A song about two grumbling farmers, collected on the Wirral. I was first introduced to Marco and Pedro by Matthew Edwards, who brought it with him to sing at the singaround in The Lion Tavern, Moorfields. I asked him if he'd be kind enough to provide some notes to go along with it, so over to Matthew (I've put the text by him in a different colour so credit and blame can go where it is due!):
This song was collected by Dorothy Dearnley of Heswall from the "late Mrs Stanley of New Ferry" and published in her book, Seven Cheshire Folk Songs, Oxford, 1967 with a piano accompaniment. Mrs Stanley also contributed a striking version of the ballad, The False Knight, but otherwise nothing seems to be known about her. I understand that Pete Coe and Roy Clinging have tried unsuccessfully to contact Dorothy Dearnley, whose married name was Furber.
There is an unreleased BBC recording of Dorothy Furbur (sic) singing 'The Grumbling Farmers' for Seamus Ennis on 5 June 1957 (RPL LP 23494), which suggests that Dorothy Furber probably collected the song some time in the early 1950's.
There are only two other examples in the Roud Index of the song being found among traditional singers; George Gardiner collected it from J Boaden of Curry Cross Lanes, Helston, Cornwall on 31 May 1905. Mr Boaden had learned it from a Mr Curry of Helston who by that time was "long deceased". Arthur Williams collected two short verses of the song from Elijah Iles in Inglesham, Wiltshire in a version in which the farmers' names have been anglicised to Mark-O and Peter-O.
It is also a rarity among singers of the revival even though Frank Purslow included it in the popular EFDS song book Marrowbones in 1965, based on the version collected by Gardiner from J Boaden, but with the chorus shown as being the same for all three verses. I have a vague personal memory of Martin Carthy singing it which may be how I learned the tune, but I don't think he has recorded it. Ralph Jordan has recorded it on a long deleted LP, but I don't know which group he was with at the time. It seems that John Kirkpatrick has recorded it on his new CD 'God Speed the Plough'.
It was quite widely printed in the nineteenth century by broadside printers with examples from London, Portsea, Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool, Preston, Manchester, North shields and Edinburgh. [See, for example, the broadside version printed by Armstrong of Liverpool between 1820 and 1824.] The tune was well enough known to be used for the campaign song of the Tory candidate in the Coventry parliamentary election of 1826. In their revised edition of 'Marrowbones' Malcolm Douglas and Steve Gardham argue convincingly for a late eighteenth century origin for the song on the basis of a broadside printing by Evans of London whose known dates of operation were 1780-1812. Were it not for this early dating I would think the song belongs more to the post-Waterloo period of agricultural depression – although there is nothing unusual about farmers grumbling at any time!
To me there is also a rather "stagey" flavour to the song which makes me wonder whether it first appeared in a musical play or comic opera. The names of the farmers Marco and Pedro are so emphatically not English that I wonder about some topical reference being intended whose point is now thoroughly lost. They don't even belong to the same language – Marco is Italian or Greek, while Pedro is Spanish/Portuguese. If some kind of topical allusion was intended, the only rather improbable candidates I can put forward are Marco Bozzari (Markos Botsaris 1788-1823) and Dom Pedro (1798-1834), King of Brazil, both of whom were popular heroes in Britain.
The joke upon which the song is based is probably as old as the doctrine of physical resurrection itself; the Sadducees taunted Christ about the issue of who would be reunited with whom in the case of multiple marriages (Mark 12; 18-27). However the joke about a flood following a spell of dry weather can be traced to an aristocratic quip by the Irish baronet Sir John Hamilton designed to bewilder the Lord Lieutenant the 4th Duke of Rutland who was Viceroy from 1784-1787.
Whoever the following story may be fathered on, Sir John Hamilton was certainly its parent. The Duke of Rutland, at one of his levees, being at a loss (as probably most kings,princes, and viceroys occasionally are) for something to say to every person he was bound in etiquette to notice, remarked to Sir John Hamilton that there was "a prospect of an excellent crop; the timely rain," observed the Duke, "will bring everything above ground."
"God forbid, your Excellency!" exclaimed the courtier. His Excellency stared, while Sir John continued, sighing heavily, as he spoke; "Yes, God forbid! for I have got three wives under." (Personal Sketches of Jonah Barrington, Dublin, 1827) The same story is also cited as an example of rustic humour from Ayrshire and from North Carolina with a very similar punchline.
The photo above is by the late Guardian photographer Don McPhee, and is of two farmers at a Shire Horse sale. It doesn't have a particular Merseyside connection, it's just one I've always liked and seemed to go rather well with the song.
Marco and Pedro/The Grumbling Farmers is #1390 in the Roud folksong index.