Martin Said To His Man

DESCRIPTION: The singer says s/he saw various animals performing various activities, some of which are impossible or unlikely (E.g. "Saw a crow flying low"; "Saw a mule teachin' school"). In some versions, the narrator(s) are drunk, competing to tell the tallest tale.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1609 (Deuteromelia; registered as a ballad 1588)
KEYWORDS: contest drink lullaby nonballad nonsense paradox talltale animal bug
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MW,SE,So) Britain(England,Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (19 citations):
Kinloch-TheBalladBook XIV, pp. 50-54, "The Man in the Moon" (1 text)
Greig/Duncan8 1703, "I Saw a Sparrow" (1 text plus a single verse on p. 401, 1 tune)
Porter/Gower-Jeannie-Robertson-EmergentSingerTransformativeVoice #10, pp. 125-126, "Soo Sewin' Silk" (1 text, 1 tune)
Reeves/Sharp-TheIdiomOfThePeople 109, "Well Done Liar" (1 text)
Randolph 445, "Johnny Fool" (2 texts)
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore3 114, "Kitty Alone" (1 text)
Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore5 114, "Kitty Alone" (1 tune plus a text excerpt)
Hudson-FolksongsOfMississippi 128, p. 274, "Old, Blind, Drunk John" (1 text)
Hudson-FolkTunesFromMississippi 41, "Old, Blind, Drunk John" (1 text, 1 tune)
Wyman/Brockway-LonesomeSongs-KentuckyMountains-Vol1, p. 22, "The Bed-time Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Wolfe/Boswell-FolkSongsOfMiddleTennessee 78, pp. 126-128, "Johnny Fool" (1 text, 1 tune)
Bush-FSofCentralWestVirginiaVol4, p. 27, "Blind Johnny Boo" (1 short text, 1 tune)
Grimes-StoriesFromTheAnneGrimesCollection, p. 62, "The Liar's Song" (1 text, tune)
Sulzer-TwentyFiveKentuckyFolkBallads, p. 22, "Nonsense Song No. 1" (1 short text, 1 tune, with a verse from this song although the rest might be anything)
Richardson/Spaeth-AmericanMountainSongs, p. 97, "Hurrah, Lie" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-FolkSongsOfNorthAmerica 136, "Hurrah, Lie!" (1 text, 1 tune)
Chappell-PopularMusicOfTheOldenTime, p. 76, "Who's the Fool Now" (1 text, 1 tune)
Chappell/Wooldridge-OldEnglishPopularMusic I, p. 140, "Martin Said to His Man" (1 text, 1 tune)

Roud #473
Martha Hall, "Kitty Alone" (on MMOK, MMOKCD)
Lizzie Higgins, "Soo Sewin' Silk" (on LHiggins01)

cf. "Gossip Joan (Neighbor Jones)" (theme)
Old Blind Drunk John
Fooba-Wooba John
NOTES [616 words]: Referred to in Dryden's 1668 play "Sir Martin Mar-all, or the Feign'd Innocence" (act IV). It seems to have been very popular in the century prior to that.
Hyder E. Rollins, An Analytical Index to the Ballad-Entries (1557-1709) In the Register of the Company of Stationers of London, 1924 (I use the 1967 Tradition Press reprint with a new Foreword by Leslie Shepard), p. 146, #1681, gives the Stationer's Register entry for this as "Martyn said to his man, who is the foole now," printed November 9, 1588 by Thomas Orwin.
Rollins notes, in addition to Dryden's citation, that the title is used in Anthony Brewer's "Love-Sick King," Act III, and that someone named Collier in Notes & Queries, second series, XII, 143, connected this with someone by the name of Martin Skinck.
The American versions can generally be told by their narrative pattern, "(I) saw a () (doing something)," e.g. "Saw a crow flying low," "Saw a mule teaching school," "Saw a louse chase a mouse," "Saw a flea wade the sea."
The versions under the title "Kitty Alone" are sometimes a mix of this and "Frog Went A-Courting"; the first such text seems to have been in Gammer Gurton's Garland (1784), which has clearly a "Frog" plot but the form (and some of the exaggerations) of this piece.
I'm sure there are some who have argued that the ancient English "Martin Said To His Man" is not the same as the modern American texts. But there is continuity of verses, believe it or not, and the theme never changes. And there is no way to draw a dividing line.
There is a similar if not identical song that is even older than the "Martin" versions, which I was sorely tempted to lump with this. In the famous Richard Hill manuscript (Oxford, MS. Balliol College 354; see "MSRichardHill" in the Bibliography), folio 54 contains this lyric
I sawe a stokfysshe drawynge a harow,
and a-noder dryveng a barow,
and a saltfysshe shoteyng an arow,
I will have þe whetstone, and I may.
It ends with this lyric:
I sawe an ege etying a pye;
Geve me drynke, my mowth ys drye;
Yet ys not long syth I made a lye
I will have þe whetstone, and I may.
I saw an egg eating a [mag]pie.
Give me drink, my mouth is dry,
Yet [it] is not long since I made a lie,
I will have the whetstone, and I may.
References for this is song include:
- Greene-TheEarlyEnglishCarols, #471, p. 317, "(I saw a doge sethyng sowse)" (1 text)
- Roman Dyboski, Songs Carols, and Other Miscellaneous Poems from the Balliol Ms. 354, Richard Hill's Commonplace Book, 1908 (I use a [crummy] Forgotten Books print-on-demand copy made in 2016), #92, p. 110
- Brown/Robbins-IndexOfMiddleEnglishVerse, #1350
DigitalIndexOfMiddleEnglishVerse #256
There is a discussion in David R. Parker, The Commonplace Book in Tudor London: An Examination of BL MSS Egerton 1995, Harley 2252, Lansdowne 762, and Oxford Balliol College MS354, University Press of America, 1998, p. 82.
Greene-TheEarlyEnglishCarols, p. 453, explains the chorus line about the whetstone by saying that it was the custom in the Middle Ages to tie a whetstone about the neck of a convicted liar when he was in pillory. Thus "I will have the whetstone, and I may" implies "I will earn the whetstone for telling the biggest lie." - RBW
Reeves/Sharp-TheIdiomOfThePeople throws a bawdy light on some verses. For "I saw a wren kill a man" it cites Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Slang to make "wren" "a harlot frequenting Curragh Camp, military 1869" [did the Women's Royal Naval Service -- Wrens -- of the World Wars escape this slang?]. For "I saw a maid milk a bull Every stroke a bucket full," "one of the meanings of 'milk' in the same source is 'cause sexual ejaculation'." - BS
Last updated in version 6.2
File: WB022

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