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Three Sailors of Bristol City (Little Billee) [429-430]

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Published on Jul 1, 2010

A little interesting story here about the song.

Hugill got the lyrics to this alleged pump chantey from a J. Sexton. Hugill could not find the tune to go with it, however. One of the men slapped on the name "Three Sailors of Bristol City." However, this was actually a remembered (and thus a bit altered) version of a published song, better known as "Little Billee."

W.M. Thackeray composed the song "Little Billee" sometime prior to 1863.
Here it is, in a later volume:
http://books.google.com/books?id=OfoK...
A book from 1888 states that Thackeray first sang it extemporaneously -- which I don't find hard to believe, as it's pretty shoddy verse in my opinion! Anyway, it was not meant as great art, but rather was a quick parody song based on a lyrical theme that goes back some ways.

As for this lyrical theme, it was shared by earlier ballads including the French "La Courte Paille." Malcolm Douglas on Mudcat has provided a superb summary here:
http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?thre...

The tune that Thackeray indicates it was to be sung to was that of "Il était un Petit Navire" which was another French (Canadian?) variation on the theme, being more sensational re: the theme of cannabalism at sea. It sounds like Thackeray was vamping off the popularity of that in the music-halls, taking its tune and making up this quick and dirty English version.

However -- the tune to "Il était un Petit Navire" is not wholly clear to me. There are variations... The one I am using --akin to a popular French lullaby of the present day, and similar to what LA Smith has in MUSIC OF THE WATERS (1888)-- doesn't *quite* match the prosody. However, it worked *best* out of the tunes I found, so I tried to make it work. All and all, I'm not a big fan of either the lyrics or tune, and together they are pretty clunky! But again, it was the best I could figure out in order to bring to life this song for which Hugill only gave lyrics.

For reference, here is one of many sample of the French children'd song / lullaby (as it seems to be best known nowadays): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0JRm_...
Mind, the Thackeray lyrics obviously went to something a bit different, as his verse is structured differently.

Also note that there is some kind of re-invented version out there, "Little Boy Billy," which again does not match the Thackeray lyrics or intended tune:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWzZOQ...

See the whole "Shanties from the Seven Seas" project, here: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list...

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