The Red Herring

 

Performed by: Alan Grey
Recorded in: Aldborough (29th April 1972) by Jim Eldon and Steve Gardham
Genre: Animals
Keywords: Catalogue, Fish, Food
First line: What shall we do with the red herring’s head?
 
 

Lyrics

               1
What shall we do with the red herring’s head?
Oh, we’ll make that into feather beds, and all such things,
We’ve red herrings and heads and feather beds, and all such things.
Chorus:-
Of all the fish that swim in the sea, red herring it is the fish for me,
And all such things.
                   2
What shall we do with the red herring’s eyes?
Oh, we’ll make ’em into puddings and pies, and all such things,
We’ve red herrings and eyes and puddings and pies,
Red herrings and heads and feather beds, and all such things.
                   3
What shall we do with the red herring’s gills?
Oh, we’ll make ’em into physical pills, and all such things,
We’ve red herrings and gills and physical pills,
Red herrings and eyes and puddings and pies,
Red herrings and heads and feather beds, and all such things.

(Continues to accumulate up to…)
                   6
What shall we do with the red herring’s tail?
Oh, we’ll throw it to the shark and whale, and all such things,
We’ve red herrings and tail and shark and whale,
Red herrings and belly and jam and jelly,
Red herrings and fins and needles and pins,
Red herrings and gills and physical pills,
Red herrings and eyes and puddings and pies,
Red herrings and heads and feather beds, and all such things.

This after the following introduction:-
A fisherman was taking his son for the first time out fishing and as they were pulling
away the son said, ‘What are we catching today, Dad?
Dad says, ‘We’re catching red herrings today, lad.’
‘Why are we catching red herrings, Dad?’
‘Because of all the fish that swim in the sea red herring it is the fish for me.’

At the end of the recording Alan said there was a verse about ‘roes’ but he couldn’t remember it. At a later session he recalled it was:-
What shall we do with the red herring’s roe?
Oh, we’ll make it into sausage and brawn, and all such things.
We neglected to ask at the time whereabouts in the order of stanzas it appeared.

Provenance

On a later visit to Aldborough than this recording, on 11th August, 1972, we recorded Lesley Smith, 74-year-old retired farm labourer, who sang us two stanzas to the same tune. The first was the ‘fins, needles and pins’ stanza, followed by

An’ what do you do with a red herring’s scales?
Make ’em into stapples and nails, and all such things.

Another of the Aldborough singers, John Hodson, who was also present, then added the ‘red herrings eyes, puddings and pies’ stanza.

As one would expect from its subject matter this song was once very popular along the east and south coasts of England. Prior to the decline in herring stocks the seasonal herring fleets following the migration of the herring shoals started in early summer off the west coast of Scotland around the Hebrides. High summer brought them round past Shetland and past North East Scotland with the main fleet mainly out of Peterhead; then into autumn along the Yorkshire coast with Whitby as the focal point. The latter part of the year brought them past East Anglia with numerous small fishing ports reaping the harvest, but mainly based at Yarmouth.

Considering the enormous Scottish involvement in the herring fishery there are surprisingly few versions of this song from Scotland. One version from Lottie Buchan of Peterhead has been greatly influential in the folk revival of the second half of the twentieth century. In fact despite the popularity of the song in English oral tradition, for many of us our first encounter with the song was from the many Scots singers coming down to sing this version in English folk clubs, or the similar version sung by Jack Elliott of Birtley, County Durham.

Whilst the number of south coast versions is understandable with the herring fishing continuing to some extent westwards along the Channel before they were out-fished, it is surprising that so many versions turned up in Somerset and surrounding counties, although it could be argued that Somerset is not far from the south coast, and it has its own coastline.

There appears to be extant three distinct varieties or formats to the song. Somerset and adjacent counties versions are non-accumulative and include a dialogue in the chorus:-

‘Hark, ‘tis this like! No, ‘tis this like!
Why didn’t you tell me so? So I did long ago.
Well, well and everything, I think I’ve done well with my jolly herring.’

East Anglian versions, also non-accumulative, tend to have an introduction:- ‘As I was a walking on --------- sands/beach’ Ethel Grinsdale’s Aldborough version is certainly of this type. We include her version here to demonstrate how markedly different her versions are from others in the village. (See notes on TYG23 An Acre o’ Land)
Notably both versions have an interesting, if very different, introduction.

‘As I was walking on Bolliton Sands, (Burlington/Bridlington)
I picked up a herring as big as my hand.
Oh what do you think I made of his head?
I made it into cakes and bread.
And what do you think I made of his eyes?
I made it into puddings and pies.
And what do you think I made of his fins?
I made it into needles and pins.
And what do you think I made of its scales?
I made ’em into sharks and whales.
And what do you think I made of its tail?
The finest ship that ever did sail.
And what do you think I made of his roes?’
…….(rest forgotten)

Afterwards she remembered a stanza her father used to sing

‘And what do you think I made of its melts?
I made it into braces and belts.’

This version was not accumulative and went to a very simple tune similar to the first two lines of the children’s song Bobby Bingo.

The accumulative format tends to be mainly from North East Scotland and north east England but this type has also been found in Devon and Berkshire. It also has the distinct chorus, ‘Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring it is the one for me.’

Versions of The Herring Song have been found in Lancashire, the Midlands, Ireland, the USA and Newfoundland, but it is not common in these places.

A much rarer song which appears to be largely found in Yorkshire, The Dead Pig or The Old Sow, should be considered an inland version of The Herring Song in that it follows the same pattern, but goes through the parts of a pig’s body in a similar way. Which came first is impossible to say, but a pig-killing is well noted in country lore for making good use of every part of the pig’s carcase. Further notes on this song can be found at TYG56 where a Yorkshire version is given.

The original recording of this song is deposited in the British Library Sound Archive at C1009/8 C59 [access copy 1CDR0009334 BD47] and this recording was digitized by the British Library Sound Archive as part of the Traditional Music in England project sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Further details can be obtained at:-http://www.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/traditional_music.html , along with details of many other recordings of traditional songs made by Steve Gardham and others from other parts of the UK.

This version was originally published in Gardham, An East Riding Songster, Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts, 1982, p7.

 

Archival information

TYG: 31
Key: C
Time Signature: 3/8
Roud id: 128
Laws id:
Master title: The Herring Song
Places Cited in Lyrics: