Song Profile: Benjamin Bowmaneer

“Have you heard how the wars began, Benjamin Bowmaneer?” — so begins this song, a song that continues in a surreal vein until the last verse, which declares: “’Twas thus that the wars began, Benjamin Bowmaneer”. In between is a story that could be a children’s nursery rhyme or an arcane (though still pointed) political satire. 

Brian brought it to the band having found it in the Penguin Book of English Folksongs — the old, and now rare, edition edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.E. Lloyd. The notes in that text give little information and some small amount of conjecture as to the origins and meaning of the song. They also point out that “we have not found a set of this song complete with tune elsewhere”. 

The phrase “Castors away!” that appears repeatedly in the song may be a reference to cheering by throwing one’s hat in the air — a ‘castor’ is a type of beaver felt hat. Or it might be a variation of “cast us away” implying a nautical connection. The main character in the song is not actually the Benjamin Bowmaneer of the title, but an unnamed tailor. Tailors seem to have been the butt of many a joke in the day — note Francis Feeble in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II — and appear as weak, ineffectual characters in many songs e.g. The Bold Trooper on our first CD, Some Foreign Land

To us it seemed like it was a kind of pointed satire with a strong anti-war tone, and when we started playing it, the time was ripe for such a sentiment. 

It wasn’t an easy song to to get to work musically. The repetition of lines and the fact that it didn’t have a story as such made it tend to plod and bog down. The cure came through a flash of brilliance from Mike, our bass player, who started riffing on a bass line in Stravinsky’s Histoire d’un Soldat, playing a three-against-two rhythm. Suddenly the whole piece held together and gained forward momentum. Brian then had the idea of adding Lull Me Beyond Thee, a lovely old English dance tune, which was the perfect ending to the song. 

It’s on our recording, ‘Trad.’ and you can listen here

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