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Bobby Shaftoe

Bobby Shaftoe, familiar as the tune of a nursery rhyme with Northeast English associations, has a surprisingly long history as an instrumental piece, a story where musical possibilities are intimately bound up with the technical features and evolution of the different bagpipes of the region.


The 'Standard' version

Robert Topliff - Bobby Shaftoe

Melody - Bobby Shaftoe (Topliff)
Melody - Bobby Shaftoe, Selection of the most popular melodies of the Tyne and the Wear, Robert Topliff, c.1815.
click here to see full size image.

Lyric - Bobby Shaftoe (Topliff)
Lyric - Bobby Shaftoe, Selection of the most popular melodies of the Tyne and the Wear, Robert Topliff, c.1815.

We begin in the middle of the tune's story, with Robert Topliff's published version. This seems to be the first appearance of the tune in its now well known form, though the small difference between his bars 1 and 5 is not repeated in later versions.

Topliff also prints the lyrics separately, and this combination bacame the definitive version of the song. We don't know the exact date of Topliff's collection, possibly around 1830-1840, but he either recorded the then already popular version of the tune, or happened to provide the version which would be the most copied, or some mixture of the two. However it came about, this was the fittest version in the Darwinian sense, because, as we know, it has survived.

Structural features Topliff's keyboard accompaniment creatively disguises the tune's underlying chord pattern, which is the same in all versions:

||: DDAA
DDAD :||

or, giving the chords Roman numerals for transposition to different keys:

||: IIVV
IIVI :||

The A chord is sometimes A7, and in most cases bar 7 can also be harmonised as Em7 - A7 (IIm7 - V7).


We now look at three different short versions of the tune, beginning with its earliest known appearance.

Henry Atkinson - Brave Wille Forster

Brave Wille Forster (Atkinson)
Brave Wille Forster, Henry Atkinson manuscript tune book, 1694/5.
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The first thing we notice is the different title; in their Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes the Opies quote a verse from Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet, 1824:
Willy Foster's gone to sea, siller buckles on his knee, He'll come back and marry me - Canny Willie Foster.

The words are of course the familar ones from Bobby Shaftoe, but featuring a different character, and remarkably, Canny Willie Foster is the exact title of the tune in William Dixon's 1733 collection (see below).

Atkinson's version is interesting musically, because although he has meticulously bowed it for fiddle, the D-A ending is a feature of pipe tunes in the '3-finger' or subdominant key of the chanter (D-A on Border pipes, C-G on Northumbrian smallpipes) - see also Peacock's Jockey Stays Long at the Fair and The Bonny Pit Lad. This suggests very strongly that Atkinson had the tune from a piper, and that it is either a pipe tune in origin or a tune that became one very early.

We also notice that although the tune works with the same chord pattern as Topliff's version the melody is fairly different. What is important to notice is that in both cases (and nearly all others) strain 1 begins with D and strain 2 with F# (C and E if played in C, etc.). Strain 2 seems much more instrumental than vocal, and is essentially the same as strain 4 of the Dixon and Peacock variation sets discussed below rather than strain 2 of the other short versions. This means that we may assume there was an earlier and simpler version than Atkinson's, but who knows?

William Vickers - Bobby Shaftoe

Bobby Shaftoe (Vickers)
Bobby Shaftoe, William Vickers' manuscript tune book, 1770.
click here to see full size image.

This is notable as the first known use of the Bobby Shaftoe title. According to the Opies the song was used by the supporters of Robert Shaftoe of Whitworth as an electioneering song in 1761, which fits nicely as Vickers' collection is dated 1770-1. The Opies also say that Robert's portrait "shows that him as young and handsome, and with yellow hair", and "Such was his beauty that Miss Bellasyse, the heiress of Brancepeth, is said to have died for love of him (1774)."

Vickers' version is inelegant, and has the strains in the reverse order from everyone else, but note that the D-A ending of the pipe versions is preserved in another fiddle version.

John Bell - Bobby Shaftoe

Bobby Shaftoe (Bell)
Bobby Shaftoe, Collection of the local tunes as played in Northumberland, John Bell, c.1812.
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Although Bell published the Bobby Shaftoe lyrics in Rhymes of Northern Bards this setting seems instrumental in character; at any rate it would have to be changed slightly to accommodate the words. Note the D-A ending once again.

Melodically Bell's version is closer to William Dixon's than to any other, with a near identical opening phrase. We know (see Dol-Li-A) that Bell had access to Topliff's book, so it is interesting that he nevertheless chose
a different version of this tune which must have still been current.


