The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #61609   Message #3662802
Posted By: Lighter
22-Sep-14 - 06:10 PM
Thread Name: Lyr Req: Maggie May (from A. L. Lloyd)
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Maggie May (from A. L. Lloyd)
The well-known sailor song "Maggie May" was widely popularized by Bert Lloyd on the LP "English Drinking Songs," and by many more since.

Stan Hugill's "Shanties from the Seven Seas" claims that the original song was called "Charming Nellie Ray" and dates from 1830.

Hugill's authority for this statement is an excerpt from the 1830-31 shipboard diary of seaman Charles Picknell as it appeared in the periodical "Sea Breezes" ca1955-56. It was reprinted in the Australian "Singabout" in 1957.

"Sea Breezes" had gotten "Charming Nellie Ray" in turn from an article in the London nautical publication "Blue Peter" in 1930.

There were originally five stanzas, but "Sea Breezes" printed only the first and the fifth.

Picknell's complete journal has been republished meticulously in "The Kains: Female Convict Vessel" (Adelaide: Sullivan's Cove, 1989), pp. 9-40. This edition attempts to maintain every peculiarity of Picknell's spelling and punctuation, both of which were rather poor in 1830.

An examination of this reprint buttresses suspicions that the song, "Nellie Ray," is considerably more recent than 1830-31. It appears at the very end of the journal, after a few additional notes by Picknell and a list of Kain's provisions. Here is the full and exact title and text as reprinted:

                       Nelly Ray. (Song.)

I was paid off at the home,
From a voyage to Sierra Leone;
Three pounds monthly, was my pay.
        When I drew the cash I grinned,
        But I very soon got skinned
By a lass who lived in Peter Street, called Ray.

I shall ne'er forget the day
When I met Nellie Ray.
'Twas at the corner of the Canning Place;
        With a mighty crin-o-line
        Like a frigate of the line,
As if I were a slaver she gave chase.

Saying, 'What cheer ! homeward bounder,
Just you come along with me';
So in Peter Street we had some gin and tea;
        It was morn when I awoke
        Then I found that I was broke
For sweet Nellie had skedaddled with my money.

To the magistrate I went,
Where I stated my lament :
They soon had poor Nelly in the Dock.
        And the Judge he guilty found her,
        For she'd robbed a homeward bounder,
And he sent her to Van Dieman's far away.

Oh! my charming Nellie Ray,
They have taken you away,
You have gone to Van Diemen's cruel shore;
        For you've skinned so many tailors,
        And you've robbed so many sailors,
That we'll look for you in Peter Street no more.

This could hardly have been written in 1831. Why? The most obvious difficulty is the word skedaddle, which, as shown by the OED, originated in the United States in about 1861. But perhaps the OED missed earlier examples. We have no reason to think so, but even if they had, that would not explain the general style of the piece, the melody of which is precisely that of Benjamin Hanby's hit, "Darling Nelly Gray," not published till 1856 (Boston: Oliver Ditson). But perhaps that isn't conclusive either. Perhaps Hanby (in Ohio) "stole" the tune from English deep-water sailors and perhaps his song and not "Nellie Ray" is the "parody." But even so there's the matter of wages. An able seaman's pay in the British merchant service was generally two pounds ten shillings a month in 1831: it seems not to have risen to three pounds until about 1880 (that's what Joseph Conrad received monthly for his voyage in the Palestine in 1881), but in Australia it was two pounds ten as late as 1908. (This is the figure given in more recently collected "Maggie May" versions.) "Slavers" became especially prominent in a British and Australian context only after the passage of the Pacific Islanders' Protection Act of 1872, which provided that British warships would disrupt the illicit trade in kidnapped Melanesian laborers ("blackbirding"); these laborers were frequently brought to Queensland. But, after all, maybe some earlier slavery is meant.

All special pleadings for an "1830-31" date for "Nelly Ray" collapse in a heap, however, when we consider the entire phrase "With a mighty crin-o-line,/ Like a frigate of the line." What real connection could there by between a "crinoline" (a kind of petticoat that became popular, if the OED may be trusted, only in the mid- to late 1840s) and a frigate of the line?

In fact, warships began to be rigged with so-called "crinoline frames" at some point after 1877 for defense against the newly deployed "locomotive" topedo, the direct ancestor of the self-propelled torpedoes of the twentieth century. A warship's "crinoline" consisted of a wire mesh frame which, extending below the surface of the water, could snare and stop the early, slow-moving torpedos of the day. The first unmistakable example in the OED is from 1887, but the "crinoline frame" was discussed as a potential defense some ten years earlier in "Torpedo Warfare," Westminster Review (Oct. 1877), p. 171.

All these factors combine to show that the "Nellie Ray" associated with Picknell's journal could not have been written before late 1877; ten years later than that might be a closer approximation. How it found its way into Picknell's notebook of his voyage from Britain to Australia fifty years earlier is unknown, but the most likely explanation may be that he – or someone else – was taken by the song and copied it into the final blank pages of the journal because of its releveance to Picknell's youthful voyage on a "female convict ship." This would not be the first time that much later material was appended, innocently or not, to writings of many years earlier.