Hal And Tow


Jon recognises this as “Well known as a Watersons’ number. It actually appears, albeit in a very different form, in As You Like It, from whence comes the first verse in this version.”

There is a wealth of stuff on this song and much concern about what the title means, is it simply a corruption of heal and toe, related to a shanty command to haul and tow, a gypsy tow rope, a village tug of war, a garland (tow)  for the first of the month (halan)  or a simple bit of fol-de-rol nonsense? No one can hope to be definitive on this, but as always it makes for some interesting theorising, or wild speculation, take your pick. You may like to start at Mudcat and if so, should also follow the links off from comment two onwards. I was also highly amused and somewhat taken aback by this. More of the mummers and Robin Hood again, not to mention those pesky Romans and their pagan deities, but as for Stubbes, what can you say? He seems to have a very detailed knowledge of the goings on and his work was apparently researched over seven winters of travelling the length and breadth of the country. He seems possessed of a puritanical zeal as he sets his sights on Elizabethan mores and iniquities. You have to wonder at the “look at all the naughty stuff they’re doing” moralising whilst presumably copping an eyeful, as I can’t imagine he put so much effort into it only to take peoples word for their sinfulness. Anyway, should that grab your interest you may have the patience to wade through this, which seems a bit prone to odd typographical things going on. I’ve dipped in but simply haven’t the time. So, to get us back on topic Mainly Norfolk covers various recordings of this and links the song to the Furry Dance or Flora (not Floral) Dance from Helston. How many of you were out dancing, playing, singing or whatever?  Any maypole related tales will be appreciated, but if you went gadding off to the woods you’d best keep it to yourself.



20 Responses to “Hal And Tow”

  1. Jane Ramsden says:

    I thought this was cracking! Will have to look at your extensive research later Skyman – lots of interesting-looking links! I have put some Beltane info under yesterday’s merry May song, & some links to videos of maypole dancing.

  2. Jane Ramsden says:

    I couldn’t wait & had to read your links, Skyman! It seems little is know about Philip Stubbes but the following is interesting as it presents him as a Puritan but a sincere one, whose value to us lies in the otherwise lost detail of his researches. He was also against bear-baiting, so gets my vote for that alone!

    “XIV. The Puritan Attack upon the Stage.

    § 11. Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses.

    In the same year, 1583, a book was published which has an importance far beyond that belonging to it as a contribution to the controversy under discussion. This was The Anatomie of Abuses, by the foremost of puritan social reformers, Philip Stubbes. Practically, nothing is known of his life, and it is unfortunate that the only contemporary testimony extant concerning his character is a ribald story in the anti-Martinist tract, An Almond for a Parrat.

    His literary activity, which covered a period of some thirteen years, seems to have begun about 1581, when he published a broadside ballad setting forth the fearful fate that had befallen “a lewde fellow usually accostomed to sweare by Gods Blood.” A second edition of this, containing another ballad of similar nature, appeared shortly afterwards.

    Stubbes continued this practice of turning the public taste for horror to godly purposes in his fourth and most important work, by bringing together a formidable array of examples of divine judgments suddenly executed upon sinners of various kinds. This book, the famous Anatomie of Abuses, the title of which, perhaps, was intended to suggest comparison with the fashionable Anatomy of Wit, was printed on 1 May, 1583, and, immediately becoming popular, passed through four editions in three years.

    It was followed, a few months later, by a second part no less interesting, if less well known, than its predecessor. Both were “made dialoguewise” and consist of descriptions and condemnations, backed by scriptural text and the aforesaid terrible examples, of those evils in the commonwealth which needed abolition or reformation. In all this, there was nothing original. The records of the time are full of references to tracts against dicing, gaming, sabbath-breaking, usury and so forth.

    Excellent as his intentions were, Stubbes’s title to fame rests rather on the vigour and picturesqueness of his style, the shrewdness of his observations and, above all, the surprising knowledge he displays as to the manners and customs of his age. The Anatomie of Abuses and Harrison’s Description of England, which is dealt with elsewhere, are our two chief contemporary sources of information upon the social and economic conditions of the Shakespearean period. The lengthy description which Stubbes gives of the extravagances of Elizabethan fashion is a unique storehouse of facts relating to late sixteenth century costume.

    But this famous passage has tended unduly to obscure the merits of the rest. The opening words of The Anatomie give us to understand that the author had been travelling up and down the country for “seven winters and more,” collecting material for his book. Certainly nothing but the greatest patience and industry could have brought together all these details upon a great variety of subjects. The flippant Nashe, attacking Stubbes and his like in The Anatomie of Absurditie, declared that they “extend their invectives so farre against the abuse, that almost the things remaines not whereof they admitte anie lawfull use.”

    There is some truth in this; but, had Stubbes been less earnest and less sweeping, we should have had none of those interesting and curious allusions to church-ales, barbers, football, astrologers and a hundred other seemingly trivial matters. Moreover, there is much sound commonsense behind most that he writes. While pleading on almost every page for the rights of the poor, he has no sentimental pity for the idle vagrant. Rackrenting, prison reform and many other problems that still press for solution, are touched upon in a manner that would do credit to a modern socialist.

