AS04: Sam Hall

More gallows defiance. While I’m giving credit where it’s due, this one (like Spencer) came to me from John Kelly’s excellent first album. The original of the song was a chimneysweep and petty thief called Jack Hall, who (the story goes) was hanged alongside a notorious highwayman; the highwayman drew a crowd, and Jack Hall took the opportunity to put in a few boasts of his own.

A lot of versions of this song are openly angry and defiant, with repetitions of the “Damn your eyes!” line. What I liked about John’s version (and tried to emulate here) was the way that it gently brings out the emptiness of “Sam”‘s claims to fame. The ‘cows’ line is typical; apparently ‘cow’ was thieves’ slang for a sixpence, meaning that Sam was boasting about having robbed a grand total of £1. (Some versions have ‘twenty pounds’, which loses this point.) You can almost hear the self-doubt and despair that were below the surface. (Perhaps. Maybe that’s just the way we like to tell the story nowadays.)

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Filed under folk song, John Kelly, O my name is, traditional

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