Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Ballad of Sam Hall

The Ballad of Sam Hall has been sung by Johnny Cash, The Dubliners, and The Irish Rovers. The song is described as a ‘folk song’ and is usually sung to the accompaniment of the guitar. A German singer known as Blues Harp Andy has an endearingly creaky version on banjo and harmonica (with English lyrics) HERE. Sam Hall is often misidentified as an American folk song and is widely known and played in Ireland and Sweden.

Arthur Koestler gives us the lyrics to a “relatively expurgated version” which was revived for the stage in the nineteen-thirties (Reflections on Hanging, 1956):

The Ballad of Sam Hall

Oh my name it is Sam Hall, Samuel Hall,

Oh my name it is Sam Hall, Samuel Hall,

Oh my name it is Sam Hall and I hate you one and all;

You’re a gang of muckers all -- Damn your eyes!

Oh, they say I killed a man, so they said,

Oh, they say I killed a man, so they said,

For I hit him on the head, with a bloody great lump of lead.

Oh I left him there for dead -- Damn ‘is eyes!

Oh they put me into quod, into quod,

Oh they put me into quod, into quod,

Oh they put me into quod all for killing of that sod,

They did -- so ‘elp me God -- Damn their eyes!

Oh the parson ‘e did come, ‘e did come,

Oh the parson ‘e did come, ‘e did come,

Oh the parson ‘e did come and ‘e looked so bloody glum,

And ‘e talked of Kingdom Come -- Damn his eyes!

So hup the steps I go, very slow,

So hup the steps I go, very slow,

So hup the steps I go and you muckers down below

Are standing in a row -- Damn your eyes!

I sees Molly in the crowd, in the crowd,

I sees Molly in the crowd, in the crowd,

I sees Molly in the crowd, so I hollered out aloud,

“Now ain’t you bleedin’ proud -- Damn your eyes!”

And now I ‘ears the bell, ‘ears the bell,

And now I ‘ears the bell, ‘ears the bell,

And it is my funeral knell, and I’ll meet you all in Hell

And I ‘opes you frizzle well -- Damn your eyes!

“Tex” Ritter sings a bowdlerized version in “Song of the Gringo,” a 1936 film, with a careful change of words to “Blast his eyes!” HERE.

The Ballad of Sam Hall had its origins in the 1840’s in a subterranean ‘Song-and Supper-Room’ in London known as The Cyder (or Cider) Cellars. The Music Hall era is generally dated as beginning in 1866 but they were preceded by the Song-and Supper-Rooms (and their working class equivalent, the ‘Free and Easies’) which flourished in 1820’s to 1840’s London. Comic singers took part-time employment in both venues. The songs in each consisted of ribald, bawdy men’s entertainment. A street ‘glee-singer’ told Mayhew that “some of the ‘character songs;’ such as ‘Sam Hall,’ Jack Sheppard,’ and others, are so indelicate that a respectable man ought not to take his wife and daughters to see them.”

The original words were probably much worse than Koestler’s version, indeed the Victorians rarely quoted Sam Hall’s lyrics, they simply described them as ‘blasphemous’, ‘dirty’ and ‘disgusting.’ The only example (and only one verse) I found quoted was in The Variety Stage, a history of the Music Halls from the earliest period to the present time, 1895.

My name it is Sam Hall, chimney sweep,

My name it is Sam Hall,

I robs both great and small,

But they make me pay for all,

D--n their Eyes!

The singer, and possibly the song-writer, was W. G. Ross, known simply and familiarly as “Ross,” who “started his career as a compositor on one of the Glasgow newspapers, singing occasionally at local harmonic assemblies.” Ross moved to London where he became a success at the Cyder Cellars singing such ditties as ‘The Lively Flea,’ ‘Jack Rag,’ and ‘Going Home with the Milk in the Morning’ before hitting the big time with Ballad of Sam Hall. Edmund Yates described the songs popularity as a ‘mania,’ and said the crowds were so great when Sam Hall was sung that it was standing room only.

