Back to Constant Billy
CONSTANT BILLY. English, Morris Dance (6/8 and duple versions). A Major (Bacon & Raven-Adderbury, Oddington & Wheatly versions; Williamson): F Major (Bacon–Bidford): G Major (Bacon–Bucknell, Eynsham, Field Town, Headington, Ilmington, Barnes, Kershaw MS, Longborough & Sherborne, Mallinson–Adderbury and Headington versions): B Flat Major (Bacon–Bampton). Standard, though Williamson suggests GDgd, tuning (fiddle). AB (Barnes): AAB, x6 (Adderbury, Bampton, Bucknell versions): AABB, x4 (Headington version): AABB (Kershaw, Williamson): ABABABA (Bacon-Bidford). Robin Williamson (1976) reports that the tune appears to be a close variant of a Scots tune called "Cia Mar Is Urra Sinn Fuirreach O'n Dram" (How Shall We Abstain from Whiskey?). That melody was written in the early 18th century by John MacMurdo of Kintail; it was published in Scotland (MacMurdo emigrated at some point to America), where it was thought to have been Irish in origin and called "Legacy (1) (The)" until Captain Simon Frazer pointed out its true origins in his late 18th century-collected Airs and Melodies of the Highlands of Scotland. The tune was very popular throughout England and became a morris standard, being set to a variety of dances. Cotswold morris versions are numerous and come from the areas of Adderbury, Bampton, Bidford, Bucknell, Eynsham, Field Town (Leafield), Headington, Ilmington, Longborough, Oddington, Sherborne and Wheatley. In modern times the tune is usually played in the key of G Major to accommodate the ubiquitous morris melodeon. There is a "Constant Billy" in the third volume of Playford's Dancing Master, which Kidson (1922) identifies as a late 17th century song found on half-sheet music beginning:
When the hills and lofty mountains
And the vales were hid in snow.
Morris dancers traditionally sing these words while walking in a circle as a preamble to the dance proper:
Oh, Billy, my constant Billy,
When will I see my Billy again?
When the fish fly over the trees
Then will I see my Billy again.
Oh! my Billy, my constant Billy,
When shall I see my Billy again?
Billy again! Billy again! Billy again! Billy again!
Oh! my Billy, my constant Billy,
When shall I see my Billy again? (Bacon-Adderbury)
Sources for notated versions: Daniel Lock (Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, England) via Cecil Sharpe [Bacon-Field Town version]; contained in the Joseph Kershaw manuscript—Kershaw was a fiddler who lived in Slackcote, Saddleworth, North West England, in the 19th century, and his manuscript dates from around 1820 onwards [Kershaw]; the Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dances [Neal].
Bacon (A Handbook of Morris Dances), 1974; pp. 6, 46, 61, 62, 117, 143, 150, 175, 176, 210, 256, 271, 281, 307.
Barnes (English Country Dance Tunes, vol. 2), 2005; p. 22.
The Joseph Kershaw Manuscript, 1993; No. 30.
Karpeles & Schofield (A Selection of 100 English Folk Dance Airs), 1951; p. 37.
Mallinson (Mally's Cotswold Morris Book, vol. 1), 1988; No. 17, p. 14 and No. 38, p. 25.
Neal (Espérance Morris Book, vol. 1), 1910; p. 27.
Raven (English Country Dance Tunes), 1984; p. 74.
Williamson (English, Welsh, Scotch and Irish Fiddle Tunes), 1976; p. 24.
Recorded sources: Topic TSCE458, John Kirkpatrick – "Plain Capers" (1976/1992). Veteran VT111, Francis Shergold – "Greeny Up" (1988. The Bampton version of the melody).