    The Anatomie of Abuses is a very remarkable book. It is essentially the work of an original thinker, and, in fact, is an early attempt to sum up the moral and economic forces of a nation in a fashion far removed, but not radically different, from that employed by the sociologists or political economists of the twentieth century.

    Though confined to a short section of some five or six pages, entitled “Of Stage-Playes and Enterludes, with their wickedness,” Stubbes’s condemnation of the theatre is far the most uncompromising and intolerant that had yet appeared in England. Also, he was unmistakably sincere, which is more than can be said of any of his predecessors except Northbrooke and the preachers. The devilish origin of plays and their ghastly moral results are sharply and effectively driven home in Stubbes’s hammerlike style, weighted by the authority of Scripture and the early fathers. There is no mincing matters; to patronise the theatre is “to worship devils and betray Christ Jesus,” and, as for players themselves, they can only be earnestly exhorted to repent and so flee from the wrath to come, which, as Stubbes thought, was to come speedily.

    These trenchant observations, in a book which at once became popular, must have gone to swell the rising puritan opposition. Stubbes himself, it may be noted, rose with the tide; for a conciliatory preface, admitting that some plays were “honest and chaste” and, as such, “very tollerable exercyses,” was omitted after the first edition, thus proving that his final opinion on the matter was one of unqualified condemnation.”

    I suppose we can surmise he would not have coped with a Bellowhead performance!

  3. Dave Eyre says:

    In the Waterson version the verse (which a lot of people sing)

    “Since man was first created his works have been debated,
    And we have celebrated the the coming of the May”

    was actually written by Mike Waterson who felt that the song needed a first verse! Whether he was aware of the Shakespeare version I am not sure. The verse Jon sings is in an Oak Publications book – whose title I have forgotten. Sorry.

  4. Peter Little says:

    What a brilliant May song, really lifts the spirits

  5. Phil says:

    For what it’s worth, it was the Watersons who added the Shakespeare verse as well – Norma’s owned up to it.

  6. Diana says:

    That Will Shakespeare gets into everything doesn’t he? Almost word for word at that.
    A little doleful for me.

    Jane I have thought and what is better than Lady Jane immortalised by The Rolling Stones.

  7. Jane Ramsden says:

    (Sir) Ted likes this furry dance, doesn;t find it doleful, but I see what you mean Diana. There is just a little mournful ring about it.

    What better than Lady Jane? Queen Jane, as long as it’s not ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ on here. What about ‘Queen Jane, Approximately?’ No Dylan postings on YouTube, so you got the Grateful Dead instead! As near to The Death of Queen Jane as I want to get and, believe me, it’s preferable to Frankie Valli’s version, much as I like some of his stuff… I’ve seen him ye know, at some student gig..’ oh, many moons ago!

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    No, I think I like the lyrics to ‘Lady Jane’ much better! Hahahahahahaha! Bit of dulcimer playing on here by Brian Jones, tho’ some debate as to whether the playing, as opposed to the singing, is live or not in 1966!

  9. Muzza (N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    Well…we gave this song a thrashing at the apres morris singalong last night.
    It is always a delight when the singer loses the words……and sure enough:-
    ‘St. George he HAD the right-O’ came out as “he WAS a right-0″….and we being simple souls…howled with laughter…..suggesting what he might have been.
    @Jane…Listened to The Rolling stones…yes -they were playing the instruments…no proper backing track would be a s awful as that! and Brian Jones was playing/scratching at, a dulcimer like wot I used to make.

  10. Diana says:

    Queen Jane methinks you are getting above your station my girl! Anyway the Rolling Stones did a good job on this song if I recollect correcttly – I may even have it on an LP somewhere but am not too certain. Trust Muzza and crew to get the words wrong – simple souls be blowed.

  11. Dianq says:

    Jane no luck with the LP but then Stevo pinched a lot of my records so TRS one has disappeared along with The Who and others, but I was never a Beatles fan – one of those strange people to whom they did not appeal!

  12. Jan says:

    Thanks, Lady Jane, for the YouTube link to the Stones. Someone should have told Brian Jones that a piece of chamois leather on the lap prevents the dulcimer from sliding about – and I speak from experience here!

  13. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Jan: And his suit was probably of the fashionable shiny variety of the day as well! That’s very useful advice, should I ever play a dulcimer! I’ve never seen anyone do it, tho it makes sense, but perhaps they are mindful of which clothes they put on when playing!

    @ Diana: I was always more of a Stones’ gal than a Beatles’ gal, though one of my first singles’ purchases was a Beatles’ song. I appreciate them more now than I did then.

