Billy My Son

★ Billy My Son Story:

Where have you been to-day, Billy, my son? Where have you been to-day, my only man? I’ve been a wooing, mother, make my bed soon, For I’m sick at heart, and fain would lay down.

What have you ate to-day, Billy, my son? What have you ate to-day, my only man? I’ve ate eel-pie, mother, make my bed soon, For I’m sick at heart, and shall die before noon.

It is said there is some kind of a fairy legend connected with these lines, Billy having probably been visited by his mermaid mother. Nothing at all satisfactory has, however, yet been produced. It appears to bear a slight analogy to the old ballad, “Where have you been all the day, my boy Willie,” printed from a version obtained from Suffolk, in the Nursery Rhymes of England, p. 146;[57] and on this account we may here insert a copy of the pretty Scottish ballad, Tammy’s Courtship:

Oh, where ha’ ye been a’ day, My boy Tammy? Where ha’ ye been a’ day, My boy Tammy? I’ve been by burn and flow’ry brae, Meadow green and mountain gray, Courting o’ this young thing, Just come frae her mammy.

And where gat ye that young thing, My boy Tammy? And where gat ye that young thing, My boy Tammy? I gat her down in yonder how, Smiling on a broomy knowe, Herding ae wee lamb and ewe For her poor mammy.

What said you to the bonny bairn, My boy Tammy? What said you to the bonny bairn, My boy Tammy? I praised her een sae lovely blue, Her dimpled cheek and cherry mou’; I preed it aft, as ye may trow– She said she’d tell her mammy.

I held her to my beating breast, My young, my smiling lammy; I held her to my beating breast, My young, my smiling lammy: I hae a house, it cost me dear, I’ve wealth o’ plenishing and gear, Ye’se get it a’, war’t ten times mair, Gin ye will leave your mammy.

The smile gaed aff her bonny face, I maunna leave my mammy; The smile gaed aff her bonny face, I maunna leave my mammy: She’s gi’en me meat, she’s gi’en me claise, She’s been my comfort a’ my days; My father’s death brought mony waes– I canna leave my mammy.

We’ll tak’ her hame, and mak’ her fain, My ain kind-hearted lammy; We’ll tak’ her hame, and mak’ her fain, My ain kind-hearted lammy: We’ll gie her meat, we’ll gie her claise, We’ll be her comfort a’ her days; The wee thing gi’es her han’, and says– There! gang and ask my mammy.

Has she been to the kirk wi’ thee, My boy Tammy? Has she been to the kirk wi’ thee, My boy Tammy? She’s been to kirk wi’ me, And the tear was in her e’e; But, oh! she’s but a young thing, Just come frae her mammy!

[Footnote 57: Another version was obtained from Yorkshire:

Where have you been all the day, My boy Billy? Where have you been all the day, My boy Billy?

I have been all the day Courting of a lady gay; Although she is a young thing, And just come from her mammy!

Is she fit to be thy love, My boy Billy? She is as fit to be my love, As my hand is for my glove, Although she is, &c.

Is she fit to be thy wife, My boy Billy? She is as fit to be my wife, As my blade is for my knife; Although she is, &c.

How old may she be, My boy Billy? Twice six, twice seven, Twice twenty and eleven; Although she is, &c.]

The ballad of Lord Randal, printed by Sir Walter Scott, may, after all, furnish the true solution to the meaning of our nursery rhyme, and I am therefore induced to insert a version of it still popular in Scotland, in which the hero of the song is styled Laird Rowland:

Ah! where have you been, Lairde Rowlande, my son? Ah! where have you been, &c. I’ve been in the wild-woods, Mither, mak my bed soon, For I’m weary wi’ hunting, And faine would lie down.

Oh! you’ve been at your true love’s, Lairde Rowlande, my son! Oh! you’ve been at your true love’s, &c. I’ve been at my true love’s, Mither, mak my bed soon, For I’m weary wi’ hunting, And faine would lie down.

What got you to dinner, Lairde Rowlande, my son? What got you to dinner, &c. I got eels boil’d in brue, Mither, mak my bed soon, For I’m weary wi’ hunting, And faine would lie down.

What’s become of your Warden, Lairde Rowlande, my son? What’s become of your Warden, &c. He died in the muirlands, Mither, mak my bed soon, For I’m weary wi’ hunting, And faine would lie down.

What’s become of your stag-hounds, Lairde Rowlande, my son? What’s become of your stag-hounds, &c. They swelled and they died! Mither, mak my bed soon, For I’m weary wi’ hunting, And faine would lie down.

The fable or plot of this seems to be, that Lord Rowlande, upon a visit at the castle of his mistress, has been poisoned by the drugged viands at the table of her father, who was averse to her marriage with the lord. Finding himself weary, and conscious that he is poisoned, he returns to his home, and wishes to retire to his chamber without raising in his mother any suspicions of the state of his body and mind. This may be gathered from his short and evasive answers, and the importunate entreaties with which he requests his mother to prepare his chamber.

In Swedish there are two distinct versions: one, the Child’s Last Wishes, in Geijer and Afzelius, iii. 13, beginning–

Hvar har du varit sa laenge, Dotter, liten kind? Jag har varit hos min Amma, Kaer styf-moder min! Foer aj aj! ondt hafver jag–jag!

Where hast thou been so long now, My sweet wee little child? Sure with my nurse I’ve tarried, My own step-mother mild! For oh! oh! sore pains have I–I!

The second is in Afzelius, ii. 90, under the same title, and beginning–

Hvar har du va’t sa laenge, Lilla dotter kind? Jag har va’t i Baenne, Hos broderen min! Aj, aj, ondt hafver jag, jag!

Where hast thou been so long now, Wee little daughter fine? In Baenne have I tarried, With brother mine! Oh! oh! sore pains have I–I!

Both are sung to exquisitely melancholy melodies.

Dr. Jamieson makes some very just observations on this ballad, and the importance of tracing this class of tales. “That any of the Scotch, English, and German copies of the same tale have been borrowed or translated from another, seems very improbable; and it would now be in vain to attempt to ascertain what it originally was, or in what age it was produced. It has had the good fortune in every country to get possession of the nursery, a circumstance which, from the enthusiasm and curiosity of young imaginations, and the communicative volubility of little tongues, has insured its preservation.

Indeed, many curious relics of past times are preserved in the games and rhymes found amongst children, which are on that account by no means beneath the notice of the curious traveller, who will be surprised to find, after the lapse of so many ages, and so many changes of place, language, and manners, how little these differ among different nations of the same original stock, who have been so long divided and estranged from each other.”

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