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Bedlam Boys

May 4, 2017

Here’s a moral conundrum for you. The pub choir that I sing in includes in its repertoire a folk song called ‘Bedlam Boys’. It’s a great song, sung in a minor key with complex, clashing harmonies. Steeleye Span did a version, which you can hear here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8VD8tx3l_w

The lyric goes like this:

For to see Mad Tom of Bedlam,

Ten thousand miles I’ve traveled.

Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes,

For to save her shoes from gravel

(Chorus) Still we sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys

Bedlam Boys are bonny

For they all go bare and they live by the air

And they want no food or money.

I went down to Satan’s kitchen

For to get me food one morning

And there I got souls piping hot

All on the spit a-turning.

(Chorus) Still we sing bonny boys,etc

There I took a cauldron

Where boiled ten thousand harlots

Though full of flame I drank the same

To the health of all such varlets.

(Chorus) Still we sing bonny boys,etc

My staff has murdered giants

My bag a long knife carries

For to cut mince pies from children’s thighs

With which to feed the fairies.

(Chorus) Still we sing bonny boys,etc

The spirits white as lightning

Shall on my travels guide me

The stars would shake and the moon will quake

Whenever they espied me

(Chorus) Still we sing bonny boys,etc

It was first published in 1720 by Thomas D’Urfey, according to wikipedia, under the title ‘Mad Maudlin’s Search’, and is a reply to an earlier Bedlam song, ‘Mad Tom o’ Bedlam’. It describes Mad Maudlin’s search for her lover, Mad Tom. There were in fact many versions of such songs, all celebrating/mocking the delusions and antics of the lunatics from Bedlam (Bethlehem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, South-east London). In the 18th century the hospital used to charge visitors a penny each to come and watch the lunatics, and this became a popular pastime amongst the middle and upper classes; the hospital made £400 a year from it, and when you consider that a pound at that time was 240 old pennies, that’s an awful lot of visits.

Anyway, and so to the moral conundrum: a number of our members were unhappy with this song and one actually left the choir, saying that the song was ‘disable-ist’ because it mocks mentally ill people. My first reaction was that this was ridiculous over-sensitivity; it’s an 18th century song reflecting 18th century attitudes. If we’re going to start ignoring or airbrushing our cultural history because more enlightened attitudes prevail today, pretty soon we won’t have any culture left. But then, one should always examine one’s first reaction. Another point of view would be that if the song offends or discomfits people (who perhaps have experienced mental health problems themselves; after all, quite a lot of people have) that’s a good reason for not singing it.

I don’t know. Reasoned opinions welcome.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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One Comment
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    This is a difficult problem to which there is probably no definite answer. There are many folk songs which could be regarded as offensive to modern listeners; there has been almost a drive to find hidden meanings or supposed origins, particularly of nursery rhymes, most of which have been subsequently disproved. Maybe some of these songs were even written as satire.
    My feeling is that so many folk songs contain references to subjects like domestic abuse, slavery, crime, alcoholism, animal cruelty, disease, poverty, learning difficulties, etc that it’s impossible to have any hard and fast rules. Like everything else it comes down to personal opinion but there is a distinction between being personally offended and assuming offence on behalf of someone else.

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