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Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?

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BULLY IN THE ALLEY


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Charley Noble 28 Aug 01 - 12:55 PM
Charley Noble 29 Aug 01 - 09:03 AM
JedMarum 29 Aug 01 - 09:39 AM
JedMarum 29 Aug 01 - 09:48 AM
wysiwyg 29 Aug 01 - 10:14 AM
JedMarum 29 Aug 01 - 10:21 AM
A Wandering Minstrel 29 Aug 01 - 11:54 AM
JedMarum 29 Aug 01 - 01:50 PM
Amos 29 Aug 01 - 02:26 PM
GUEST,Willa 29 Aug 01 - 03:31 PM
Charley Noble 29 Aug 01 - 05:16 PM
Bob Bolton 30 Aug 01 - 06:26 AM
JedMarum 30 Aug 01 - 09:24 AM
Charley Noble 30 Aug 01 - 09:54 AM
Charley Noble 30 Aug 01 - 10:02 AM
Charley Noble 31 Aug 01 - 09:54 AM
JedMarum 31 Aug 01 - 03:05 PM
Charley Noble 31 Aug 01 - 04:55 PM
Charley Noble 01 Sep 01 - 09:48 AM
Charley Noble 22 Nov 07 - 11:52 AM
MartinRyan 22 Nov 07 - 02:25 PM
Charley Noble 22 Nov 07 - 03:24 PM
MartinRyan 22 Nov 07 - 03:41 PM
Charley Noble 22 Nov 07 - 10:56 PM
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MartinRyan 25 Nov 07 - 03:09 PM
Charley Noble 25 Nov 07 - 06:31 PM
GUEST 22 Oct 12 - 03:14 AM
GUEST,999 22 Oct 12 - 03:21 AM
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Subject: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 28 Aug 01 - 12:55 PM

Here's a question that has puzzled some readers of Patrick O'Brian's Captain Aubrey series. In Master & Commander (and many subsequent books), pp. 187, is the first reference to sailors ashore "kicking up Bob's A-Dying" which clearly means having a spree. But is there an old tune called "Bob's A-Dying" – some jig, reel or hornpike that really existed by this title or is this another figment of O'Brian's fertile imagination?

To your search engines, me lads, on your mark, get set, GO!


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 09:03 AM

Thought this was too challenging for the usual Mudcat stalwarts.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: JedMarum
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 09:39 AM

I am not sure the thread title would attract the usual Patrick O Brien experts, among the MC crowd - and we have a few (enthusiasts, if not experts).

I'd love to know the answer too. In fact, I'd love to learn the tune. Is it in the DT?


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: JedMarum
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 09:48 AM

Charley, as I reread that passage I think it sounds more like a Cockney-style expression, rather then reference to a tune.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: wysiwyg
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 10:14 AM

I was wondering if it was rhyming slang?

~S~


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: JedMarum
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 10:21 AM

It may be rhyming slang ... I don't know when that tradition started, this would have taken place early in the 19th century, Napoleanic Wars era, I guess.

If it isn't reference to a tune, I think it will be soon. I've been playing a bit with te idea this AM.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: A Wandering Minstrel
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 11:54 AM

This doesn't appear to be genuine, at least its not in Covey-Crump (The Royal Navys official Dictionary of slang terms) nor can I turn up any reference with Google, AltaVista or Webcrawler.

Kick up your heels implies a dance or party

You could try running it past the good folks in the gunroom at www.hmssurprise.com

Its a nice thought though. a set of hornpipes called Blackstrap & Lobscouse/Bobs a-dyin/The Yellow Admiral followed by the irish air "Never in Life"


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: JedMarum
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 01:50 PM

We've got one. We'll post it ASAP.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Amos
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 02:26 PM

Bob's-a-Dying: In Nelson's day meant a 'stupendous, drunken bash'

from the Pusser Rum website. No etymology found.

A


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: GUEST,Willa
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 03:31 PM

Now that really takes me back. I've never heard the origin of the phrase, or thought to question it, but in my mother's family (the men were fishermen for many generations) making a tremendous fuss was referred to as 'playing up bob's i dy'. I've never seen it written, so that's the nearest I can get to it.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 29 Aug 01 - 05:16 PM

Amos, I think you win the prize, at least in terms of where Patrick O'Brian ran across the phrase; he was known to be more than familar with the Pusser Rum literature and the substance itself. There may yet be a contradance tune tht someone will unearth with that title.

