Saturday 4 June 2011

9: The Bonny Grey

A song about a cock-fight. The words were carried on broadsides printed around 1850; see for example the version by Harkness of Preston. John Harland also gives a text in Ballads and Songs of Lancashire, Ancient and Modern, first published 1865 (see the 1875 second edition here). He writes: "This song celebrated a famous cock-fight in the days of 'the old Lord Derby' — Edward, the 12th earl — who was very fond of the sport, and who died in 1834... The song appears to indicate that the cock-pit in which the battle was fought was in Liverpool [at Jim Ward's, the inn kept by a pugilist in Liverpool]; and it is clear that the Earl and the Prescot lads backed the cock named 'Charcoal Black,' while the Liverpool folks supported the 'Bonny Gray,' which proved the victor." Of course, other versions of this song place the action elsewhere (one well-known version from further along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal is "The Holbeck Moor Cock-Fight"); however, given that Lord Derby's family seat was in Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, and Prescot was on the edge of his estate, there is a certain geographical logic to this version of the song.

The tune I'm using is based on the one given in Frank Kidson's Traditional Tunes for "The Holbeck Moor Cock-Fight", though I have to admit to some deviation (as a result of personal repetition and subsequent drift in recall). Kidson notes the similarity with the air often used for 'The Bailiff’s Daughter', which seems to have been applied to these cock-fighting songs. Kidson also wrote back in 1891 that "the brutal sport of cock-fighting is happily now at an end. The following song is a relic of the past"; but of course, cock-fighting does still go on in northern cities, and no doubt elsewhere in the UK. (For the picture above I've chosen a painting from the National Gallery of Scotland by the Lancashire painter Robin Philipson because I think it really drags us into the middle of the fight.)

The Bonny Grey and its cock-fighting relations are #211 in the Roud Folksong Index.

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