Ball of Yarn

DESCRIPTION: The narrator asks a pretty little miss "to wind her ball of yarn." He contracts gonorrhea, then is arrested nine months later, and sentenced to the penitentiary, all for "winding up that little ball of yarn."
AUTHOR: Unknown; parody of "Winding Up Her Little Ball of Yarn" (words: Earl Marble; tune: Polly Holmes)
EARLIEST DATE: 1890; original song copyrighted 1884
KEYWORDS: bawdy disease pregnancy sex punishment prison parody
FOUND IN: Britain(England(North,West)) Ireland US(MA,MW,Ro,So,SW)
REFERENCES (13 citations):
Cray-EroticMuse, pp. 89-95, "Ball of Yarn" (3 texts, 1 tune)
Randolph/Legman-RollMeInYourArms I, pp. 97-104, "Little Ball of Yarn" (10 texts, 3 tunes)
Hugill-ShantiesFromTheSevenSeas, pp. 533-534, "The Little Ball O' Yarn" (1 text, 1 tune) [AbrEd, pp. 385-386]
Kennedy-FolksongsOfBritainAndIreland 180, "The Little Ball of Yarn" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gardham-EastRidingSongster 26, "The Little Ball of Yarn" (2 texts, 1 tune)
Roud/Bishop-NewPenguinBookOfEnglishFolkSongs #76, "The Ball of Yarn" (1 text, 1 tune)
Henry-SongsSungInTheSouthernAppalachians, p. 249, "And She Skipped Across the Green" (1 fragment)
Bronner/Eskin-FolksongAlivePart2 64, "Little Ball of Yarn" (1 text, 1 tune)
Peters-FolkSongsOutOfWisconsin, p. 266, "The Little Ball of Yarn" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gilbert-LostChords, pp. 74-75, "Little Ball of Yarn" (1 partial text)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 155, "Little Ball of Yarn" (1 text)
Morgan/Green-RugbySongs, p. 47, "I'm a Gentleman of Leisure, of Nobility and Pleasure" (1 text)

Roud #1404
Mary Ann Haynes, "The Little Ball of Yarn" (on Voice20)
New Lost City Ramblers, "Little Ball of Yarn" (on NLCR14)
Southern Melody Boys, "Wind the Little Ball of Yarn" (Bluebird B-7057/Montgomery Ward 7227, 1937) [Note: Not having heard this record, I don't know whether it's the parody or the original. - PJS]
Nora Cleary, "Little Ball of Yarn" (on IRClare01)
Unidentified woman, Mena, Ark., "Little Ball of Yarn" (LC AAFS 3236 A1, 1936)

cf. "The Fire Ship" (plot) and references there
cf. "Blackbirds and Thrushes (I)"
NOTES [328 words]: Randolph/Legman-RollMeInYourArms has extensive notes on the history of this ballad, tracing it to Burns's "Yellow, Yellow Yorlin." - EC
It should be noted, however, that Cray-EroticMuse's tune does not match the versions of "Yellow, Yellow Yorlin," and while there are lyrical similarities, the metrical pattern is also slightly different. Roud/Bishop questions how the transformation from a bird (the yorlin, or yorling, is a Scots name for the yellowhammer) to a ball of yarn could have happened in tradition. Their suggestion is that "Ball of Yarn" is a combination of elements from the Burns song and a Victorian piece, "Winding Up Her Little Ball of Yarn." - RBW
The song of which this is almost certainly a parody can be found [in the Library of Congress online collection]. - PJS
And said song is pretty bad; it begins
It was many years ago,
With my youthful blood aglow,
I engaged to teach a simple district school.
I reviewed each college book,
And my city home forsook,
Sure that I could make a wise man from a fool.
Mister School Committee Frye thought 'twould do no harm to try,
To see if unruly scholars I could l'arn.
When his daughter I espied, with her knitting by her side,
As she wound up her little ball of yarn.
The singer wooed and won the girl in short order, and now that he is old, he remembers the good old days every time he sees her darning socks!
Steve Gardham has another suggestion, which is that both this and "Yellow Yorlin" trace back to an arty song, "The Golden Skein," which somehow survived in the tradition of the Beers Family. - RBW
A broadside id for a Library of Congress reference is LOCSheet, sm1884 20995, "Winding Up her Little Ball of Yarn," White, Smith & Co. (Boston), 1884 (tune); the sheet music attributes the words to Earl Marble and the music to Miss Polly Holmes.
Mary Ann Haynes version on Voice20 lacks the gonorrhea and arrest touches; the girl has a baby and warns other young girls to "never trust a farmer." - BS
Last updated in version 6.3
File: EM089

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