Willa's the first person who claims a family familiarity with the term which is very exciting; it may yet turn out to be a credible folk phrase.
The theory of Cockney rhyming slang probably doesn't hold water, although it seems a reasonable explanation of the phrase "So help me, Bob"/So help me, God which we find in the sea shanty "Bully in the Alley; I even sang it the latter way once by accident and freaked out me chorus mates.

I wrote my own song with a "Bob's a-Dying" chorus to introduce members of Roll & Go but it's not fair to paste that into the record yet.

Keep up the good work.;-)


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Bob Bolton
Date: 30 Aug 01 - 06:26 AM

G'day Charlie Noble,

It's a long way from me, but I understand 'Rhyming Slang' to have come into common use pretty late in the 19th century. here is no trace of it in Mayhew's careful transcription of the speech of ordinary Londoners (1850 - 1860) ... who do use then what they still today when they don't want to be overheard - 'back spell' slang (simple example: 'yob' - boy).

There are a lot of less perfect examples and it is not easy for an outsider to work out what they are saying ... about him, or the price of whatever is on offer.

Regards,

Bob Bolton


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Subject: ADD: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying
From: JedMarum
Date: 30 Aug 01 - 09:24 AM

Good bit of info, Amos. Thanks! Makes perfect sense within the context of the O Brian story, as well.

Guinnesschick and I have been working on tune for this, since the discussion caught our eye yesterday. We've put a few lyrics to it, as well:

A Part:

Bob's a-dying now
Better get him merry now
Bob's a-dying now
He won't last 'til Sunday

Bob's a-dying now
Fiddle diddle diddle dow
Bob's a-dying now
Bury him on Monday

B Part:

All ashore now times a wastin'
Kisses fra' the lassies waitin'
Rum and brandy to be tastin'
Thanum an Dhul your eyeballs straightened

Feasting fighting, wheeling dealing
Jigs and Reels and Hornpipes pealing
Kicking up the floor to ceiling
Dance until the girls are squealing

Misty Sunday morning's coming
Aye, Aul' Bob, you're up and running
Glass in hand, you dance alone
Pogue Mahone, you're not yet gone!


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Subject: ADD: Merchant's Island (Ipcar)
From: Charley Noble
Date: 30 Aug 01 - 09:54 AM

Oh, good work,Jed et al! I'll look forward to your tune. Our own song was spliced to a fragment I collected while at a party with local fishermen off Stonington, Maine, back in 1965. The tune turned up in my contradance band years later, a distant relative to "Soldier's Joy", and I've been having fun with it ever since; Merchant's Island is a small island in Penobscot Bay:

MERCHANT'S ISLAND
(Words by Charlie Ipcar © 1999 As sung by Roll & Go Tune: She's but a Lassie yet Key: F(5/C))

G—C-G--------D-------G
Oh, the wind blew up 'bout nor'nor'east,
---------C-G--D7
Blew right up on Monty's beach;
---G------D7---------G-------D7
The men got drunk and the women too –
--------------------------G
'Round the pub the rum jug flew!

Chorus:

G
We're kicking up Bob's a-dying,
-------------------D7
Kicking up Bob's a-dying;
------G-----------------C
We're kicking up Bob's a-dying –
D7-----------------G
Down on Merchant's Island!


One thing that we know is true,
There's nothing like ol' Brett's home brew,
For on our toots we're pissed as newts –
Down on Merchant's Island.(CHO)

Now, Dicky's not one to complain,
When he's in the fog or rain;
He'll sniff the air and if it's fair,
We're bound for Merchant's Island.(CHO)

When Eli's drained her final jar,
You'll find her clinging to the bar,
With wheel adrift, sheets to the wind,
She'll need a tow back home ag'in.(CHO)

No one can drink as much as Nor,
And still be standing on the floor,
With decks awash and a gale to face,
You'll hear him cry, "Splice the main brace!"(CHO)

There are other verses but that's enough for the jist! Oh, copy and past in Word,Times Font,size 12, and the chords should pop into their proper places.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 30 Aug 01 - 10:02 AM

Oh, and I did bounce this one off "the good folks in the gunroom at www.hmssurprise.com" and there was speculation but no one nailed it down as clearly as Amos, and no one there identified the term as historical slang.

