Yep, you read that title correctly. I remember sitting in the library at Cecil Sharp House with a friend of mine, back when I started researching Midlands folk songs, when he held up a book opened at this song and whispered, “This can’t mean what we think it means, can it?”
See more songs in this series…
1. Oh, It Was My Cruel Parents Who Did Me First Trepan [Roud 2897]
2. Who Hung The Monkey?
3. Poverty Knock
Now, as I discovered while recording Midlife, the album of Brummie traditional folk songs, music hall songs and industrial pieces, the Midlands has certainly had its fair share of dark and sinister practices (wife selling being the most disturbing), but parent-induced trepanning seemed a step too far. I think the worst I ever got was banishment to my bedroom, which I hated, but this brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “I need that like I need a hole in the head.”
The song is released as a digi-single on all the usual digital channels (click above to hear it on Spotify and Bandcamp). I’ll be aiming to put out a couple of songs a month this year, including these little research blogs. If you’d like to keep up with those releases, please sign up to my emailing list by
I toyed with recording this song on Midlife, and then forgot about it. When I rediscovered it in the last month or so, I immediately went to Twitter to see if I might be able to “crowdsource” an answer to what “trepan” in this song might mean. It turns out (thankfully, I might add) that the cruel parents in question hadn’t messed up their daughter’s forehead with a crude medical device, but had instead “ensnared or entrapped” her. Also a bit much, wouldn’t you say? Certainly just cause for a call to Childline.
A glance at the online archives at Cecil Sharp House, and you quickly discover that this particular trepanning was not an isolated incident. In fact, there are 23 separate files in which a trepanning was deemed notable in the English folk song canon. There’s this one (“Oh, It Was My Cruel Parents…”), there’s “Cupid’s Trepan”, and there’s “The Janting Car” (which achieves the splendid feat of being a song with two different Roud numbers, but a singular cruel trepanning). There’s one called “Rural Sport”, which is worrisome whichever trepan you go for, there’s “The Ranting Young Man’s Resolution”, there’s “The Trepan, Or Virtue Rewarded”, there’s (deep breath) “Lumps of Pudding”, and there’s “Cease Your Funning”. All of them are related to trepanning. Clearly, it was a common enough pastime to have developed its own sub-genre. Why Topic Records has missed the opportunity in its 80s years to release an album of trepanning songs is beyond me.
The collecting of Roud 2897
As I’ve already noted, I first came across this song in the Vaughan Williams Library at Cecil Sharp House, in Roy Palmer’s Songs Of The Midlands book (1972). He published it again in his collection, Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs (1979), this time with an added fifth verse. He notes that when he first collected the song from George Dunn on June 6th, 1971 (in Quarry Bank, Stafford), the singer could only recall the last line of that errant verse, but that was enough to prompt Palmer to reach for a collection of broadsides (which of us doesn’t keep a handy collection of broadsides within easy reach at all times?) and show him a verse of “Sally’s Love For a Young Man”. Sure enough, it all came flooding back. And if that’s not a perfect example of a floating verse, I’m not sure what is.
A note on the singer: George Dunn
An album of George Dunn singing his songs was recorded by Bill Leader on December 4th and 5th, 1971, and released in 1973 (the catalogue number was LEE 4042). The sleeve notes – written by Roy Palmer – are an extraordinary document of songs being passed down through the oral tradition.
George Dunn himself was a chainmaker from the Black Country whose talents as a skilled singer of traditional folk songs was well known in the area. As he explained to Palmer, he learnt his repertoire almost entirely from his father (an ironworker who listed his interests as “fishing and whistling”), and his memories of those songs being passed down to him were vivid.
“When George’s father could not afford to go out for a drink he would stay at home to mend the shoes, and sang as he cobbled. Alternatively, he would settle himself in his chair, ‘cut up his bacca’, and, as the kettle sang on the hob, the faithful clock ticked, and the lamp gently burned, he would entertain his children with his songs. Thus it was that ‘young Georgie’ first heard ‘Cold Blows the Wind’ and ‘All Fours’, and indeed nearly all his folk songs.”
George was “discovered as a singer” in 1970 by Mrs Rhoma Bowlder, a trainee teacher in Wolverhampton. While Palmer doesn’t note how he was discovered, he does point out that Dunn was very clear about which were “folk songs” and which were “popular songs”. Simply put, the songs that he learnt from his father (the ancestry of whom was only known as far back as the man himself) were “rural songs… received by oral tradition”, while the songs that he usually sang with school friends in his youth came from newspapers and the backs of “Lucky Bags” (bags of sweets and novelty toys).
The George Dunn album is a great collection of unaccompanied singing, well worth the time of anyone interested in understanding what traditional songs sounded like in a pre-polished era, and how they passed from generation to generation.
Lyrics: Oh, It Was My Cruel Parents Who Did Me First Trepan [Roud 2897]
Oh, it was my cruel parents that did my first trepan
They married me to an old man for the sake of money and land
If they’d married me to a young man without a penny at all
He’d have took me in his arms and have loved me all the more
Oh, it’s hush my dearest Nancy, oh wait till we go to town
I’ll buy you a lady’s bonnet, likewise a muslin gown
There is no lady in all the land your beauty can compare
And I’ll buy you a little lapdog to follow you everywhere
I want none of your lapdogs nor none of your gentle care
It’s a pity that such an old man my beauty you should snare
I am but sixteen years of age and scarcely in my bloom
Oh, you are my cruel torment, both morning, night and noon
When he goes to bed each evening he’s cold as any clay
His feet as cold as a midnight corpse well I have heard them say
His pipe is out of order, his flute is never in tune
Oh, I wish that he was dead and a young man in the room
Now some they do persuade me to drown him in a well
And others they do persuade me to grind him in a mill
I’d rather take my own advice and tie him to a stake
And I’ll get a stick and beat him until his bones I break