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Limbo

[ Roud 969 ; Ballad Index CrMa124 ; Wiltshire Roud 969 ; trad.]

Tony Rose sang Limbo in 1971 on his second album, Under the Greenwood Tree. He commented in his sleeve notes:

Limbo is one of those songs which everybody seems to have overlooked. Again it is fairly typical broadside material, but lifted above the normal standard by some realistically vivid phrases. After being forced to “gnaw his own nails” and “drink the cold waters of Limbo” it is not really surprising that Jack's revenge takes a most unchivalrous form. “Limbo” is the old nickname for the debtor's prison.

The little known group Bonded Boots sang Limbo in March 1972 live at the Stagfolk Folk Club at Shackleford Social Centre, near Godalming. This performance was included in the Stagfolk Live Folk album.

Dave Walters sang Limbo in 1977 on his Fellside album, Comes Sailing In. This track was also included in 2006 on Fellside's anniversary anthology, Landmarks: 30 Years of a Leading Folk Music Label.

Danny Spooner, accompanied by Mick Farrell, sang Limbo as the tittle track of their 1978 album Limbo. This track was also included in 2007 on his compilation Years of Spooner. He noted:

This is a bottler of a song to sing, and comes from the Hammond and Gardiner collection, which has been published in book form by the E.F.D.S.S. It's a good example of an 18th century broadside, some of which sold many thousand of copies throughout the British Isles. Limbo was a common name for the old debtor's prison, which was easy to get into but very difficult to get out of.

Martin Long sang Limbo in 1994 on his CD The Climbing Boy.

Eliza Carthy recorded Limbo in 2002 for her album Anglicana. On this track she is accompanied by Ben Ivitsky on guitar. She commented in her sleeve notes:

Thanks to Dad again for this one. It comes from a book called Marrow Bones put out by the EFDSS.

Eliza's dad Martin Carthy sang this two years later on Brass Monkey's fifth album Flame of Fire. He commented in the sleeve notes:

Limbo was the name given to the old debtor's prison and as a song it's about redemption. At least it is once you ditch the last verse where he kicks hell out of the two women who he thinks he must take all the blame for what is his very own stupidity. They are, after all, perfectly respectable whores and they sell their favours for money, don't they? His Money. No hard feelings. But he is perhaps entitled the small chuckle which—at their expense—he gets here.

Roberto Campo comments:

Limbo was the old debtors' prison in London. The song hasn't been widely found in tradition; the Roud Folk Song Index lists only four English sets, and one from Nova Scotia.

Ruth Notman recorded Limbo for her 2007 CD Threads.

This video shows Sevenoaks (Charlie Snooks, vocals; David Jordan, double bass; Mark Potts, Greek bouzouki) performing Limbo at the Eden Project, Cornwall, in April 2007:

Andy Turner learned Limbo from Frank Purslow's book Marrow Bones too and sang it as the February 11, 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Lyrics

Tony Rose sings Limbo Danny Spooner sings Limbo

I am a young lad and my fortune is bad,
What riches I had is all plundered;
I've spent all my money on girls and strong beer,
And if ever I get rich 't is a wonder.
It's field after field to market I sent
Till my land was all gone and my money all spent.
My heart was so hard I could never repent,
And 't was that what brought me to Limbo.

Well, I am a young lad and my fortune is sad
And if e'er I get rich 'tis a wonder.
For I spent all my money on girls and strong beer,
And what riches I gained are all plundered.
Field after field to the market I sent,
Till my land was all gone and my money all spent,
But my heart was so hard that I couldn't repent
And it's that which has led me to Limbo.

Oh once I could run whilst others did lie,
And strut like a crow in the gutter.
And the people all said as they saw me pass by,
“There goes Mr. Fop in a flutter.”
To the top and top-gallants I hoisted my sails,
With a fine rich cravat and a wig with three tails,
But now I am ready to gnaw my own nails,
And drink the cold water of Limbo.

Oh, once I did run while the others did lie
And I'd strut like a crow in the gutter,
And the people all said as they saw me pass by,
“Well, here comes Mr Fop in a flutter.”
From the top t'gallant I hoisted my sails,
Wi' a foppy old cravat and a wig wi' three tails,
And now I'm all ready to bite my own nails
And to taste the salt water of Limbo.

I had an old uncle, lived down in the West,
And when he heard of my sad disaster,
Poor soul! After that he could ne'er take a rest,
And his troubles came faster and faster.
He came to the gaol for to view my sad case,
And as soon as I saw him I knew his old face.
I stood gazing on him like one in amaze
And wished myself safe out of Limbo.

Well I got an old uncle and he lived in the west
And he heard of my sad disaster.
When he heard, the poor soul, he could not find no rest
And his sorrows came faster and faster.
Well, he came to the jail for to see my sad case,
And as soon as I saw him I knew his old face.
I stood and I looked just like one in amaze
And I wished myself safe out of Limbo.

“Oh Jack, if I set you once more on your legs
And put you in credit and fashion,
It's will you leave off of these old rakish ways
And try for to govern your passion?”
“Yes Uncle,” says I, “if you will set me free,
I surely will always be ruled by thee.
And I'll labour my bones for the good of my soul
And pay them for laying me in Limbo.”