It's a great site for other questions about this wonderful series of novels, but they don't know duff about nautical music. Too bad the site is not as well structured as this one for interaction.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 31 Aug 01 - 09:54 AM

I'm still willing to cover bets that there really was an old fiddle tune called "Bob's A-Dying" from the Napoleonic period. Be fun if anyone could dig up a reference.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: JedMarum
Date: 31 Aug 01 - 03:05 PM

Charely - great lyric! I'm not familiar with tune. I'd love to hear it.

We stole a melodic line I heard on Dan Milner's latest CD, from a song he calls Katie Kearney (aka Some Say the Devil's Dead) to create this song. I use a DADGAD tuning and work the fiddle on the melody. We're still playing with it, a bit ... but I think it'll work for us. We may need to learn yours too, and have a "Bob's A-dying" theme to one of our sets!


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 31 Aug 01 - 04:55 PM

Jed – thanks for the appreciation. The B-part of my tune is very close to the B-part in "Soldier's Joy." You'll need the help of some of the contradance fiddlers to really nail this one down. We could swap casettes at 10 paces. Maybe I should start a new thread with just the Scottish tune name. Where are you based?


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 01 Sep 01 - 09:48 AM

OK, with the help of the resident Mudcat fiddlers I have confirmed in another thread (check it out for details) that the tune is definitely a varient of "My Love Is But a Lassie Yet" although I have apparently mixed up which is the A-Part and which is the B-Part. Of course, I think it makes more sense designating the parts the way I do, similar to "Soldier's Joy" but now I know. It's not exactly the same tune but certainly closer than you would get from anything I could post.

One can play these fiddle tunes at the suggested website by clicking on the "m"; this is an amazing site.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 22 Nov 07 - 11:52 AM

Here's a follow-up revision of my "Merchants Island Song" which uses "Bob's a-dying" in the chorus; there is no relation to the names mentioned in this song with a person or persons living or indisposed (copy and paste into WORD/TIMES/12 to line up chords):

New words by Charlie Ipcar © 2007
Tune: My Love is But a Lassie Yet
Key: G

Merchant's Island


G--C-G--------D-------G
Oh, the wind blew up 'bout nor'nor'east,
---------C-G--D7
Blew right up on Monty's beach;
---G------D7---------G-------D7
The men got drunk an' the women too –
--------------------------G
'Round the pub the rum jug flew!


Chorus:

G
We're kicking up Bob's a-dying,
-------------------D7
Kicking up Bob's a-dying;
-----G-----------------C
We're kicking up Bob's a-dying –
D7-----------------G
Down on Merchant's Island!


One thing that we know is true,
There's nothing like ol' Brett's home brew,
For on our toots we're pissed as newts –
Down on Merchant's Island! (CHO)

Now, Kendall's not one to complain,
When he's in the fog or rain;
He'll sniff the air an' if it's fair,
We're bound for Merchant's Island! (CHO)

When Jeri's drained her final jar,
You'll find her clingin' to the bar,
With wheel adrift, sheets to the wind,
She'll need a tow back home ag'in. (CHO)

No one can drink as much as Nor,
And still be standin' on the floor,
With decks awash an' a gale to face,
Hear him shout, "Splice the main brace!" (CHO)

Then, Peter blew in through the gate,
Drinkin' twice as fast for he come in late,
He raised that rum jug to his nose
"Tilt 'er up an' down she goes!" (CHO)

Then, Tom an' Linn was the last come by,
They never drank but they said they'd try;
They drank so much of the ale an' stout,
They closed the pub an' threw us out. (CHO)

Oddly enough I've been contacted in the last few months by two different folks who are familiar with the original drinking song "Merchants island." One is a member of the family that summered on this island in Penobscot Bay for generations and he claims his ancestors composed it:

I am interested in this song because it was no doubt me ancestors that wrote it. The Island use to belong to my family many years ago. I was just there the day before yesterday for the day to visit the cemetery on Childes Hill and my ancestors dwelling spots. I am also writing a book about Merchants. I remember my Grandfathers cousin singing me the whole entire song but sadly enough he would never write the words down and they are gone with him now.

