18th Century Song, guest post by erAto

It’s always lovely to welcome guests to All Things Georgian and today I’m welcoming back the author, erAto who writes historic 18th century fiction, who will share with us information about 18th century songs.

My Exenchester Series is a dark and lurid take on the Georgian Era. In a world inspired by Old Bailey transcripts and by unusual authors like Thomas de Quincey, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the Marquis de Sade, sex, crime and death are lurking everywhere.

 The series consists of two novels and a short story. Within their haunting plotlines there is also a connection to another topic of 18th century interest: popular music. Some might think that this is an odd combination — gritty gothic noir and Georgian era songs — but let us take a look at the music of the Exenchester series and see how this all aligns.

STEPS OF THE MALEFACTOR & DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN

Gothic horror meets splatterpunk in Steps of the Malefactor. Giving the backstory of Francis Exenchester via his relationship with footman William Roxby, these two young men find themselves caught up in a “knot” of sex offenders. During what is likely the story’s most brutal scene, one character, Blore, spontaneously bursts into song: Down Among the Dead Men.

Here’s a health to the King and a lasting peace

To faction an end, to wealth increase.

Come, let us drink it while we have breath,

For there’s no drinking after death.

And he that will this health deny,

Down among the dead men, down among the dead men,

Down, down, down, down;

Down among the dead men let him lie!

Let charming beauty’s health go round,

With whom celestial joys are found.

And may confusion yet pursue,

That selfish woman-hating crew.

And he who’d woman’s health deny,

Down among the dead men, down among the dead men,

Down, down, down, down;

Down among the dead men let him lie!

In smiling Bacchus’ joys I’ll roll,

Deny no pleasure to my soul.

Let Bacchus’ health round briskly move,

For Bacchus is a friend to Love;

And they that would this health deny,

Down among the dead men, down among the dead men,

Down, down, down, down;

Down among the dead men let him lie!

May love and wine their rights maintain,

And their united pleasures reign.

While Bacchus’ treasure crowns the board,

We’ll sing the joy that both afford.

And they that won’t with us comply,

Down among the dead men, down among the dead men,

Down, down, down, down;

Down among the dead men let them lie!

Charles Mackay, in his collection of English folk songs, notes that this song’s composition is attributed to a “Mr. Dyer” (posited by some to be John Dyer) and said to have been first performed at the theatre at Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields.

The first publication is said to be from 1728 in a book called The Dancing Master, though it also appears in a slightly different, crasser form, in Scottish author Allan Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany around the same time.

A circa 1740 broadside has yet another variant, and even crasser than Ramsay’s. The nature of folk songs means the tunes and lyrics are a bit unstable, for there was a time when one couldn’t rely on a recording to play the song back identically ad infinitum.

These old folk tunes tended to be communicated orally; and the transmission relies on the memory of the performer and on said performer’s own artistic take on the song. So it was that popular songs lived and mutated as they were passed along.

Best known as a drinking song, ‘Down Among the Dead Men’ has an implication in its lyrics of a person who is “dead drunk” — and this sometimes guessed to be the meaning of the “dead men” in the song.

Nevertheless, the patriotic note to the lyrics does suggest real animosity may be intended towards those who won’t drink to the King and Queen. It actually has a feel of the 17th century “Rump Songs” about it, and if it was already being collected by Ramsay as a folk song in the 1720s, the John Dyer attribution seems unlikely (or at least, it was not by the famous John Dyer who was born in 1699).

The appearance of this song in Steps of the Malefactor was actually my own tribute to David Lynch and his disturbing use of popular songs in the movie Blue Velvet. Certain verses in particular seemed appropriate to the characters in the story, and to their evil intentions, particularly when removed from context.

MOLLY BRAZEN & YOUTH’S THE SEASON MADE FOR JOYS

In the mirthful drama Molly Brazen, Annabelle the sex worker is baffled by the behavior and appearance of her young client, who seems to not actually want to have any sex; and as she interrogates him to discover his reasons why, his answers just get weirder and weirder.

The story was written as a promo piece for The Virgin and the Bull, but hints at many events from the then-to-be-written Steps of the Malefactor.

Technically, Molly Brazen contains no songs. However, the title of the story is reference to a sex worker character from The Beggar’s Opera, as well as a play on the old word for a homosexual (strictly speaking, molly is the 18th century equivalent of sissy).

In The Beggar’s Opera, there is only one song in which Molly Brazen would have participated: Youth’s the Season Made for Joys.

Youth’s the season made for joys,

Love is then our duty;

She alone who that employs,

Well deserves her beauty.

Let’s be gay,

While we may,

Beauty’s a flower despis’d in decay.

