The Rigs of the Time



Jon has picked this one up from several sources, noting, “One of those funny words in folk songs  ‘Rigs’. The most sensible (and I guess obvious) suggestion is it relates to ‘rigging’ i.e. the sort of bare skeleton. So The Rigs Of The Time would mean the bare truth of what is going on, whilst The Rigs Of London Town would mean the deep, dark workings of the city that is in some way the real London.” The literal dictionary definition that fits here is ‘To fix fraudulently,’ that must come from he sense of pulling the strings, although there’s also the sense of ‘rigging out’ or to ‘to fit’ usually followed by ‘out’, but in this case with ‘up’, as in ‘stitch up’ as well. Anyway, this fine tune is of course on Bellowhead’s Burlesque and Mainly Norfolk has an excellent page noting other versions, recordings and a couple of updates. The latter of those from Maddy Prior particularly surprised me I must say, as I simply didn’t think that she did that. Still her explanation for doing so is modest and her verses sharp as you like. I was thinking that these are unlikely to be the only rewrites, when I came upon this Wiki page linking it to a Newfoundland song, Hard, Hard Times, although the lyrics given here more share the sentiment than actually follow the original. But..! Then on Mudcat, trying to find the origins (1829 seems earliest) I also found a post linking to this article. This is another where I’ve skimmed rather than read the detail, with the honest intent to return later, but the interest here is on page 8 in the section headed Ballads. The Mudcat thread itself contains some notable additional or different verses. Regrettably, this is one of those songs that will probably, with very good cause, continue to evolve. New times simply get new rigs.

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39 Responses to “The Rigs of the Time”

  1. Simon Dewsbury says:

    One of those songs which seems almost intended to result in updates to the lyrics.
    Admin, did you mean Maddy Prior rather than June Tabor? I’m a bear of little brain this time in the morning and you had me confused for a while.

  2. muzza says:

    Loved this one……and it does leave itself open to more verses to keep up with the times…how long before we get a verse about “Bankers”……… the meantime…I’d keep an eye on that rascal the butcher…seems he’s already taken over the bakery!
    I know, I know,……..I’ve done it myself and thought…..they know what I mean…damned if I’m gonna sing it again!

  3. Phil says:

    Wrong Silly Sister – Maddy, not June. (I believe she does quite a lot of topical stuff these days.)

    The etymology is simpler than either your or Jon’s ideas, although more mysterious – according to the OED there’s a sense of “rig” meaning “A dishonest or fraudulent scheme or enterprise; a trick, a swindle. Also: something used to deceive or defraud a person.”. This goes back to 1640 – but they don’t actually know where it came from. All very odd.

  4. SRD says:

    Nicely done.

    I’m not sure as to the direct link that wiki suggests between this and ‘Hard Times of Old England’ but the sentiments are certainly the same.

    Purely a wander into etymological regions but one of the meanings of rig is ‘a partially castrated male livestock animal, especially in cattle or horses’ and I’ve heard the term riggy being used when a horse plays up and won’t follow the directions of the rider. I wonder if the use here may be derogatory about the physical state of the ‘villains’ mentioned; somewhat in the terms of Colonel Bogey.

  5. Phil says:

    muzza –
    “Is not your horse upon its perch,
    Your oh bugger…”

    (Not mine, although it probably will be the next time I try to sing it.)

  6. Ralph Jordan says:

    Hi Jon.
    Trawling through my archive yesterday, I came across a song that James Patterson and myself recorded in 1976!
    It’s called the Grumbling Farmers…I have no idea from whence it came. But it’s quite amusing. If you’d like a copy,I’ll shove it in the post.
    In 30 years I’ve never heard it performed anywhere else.

  7. muzza says:

    Phil…………….I am a simple soul and your comment has gone right over my head
    but I am intrigued………..and need to know about the horse!

  8. Phil says:

    All should be revealed here. (My own effort can be found here.)

  9. Simon says:

    Sorry folks don’t know where I dregged June Tabor rather than Maddy from, possibly in the course of looking at or responding to another post or scheduling stuff to come. I sometimes have mutiple pages of the same website open but maybe it was simply a senior moment. I do apologise and have duly corrected the error of my ways.

    And Muzza picking up from yesterday at WordPress you have the option to check ‘just give me a user name’ at the bottom of the first sign in page. All you need to do is enter your name, e-mail address, a password and check this user name only option. You’ll get to a second page to enter some very basic details like your real name and once you’re through that, you get an e-mail to confirm you are in, click on the link and it’ll take you back to WordPress. Then enter the user name and password you’ve set up to log in at the very top left of the screen. Once logged in ‘My Account’ appears in a grey menu bar, top left. There is a further drop down menu if you hold your mouse pointer on this and you can then choose ‘edit my profile.’ There you will find the ‘gravatar’ which allows you to add a picture.

    I hope that helps.