The second contact is a resident of the mainland fishing harbor of Stonington, Maine, and has a band that been singing a version of the song for years. He was surprised that anyone outside their community had ever run across it, given its bawdy lyrics. Eventually he sent me the words as he sings them now and I forwarded them to the Merchant family; they were surprised and delighted.

The wonders of the internet!

I'll be posting a link with a MP3 file soon of how I sing this song.

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: MartinRyan
Date: 22 Nov 07 - 02:25 PM

OK. I seem to have missed this one on its first airing. A quick hunt through some books of slang shows the following in "The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang." (which is basically an abridged version of Partridges monumental work:

_________________________
Bob's a-dying. Idling; idling and dozing: nautical: ?ca 1790-1850. Wm. N. Glascock Sailors and Saints 1829 (I,179), 'Nothing but dining, and dancing, and Bobs-a-dying on deck from daylight till dark.'

___________________________________

Regards


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 22 Nov 07 - 03:24 PM

MartinRyan-

You get to share credit with Amos! What an excellent citation to this archane phrase, which most conclusively was not a figment of Patrick O'Brian's fertile imagination.

However, now the phrase makes little sense at all. How can one be "kicking up" "idling and dozing"? Too much information! O'Brian may have missed this citation.

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: MartinRyan
Date: 22 Nov 07 - 03:41 PM

I see some later references (including one to Devon slang) which indicate the shift to a more disorderly behaviour!

Regards
p.s. I have to say that one corner of my brain hears it in a nonsense rhyme way - like "Hands, knees and bumps-a-daisy!"!


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 22 Nov 07 - 10:56 PM

Here's the promised link to the MP3 of how I sing "Merchants island": click and go to MP3 sample

Enjoy!

And, Martin, thanks for your update. I'm not as good at digging some this stuff up as I like and Mudcat has proven once again to be a real research resource.

Oh, and here are the bawdy verses for those who might be interested:

From Kenneth Maccarone 10/18/07

MERCHANT'S ISLAND

They took her down by the hickory root.
They made her ass go toot-a-toot.
They made it sound like a German flute,
Down on Merchant's Island.

Chorus:

The wind came up from the east north east.
The keg came ashore on Monty's Beach.
The men got drunk and the women too
And around the house the piss pot flew.


He took her down on a slippery slab
And, then when he began to jab,
On every pike he killed a crab,
Down on Merchant's Island.

I put Meriah in the cart.
I spread her legs right wide apart.
I greased her groin with the hickory bark
And, with every pike, I made her fart.

Old Uncle Jud, the good old man,
Just couldn't make his doodle stand
Until Old Snyder took it in her hand
Down on Merchants's Island.

Oh, the thunder roared and the lighting flashed
And it broke Ma's piss pot all to smash
And didn't we have a hell of a bash
Down on Merchant's Island.

I wish I was a diamond ring
Placed on my true love's hand
So that every time she wiped her ass
I'd see the promised land.

The last verse seems to me to be an add on from some other song.

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 23 Nov 07 - 08:22 PM

refresh


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Jim Dixon
Date: 25 Nov 07 - 07:21 AM

BOB'S-A-DYING. A great row or racket is called a Bob's-a-dying. "What a Bob's-a-dying they made!" means "What a row they kicked up."
--from "Northumberland Words" By Richard Oliver Heslop, 1892.

She threatened to run away from him, and kicked up Bob's-a-dying, and I don't know what all; and being the woman, of course she was sure to beat in the long run.
--from "The Hand of Ethelberta" by Thomas Hardy, 1905.

Yes : you see her first husband was a young man who let her go too far; in fact she used to kick up Bob's-a-dying at the least thing in the world.
--from "Under the Greenwood Tree" by Thomas Hardy, 1873.

'Man the haulyards [sic]—let go reef-tackles, cluelines, buntlines—light up in the top—hoist away!' Up they went to the tune of 'Bob's a dying.'
--from "Nights in the Galley," an article in The Monthly Magazine, 1833.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: MartinRyan
Date: 25 Nov 07 - 07:24 AM

Now, that last one IS interesting, isn't it?

Regards


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 25 Nov 07 - 10:18 AM

Jim-

You've really nailed it now, a tune! Err, what page was your citation from in the Monthly Magazine and how did you find the time and patience to scroll through that document?

