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The Sausage Man – Roud V14373

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OK, so I’ve been harping on to anyone and everyone about ‘The Sausage Man’ for a while now, and those that follow me on social media will have seen snippets of it here and there. I’m not sure if it needs to be better known, but I’m going to do my damndest to give it a chance.

I got this song from a collection of street ballads given to me by Mrs Pat Palmer. Pat is the widow of the late, great old songs scholar, Roy Palmer. The collection is an unbound sheath of papers that includes photocopies of some fairly obscure Brummie ballads, put together by Roy in 1979 for the City of Birmingham Education Department. Each song has some details attached to it, which I’ve been cross-referencing with a book called Street Literature In Birmingham, edited by Trevor Jones in 1970. Yes folks, that’s how I spend my evenings. My family despair of me.

Street Ballads in Birmingham

Within Roy Palmer’s collection, he has included some notes on the history of street balladry in Birmingham. I find this stuff fascinating, so I hope you will, too.

The city has a rich history of street songs. In 1790, the poet George Davis noted that The Fox, a pub on Castle Street (a fraction of which still exists near the new Primark), was home to “hawkers and ballad singers – sworn foes to dull sobriety and care”. Indeed, so many of them haunted the streets of Brummagem that the authorities decided to act. In 1794, “beggars, ballad singers and other vagrants” were outlawed, and license was given to apprehend any caught “strolling… within the parish”.

However, this didn’t last long. Songs meant income, and the balladeers appear to have done such a roaring trade in villages outside of the parish that the authorities eventually relented. As Roy Palmer deftly illustrates: In the year 1800 there were no ballad printers in Birmingham, and in 1885 there were also no ballad printers in Birmingham. But during that 85-year span, 40 came and went. By his estimation, millions of songs were printed and sold. Writing and singing songs became a vast Brummie industry.

It was sometimes very lucrative, too. Ballad printer, Joseph Russell, left an estate of £20,000 in 1839. That’s roughly £2 million in today’s money. One of his contemporaries had approximately 4,000 individual songs on his books. With these numbers you begin to see just how enormous the Brummie back catalogue must have been. Sure, much of it was doggerel, but there are gems there if you will but look.

Most of these song publishing fortunes were built on the pennies of the poor, of course , and in order to write for the masses the songwriters had to really get inside their everyday wants, pleasures and needs. In the archives you’ll find plenty of ghost stories, songs about boxing matches, the pitfalls of dating (not much changes). And, yes, songs about sausage roll sellers. There’s no need to scoff at that, either. Think back a few months to Piers Morgan’s outrage over Greggs vegan sausage roll. It instantly caught the imagination of everyday people. Had this been 1830, someone might have written a song about it. Maybe someone has.

(Actually, I know someone has. At least, I know there’s been a verse written on the subject. It was put together by my dear old friend, Richard Davies from The Almighty Man Band. He teases me about my obsession with old songs, so much so that he’ll make up official-sounding statements and round them off with a fake Roud number, as if doing so adds to their sense of importance. And so I include his verse here. Maybe it can be filed under the Sausage Man’s Roud number. That’ll teach him.)

The Sausage Man

So, what do we know about ‘The Sausage Man’ itself? We know that it was published in around 1840 by T. Watts of Snow Hill, a man who did jail time for, “selling unstamped newspapers” (pure evil, right?)

We know also that it had a specific tune (not all that common for street ballads – many didn’t) and that the tune was a hymn called ‘Mother Dear’. The hymn certainly fits with the verses, but it wasn’t clear how the chorus ought to go, so I made a melody up for those parts. I have to say, I love the irreverence of taking a piece of religious music and stuffing it full of what are essentially dick jokes. Well played, whoever wrote this.

We also know that T. Watts published a song around the same time called ‘One Suit Between Two’. That’s neither here nor there. Suffice to say that I’m on the hunt. I’m a sucker for an intriguing title.

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The Sausage Man – lyrics

There’s a town called Birmingham
The population’s great
The toyshop of the world, it’s said
With artisans elate
There’s New Street and a street called High
You can see the fashions stroll
And one who always greets the eye
He calls out sausage roll

Sausage roll, sausage roll
He calls out sausage roll

His apron is as white as snow
His whiskers, they’re all red
To all he makes a courteous bow
It’s how he earns his bread
He’s capped, white shirted and polished shoed
As black as any coal
His jacket striped in pink and blue
He calls out sausage roll

A pretty missus with her mama
She cannot help the whim
However courteous they are
Their fancies will begin
To take a slice or a jelly tart
Her mama can control
But nothing pleases this maiden fair
Like this man’s sausage roll

I cannot tell if quantity
Effects so much his sale
Or if, indeed, the quality
Or perhaps his pleasing tale
I cannot tell you the reasons why
This man he will not stroll
To male or female passers by
And present his sausage roll

If mamas will fastidious be
And papas will be blessed
If daughters do not always see
Their truest interest
I cannot tell you what can be right
For ladies on the whole
But I’d say don’t stay out late at night
And sigh for sausage roll

Here’s the new verse by Master Richard Davies…

On New Street in more recent times
You’ll hear his call on high
He’s shouting that his sausage meat’s
The best that cash can by
But the lads and lasses they pass him by
They see him as the dregs
They’re not after his sausage meat
They want vegan, bought from Greggs

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  1. Reg morris Reg morris

    Are all your songs about old times birmingham

    • Jon Jon

      Many are, yes.

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