The variation sets.

Variations to Bobby Shaftoe appear in many collections, but essentially three different sets are known, Dixon's, Peacock's and Clough's, with Peacock's being frequently copied.

The earliest is William Dixon's (1733)

Canny Willie Foster (Dixon)
Canny Willie Foster transcribed from William Dixon manuscript tune book, 1733.

This is transcribed from the Dixon manuscript in Perth Public Library, in the original key of C rather than D as published in The Master Piper, where all the tunes were raised a tone to conform to current practice for Border pipes. (Dixon's book is almost certainly a collection for Border pipes, though with many overlaps with the early smallpipe repertoire. Despite its present location in Perth it is traceable to a Northumbrian family from the Stamfordham area.)

We have already seen how the basic melody varies between all the versions, but Dixon's strain 1 is very similar to Bell's, and his strain 2 is already closer to the 'standard' Topliff version than some of the other intervening versions.

Strains 3 and 4 are variations on strains 1 and 2, but this pairing is not kept up through the rest of the set. It is interesting to analyse how the remaining variations are constructed: while the underlying chords are the same throughout, the melodic figures are sometimes one and sometimes two bars long, and although most are repeated one scale degree lower 'in parallel' for the change of chord, strain 8 uses different material over the two chords. The other variation sets can be analysed in the same way.

Peacock's version

Bobby Shaftoe (Peacock)
Bobby Shaftoe, Favorite collection of tunes with variations adapted for the Northumberland small pipes, violin or flute, John Peacock, 1800-1805.
click here to see full size image.

Bobby Shaftoe (handwritten additions)
Bobby Shaftoe, additional two strains handwritten into the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Society of Antiquaries' copy of Peacock's Tunes.

Despite its pedigree as part of this most classic collection of Northumbrian pipe tunes, it is increasingly agreed that Peacock's version is unsatisfactory as it stands. It serves as an illustration of the tensions in the smallpipe repertoire of the time: scored in C, but with an F# in the key signature and on the chanter, it tries to skirt round the places where the melody wants an F natural, as in strain 2 bar 2 where it is replaced by a G.

The problem appears to be that the tune was originally part of the Border pipe repertoire, the Border chanter being quite happy with the equivalent natural note. Several other tunes in Peacock's book illustrate this tension, and the solution which was adopted was to gradually add more keys to the chanter until it could cope with two octaves of a more or less chromatic scale, backed by various drone tunings. This move took the smallpipe repertoire further away from the older plain chanter tunes and increasingly further towards a repertoire of 'fiddle tunes with drones'.

If I am correct that Peacock's version is 'adapted' from a Border pipe version, then it is fairly easy to 'unadapt' it back: apart from the change of key signature, some of the passages on the G chord can be altered to give more of a G7 flavour by using F naturals (see Dixon's version for a guide). This then gives us a convincing version which works well on both Border pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes when transposed to D.

As with Dixon, strains 3 and 4 of Peacock's set are variations on strains 1 and 2, but the pairing is not maintained in the rest of the set.

There are an additional two strains handwritten into the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Society of Antiquaries' copy of Peacock's Tunes, the second one of which was also recorded by Robert Bewick as an 8th strain after Peacock's seven. It is therefore likely that these also came from Peacock, but we cannot be sure.

Tom Clough - Bobby Shaftoe

Bobby Shaftoe (Peacock)
Bobby Shaftoe, pipe manuscripts of Henry and Thomas Clough (mid 19th - mid 20th century).
click here to see full size image.

Although Tom Clough knew and made a copy of Peacock's version, he also wrote his own set of variations with instructions for a special drone tuning in C - see Ormston-Say p. 80 for a fuller account. The basic tune is omitted here, but the simple well known version can be used before the variations.

Regarding the pairing of variations mentioned above, Clough does not use the device of opening alternate strains on C and E, but he does pair strains by opening odd-numbered ones with a lower note (C or low G) and even-numbered ones with a higher note (high G). This is the most formally perfect set overall, though not always as interesting in its detail, with strains 6 and 8 (counting the melody as 1 and 2) both based on arpeggios, and rather similar to each other.

Not many pipers tackle this version nowadays, but Andy May plays a superb rendition of it.



Morpeth Rant
Morpeth Rant
Core Tunes - article 4

Core Tunes - Introduction

Rattlin Roarin Willie
Rattlin Roarin Willie
Core Tunes - article 1

Sir John Fenwick
Sir John Fenwick
Core tunes - article 2

Bobby Shaftoe
Bobby Shaftoe
Core Tunes - article 3

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