Maybe I should report these results back to the Patrick O'Brian website; the response there was pathetic.

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Jim Dixon
Date: 25 Nov 07 - 11:49 AM

I found it with Google Book Search, like this:
http://books.google.com/books?um=1&q=%22Bob%27s+A-Dying%22&as_brr=1

It's on page 628. Doesn't my earlier link take you directly to that page?

We've found instances of Google Book Search working differently depending on what country you're in, because of different copyright laws, but this magazine is so old, I'd think it would be out of copyright no matter where you are.


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Subject: Lyr Add: THE FANCY LAD (from Bodleian)
From: Jim Dixon
Date: 25 Nov 07 - 12:19 PM

I missed this the first time around. From A Book of Scattered Leaves: Poetry of Poverty in Broadside Ballads of Nineteenth-Century England by James G. Hepburn, 2002, page 422.

THE FANCY LAD

When first I came to town,
They call'd me lovely Nancy,
But now they've chang'd my name,
And call me the soldier's fancy.

CHORUS: Go along, go along Bob,
Go along Bob's a dying.
Go along, go along Bob,
Your fancy girl's a crying.

I will buy my love a coat,
Silver buttons to it,
I will let them see
I am the girl can do it.

Now when my love comes home,
I will roll in riches,
And I will by my love
A pair of buck-skin breeches.

I for beef and pork,
You for peas and pudding;
Put a pair of clean sheets on the bed,
For the fancy lads are coming.

When first I came to town,
I had not a smock to wear O,
But now I have nine or ten,
For the fancy lads to tear O.

O once I had a bed,
But now I am forc'd to plank it,
Hang and take the jade,
She stole my bed and blanket.

Then in comes merry Peggy,
Hang her ragged fortune,
She pawn'd her Holland smock,
To raise her lad a quartern.

My fancy lad's in Quod,
I am free and willing,
To turn out at night,
And get an honest shilling.

- - -
Peas and pudding--poor fare, workhouse fare
Quod--prison

The ballad has been seen in one copy, issued by Bloomer of Birmingham, who is known to have been in business in the years 1817-25. He died in 1827. He describes the ballad as a new song.

[Despite what the above author says, you can see two other copies of the same song in the Bodleian collection, here and here.]


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: MartinRyan
Date: 25 Nov 07 - 03:09 PM

I saw that one, OK. As a song, it seems related to "The Lea (/Lee) Boy's lassie".

Regards


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 25 Nov 07 - 06:31 PM

Or on first reading, it seems to me a sister to "Katie Cruel."

This really is the best research response I've had on Mudcat for a nagging question since the mystery was solved this year (after over 60 years!) of who composed "Pity the Downtrodden Landlord."

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: GUEST
Date: 22 Oct 12 - 03:14 AM

Quite right Charley! It is a widespread but difficult to document family of songs to which the 'Hexhamshire Lass' belongs – merely a localised (Northumberland) version of a widespread song family – including 'Katy Cruel' (in USA), Burn's 'Ay Waukin' O', 'Leabob's Lassie', 'Harry Newell', 'I know where I'm going', 'The Fancy Lad' ('Go Along Bob') great song this (see above) - we don't have many songs set in the mouths of whores and what a lively text! – 'Aye for Saturday Night' – nice bit of Celia Costello at http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Traditional-music-in-England/025M-C1023X0037XX-0600V0 self-censoring in front of Charles Parker! So the song family varies from highly lyrical to quite ribald. Roud gives branches of the family different numbers (Roud 1645, 5701). Some of the tunes bear marked similarity though the texts are quite different. (You might not easily hear the melodic connection between 'Ay Waukin' O' and 'Hexhamshire Lass' but it is there). There is an unrelated text that uses the 'Go Along Bob' phrase in an early C19th publication at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mYkvAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA28&lpg=PA28&dq=%22Go+along+bob%22&source=bl&ots=fLYpRtGfim&sig=Cpf_43Tgc50YWS1jPW6QRavzuOY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=SPGEULvNOILC0QXdloCgBQ&sqi=2&ved=0CDkQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=%22Go%20along%20bob%22&f=false . The song family deserves a full article.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: GUEST,999
Date: 22 Oct 12 - 03:21 AM

http://blogjam.name/?p=7596

Bobsy-die and Bob's-a-dying


First reference to it in the OED, 1829.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 22 Oct 12 - 08:22 AM

The depths of Patrick O'Brian's research for his novels is a constant source of amazement to me.

