My Old Man (Said Follow the Van)
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The song, although humorous, also reflects some of the hardships of working class life in London at the beginning of the 20th century. It joined a music hall tradition of dealing with life in a determinedly upbeat fashion. In the song a couple are obliged to move house, after dark, because they cannot pay their rent. At the time the song was written, most London houses were rented, so moving in a hurry – a moonlight flit – was common when the husband lost his job or there was insufficient money to pay the rent.
The couple rush to fill up the van, and its tailboard, with their possessions, in case the landlord appears. When the van is packed up, however, there is no room left for the wife. The husband therefore instructs her to follow the van, which she does, carrying the pet bird. Unfortunately, en route, the wife loses her way after stopping at a pub for a drink. Thereafter, she reflects that it would be ill-advised to approach one of the volunteer policemen (a "special"), as they are less trustworthy than a regular police constable (a "copper") and might take advantage of her inebriation. Alternatively (according to the physical gestures accompanying the song) they may simply be less qualified to give dependable street directions.
The chorus of the song is well-known.
- My old man said "Foller the van,
- And don't dilly dally on the way".
- Off went the van wiv me 'ome packed in it,
- I followed on wiv me old cock linnet.
- But I dillied and dallied, dallied and I dillied
- Lost me way and don't know where to roam.
- Well you can't trust a special like the old time coppers.
- When you can't find your way 'ome.
There are a number of alternatives to the last two lines:
- Who'll put you up when you've lost your bedstead,
- And you can't find your way 'ome?"
- I stopped on the way to have me old half quarten,
- now I can't find my way home.
- Well you can't trust a man when your life's in a van
- an' you can't find your way 'ome.
- I had to stop to have a drop of tiddly in the pub
- Now I can't find my way home.
- Stopped off to have one at the old Red Tavern
- And I can't find my way home.
Various lineups of the Clancy Brothers (with Tommy Makem, Louis Killen, and Robbie O'Connell at different times) have performed the refrain as part of a medley, immediately following "They're Moving Father's Grave to Build a Sewer," which also deals with the travails of working class Londoners. These two songs appeared together on the group's 1965 album, Recorded Live in Ireland. Danny La Rue also often sang it in performances.
In popular culture
- In The Catherine Tate Show, during the "Life at Ma's" sketch (a spoof of Life on Mars), the last four lines are sung by Catherine Tate and a variety of other characters.
- The song also appeared in the Only Fools And Horses episode "Home Sick", being sung by Del Boy and Grandad.
- The first verse and the chorus were featured in Episode 211 of The Muppet Show, performed by Miss Piggy. In the Muppet fan community the song is better known as "Don't Dilly Dally On the Way".
- It is sung in the 1943 black and white romantic comedy film The Gentle Sex.
- It is sung in the 1958 war film Ice Cold in Alex.
- In 1970, Cardinal Fang (Terry Gilliam) briefly began to recite the tune under his breath after citing charges of heresy against the Holy Church, but was subsequently cut off by Cardinal Ximénez (Michael Palin) before completing the first line. This was part of the famous Spanish Inquisition Sketch from the Monty Python comedy troupe. Palin, Jones, and Gilliam would burst into the room whenever someone uttered a form of the trigger phrase, "I didn't expect a Spanish Inquisition."
- It opens Steven Berkoff's 1975 play East.
- In the 1985 EastEnders Sing-Along, it is sung by the cast with Gillian Taylforth singing the intro.
- The first verse and chorus is sung in Upstairs, Downstairs by the servants as part of their New Year's celebrations in Series 4, Episode 9, "Another Year." The group seems to mix up the line about the "special" and the old-time copper, but it may be because the butler, Mr. Hudson, serves as a "special." (See Series 4, Episode 3, "The Beastly Hun.")
Notes and references
-  "The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations" by Elizabeth M. Knowle, 1999
- The singer's father or husband
- To dilly dally is to linger
- Caged song birds were very popular in Victorian and Edwardian England, and the male, or cock, linnet was common. Cock linnet is also Cockney rhyming slang for minute
- During World War I "Special Constabulary" were recruited on a part-time basis to replace or augment the regular "old-time coppers" of peacetime. The purported untrustworthiness of the "specials" may simply reflect their inability to provide reliable street directions
- My Old Man, lyrics accessed 21 Jan 2007
- "Half quarten" was a slang expression for a measure of spirits (usually gin) and was equal to 2½ Imperial ounces.
- "The Spanish Inquisition". Python (Monty) Pictures Ltd. MontyPython.net. 22 September 1970. Retrieved 24 July 2012.