  14. Diana says:

    @Jane : Well well another Stones’ fan – I think the Beatles did write some great songs but later on in their career. You will tell me next you liked “The Walker Brothers” as well. I went to see them once and I never heard a word they were singing for all the young girls screaming their heads off. That quite put me off pop concerts.

  15. Jane Ramsden says:

    Still a cracking song! Keeping away from Stubbes’ Puritanism and engaging with the twin themes of ‘furry’ dancing and storytelling, a recent happy find of mine is Yorkshire’s nostalgic magazine Down Your Way. For more information, see here:


    The latest edition opens with an ‘I LOVE May-time’ article ‘There’s Something About A Morris Dancer’ by a lady from Doncaster describing her childhood school experiences of dancing round the maypole and her later surprise to learn as an adult that the maypole is a phallic symbol in pagan fertility rites. Obviously I can’t repeat the whole article for copyright reasons, but her comical comments about country dancing bear quoting if only to rejuvenate Old Muzza – lol.

    She says “I am staid and sober, orderly and ordinary, but I have a weakness – it’s morris men. There’s something about them I find totally irresistible. When I hear the scrape of a fiddled tune and see the coloured ribbons flutter and dance in a summer breeze, I feel a vague unrest, a strange disquiet creeps over me. When they clash their sticks, my few remaining hormones go beserk and the adrenalin surges. When they leap into the air and ring their bells, I am transported.”

    She goes on to say that if she ever abandons hearth, home and zimmer, it will be because of the maypole and morris dancing. Eat yer hearts out raggle, taggle gypsies, o! LOL.

  16. Jane Ramsden says:

    ‘Down Your way’ also has a blog, forum and shop, plus a link to the Dalesman Family Quest, which is a free resource that will put you in touch with other genealogists investigating the same surnames as you re: your family’s Yorkshire ancestors:


    And reading the ‘Down Your Way’ blog signposted me to a 2012 Blurb competition (now ended) called Nation of Storytellers. This is how Blurb describes the project:

    “Nation of Storytellers is an initiative by Blurb to uncover and document fascinating stories across Britain, because our families are the guardians of some of the richest stories never told. Our nation has such a rich history; and one which continues to be made with every passing day. Unless these personal histories are captured in a shareable form for future generations, our children and their children will never understand the contributions that their relations made to events both large and small.

    Thousands of people visited the Nation of Storytellers’ website and, from all of the stories submitted, this book shares the top twenty that were selected by our judges. The stories encompass the entire spectrum of the nation; and range from memories of adventure, travel, historical events and careers to stories about life, love and family.”

    All proceeds from the sale of the book support the children’s charity ReadWell, which brings the therapeutic power of books and storytelling to children in hospital.

    Read the winning stories and all the entries to the (e-)book here:


  17. Jane Ramsden says:

    And for those that don’t already know, here’s a heads-up to the forthcoming ‘Centenary Words & Music Of The Great War’:

    “Two of our most popular and distinguished actors, Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton, have teamed up with the celebrated West Country acoustic band Show of Hands (Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes) to mark the centenary of the First World War.

    The conflict lasted for four years, led to the deaths of over sixteen million soldiers and civilians, and transformed Britain and much of the world. But the brutal carnage and the horrors of life in the trenches inspired the War Poetry, an extraordinary artistic movement written by those who fought, and in some cases died, in the fighting.

    Unique and powerful, ‘Centenary Words & Music Of The Great War’ matches the remarkable poetry of those war years against the music of the era, along with new compositions inspired by the war. This double CD release includes one disc of twenty two poems read by Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton in new musical settings, and a second disc on which Show of Hands perform distinctive versions of period favourites plus new songs from Knightley, including ‘The Gamekeeper,’ and his setting for Housman’s ‘The Lads In Their Hundreds.’

    Show of Hands are joined by distinguished friends from the folk scene including Jackie Oates, Jim Causley, Philip Henry and Geoffrey Lakeman.”

    I’ve pre-ordered already!


  18. OldMuzza (N.W Surrey-UK) says:

    Blimey Janey……………I was going to get on with some ‘Clutter-clearing’ today but because of your epistles above…I am now bogged down with interesting site chasing!!!!!
    I am off to see morris dancers tomorrow…..coach trip to Downton Cuckoo Fair (Wiltshire)

  19. Jane Ramsden says:

    YoungMuzza: St*ff the clutter-clearing! I have assigned missen the task of bath & bedroom cleaning ages ago and it is still relegated! I decided my edukashun was more important, not to mention jollification! Why did you put no link to Downton Cuckoo Fair? Well, here it is! Looks like you’ll ave a great time!


    Pierre Walsh and I are off to 17th century East Riddlesden Hall near Keighley on Sunday (film setting for Wuthering Heights 2009 & formerly some of Sharpe, I believe.) I have pics of me there as a small child to the mature, but still youthful woman I am today! Hahahaha!


  20. […] become a popular song in the folk revival, with such groups as the Watersons, Oysterband, and Jon Boden recording popular versions. In most of these folk-revival versions, the song begins with the […]

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