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Billy The Pit Horse: Welsh miners' song?

17 Jan 14 - 06:51 AM (#3592894)
Subject: Billy The Pit Horse: Welsh miners' song?
From: Mick Tems

Bill Reese of Moch Pryderi (Welsh band from Virginia, USA) asks:

Mick, I have been asked to find out if the song, "Billy the Pit Horse" was an original Welsh song, and most importantly, if there is a melody to go with it, other than the one used by Merle Travis in "Dark as a Dungeon". Would you happen to know?"

So far, I've drawn a complete blank. There were hundreds of pit horses in the mines in South Wales (and North Wales, too) but there were approximately 70,000 pit horses in the whole of Britain. I think the last pit horse, Robbie, retired in 1999 (Pontypool, Gwent).

Who would be likely to know?

Mick Tems

17 Jan 14 - 12:57 PM (#3593004)
Subject: RE: Billy The Pit Horse: Welsh miners' song?


The lyrics are in the DT. However, they seem to be stanzas cobbled together in that two are about Billy the pit horse and the other three about folks connected to miners. That doesn't answer the question, however.

17 Jan 14 - 05:18 PM (#3593076)
Subject: RE: Billy The Pit Horse: Welsh miners' song?
From: Mick Tems

Thanks! So let's ask Geoff...


Oh the tough, sturdy miner works hard for his pay,
He'd work through the night and half of the day.
But there's no one works harder way down in the grime
Than old Bill, the pit horse, a slave to the mine.

Old Billy will pull out coal ton after ton
And never will rest 'til his day's work is done.
Then off he will go to his hut made of stone
To rest his poor and tired weary bones.

There is many a young lad I've known in my time
Who's wasted his young life way down in the mine,
Not taking the warning of the flame that blows out
Which shows every miner that trouble's about.

There is many a young girl I've known in my life
Who's lived just to be a coal miner's wife,
For the wife of a miner must be sturdy and strong
And never must worry if things should go wrong.

So come all you young fellows and take my advice
And leave the pit for the fools and the mice.
Never go down a pit-shaft strapped tight in a cage
And you will live to a ripe old age.

Collected by Geoff Drake from the singing of Idris Griffith

17 Jan 14 - 07:19 PM (#3593110)
Subject: RE: Billy The Pit Horse: Welsh miners' song?
From: Mick Tems

From Bill Reese:

"It seems from a conversation with the author of the book, that the TUNE Merle Travis used for "Dark as a dungeon" was a Welsh melody.

Geoff Drake is a Welsh immigrant to Canada who learned this song when he was visiting Idris Griffith's son, Elwyn, in his native Wales. Noting the similarity to Merle Travis' "Dark As A Dungeon" (page 55), he says the words are obviously not those of a poet like Travis, whose miners "lust for the lure of the mine." 2 This man knows the coal and hates it while respecting it.
Verse 3 refers to the Davy Lamp, which has a naked flame to denote firedamp gas and superceded the taking of canaries down to the coal face: when the canary fell off its perch, the men ran!"

19 Jan 14 - 10:26 AM (#3593530)
Subject: RE: Billy The Pit Horse: Welsh miners' song?
From: Mick Tems

And some more from Bill Reese:
Just a bit more from the book's author;

John C. O'Donnell wrote:
Dear Ken,

Looking back through some of my notes, I note that Geoff Drake had heard the song Billy the Pit Horse when he was visiting Idris Griffith's son Elwyn. Geoff had returned to his native Wales for a visit, and (as he described it) he and Elwyn were having a 'jam session' playing guitar and singing songs that they knew. They were singing the "Travis" song (Dark As A Dungeon) when Elwyn's dad, Idris, walked into the room and asked: "Where did you get the new words?"

Idris told him that he learned Billy, the Pit Horse, sung to the same melody, from one of his fellow workers at the Arael Colliery in Abertillery (Geoff's home town). Geoff went on to say that In Britain there is a suspicion that Travis "borrowed" a traditional tune. Idris indicated that the 'old man' he had learned it from had always sung it to that tune.

Bill Reese
Moch Pryderi
Celtic Music of Wales

"The Arael Colliery" was the Arael Griffin Colliery; it was sunk in 1863 in the village of Six Bells, near Abertillery (which was named after The Six Bells pub.) The pit was mothballed in 1930 because of The Depression, and was taken over in 1936 by Thomas Paton, who owned it until Nationalisation in 1947. On June 28, 1960, a firedamp explosion killed 45 miners in the Six Bells Disaster; and a giant 66ft statue of a miner was created by Sebastien Boyesen, named 'The Guardian Of The Valleys', commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Bells explosion on June 28, 2010.

In the 1970s, the Six Bells colliery was amalgamated with the Marine colliery at Cwm, near Ebbw Vale, in the National Coal Board's drive to create superpits. All the coal won at the Marine and Six Bells collieries was wound up the Marine shafts. The combined Marine/Six Bells collieries closed by British Coal in 1988.

Mick Tems

19 Jan 14 - 11:50 AM (#3593543)
Subject: RE: Billy The Pit Horse: Welsh miners' song?
From: maeve

I'm finding this quite interesting, Dr. Price. Thank you!


19 Jan 14 - 12:25 PM (#3593557)
Subject: RE: Billy The Pit Horse: Welsh miners' song?
From: Mick Tems

Thanks! It's the strange combination of being an old newspaper hack and an a collector/musicologolist that keeps me going!