I Found It at the JCB

This month

November 2010


Selection of account books from the Tillinghast Family Business Papers.
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

Racy Songs Found by Kim Nusco in the JCB Business Papers

by Leslie Tobias Olsen

As many of our readers might know, the John Carter Brown Library has just published a pamphlet on the Business Papers at the library. Spanning the better part of two centuries and occupying the better part of much of the first floor stacks at the library, the business papers encompass Rhode Island’s economic development from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. The Brown Family Business papers alone “constitute one of the largest and most complete collections of business papers generated by an American mercantile family.”* You would expect many account books, correspondences, bills, and receipts in such a collection. In a maritime location such as Providence, you would expect ships’ papers and logbooks. What you MIGHT not expect is slightly risqué poetry and saucy songs.

But the Tillinghast Family Business Records, 1772-1880, do contain just that. An account book kept by William E. Tillinghast opens with two songs written down by his brother, Allin Brown Tillinghast. In a further poignant note, these two songs were written shortly before Allin died in Saint Croix at the age of seventeen. William, probably to remember his brother, used the same book to keep the accounts of his business.

One of the songs begins “She is the riches that I adore, Tis she I want and nothing more,” and ends with the note that it was “Wrote at Sea in Latt. 18:20 wind blowing very hard & a very heavy sea …Jany: 15th 1796.” [Allin died just three months later on March 22, 1796.] The other song, with its salty refrain, is a known song titled, “Soldier, soldier,” here changed (perhaps by Tillinghast?) to a maritime setting.

Here is Allin's version--

The sailor took the fair maid around the middle
And out of his trousers he drew a fine fiddle
He playd her such a tune my boy made the valley sing
Heark heark the fair maid dont you hear nightingale[s] sing.

O now says the sailor
It is time to give oe’r
O no says the fair maid
Come play it once more

A modern (and slightly more decorous) version of it (by the Seldom Scene) goes as follows:

They had not been standing but a minute or two
When out of his knapsack a fiddle he drew
The tune that he played made the valleys all ring
O hark! Cried the lady, hear the nightingale sing.

O maiden, fair maiden, 'tis time to give o'er
O no, kind soldier, please play one tune more

In the true nature of folksong, the words (and probably the tune) of this song changed organically over time. Who would think a scholar of music would find something of note in a Rhode Island family’s business papers?—not I. In any case, the juxtaposition of these two songs with an account book kept by a surviving brother puts a very human face on activities two centuries ago.

* from the aforementioned Business Papers in the John Carter Brown Library, a pamphlet describing the business papers at the JCB, published in 2010.

Kimberly Nusco and Leslie Tobias Olsen are staff members of the John Carter Brown Library.


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