Friday, September 30, 2011

The "False-Parted" woman in "comic" ballads

A BURGLAR'S EXPERIENCE WITH AN OLD MAID (Transcribed by Jim Dixon, and posted to the Mudcat Forum May 3, 2011 (with additional transcription by myself); from a YouTube video posted by "MusicBoxBoy" April 5, 2010)

Announced: "Comic Song entitled "A Burglar's experience with an Old Maid," as Sung by Mr. John Terrell -- Zonophone Record"

(Piano introduction)
I'll sing you a song of a burglar chap
    who went out to rob a house.
He lifted a window and then he crawled in,
    as quiet as a mouse.
He looked for a place for to hide himself,
    till all the folk were asleep,
And then says he, "With all the money I see,
    I'll take a quiet peep."
So under the bed the burglar crept
    and hid himself close to the wall.
He never once thought 'twas an old maid's room
    or he never would have had the gall.
He thought of all the money he'd get,
    as under the bed he lay.
About nine that night, oh, he saw such a sight!
    In an hour his hair had turned gray.

(Piano Interlude)
It was just nine o'clock the old maiden came in.
    "Oh, dear! I'm so tired," she said,
And thinking that night of course all would be right,
    she never looked under the bed.
She pulled out her teeth and her big glass eye
    and all of the hair off her head.
The burglar had seventeen athletic fits
    as he looked out from under the bed.
He thought of a chance that he'd get away;
    which thought was a total wreck.
The fussy old maid was wide awake
    and she collared this jag by the neck.
She never once hollered or screamed worth a cent,
    but stood there as cool as a clam
And murmured, "My prayer has been answered at last!
    Thank heavens! They've sent me a man!"

And the band played Annie Laurie, and Annie Rooney too,
And the band played anybody, for any old thing would do.

According to folksong researcher Steve Gardham, ballads about the "false-parted women," who undress to get ready for bed and keep going after they've removed their clothes (much to the horror of a male witness), can be traced back to the ballad The Ladies of Hyde Park, which was printed as a Broadside in 1660. The ballad tells the story of a young man who (in our modern vernacular) is looking to "hook up" with one of the fashionable women of Hyde Park. He settles on one in particular, chats her up until dark, and upon walking her home, pressures her into letting him spend the night (Stanza 7 opens with: With many denials she yielded at last, / Her chamber being wondrous privee.); stanzas 10 and 11 have this willing suitor being more successful in his escape than the accidental bridegroom in "A Burglar's Experience":

(Quote) I peept, and was still more perplex'd therewith;
        Thought I, “Tho't be midnight I'le leave thee;
She fetcht a yawn, and out fell her teeth,
        This quean had intents to deceive me;
She drew out her handkerchief, as I suppose,
To wipe her high fore-head, and off dropt her nose
, Which made me run quickly and put on my hose,
        “The Devil is in my Tan-tivee!”

She washt all the paint from her visage, and then
        She look'd just (if you will believe me)
Like a Lancashire Witch of four-score and ten,
        And as if the devil did drive me
I put on my cloathes and cry'd, “Witches and whores!”
I tumbl'd down stairs, broke open the doors,
And down to my country again to my Boors
        Next morning I rid Tan-tivee.'

In this root version of the song, the link between physical deformity and the supernatural is explicitly made. But over the subsequent generations this element of the story was gradually dropped -- at least on a conscious level. As Steve Gardham told me, in a correspondance about these songs:

(Quote) Whereas we now wallow in the supernatural in folk arts before this became popular with the middle classes the common people were laughed at for their old superstitions. In the 16th/17th centuries having a supernatural element was a strong selling point for the ballad, but as literacy spread and beliefs changed, realism became more popular. (Unquote)

However, even though all explicit mention of the supernatural is gone by the time of the 20th Century recording, the implication is still there, with the mere sight of the ugly "old maiden" causing a man to have "athletic fits" and turning his hair grey.

The glib and sarcastic summary of this song could be, I suppose: "The one with the monster in the bed, and the person hiding underneath." Although in this case, attitudes toward the role of the disabled in society are overlaid with attitudes toward the role of women in society. The old maid's aggression in acquiring "her man" is the turning point of this "comic song's" punchline, as it inverts the melodramatic trope of the innocent maiden fleeing the sexual advances of a predatory man.

I don't have any ideas about this latter point, beyond some foggy, half-formed notions. But I'm beginning to think that attitudes about Womanhood and attitudes about Disability intersect and collide with each other in some very profound ways... Something to do with the nature of bodies and "What Bodies are Good For," perhaps.

Links and additional information:
A Burglar's experience with an Old Maid -- YouTube Video (the whole video is 5 minutes, 58 seconds long; the recording starts playing at 2 minutes, 7 seconds, and stops at 4 minutes, 20 seconds -- the rest is display of the phonograph machine and period music catalogs)

Lyr Req: The Old Maid and the Burglar: A discussion thread at, where several versions of this song are posted and discussed.

False Parts theme: an essay on the ballad and its evolution between 1660 and 1947

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