Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Cannibal Ballads: Not Just a Question of Taste

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Cannibal Ballads: Not Just a Question of Taste

Article excerpt

William Makepeace Thackeray's poem 'Little Billee' was a literary parody of a traditional French song about survival cannibalism at sea. It entered oral tradition not only among its target audience in the song and supper clubs, but also among sailors. This reflects not only its closeness to its source material, but also its relation to the subject matter. This article relates the song to its sources, and to other songs about cannibalism. It also sets it in the context of the changing experience of survival cannibalism.


The entry of a song into oral tradition, and its survival, depend on several factors. There is a complex relationship between a singer's personal taste and the subject of a song. Songs dealing directly with social phenomena and experiences will find singers not just because they have good tunes; they must to some extent accord with singers' understanding of the phenomena they describe. As those phenomena change, it is likely that songs about them will also change.

I would argue that William Makepeace Thackeray's 'Little Billee' (Roud 905), which was recorded in oral tradition well into the twentieth century, illustrates this process. In the case of songs about survival cannibalism at sea, a substantial part of the repertoire reflects, more or less accurately, an accepted maritime custom during the period of sail. Through the second half of the nineteenth century, changes in maritime life, often enforced legally, altered the cultural landscape. 'Little Billee' was based sufficiently closely on traditional material to enter tradition itself, just before the circumstances it described with affectionate parody disappeared from the cultural horizon.

Thackeray wrote 'Little Billee', a literary parody of a French traditional song about maritime survival cannibalism, in 1845 (see Appendix A). (1) The poem acquired some oral existence in smoking clubs soon after publication. For all that it was a literary parody, aimed at middle- and upper-class audiences, it later also achieved an oral circulation among sailors. It was hardly widespread in oral tradition, but there exists evidence suggestive of its circulation among singers beyond its original audience. It became sufficiently well known, too, to become popular again in the revival folk clubs of the 1960s, thanks in part to the availability of several commercial recordings of traditional singer Bob Roberts, made between 1953 and 1977 (see Appendix B). Roberts, a bargeman, accounts for four of the six sound recordings currently listed in the Roud Folksong Index (Figure l). (2)

Appendix A

William Makepeace Thackeray, 'Little Billee'

From The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, vol. 21: Ballads and The Rose and The Ring (London: Smith, Elder, 1885), pp. 127-28.

There were three sailors of Bristol city Who took a boat and went to sea. But first with beef and captain's biscuits And pickled pork they loaded she.

There was gorging Jack and guzzling Jimmy, And the youngest he was little Billee. Now when they got as far as the Equator They'd nothing left but one split pea.

Says gorging Jack to guzzling Jimmy, 'I am extremely hungaree.' To gorging Jack says guzzling Jimmy, 'We've nothing left, us must eat we.'

Says gorging Jack to guzzling Jimmy, 'With one another we shouldn't agree! There's little Bill, he's young and tender, We're old and tough, so let's eat he.

'Oh! Billy, we're going to kill and eat you, So undo the button of your chemie.' When Bill received this information He used his pocket-handkerchie.

'First let me say my catechism, Which my poor mammy taught to me.' 'Make haste, make haste,' says guzzling Jimmy, While Jack pulled out his snickersnee.

So Billy went up to the main-top gallant mast, And down he fell on his bended knee. He scarce had come to the twelfth commandment When up he jumps. 'There's land I see:

'Jerusalem and Madagascar, And North and South Amerikee: There's the British flag a-riding at anchor, With Admiral Napier, K. …

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