Article MT248

Young Morgan

veracity and meaning

It seems like yesterday and yet it was 35 years ago when I first heard the wonderful Gypsy singer Phoebe Smith singing her short fragment of the song Young Morgan (Roud 5369).  We were sitting in Phoebe's Suffolk home, and Phoebe and Joe, her husband, were talking about songs that they had heard in their youth.  Joe normally sat quietly at Phoebe's side, a slight smile on his face as he proudly listened to Phoebe's singing, but suddenly he said, "What about that one about the highwayman.  You used to sing that when we first met."  At first I thought that I would be hearing a song about Dick Turpin or, possibly, about his horse Bonny Black Bess.  But this was not what happened when Phoebe began to slowly sing…

I asked where Phoebe had first heard the song, which at that time was new to me, and she said that her brother, Charlie Scamp, had sung it.  Charlie, in turn, had learnt the song from an old man who, it seemed, had known somebody who had been present at Young Morgan's execution.  "So, it's a true song?" I asked.  "Yes," replied Phoebe.  "All my songs are true." And that was a phrase that was to stick in my mind.  One that I would recall whenever I thought about folksongs, and about where they came from, and what they meant, both to the singers and to their audiences.  Of course many songs are 'true' in the sense that they are based on actual historical events.  Here I would include such songs as Maria Marten or Three Brothers in Fair Warwickshire.2  Others, such as the ballad Captain Ward and the Rainbow, are more problematical.3

In fact, Phoebe Smith's two verses can be traced to two broadside ballads, one called The Flying Highwayman and the other called, appropriately, Young Morgan.  A copy of The Flying Highwayman can be found in John Holloway & Joan Black's book Later English Broadside Ballads.4  Although the version of The Flying Highwayman in the Holloway & Black book is without a printer's imprint, they provisionally date the sheet to c.1780.

The text of The Flying Highwayman certainly reads as though it comes from the last quarter of the 18th century.  We know that it was also printed in the early 1800s by John Pitts of London and, slightly later, by T Birt, also of London.  Many of the words found in the song would have been commonplace in the 18th century.  The word bagnio, for example, meaning a brothel, was in use during both the 17th and 18th centuries.  We also know that many of the sheets printed by John Pitts were obtained by him from earlier 18th century printer's stock.

The second song, Young Morgan, was printed around 1820 on a broadside by James Catnach of Monmouth Court, in London's Seven Dials district.  It was also printed by Jackson of Birmingham and Henry Parker Such of London. 

Interestingly, in the song The Flying Highwayman the highwayman is pardoned by the King, a fact that is missing in Catnach's Young Morgan.  It is also of interest to note the use of the word prad, meaning a horse, in Young Morgan.  I mention this because, according to Eric Partridge, prad, which comes from the Dutch word for a horse, paard, was first used in England in 1799, though it seems to have been implied in 1788.  In The Flying Highwayman we find the word horse being used.  So this could, again, suggest that The Flying Highwayman is the earlier of the two songs and one that predates the year 1788.6

Surprisingly, Phoebe Smith has been the only traditional folksinger to have passed the song on to a collector.  At least five broadside printers issued the song during the 18th and 19th centuries, so, presumably, it must have had some popularity at one time.  Phoebe, as I said above, was convinced that the song was based on a true story.  But do the facts bear this out? Was there really an 18th century highwayman called Young Morgan and, if so, does the song tell his story? Can we glean anything by taking a look at the Pitts' Flying Highwayman song?

The term Flying Highwayman refers to the horse rider's ability to jump over high gates and fences and at least two people were given the nick-name, although neither was called Morgan.  The first, William Harrow, was executed at Hertford on 28th of March, 1763, and the second, William Hawke, died at Tyburn on July 1st 1774.  Harrow, a former poacher and burglar, spent a short time as a highwayman, but was convicted to death for robbery committed in a house.  Members of his gang were captured later and hanged.  On the other hand William Hawke was better known as a highwayman and was the subject of several pamphlets and chapbooks that were printed shortly after his death.  These included: An authentic and genuine narrative of the Life and Surprizing Exploits of William Hawke, the Famous Highwayman, who was Executed at Tyburn, July 1, 1774, for robbing Mr Charles Hart; A Genuine Account of the Life, Robberies, Trial and Execution, of William Hawke, call'd the flying highwayman Who was executed at Tyburn, July the first, 1774; The Last Farewell to the World of William Hawke, who was executed, July the 1st, at Tyburn; The Life and Actions of the Noted William Hawke With a particular narrative of all the robberies he committed in and near London his behaviour after condemnation and at Tyburn, at which place he justly forfeited his life; A Genuine Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying-Words of William Hawke and William Jones, who were executed at Tyburn on the 1st of July, 1774 and The Life Trial &c, of William Hawke, the Notorious Highwayman; containing an account of all the remarkable robberies he committed before and since his return from transportation; with the manner in which he was apprehended, and his behaviour during the time he was under sentence of death Also an account of Field his companion, who was tried at Kingston in Surrey, about twelve months ago, and hang'd on Kennington Common.

