Here’s a great one for fans of traditional folk that love to see how songs change from place to place. Like many modern listeners, I first encountered ‘There Was an Old Man Came Over the Sea’ on Lankum‘s album, Cold Old Fire [2015] – a haunting, disturbing version featuring a spellbinding performance from singer, Radie Peat. Maybe, like me, you made the assumption that it was an Irish song, but the briefest of glances beneath the bonnet shows that it comes from nowhere and everywhere. We’ll come to that later.

What do we know about ‘There Was an Old Man Came Over the Sea’? 

I found the version performed in my video above in Roy Palmer’s book, Songs of the Midlands (1972). The accompanying notes tell us that it was collected by W.H.D. Rouse in 1899, from a chap called G. Hayward, living in Newbold near Rugby. There’s a rarity to these notes in that they tell us quite a bit about the situation in which the collector found himself. He was there to watch a mummers play, and, as it came to an end, the individual actors stepped forward and offered up a solo performance.

“Each of the players had one or more songs,” explains Rouse, “but most of them were music-hall ditties or the like.” Now, Roy Palmer points out that this particular song was often collected as a children’s song – something of a nursery rhyme – so one can only imagine the hushed silence as Hayward came to the end of this sinister interpretation, full of forced marriage, forced sex and death. And at Christmas time, too. I wonder if Hayward was generally known for being this inappropriate.

Delving into recently recorded versions of ‘The Old Man From Over the Sea’ (as it’s is commonly abbreviated), you quickly find that several roads lead to the revival singer, Frankie Armstrong. It’s certainly where Lankum got their version (although their album sleeve-notes also acknowledge a “grotesque” Irish version called ‘There Was an Old Man Came Over the Hill’, collected in Dublin from the singing of Brendan Behan in 1958 by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger). Armstrong’s version can be heard on the singularly titled album, The Bird in the Bush: Traditional Erotic Songs (Topic Records, 1966). Decidedly not a children’s song, then.

Armstrong’s notes tell us that, “Traditionally, parents with a marriageable daughter think of material advantage, while the girl’s mind runs on (let’s say) spiritual things. From this situation arises a crop of songs that common people never seem to tire of. This one was already printed on a ballad-sheet in Shakespeare’s time, and doubtless it wasn’t new then.” Not that Armstrong herself found it on an Elizabethan ballad sheet. A little detective work leads us back to A.L.Lloyd’s Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959), in which it is described (with remarkably similar wording), as, “an ancient joke of which country folk never seemed to tire.” (What is it with these common/country folk and their incessant need for sinister songs of sex and savagery? God forbid anyone might think that we, as enlightened as we are these days, might get any illicit excitement out of it.)

While we’re on the subject of relatively cheap titillation, it’s worth noting that versions of this song can often be distinguished by the part of the old man’s anatomy that they focus on. Commonly it’s his old grey beard, ‘a-shivering and shaking’. A Scottish version finds the old grey beard ‘newly shaven’, which gives the old man something of an unexpected George Clooney appearance (and is also notable for being one of the only versions in which the daughter tells the mother to shove it once things get too unpleasant). The Midlands version in the video above, as with versions collected in Sussex, makes a repetitive, oblique reference to ‘his old grey noddle… shaking’. It’s all too easy to imagine that his noddle, being so close to his noodle, is something he might shake all-too regularly and with wild abandon. However, the dictionary has ‘noddle’ down as old slang for head or brain (presumably related to ‘noggin’), which would put this version closer to alternates collected under the name, ‘Head A-Nodding’. No cheap titillation there, then. More’s the pity.

Where does ‘There Was An Old Man Came Over the Sea’ come from?

A.L. Lloyd’s text tells us that ‘There Was an Old Man Came Over The Sea’, “seems to be widespread in Scotland, and Sharp found it common in the West Country. Versions have been reported from Yorkshire, Worcestershire, and Wiltshire.” It certainly pops up all over the shop, and under a variety of names, too. Most commonly it is ‘The Old Man from Over the Sea’, but you’ll also find it as ‘A Dottered Auld Carle’, ‘The Old Man from Lee’, ‘Head A-Nodding’, and, once it makes the inevitable hop to the United States, ‘Ole Gum Boots and Leggins’.

Geek’s Corner

For the trivia nerds among you, here are a few extra tidbits. Over on the Full English website, 222 entries can be found under Roud 362, while Mainly Norfolk lists 10 recordings of it (curiously enough, not currently including the version by Lankum), four of which have been released by Topic Records. The great Scotts singer, Jeannie Robertson, recorded this song at least three times under at least two titles (‘The Dottered Auld Carle’ and ‘Old Grey Beard Newly Shaven’).

It would be fascinating to count up and list the number of alternate verses that have been collected for this song, although reading through them might be a bit like listening to multiple witness accounts at a particularly grizzly trial. For now, I’ll content myself to imagine the bemused faces of G. Hayward’s audience as he stepped forward and gave it his worrisome best that fateful Christmas.

‘There Was An Old Man Came Over the Sea [Roud 362]’, lyrics

Note that these are the lyrics to the Midlands version, collected near Rugby from Mr Hayward, 1899.

There was an old man came over the sea
Ah, but I’ll not have him
There was an old man came over the sea
Came over the sea to marry me
With his old grey noddle, his old grey noddle
His old grey noddle shaking

My mother told me to open the door
Yeah, but I’ll not have him
My mother told me to open the door
And I opened the door and he fell on the floor
With his old grey noddle, his old grey noddle
His old grey noddle shaking

My mother me to get him a chair
Yeah, but I’ll not have him
My mother me to get him a chair
And I got him a chair and he sat like a bear
With his old grey noddle, his old grey noddle
His old grey noddle shaking

My my mother told me to make him so toast
Yeah, but I’ll not have him
My my mother told me to make him so toast
And I made him some toast and he ate like a ghost
With his old grey noddle, his old grey noddle
His old grey noddle shaking

And my mother told me to make him some cake
Yeah, but I’ll not have him
Well, my mother told me to make some cake
And I made him him some cake and it made his tooth ache
With his old grey noddle, his old grey noddle
His old grey noddle shaking

And my mother told me to take him to church
Yeah, but I’ll not have him
Well, my mother told me to take him to church
And I took him to church but he fell off his perch
With his old grey noddle, his old grey noddle
His old grey noddle shaking

And my mother told me to take him to bed
Yeah, but I’ll not have him
Well, my mother told me to take him to bed
And I took him to bed but in the morn he was dead
With his old grey noddle, his old grey noddle
His old grey noddle shaking

There was an old man came over the sea
Ah, but I’ll not have him
There was an old man came over the sea
Came over the sea to marry me
With his old grey noddle, his old grey noddle
His old grey noddle shaking