  10. Simon says:

    SRD if you follow that second link and scroll down to page 8 and the section headed Ballads, I think the Hard Times link becomes a bit clearer.

    As for the etymology of rig it is curious, I’m no expert but the fit out/up transfer seemed to make sense.

  11. muzza says:

    Phil………….you have condemned me to checking all versions of “LittleMusgrave” to listen for “Horse on Perch” rather than “Hawk on perch”

  12. Maureen Musson says:

    We still use the word “rig” in the sense implied in the song – for example, we talk about election results being rigged.

  13. Simon says:

    I think the meaning of rigged is clear, but I guess what I’m trying to get at is how the same word gets to be used in such a different sense. Why do we say the result was ‘rigged’? It’s just such a strange word for a case of fraud. But then I suppose we might also use ‘fixed’, which could be seen as equally odd. I’m getting myself tied in knots here!!

  14. Lady D says:

    Used to hearing the Bellowhead version but I rather like this minimalist rendition… 🙂

  15. Jo Breeze says:

    More about Rigs of the Time from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
    There are 6 records of Rigs of the Time in the Library, all from the singing of John ‘Charger’ Salmons/Salmond from Norfolk.
    We used the Roud number to cross reference against different titles for the song. When searched on Roud No. 876, this rises to 48 records, the most common alternative title being ‘Hard Times’. This is a well-travelled song, with versions from all over the USA and Canada as well as from the UK.
    If you wish to see more detail on each record, change the ‘output’ to ‘record’ and press ‘submit query’.
    There is one record of the song in the Take 6 archive, collected by Francis Collinson in Norfolk.
    We use the Roud index and the Take 6 online collections in the search for information on Jon’s selections.
    For more information, or to carry out your own search for songs, please visit
    If you need any help accessing the library online or have any questions, please contact the VWML on 020 7485 2206 or

  16. Elly says:

    Gorgeous. I love the song on “Burlesque”, but it does work beautifully with just the glorious voice and the squeezebox too. 🙂

  17. Matthew Edwards says:

    How about singing this whilst drinking a pint of Riggwelter beer? 🙂


  18. wilmott says:

    My northern Grandma used rigs to mean tricks, as in “I’m up to your rigs, young lady”.

  19. muzza says:

    And there’s the Morris Dance…”Rigs o’ Marlow”

  20. Maureen Musson says:

    Then, of course, there is the other Bellowhead song, London Town – “up to the rigs, down to the jigs, up to the rigs of London Town”. We now need to know the etymology of “jigs”!

  21. Jane Ramsden says:

    The meaning of ‘rigged’ or ‘rigging’ is only clear in the context. Jury-rigging was originally different from the meaning of say, rigging election results. It refers to makeshift repairs or temporary contrivances, made with only the tools and materials that happen to be on hand. Originally a nautical term, on sailing ships, a jury rig is a replacement mast and yards improvised in case of damage or loss of the original mast. This use of the word jury may come from the Latin ‘adjutare’ – to aid – or Old French ‘ajurie’ – to help or relieve. So the rigging in this sense is just the actual rigging of a ship.

  22. Jane Ramsden says:

    ‘Rigging’ in the pejorative sense has more to do with ‘jerry-built,’ which implies shoddy workmanship not necessarily of a temporary nature, though no doubt it won’t last! The folk etymology is that “Jerry-rigged” was employed by World War II British troops to refer to the German use of scavenged parts to keep vehicles and weapons functional, from the use of “Jerry” as a pejorative term for German soldiers. It may be a corruption of Gerry-built, if such a Gerry existed, as a notoriously shoddy NE builder. Or it may be from the French ‘jour’ meaning only designed to last a short time, like a day or so.
    “Jimmy rig” is a more intense version of jury rig, a temporary fix that is not as well done and more likely to fail. From thence we get ‘jiggered’ – still a pejorative term used to denote a poor quality, short-lasting fix.
    In Yorkshire, we use the term jiggered to mean worn out or exhausted, i.e. b*ggered or kn*ckered! I don’t know if it has anything to do with the etymology of ‘jigs’ – but dancing one would certainly jigger me!

  23. Jane Ramsden says:

    Of course, ‘rigs’ may just be short for ‘rigours’ as in hard, hard times. I say this because some versions of this song date from before 1938, which is supposed to be the earliest recorded date for the use of the word ‘rig’ in the ‘fraudulently manipulate’ sense of engineering a result for profit. You’ll be clearer now, won’t you, Simon!

  24. Jane Ramsden says:

    As to the song, I absolutely loved it, Jon! One of your very best deliveries to date, and very likely to get my September vote.

  25. Simon says:

    Blimey Jane! Stout work and I’ll be jiggered if I can add to that!