He said, “John, if I set you once more on your legs
And I put you in credit and fashion,
Will you promise to knock off your rakish old ways
And to keep for to govern your passion?”
“Oh, uncle,” said I, “If you do set me free,
Well, I promise, I'll always be ruled by thee.
And I'll labour my bones for the good of my soul,
And I'll pay 'em for laying me in Limbo.”

He pulled out his purse with three thousand pounds
And counted it out in bright guineas,
And when I was free from the old prison gates
I went to see Peggy and Jeannie.
In my ragged old clothes they knew none of my gold
And they threw me all out in the wet and the cold.
You'd a-laughed out to see how those hussies did scold,
And jaw me for laying in Limbo.

So he took out his purse with three thousand in gold
And he counted it out in bright guineas,
And as soon I had got me the right side of jail
I went to see Kitty and Jeannie.
Well in my old rags they knew not of my gold,
They threw me outside in the rain and the cold.
You'd have laughed for to hear how those hussies did scold
And they jawed me for laying in Limbo.

I hadn't been there for a very long time
When my pockets they fell a-picking,
I banged them as long as my cane I could hold
Until they fell coughing and kicking.
Then one cried out “Murder!”, the other did scold;
I banged them as long as my cane I could hold.
I banged their old bodies for the good of their soul
And paid them for laying me in Limbo.

But I'd only been there but a very short time
Till me pockets they soon fell to picking.
But I banged ‘em as long as my cane I could hold,
Until they started kicking and screaming.
And one shouted, “Murder”, the other did scold,
But I banged ‘em as long as my stick I could hold,
Yes, I laboured their bones for the good of their souls
And I paid ‘em for laying me in Limbo.

Eliza Carthy sings LimboMartin Carthy sings Limbo

I am a brisk lad and my fortune is bad,
And if e'er I get rich it's a wonder,
I've spent all my money on girls and strong beer,
What riches I had are all plundered.
Field after field off to market I sent,
Till the land was all gone and the money was spent,
My heart was so hard that I never did repent,
And that's what put me into Limbo.

I am a brisk lad and my fortune is sad,
And if ever I get rich it's a wonder,
Spent all my money on the women and beer,
What riches I had are all squandered.
Field after field into market I sent,
Till the land were all gone and the money all spent,
My heart was so hard I could never repent,
And was that what brought me into Limbo.

Oh once I could run while the others did lie,
Strut like a crow in the gutter,
The people all said that saw me passing by,
There goes Mr. Fop in a flutter;
To the top and top-gallant I hoisted my sails,
With a flimsy cravat and a wig with three tails,
Oh, now I am ready to gnaw my own nails,
Drink the cold water of Limbo.

Once I could run where the others did lie,
Strut like a crow in the gutter,
Girls would all cry as they saw me pass by,
There goes Master Fop in a flutter;
From the top to top-gallant I hoisted my sails,
I'd a fine French cravat, I'd a wig with three tails,
Now I am ready to gnaw my own nails,
And drink the cold water of Limbo.

Oh I had an Uncle, he lived in the West,
And he heard of my sad disaster,
Poor soul! After that he could never take rest,
Oh, his sorrows came faster and faster;
He came to the gaol to see my sad case,
And as soon as I saw him I knew his old face,
And I stood gazing at him like one in disgrace,
And I wished myself safe out of Limbo.

I had an old Uncle, lived down in the West,
And he heard of my sad disaster,
Poor soul! After that he could never take rest,
His troubles grew faster and faster;
He came to the gaol and he saw my sad case,
Soon as I saw him I knew his old face,
I stood and gazed on him like one in amaze,
Wished I was miles out of Limbo.

Jack, if I should set you once more on your legs,
And put you in credit and fashion,
Oh! will you lay off all those rakish old ways,
Try for to govern your passion?
Oh Uncle, says I, if you will set me free,
I surely will always be ruled by thee,
And I'll labour my bones for the good of my soul,
See myself miles out of Limbo.

Oh son, if I set you once more on your pegs,
And put you in credit and fashion,
Will you resolve, leave off your old ways,
And try for to govern your passion?
Oh Uncle, says I, if you will set me free,
I promise, I'll always be ruled by thee,
I'll labour my body for the good of my soul,
On the day I get outside of Limbo.

Then out of his purse he pulled three thousand pounds,
He counted it up in bright guineas,
And when I was free of those prison's gates,
Oh, I went to see Peggy and Jeannie;
In my old ragged clothes they knew naught of my gold,
And they all turned me out in the wet and the cold,
You'd a-laughed for to hear how those hussies did scold,
The night they let me out of Limbo.

He took out his money, there were three thousand pounds,
And counted it out in bright guineas,
Soon as the money he'd laid down
I'd went round to see Molly and Jeannie;
In my old ragged clothes they knew naught of my gold,
They tossed me all out in the wet and the cold,
You'd a-laughed if you'd heard how those hussies did scold,
How they jawed me for lie if in Limbo
On the morning I stepped out of Limbo.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Roberto Campo who transcribed the lyrics with the help of some Mudcatters. Thanks to them too, of course!