“Little Billee" and Oral History

Suppose all you knew of the world's literary heritage was what your parents' generation memorized and transmitted to you orally.

Of course, in a world without writing, your parents might have felt compelled to pass rather more oral literature down to you than they actually did.

“Little Billee" was a poem my father liked to recite by heart. After his death, it occurred to me to type some of the words into a search engine, and I learned that the poem was dashed off by William Makepiece Thackeray in 1845. Without the Internet, I might never have found this out, since nowadays you could spend a lifetime reading without stumbling on any of Thackeray's light verse. However it turns out these lyrics were well known for several generations. Apparently Thackeray intended for them to be sung to the tune of “Il y avait un petit navire” but, perhaps fortunately, my father did not know this tune -- he simply recited the words of "Little Billee" with gusto.

This article by Paul Cowdell places “Little Billee” in the context of other maritime cannibalism ballads:

"The entry of a song into oral tradition, and its survival, depend on several factors. There is a complex relationship between a singer's personal taste and the subject of a song. Songs dealing directly with social phenomena and experiences will find singers not just because they have good tunes; they must to some extent accord with singers' understanding of the phenomena they describe. As those phenomena change, it is likely that songs about them will also change."

"I would argue that William Makepeace Thackeray's 'Little Billee' (Roud 905), which was recorded in oral tradition well into the twentieth century, illustrates this process. In the case of songs about survival cannibalism at sea, a substantial part of the repertoire reflects, more or less accurately, an accepted maritime custom during the period of sail. Through the second half of the nineteenth century, changes in maritime life, often enforced legally, altered the cultural landscape. 'Little Billee' was based sufficiently closely on traditional material to enter tradition itself, just before the circumstances it described with affectionate parody disappeared from the cultural horizon."

My father presumably heard this song in the 1930s or 1940s. Part of the reason it stuck in his mind was that he was himself the youngest of three sons. He was still reciting “Little Billee” in the 1970s, when I first heard it from him. Why is it that I know of no songs or poems about the cannibalism associated with the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571? After all, this catastrophe actually occurred in my lifetime. (Okay, so there is a stanza about this incident in a James Fenton poem.)

Cowdell claims “Little Billee” only entered oral tradition among sailors once improvements in navigation and technology reduced the likelihood of maritime cannibalism. At this point, he says, sailors stopped singing the more serious cannibalism ballads, and took up the more jokey ones previously reserved for landlubbers in music-halls.

1 thought on ““Little Billee" and Oral History”

  1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet interpreted the line about the unbuttoning of Little Billie's chemie as homoerotic. But then she would, wouldn't she…

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