Fair readers! I’ve resolved to post far more frequently than I have been doing, and I thought I would begin a new year by sharing one of my favourite ballads with you.
“My Dog and I” (1678-80), Magdalene College, Pepys 4.229. Image courtesy of English Broadside Ballads Archive (ID 21889).
As far as we know, this catchy ballad was initially printed in London in 1675 (the above version was printed a few years later), and was still found to be in circulation in the late eighteenth century. At first singing, its range of meanings seem innocent enough – the heart-warming bond between man and his pet, the independence that came with manhood. Moreover, the text itself claims that the ballad will not concern itself with warfare, courtship, monsters, wonders or death, ‘Nor any thing under the Sky, But onely of my Dog and I’. Yet it doesn’t take very long to gather that this ballad is ostensibly about sex.
It is full of innuendo for a start – “proper Probe”, anyone? However, the tune is the key to revealing the thoroughly bawdy nature of this ballad. ‘Bobbing Joan’, the melody behind ‘My Dog and I’ and a foundation for many contemporary songs and dances, was associated primarily with sex. It is probable that the exclusion of all potentially scurrilous themes quoted above was the ballad-writer’s attempt to deceive the official licenser – even in spite of the double entendres, the smut was not to be found in the text, but in the melody. All of a sudden, the protagonist’s relationship with the maid ‘Nell’ is based upon something far more titillating than a mutual love of animals! The inherent bawdiness of the tune also brings a new spin to the otherwise fairly topical subjects of the ballad including memories of Prince Rupert, famed and feared for his alleged barbarity during some of the bloodier conflicts of the Civil War and for his rare white poodle, Boye (suspected of being a witch’s familiar, the Devil in disguise, infallible to attack and a prophet amongst other things). His reputation as a dashing playboy – both before and after the Wars – probably did not go unnoticed either.
Prince Rupert and his dog Boye depicted in Parliamentarian propoganda, pillaging Birmingham. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
‘My Dog and I’ was certainly not the only ballad to employ this technique of covert smut. A particularly illuminating example comes from a correspondence between one Christopher Hoddeson and Francis Walsingham on 22nd September 1585. Hoddeson sent Walsingham a suspicious ballad, observing that ‘Allthoughe therbe in the beginning Fayre gloss yet if hit please your honour to Read hit to the eand I hope you will conceive I doo butt my deutye to sent hit to be concidred off”.
These examples do much to highlight the importance of ballad melodies as much as their texts, and help to explain why ballads were feared as being ‘dangerously licentious’, ‘wanton’ and ‘full of scurrilous vanity’, however unassuming they may appear to the modern reader.
As ever, a facsimile of this excellent broadside ballad is available for you to peruse on the English Broadside Ballad Archive website. I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend listening to this – as well as EBBA’s recording, the historian Chris Marsh has brilliantly recreated it as part of his groundbreaking study Music and Society in Early Modern England (2010). The tracks are available as MP3 files here – happy listening!
Yours in wanton ribaldry,
Chris Marsh, ‘The sound of print in early modern England: the broadside ballad as song’, in J. Crick & A. Walsham, The Uses of Script and Print (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), 183.
– Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: CUP, 2010)