Let us drink and sport to-day,

Ours is not tomorrow.

Love with youth flies swift away,

Age is nought but sorrow.

Dance and sing,

Time’s on the wing,

Life never knows the return of spring.

As with all songs from The Beggar’s Opera, author John Gay wrote the lyrics himself, but set them to an existing melody. In this case the song used was merely called “cotillion” — perhaps just an instrumental dance piece for which he created words. In the surrounding dialogue it’s referred to as a “French tune.”

The setting for this performance in The Beggar’s Opera is in a whorehouse, as is too the entire story Molly Brazen. There is consequently a bit of irony in its verses on fleeting love and hurrying to “drink and sport” as, like waiters at a restaurant table, the whores surely want to move along to their next client. 

THE VIRGIN AND THE BULL & SWEET WILLIAM

Though a man of science, hero Charles Macgregor shows a great interest in poetry and literature, which proves to be what binds him to the gorgeous but troublesome Constance Fawkes. The tragic noir romance of The Virgin and the Bull opens with Macgregor’s suicide note, in which he quotes some lines from a song that is stuck in his head as he prepares himself for death.

Macgregor’s tune is a version of a song known variously as Sweet William, Sweet William’s Ghost, Lady Margaret, My Willie-O, Lament of the Border Widow, or simply nowadays as Child Ballad 77.

Francis James Child has seven versions of Sweet William in his original collection of popular ballads (of which it is the 77th entry). Some versions of this song are more or less cheerful in content, some have a more or less Scottish dialect to them, some are longer or shorter, some particular details get changed, but there is typically something consistent enough to make it a recognizable version of a single song. The Sweet William songs involve a woman (often called Margaret) receiving a visit from the ghost of her lover (usually called William or Willie) who has died while away from her. William’s promise to marry Margaret has gone unfulfilled, and he either wishes to fulfil the promise or be freed from it, so he may rest in peace.

Child’s oldest version of the ballad dates to 1740, via a later edition of Allan Ramsay’s Tea Table Miscellany.

However, in Child’s introduction he speculates it’s a variant of a song he can trace to 17th century in Scandinavian sources. The Virgin and the Bull’s Charles Macgregor uses a version similar to that found in Jamieson’s Popular Ballads of 1806 (though in which version the tragic hero is named “Clerk Saunders”).

When seven years were come and gane,

Lady Margaret she thought lang;

And she is up to the hichest tower,

By the lee licht o the moon.

She was lookin oer her castle high,

To see what she might fa,

And there she saw a grieved ghost,

Comin waukin oer the wa.

‘O are ye a man of mean,’ she says,

‘Seekin ony o my meat?

Or are you a rank robber,

Come in my bower to break?’

‘O I’m Clerk Saunders, your true-love,

Behold, Margaret, and see,

And mind, for a’ your meikle pride,

Sae will become of thee.’

‘Gin ye be Clerk Saunders, my true-love,

This meikle marvels me;

O wherein is your bonny arms,

That wont to embrace me?’

‘By worms they’re eaten, in mools they’re rotten,

Behold, Margaret, and see,

And mind, for a’ your mickle pride,

Sae will become o thee.’

‘O, bonny, bonny sang the bird,

Sat on the coil o hay;

But dowie, dowie was the maid

That followd the corpse o clay.

‘Is there ony room at your head, Saunders?

Is there ony room at your feet?

Is there ony room at your twa sides,

For a lady to lie and sleep?’

‘There is nae room at my head, Margaret,

As little at my feet;

There is nae room at my twa sides,

For a lady to lie and sleep.

‘But gae hame, gae hame now, May Margaret,

Gae hame and sew your seam;

For if ye were laid in your weel made bed,

Your days will nae be lang.’

In my book, Macgregor, of course, is feeling many of the song’s visions of graves and rotting corpses as he quotes from it; and surely, he’s also experiencing his own shock and betrayal at a broken promise of marriage, leading to this chilling tune churning amongst his final thoughts.

In Steps of the Malefactor, the character of Garcifer also makes a verbal reference to this song, addressing William Roxby as “Sweet William” while threatening to torture him (implying that he’s already marked for death).

These are all popular tunes of the 18th century (as opposed to art songs, such as the operatic tunes of Handel, Arne and others that are intended for a trained voice and large orchestra) and would have probably been known and heard comparably to modern multi-decade standards like Tubthumping, Holiday and Major Tom. It is nevertheless interesting to note the preoccupation with death and mortality in these songs, even in the cheerful one. In a sense, these songs reflect the darkness that existed within the Enlightenment, which was also rather the goal of the Exenchester series.