Bully of the Town, The [Laws I14]
DESCRIPTION: The bully has terrorized the entire town, including even the police. At last a hunter catches up with him and kills him. The people rejoice; all the women "come to town all dressed in red."
EARLIEST DATE: 1896 (published by Charles Trevathan)
KEYWORDS: homicide punishment police clothes
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MW,SE,So)
REFERENCES (8 citations):
Laws I14, "The Bully of the Town"
Leach, p. 767, "Lookin' for the Bully of the Town" (1 text)
Stout 89, pp. 112-113, "The New Bully" (1 short text)
Darling-NAS, pp. 242-243, "The Bully of the Town" (1 text)
MWheeler, p. 100, "Stacker Lee #1" (1 text, 1 tune -- a fragment, probably of this song though it does mention Stacker Lee)
Geller-Famous, pp. 97-99, "'The Bully' Song (May Irwin's 'Bully' Song)" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gilbert, pp. 209-210, "[Bully Song]" (1 partial text)
DT 823, BULLYTWN
Roy Acuff, "Bully of the Town" (Columbia 20561, 1949)
Fiddlin' John Carson & his Virginia Reelers, "Bully of the Town" (OKeh 40444, 1925)
Cherokee Ramblers, "Bully of the Town" (Decca 5123, 1935)
Sid Harkreader, "The Bully of the Town" (Paramount 3022, 1927; Broadway 8056, c. 1930)
Frankie Marvin, "The Bully of the Town" (Radiex 4149, 1927)
Lester McFarland & Robert Gardner, "Bully of the Town" (Brunswick 116, 1927)
McMichen's Hometown Band, "Bully of the Town" (OKeh 45034, c. 1926; rec. 1925)
Byrd Moore, "The Bully of the Town" (Gennett 6763, 1928/Supertone 9399 [as by Harry Carter])
North Carolina Hawaiians, "Bully of the Town" (OKeh 45297, 1929; rec. 1928)
Prairie Ramblers, "Lookin' for the Bully of the Town" (Melotone 6-08-56, 1936)
Ernest V. Stoneman, "Bully of the Town" (matrix #7225-1 recorded 1927 and issued as Banner 2157/Domino 3984/Regal 8347/Homestead 16500 [as by Sim Harris]/Oriole 947 [as by Harris]/Challenge 665/Conqueror 7755, 1931/Pathe 32279/Perfect 12358/Supertone 32279/Cameo 8217/Romeo 597/Lincoln 2822) (Broadway 8056-D, c. 1930); Ernest V. Stoneman and the Dixie Mountaineers, "The Bully of the Town" (Edison 51951, 1927) (CYL: Edison [BA] 5314, 1927)
Gid Tanner & his Skillet Lickers, "Bully of the Town" (Columbia 15640-D, 1931; rec. 1930)
Gordon Tanner, Smokey Joe Miller & Uncle John Patterson, "Bully of the Town" (on DownYonder)
Tweedy Brothers, "The Bully of the Town" (Gennett 6447/Champion 15486, 1928)
LOCSheet, rpbaasm 0994, "May Irwin's 'Bully' Song," White-Smith Music Publishing Co., (Boston), 1896 (tune)
Gid Tanner & his Skillet Lickers, "Bully of the Town - No. 2" (Columbia 15640-D, c. 1931)
NOTES [630 words]: Laws describes "The (New) Bully" (for which cf. Spaeth, Read 'Em and Weep, pp. 193-195, or Gilbert, Lost Chords, pp. 209-210) as an offshoot of this traditional piece. Personally, I'd call "The New Bully" an arrangement, but I follow Laws.
Norm Cohen writes of this piece,
I discussed the history of The Bully in the brochure notes to JEMF LP 103:
Paramount Old Time Tunes.... "Basically, there are two received accounts of the genesis of this song. One was first published by James J. Geller in his "Famous Songs and their Stories (1931) [pp. 97-100, with the titles "'The Bully' Song" or "May Irwin's 'Bully' Song" - RBW]. This is the anecdote about sports writer and horse racing judge, Charles E. Trevathan, on the train back to Chicago from San Francisco in 1894, playing his guitar and humming popular airs to amuse the passengers around him among whom was May Irwin. He said he had learned the tune of "The Bully" from Tennessee blacks. Irwin suggested that he put [clean] words to the tune, which he did, and published it in 1896. She incorporated the song in her stage play, 'The Widow Jones.'
The other account, first published, as far as I know, by E. B. Marks in 'They All Sang' (1934) is that the song was popularized before he got his hands on it by 'Mama Lou,' a short, fat, homely, belligerent powerhouse of a singer in Babe Connor's classy St. Louis brothel, a popular establishment in the 1890s that drew from all social classes for its clientele.
Either Trevathan picked up the song from Mama Lou, or, equally likely, both learned it from black oral tradition in the South of the early 1890s. In support of this position is the fact that there were several sheet music versions of 'The Bully' published, some preceding Trevathan's 1896 version."
Gilbert, p. 209, also mentions the connection to Mama Lou; he quotes Orrick Johns to the effect that she was "a gnarled, black African of the purest type [who] sang, with her powerful voice, a great variety of indigenous songs." Johns cites her as one of the earliest sources for "Frankie and Johnnie" and apparently for "Ta-ra-ra Boom-der-e." But Gilbert also notes a version in Delaney's songbook #12, from 1896, with words credited to Will Carleton and music by J. W. Cavanagh.
Jon W. Finson, The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 233, says that "Both James Weldon Johnson and W. C. Handy claimed that 'The Bully Song' derived from an African-American folk tune heard along the Mississippi. Trevathan maintained that he heard it in a St. Louis bordello, and that he merely supplied the lyrics at Irwin's request."
It does seem likely that May Irwin (1862-1938) is largely responsible for the song's popularity. Irwin was a notable popular singer who was at the height of her powers in the 1890s; In Sigmund Spaeth's A History of Popular Music in America she is credited with the song, "Mamie, Come Kiss Your Honey Boy" (pp. 265-266), and with popularizing George M. Cohan's "Hot Tamale Alley" (pp. 282, 339) as well as such songs as "I Couldn't Stand to See My Baby Loose" (p. 347) and "Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose" (p. 285). She presumably also had some part in the song we index as "May Irwin's Frog Song (The Foolish Frog, Way Down Yonder)." Her biggest success of all (based on how many popular music histories mention it) was apparently "May Irwin's Bully Song," the Trevathan version of this song.
According to David A. Jasen, Tin Pan Alley: The Composers, the Songs, the Performers and their Times: The Golden Age of American Popular Music from 1886 to 1956, Primus, 1988, p. 27, "She became the first actress to appear on film when she re-enacted the scandalous 'Kiss Scene' from The Widow Jones in 1896." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.