Friday, February 26, 2010

Oh Moll she lives in Deptford Town

Jeffery Farnol (1878-1952) was an immensely popular novelist in the first half of the 20th century, famous for his swashbuckling romantic tales set in Regency England. Though born in Birmingham, he grew up in Lee at 6 Dorville Road. His brother recalls him flying kites on Blackheath, and later enrolling 'at the Goldsmiths Institute at New Cross, London S.E., to study in the "Life Classes" of the Painting School, three nights a week'. As he found success he bought a house of his own in Lee, in 1912, at 71 Eltham Road. Later he moved to the South Coast.

In my search for South London folk songs, I came across this section of his 1921 novel Martin Conisby's Vengeance. The scene, which features a politically dubious battle aboard ship with a 'vile blackamor', includes what appears to be a sailors song about Deptford:

'presently I heard the scrape of a viol somewhere beyond the bulkheads that shut me in and therewith a voice that sang, the words very clear and distinct:

Oh, Moll she lives in Deptford town,
In Deptford town lives she;
Let maid be white or black or brown.
Still Moll's the lass for me;
Sweet Moll as lives in Deptford town,
Yo-ho, shipmates, for Deptford town,
Tis there as I would be.

With this singing I thought to hear the heavy thud of an unshod foot on the planking above my head, and setting my teeth I gripped my knife in sweating palm. now (and to my despair) came the singing again to drown all else, hearken how I would:

Come whistle, messmates all.
For a breeze, for a breeze
Come pipe up, messmates all, For a breeze.
When to Deptford town we've rolled
Wi' our pockets full o' gold;
Then our lasses we will hold
On our knees, on our knees.

In the dark was the sudden, thin complaint of a rusty and unwilling bolt, though if this were to my right or left, above or below me, I could not discover and my passionate listening was once more vain by reason of this accursed rant:

Who will not drink a glass,
Let him drown, let him drown;
Who will not drink a glass, Let him drown.
Who will not drink a glass
For to toast a pretty lass,
Is no more than fool and ass;
So let him drown, let him drown!

...Who will not kiss a maid
Let him hang, let him hang;
Who fears to kiss a maid, Let him hang.
Who will not kiss a maid
Who of woman is afraid,
Is no better than a shade;
So let him hang, let him hang!"

Is this a genuine folk song? In fact it looks like parts of two songs with the 'Moll she lives in Deptford town' verse scanning very differently to the rest. The remaining three verses do sound like a coherent song, even if they are a pastiche. Although I haven't found any trace of this song elsewhere, it has an authentic structure. Whether invented by Farnol or not, it works as a song - for instance it pretty much fits with the tune to the old gallows song Sam Hall.

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