    Just to explain a little further as to what prompted all of this Up To The ‘Rigs’ Of London Town is indeed another use of the word that really does seem a little strange and it started Jon on a line of thinking that I picked up on. We may in due course be back to that. I like words as some of you may have spotted, not that I’m making any claims for my own I hasten to add, but more the appreciation of the more lyrical songs that Jon has presented. The power of a simple phrase or even a couple of words can be devastating. Even their omission, as with Oggie Man can be profound. Thanks to all who’ve joined in with this knotty little rig issue, but before I tie myself up further, etc!

  26. Julian S says:

    wonderful. an absolutely timeless song. we could write lots of new verses for today but it would just be too depressing

  27. Phil says:

    As for the meaning of ‘rigs’, please, everyone, just find a library with the Oxford English Dictionary (or a friendly academic who can let you use their online subscription) – it’s all in there.

    What it says is, basically, that some time in the seventeenth century the word ‘rig’ started being used to mean ‘trick’ – which is exactly what it means here and in ‘Rigs of London’. But this was not connected with any of our contemporary meanings of the word ‘rig’ – I can say this with some confidence, because that’s what the people at the OED say, and they actually get paid to spend all day doing this stuff. What it was connected with is a bit of a mystery, but it seems to have some connection with some words we don’t use any more (‘reak’ and ‘rex’).

    Looking at the length of this thread – and the Fakenham Fair thread, full of equally irrelevant wittering about time signatures – I wonder if the voting system is going to have to be revised for this month!

  28. Jon Boden says:

    Hi Phil. That certainly seems like the strongest explanation for Rigs of the Time – thanks for pointing it out, although I don’t think you can be quite as definitive as all that. Looking at my Etymology Dictionary ‘prank’ is an C18th meaning, but there is also a C16th meaning of ‘romp’ which makes more sense for ‘Up to the Rigs, Down to the Jigs’ (- it’s also quite nice in Rigs of the TIme in a sort of sarcastic sense). ‘Rig’ meaning to fit out / dress up is apparently the oldest meaning (C15th), but the specifically nautical meaning is only recorded from the C19th onwards (although that only means the first time it was written down of course). It’s of course quite possible for a word in a song to have a variety of meanings / resonances, and I think both songs are probably richer with some degree of ambiguity left intact.

  29. Phil says:

    Good point – and I do like ‘romp’ as an alternative/additional meaning.

  30. Jane Ramsden says:

    I so like this song! But also ‘Up to the Rigs, Down to the Jigs’ as I was a student at London University (Queen Mary College) many moons ago.

    Here’s a very good YouTube video of Jon & Bellowhead doing ‘London Town’ at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2008:

  31. Diana says:

    A slightly different version than Bellowhead’s on Burlesque but just as good.

  32. Jane Ramsden says:

    Diana and I have been swapping folky CDs by post, mainly Spiers and Boden (‘cos I had none of their albums and now got 2 in the swishy laptop!) and Show of Hands. Returning those today, Diana, along with Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed!

    I know AIG was not so well-received by some SoH followers of old (perhaps deemed too pop-py) but I loved it. For those that don’t already know, Show of Hands are shortly releasing their new CD ‘Wake The Union.’ The union is Britain and Ameriky, folk and rock, trad and new, not trades union! Anyway, far better explained in this informed article from Phil Beer’s diary. Defo worth a read!

    Off for a tooth capping! One tooth. £390! I could go to a few folk concerts for that, with change for beer, and fish & chips on the way home! I know, I need teeth to eat them!

  33. Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    @Jane……….dear girl…..
    if you only have that one tooth…it is worth saving at any price!

  34. Jane Ramsden says:

    Muzza, mi old mucker, you are mistaking me for your old girlfriend called Juanita (Juan-ita, get it? Hahahahahaha!) Affectionately known, I’m sure, as central ‘eating. HAHAHAHAHA!

    Anyhows, I am still without the crown (I know! Unbelievable! And me, Queen Jane… Approximately!) I have been severely drilled (no comment, please), had a mouldy mouth full of purple plastic, followed by a temporary filling… which promptly fell out this morning! So now I am back to a (bigger) broken tooth and it aches. Remind me not to have dental treatment on a Friday next time, as the surgery is not open for 2 days and they’ll nivver fit me in on Monday for a replacement filling. So when am I having the crown proper fitted? In 3 weeks… on a Friday…

  35. Jane Ramsden says:

    PS It occurs to me that this private dentistry is potentially one of these rigs of the time…

  36. Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    THat reminds me……I have an appointment with my Chinese dentist..
    monday @ tooth hurty!

  37. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Muzza: Oh well, better than your Italian doctor for his innuendo…

  38. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Janey,Janey,Janey… that old crown still holding on!
    Ref the innuendo. . would you believe. your old AFSAD joke crossed my mind during a recent colonoscopy…….are there any folksongs about ‘colonoscopies’?

  39. OldMuzza(NWSurreyUK)u says:

    Good to hear this song yet again….and the powerful way young Jon sings it
    I’m still wondering if Janey’s £390 crown is holding on!

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