The Butcher's Boy (folk song)

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"The Butcher's Boy"
Broadside printing of The Butcher's Boy.jpg
A broadside print of the song published in New York City during the 1890s.
Form Broadside ballad and folksong
Writer Traditional
Language English

"The Butcher’s Boy" or "The Butcher Boy" (Laws P24, Roud 409) is an American folk song derived from traditional English ballads.[1][2] Folklorists of the early 20th century considered it to be a conglomeration of several English broadside ballads, tracing its stanzas to "Sheffield Park", "The Squire's Daughter", "A Brisk Young Soldier", "A Brisk Young Sailor" and "Sweet William (The Sailor Boy)".[3][4]

Steve Roud describes it as

"One of the most widely-known 'forsaken girl' songs in the American tradition, which is often particularly moving in its stark telling of an age-old story."[5]

In the song, a butcher’s apprentice abandons his lover, or is unfaithful toward her. The lover hangs herself and is discovered by her father. She leaves a suicide note, which prescribes that she be buried with a turtle dove placed upon her breast, to show the world she died for love. This narrative use of the turtle dove is derived from Old World symbolism; it is analogous to the folksong interment motif of a rose, briar, or lily growing out of the neighboring graves of deceased lovers. In this respect, "Butcher's Boy" is related to the ballads "Earl Brand", "Fair Margaret and Sweet William", "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet", "Barbara Allen", and "Lord Lovel".[6]

Commercial recordings have been made by Kelly Harrell, by Buell Kazee (frequently re-issued, notably in the Anthology of American Folk Music) and by The Blue Sky Boys.


In some versions of the story, the heroine is impregnated by her lover before being abandoned. In others, he leaves her for a woman who is wealthier than she.

The final line of the song often differs between some versions. For example, some lyrics include "till cherries grow on an apple tree." The location of the song also varies in certain versions; some set the song in More Street, or London City.

Recently, the ballad has been popularly covered by commercially successful artists. Joan Baez followed the text of Buell Kazee, and therefore changed the title to "The Railroad Boy". Tommy Makem learned the version sung by his mother Sarah Makem and recorded it both on a solo album and with The Clancy Brothers. Kirsty Maccoll also recorded the song, and Sinéad O'Connor recorded it for the soundtrack of the film also called The Butcher Boy.[citation needed].

The tune of The Butcher Boy is used for the American song Ballad of the Green Berets by Barry Sadler.


External links[edit]


  1. ^ Flanders, Helen & George Brown (1968). Vermont Folk-Songs & Ballads. Hatboro, Pennsylvania: Folklore Associates, Inc. pp. 115–6. 
  2. ^ Laws, G. Malcolm (1957). American Balladry from British Broadsides. Philadelphia, PA: The American Folklore Society. p. 260. 
  3. ^ Cox, John H. (1925). Folk-songs of the South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 430–3. 
  4. ^ Randolph, Vance (1980). Ozark Folksongs, Vol. I: British Ballads and Songs. Columbia & London: University of Missouri Press. pp. 226–30. ISBN 0-8262-0297-7. 
  5. ^ Roud, Steve (2015). Song notes to My Bonnie Lies Over The ocean: British Songs in the USA, CD boxset NEHI Records NEH3X1
  6. ^ Combs, Josiah H. (1967). Folk-Songs of the Southern United States. Austin & London: The American Folklore Society by The University of Texas Press. pp. 61–2. ISBN 0-292-73692-4.