I am unable to find any trace of a highwayman with the name Morgan who could have served as a model for either The Flying Highwayman or Young Morgan.  So, could it be that the story of William Harrow, poacher and highwayman, whose gang members were hanged after him, and the pamphlets and chapbooks about William Hawke, formed the basis for the songs about Young Morgan?  Could it be that Phoebe's song is actually a fictitious product of the broadside press, and not one that is 'true'? The question, of course, is to ask exactly what is meant by the word true.

According to the Thirteenth Century philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus, which means that 'Truth is the equation of things and intellect'.  In other words, there is a relationship between thoughts or statements on the one hand and things or objects on the other.  This is an idea that can be traced back to the Greek philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates.  How 'accurately' can we describe 'things', they asked? But, there are also many other, subsequent, theories of truth.  There is the Coherence theory of truth, the Constructivist theory of truth and the Consensus theory of truth.  There is also the Pragmatic theory of truth, the Minimalist (deflationary) theories of truth or even the Performative theory of truth, and, whilst we are at it, let us not forget the Pluralist theories of truth.  These are all useful in their own ways, but not, I fear, as useful as this line in chapter twelve of Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick, where Ishmael, on hearing the comment "It is not on any map", replies with the words, "true places never are".  And this is surely the point that Phoebe Smith was making when she told me that all her songs were true.  Folksongs and ballads abound with 'true' places, places which can never be found 'on any map' and yet which, for the singer and the audience, are more real, truly real, than any place that can be found on a printed map.  These are the places that can be found in the mind, in the imagination and in the heart.  We have only to think of that opening song line…

and we are, at once, drawn away from the mundane world about us and into another far more interesting land, one where anything and everything is possible.

Folksongs and ballads have, over the years, structured themselves into highways that lead and carry us away from our everyday life.  They are, of course, based on everyday life, but each song and ballad can carry within it a spark of something that is beyond the normal.  Folksongs and ballads are not necessarily alone in this respect.  Why, for example, do step-mothers feature so often in children's stories? Well, it seems that this figure diverts unwanted feelings that a child might hold for its own mother away from the mother and onto the step-mother.  It is not 'right' for a child to hate its mother.  It is, however, permissible to hate the figure in the fairytale.7

During the period 1996-97 the writer Marina Warner curated an exhibition that toured Manchester, Brighton, Swansea and Dulwich.  This was The Inner Eye - Art Beyond the Visible and comprised all manner of art forms that sought meaning through the subliminal and the unconscious.  As I walked through this exhibition, taking in its content, I was aware that I was being transported away from the gallery itself and, as with the folksongs, into other worlds and experiences.  Perhaps, I thought, there should have been a map on one wall indicating where to find, say, The Banks of Sweet Primroses or, maybe, The Banks of Sweet Dundee.  Scarlet Town, the home of 'cruel-hearted Barbara Allen' would also feature there, as would all the place names that feature in different versions of the song Poison in a Glass of Wine.  Perhaps we need such a map, just as the surrealists needed their Surreal Map of the World, one where the United States of America was absent and Easter Island took pride of place.8  Or am I going too far?  Maybe we do not need to delve too deeply into the truth, validity and meaning of folksongs.  Perhaps, like Phoebe Smith, we simply need to sing the songs and allow them to enter our unconscious minds without any outside imputations.  That way, their truth will be accessible to all who are receptive and all who value them as much as Phoebe did. 

Mike Yates - 1.6.10


As an addendum to Mike's excellent article, the following may be useful:

Steve Gardham - 5.6.10

Article MT248

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