He commented in the liner notes:

Ray could not remember where he obtained this version and had to be helped out with the words. It may stem from a commercial recording of Harry Cox.

Gay Woods sang this song as Bonny Irish Boy in 1998 on Steeleye Span’s album Horkstow Grange.

Lynne Heraud and Pat Turner sang Bonny Labouring Boy in 2004 on their WildGoose CD The Moon Shines Bright. They noted:

Just to prove that nothing changes girls are still being locked in their bedrooms!

Emily Smith sang The Bonny Labouring Boy in 2005 on her CD A Different Life. She commented in her liner notes:

I first heard this song on Donal Maguire’s album The Clergy’s Lamentation. I loved the melody and it’s become one of my favourite songs to sing.

Jackie Oates recorded The Bonny Labouring Boy in 2008 for her second CD, The Violet Hour. This video shows her with Wistman’s Wood at Loughborough Folk Festival 2008:

Jane and Amanda Threlfall sang Bonny Labouring Boy on their 2008 CD Sweet Nightingale. They noted:

What’s wrong with talking the whole thing through round the kitchen table? Mum and Dad have no influence over this young lady and it’s a good thing, too, when you consider that they’d taken to spying behind bushes while plotting to sabotage their daughter’s relationship. They must have been the original odd couple.

Shirley Collins sings this song on her first album Sweet England (1959), learnt from her own family. Referred to by many as being the classic English folksong, it was very popular in the southern counties of England and also in Northern Ireland.

The final verse, offering drinks all round, is from the version sung by Harry Cox of Catfield, Norfolk, recorded by Peter Kennedy in 1953. It appears in Folksongs of Britain and Ireland (Kennedy / Folktracks and Soundpost Publications, 1975), edited by Peter Kennedy—also published in paperback by Oak Publications in 1984.

Bryony Griffith sang this song as Bonny Boy in 2010 on the Demon Barbers’ CD The Adventures of Captain Ward. Their source is Frank Purslow’s book Marrow Bones.

Nuala Kennedy sang My Bonny Labouring Boy in 2012 on her Compass CD Noble Stranger. She noted:

This is a common theme in traditional songs; of love across classes, with a melody reminiscent of, but probably predating, the better known Lakes of Pontchartrain. My version stems from a combination of the version in Colm O Lochlainn’s Irish Street Ballads, and of the singing of my friend and musical mentor Cathal McConnell.

Chris Sarjeant sang Bonny Labouring Boy in 2012 on his WildGoose CD Heirlooms. He noted in his liner notes that “This version was learnt orally by my father [Derek Sarjeant] one night at Chichester Folk Club.”

Andy Turner learned The Bonny Labouring Boy from Peter Kennedy’s book and sang it as the 11 May 2013 entry of his blog A Folk Song a Week.

Nick Dow sang The Bonny Labouring Boy, on his 2016 album The Devil in the Chest. He noted:

Another Irish Street Ballad. The tune has been used for differing songs over the years but suits The Bonny Labouring Boy exactly. Colm O Lochlain learned it “From a ballad singer in Waterford 1910” and published it in his first collection [Irish Street Ballads].

Fi Fraser recorded The Bonny Labouring Boy, “a beautiful song from Harry Cox”, with The Old Fashioned for their 2016 No Masters CD Strawberry Leaves.

Belinda Kempster and Fran Foote sang Bonny Labouring Boy on their 2019 CD On Clay Hill.


Shirley Collins sings The Bonny Labouring Boy

As I roved out one May morning all in the blooming spring,
I overheard a maid complain and grievous did she sing.
How cruel were her parents; they did her so annoy,
For they would not let her marry her bonny labouring boy.

Now Johnny was her true love’s name as you may plainly see
Her parents they employed him their labouring boy to be;
To plough the soil and reap and mow upon her father’s land
And she did fall in love with him as you may understand.

They courted for a twelve-month long but little did they know
That both their cruel parents did plan their overthrow.
They watched them close one evening down by some shady grove
And heard them pledge each other in the constant bond of love.

Her father he strode up to her and took her by the hand;
He vowed he’d send young Johnny unto some foreign land.
But boldly made she answer which did them so annoy:
“It’s single I shall always be for my bonny labouring boy.”

“His hair is like the raven’s wing, his eyes are black as chit,
His face it is the finest that ever I’ve seen yet,
He’s manly, neat and handsome, his cheeks are like the snow,
And in spite of both my parents with Johnny I will go,
“Oh, my bonny labouring boy.”

Steeleye Span sing Bonny Irish Boy

As I roved out one morning all in the blooming spring
I overheard a damsel most grievously sing,
Saying, cruel were my parents who did me sore annoy,
They would not let me tarry with my bonny Irish boy.

His hair is like the chestnut brown, his eyes as black as sloes;
He is meek in his behaviour wherever that he goes;
He is well-sized, both neat and wise, like a maiden’s chastity.
If I had my will I would be still in my love’s company.

If I had all the riches now that great men have in store,
’Tis freely I’d bestow them on the man that I adore;
His beauty so entangled me I never can deny.
In the arms of my labouring boy I mean to live and die.

The Demon Barbers sing Bonny Boy

As I walked out one morning all in the blooming spring,
I heard a lovely maid complain, and sadly did she sing;
Saying, “Cruel were my parents, they did me so annoy,
They would not let me marry with my bonny labouring boy.”

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Bonny boy, bonny boy, bonny boy

My father came up to me and he took me by the hand
He swore he’d send young Johnny unto some foreign land.
He locked me in my chamber, my comforts to annoy
And he left me there to weep and mourn my bonny labouring boy.

My mother came up to me and these words to me did say:
“Your father has intended to appoint your wedding day.”
But nothing did I say to her not did I complain
But until I wed my labouring boy single I’ll remain.

His cheeks are like the roses, his eyes as black as sloes,
He smiles and he is merry wherever my love goes.
He’s manly, neat and handsome with his skin as white as snow
But because of my cruel parents with him I cannot go.