A penny song-book seller on the streets told Henry Mayhew that “the penny song-books (which are partly indecent), and entitled the “Sam Hall” and “Ross” Songsters, are seldom or ever sold in the streets. Many of these vended in the shops outrage all decency. Some of these are styled the “Coal-Hole Companion,” “Cider-Cellar Songs,” “Captain Morris’s Songs,” &c. (the filthiest of all.)”

These Songsters were sold for a shilling (with a colour folded frontispiece) by H. Smith of Holywell Street. H. Smith was one of many pseudonym used by London’s infamous publisher of pornography, William Dugdale, and his younger brother John.

Blackwood’s complained of the Song-and-Super Rooms in 1842: “So much for singing rooms above ground. But these are not all; the bowels of the earth are excavated, to afford nocturnal orgies to idle and dissipated young men about town. When all sober and respectable people are in their beds, these musical infernos, disguised under the name of SHADES, ELYSIUMS, CIDER CELLARS, FINISHES and the like, commence their operations late, and about two o’clock are in the height of their glory.”

Actually celebrated Londoners in the arts flocked to see Ross and hear him sing Sam Hall, when they wrote of it afterward they always expressed mild, and probably feigned, disgust with the song. Portraits of Ross should exist somewhere; his engraved portrait (in character) was sold at the bar for a shilling by the proprietors of the Cyder Cellars in between acts.

The audience at the Cider Cellar (moderns spell it ‘Cyder’ more often than not) supped on eggs, oysters and Welsh rabbit, pounding the table with glasses of port, cider, ale, gin and whisky, while filling the room, entirely underground, with stifling clouds of cigar smoke. When it finally closed the site on Maiden Lane, close to the stage-entrance of the Adelphi Theatre, was replaced by a Jewish synagogue.

G. W. M. Reynolds may have attended one of Ross’s concerts, at least he was familiar with the Cider Cellar, and describes a fictional visit to hear Ross in Mysteries of the Court of London Vol. V. (read Reynolds's description of Ross and Sam Hall HERE).The illustration at top by W. H. Thwaites and his woodpecker E. Hooper shows comic singer Mr. Ross in “character” as Sam Hall on the right. In a footnote to a description of Renton Nicholson’s Judge and Jury exhibitions at the Garrick & Head supper-room Reynolds dates Mysteries of the Court, written in 1853, as taking place in 1844. If he was accurate the song Sam Hall can be said to have originated in 1844.

Let’s have Stuart and Park, in The Variety Stage, write 30 to the story of Ross and The Ballad of Sam Hall:

“The amount of brutal ferocity and pent-up fury which Ross managed to infuse into these lines was remarkable, and in this respect he was unequalled by any other singer. Ross made such a name over this performance that Buckstone, then the manager of the Haymarket Theatre, engaged him for that house, where he opened in a small Irish farce. He does not appear, however, to have made a hit on the legitimate stage, and speedily returned to his old love, the concert platform, where in his own peculiar line he was probably without a rival. Ross appears to have belonged to a school of which Mr Charles Godfrey, Mr Charles Coborn and Mr Gus Elen are among the best modern exponents. Ross, unfortunately, was unable to maintain his early reputation, and though long after the days of the Cyder Cellars had become numbered he continued to appear with varying success at the different Metropolitan halls, he gradually fell behind in the race for popularity, and died some few years back in the obscure capacity of a humble chorus singer.”

Further Reading:

The Variety Stage, a history of the Music Halls from the earliest period to the present time, by Charles Douglas Stuart and A. J. Park London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1895.

Tavern Singing in Early London, the Diaries of Charles Rice for 1850 and 1860, edited with an introduction and notes by Laurence Senelick, London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1997. Cover illustration by C. J. Grant for Thomas Prest's The Singer's Penny Magazine and Reciter's Album, 1835.

Victorian Song from Dive to Drawing Room by Maurice Willson Disher, London: Phoenix House, 1955.


  1. Thank you, john! I used your research in creating a new rendition. Here it is!