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: GUEST
Date: 17 Nov 12 - 10:22 PM

In Chaoter 6 of The Ionian Mission, Jack is remembering his days in the forecastle and recites a list of dances he used to do, including "the double Hartman...the Kentish knock ... The Bob's a-dying and its variations..." So it may have been a step rather than a song, which would go with the notion of KICKING UP Bob's a-dying.


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 18 Nov 12 - 11:01 AM

There are always clues in O'Brian's books to his extensive research. I suspect that "Bob's a-Dyin'" was a step as well as a tune.

Cheerily,
Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Help: Kicking Up Bob's A-Dying?
From: An Pluiméir Ceolmhar
Date: 17 Nov 15 - 08:47 AM

"Bob's a-dying" has popped up in Michael Quinion's extraordinarily informative and entertaining "World Wide Words" newsletter, which I recommend to any Catters interested in language.

Here's the relevant Q&A. The newsletter also appears in web-page form here.

Bob's-a-dying

Q. From Les Kirkham: I know this phrase is used in the navy to mean "drunk", even "raucously drunk", often as "kicking up Bob's a-dying", but what are its origins? Is it anything to do with Bob's your uncle?

A. The usual dictionary sense of Bob's-a-dying is of a disturbance or uproar, perhaps with physical violence involved. It requires no stretch of imagination to connect this with sailors on shore leave getting well tanked up, but drunkenness as such doesn't seem to be the idea behind it.

It's rare these days and most people will probably have come across it only in such works as the seafaring novels of Patrick O'Brian. He uses it five times in various books, as here about his crew:
Once ashore they kicked up Bob's a-dying to a most shocking extent and then set about the soldiery.
Blue at the Mizzen, by Patrick O'Brian, 1999.

The dating of the expression fits the Napoleonic period in which the books are set. We begin to see it in print in 1828 but may reasonably assume it's at least a decade or two older. It's much too old and too different in sense to be linkable to Bob's your uncle , though it may be added to the list of sayings involving somebody or something named bob that may just possibly have been an influence.
By the end of the nineteenth century it had largely dropped out of public writings but was being recorded in dialect, from Cornwall to Northumberland, sometimes in modified forms such as bobs-a-dial or bobs-a-dilo. It was said to mean "boisterous merriment", though it could also mean causing a row or making a huge fuss. Thomas Hardy has a character in Under the Greenwood Tree say, "You see her first husband was a young man, who let her go too far; in fact, she used to kick up Bob's-a-dying at the least thing in the world."
When it first appeared, people seemed clear enough what it was referring to. A story in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1835 has "I could dance a hornpipe and kick up Bob's a-dying." Two years earlier a short story appeared that described setting sail on a warship:
Man the haulyards — let go reef-tackles, cluelines, buntlines — light up in the top — hoist away! Up they went to the tune of "Bob's a dying".
The Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1833.

If any doubt should remain, let me dispel it with this later example:
The bridal party marched in regular order next, and over them a parasol, attached to a long rod of iron, was carried by another man, and by his side was an accordeon player, striking up some lively strains, such as "Pop goes the Weasel," "Bob's a dying," &c.
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 29 June 1854. Accordeon was a contemporary spelling of accordion, derived from its original German name.
Patrick O'Brian was also sure of its musical origin:
He too had danced to the fiddle and fife, his upper half grave and still, his lower flying — heel and toe, the double harman, the cut-and-come-again, the Kentish knock, the Bob's a-dying and its variations in quick succession and (if the weather was reasonably calm) in perfect time.
The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O'Brian, 1981.

The many references to kicking up Bob's a dying suggests a high-kicking dance. This presumably wasn't a sea shanty but a tune particularly popular with seafarers. It's a pity that this doesn't now seem to be known. It must have been particularly lively to have become linked to uproar ashore, though sailors putting the boot in during an affray would at once have seen the connection.
Who or what was bob is likewise not known. One theory has it that it referred to a shilling in old British currency, known as a bob since the latter part of the eighteenth century; bob might have been dying because the sailor's money was almost spent. On drink, we may reasonably suspect.


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