the song
title : The blacksmith
written by : traditional, arranged by Eddi Reader, Roy Dodds, Neill MacColl and Phil Steriopulos
song copyright : none;   arrangement: © 1991 MCA Music Ltd

the performance
Eddi Reader vocals
Neill MacColl guitar, “out of bodyness”
Phil Steriopulos double bass
Roy Dodds drums, percussion
with :
Calum MacColl dulcimers
key : modal D major/minor
time-signature : 4/4
tempo : MM 126
form : V V V V V N

As I didn’t originally have a printed source available, I cobbled this version of the lyric together by listening carefully to the track (headphones always help here) and cross-referencing it with other recordings in my collection (see the explanations below!).

The blacksmith

O, a blacksmith courted me five months and better
ah, he fairly won my heart – wrote me a letter;
with his hammer in his hand he looked quite clever
and if I were with my love I would live for ever

O, where is my love now with his cheeks like roses
and his big black billy-cock on, decked around with primroses?         [see explanations below]
I’m afraid the scorching sun might burn and spoil his beauty
and if I were with my love I would do my duty, ha-ah

{duty, duty etc.}
strange news is come to town; strange news is carried
strange news flies up and down that my love is married
well I wish them both much joy, though they can’t hear me
and may God reward them well for the slighting of me

{beauty, beauty, ah etc.}
Do you remember when you lay beside me
and you said you’d marry me? [and you’d] Do not deny me.”
“If I said I’d marry you it was only for to try you:
so bring your witness love and I’ll not deny you.”

…not deny you

Oh, witness have I none, save God almighty;
and may he reward you well for the slighting of me.

O, her cheeks grew pale and wan and it caused her heart to tremble
to think she loved the one and he proved deceitful

…he proved deceitful
…and he proved deceitful

O, a blacksmith courted me
O, a blacksmith courted me five months
five months, five months


Regarding the words in line two of verse two, it’s very difficult to be sure exactly what Eddi sings here; I used to think it was “big black billy-goat Joe”! However, reference to the printed lyric in the booklet accompanying the CD release of ‘So early in the spring’ by The Pentangle (Park Records, 1996) gives the version quoted above. This is confirmed by the first of two versions of the lyric given on The Digital tradition, the version collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Mrs Powell, near Weobley, Herefordshire in 1909 (with the sexual reference restored – “lay” instead of “sit” in verse four). A ‘billy-cock’ was a men’s round low-crowned felt hat, so it all makes sense.

The situation is further confused by the lyrics printed in the booklet accompanying the Japanese release of Mirmama (which was titled Eddi Reader). According to this, the phrase is “big black billy goat gown”, which seems unlikely! On the modern theory of art-work ‘reception’ I shall continue to ‘hear’ “big black billy cock on” in this track. However, I have a distinct preference for the other traditional version, which is used by Maddy Prior on Steeleye Span’s brilliant second album Please to see the king (1971). It’s not just that this is the first version I got to know – I think its second verse makes a lot more sense than the above (accepting the poetic premise of going overseas to gather primroses):

O, where has my love gone with his cheeks like roses?
He’s gone across the sea gathering primroses.
I’m afraid the shining sun might burn and scorch his beauty
and if I were with my love I would do my duty.

The second line here provides the answer to the question in the first and the reason for the narrator’s concern in the third; both of which lines otherwise seem unconnected with line two, although I suppose the billy-cock hat could relate to shading him from the scorching sun – provided its brim is wide enough. The idea that the blacksmith went to sea seems rather illogical still, smithing skills usually being at a premium (perhaps he was ‘pressed’), but it does help to explain why he has married another without the narrator realising what was happening (“strange news is come to town”) – in most communities one would have expected the narrator’s friends to have tipped her off that the blacksmith had been seen “out with ’er from down the road”. If the other woman is overseas, perhaps the narrator should be thankful he hasn’t settled for a wife in each port, or perhaps she would rather he had, if he is really “the one” she loved (last verse)!

This version’s source is not given on the Digital tradition site, but I like it so much that somehow I can’t help wishing Eddi had discovered it before committing her interpretation of this haunting song to posterity. My ideal reading would combine the best of both collected texts. Eddi is obviously in the folk tradition of re-interpretation – she has “five months” in verse one where the published versions have the gestatory “nine months” – and I’m sure her natural taste would have put together something closer to my ideal.

the recording
produced by : Eddi Reader and the Patron Saints of Imperfection
recorded by : Terry Medhurst at Helicon Mountain Studio, London
mixed by : Terry Medhurst? at Helicon Mountain Studio?
mastered by : ? at Townhouse?
track timing : 6:13
song timing : m:ss
released on
album : Mirmama track 6
single : All or nothing CD track 3

I have commented above, in the section of lyric’s explanation on my preference for a slightly varied alternative version of the lyric.