What does the butcher boy in old folk song have to do with Jersey City?
Jersey City is referenced in a version of an old folk song called “The Butcher Boy,” and the reasons are as much of a mishmash as the city itself.
Mishmash is apparently the nature of folk songs, with that particular song of unrequited love rooted in UK country ballads.
“In Jersey City, where I lived a butcher boy whom I loved so well | he wooed me my heart | and now with me he will not stay… ”begins a variation.
He then describes a story of doom sung from the point of view of a young woman in love with this butcher boy. She finds out that he is going to an inn and courting another young woman whom she cannot compete with, because this young woman has money and she does not.
Her parents try to comfort her in vain. She commits suicide for love.
One can interpret the song while making fun of the idea of this kind of devotional love like “Romeo and Juliet” does; in other ways, he seems to criticize a class system in which a poor man can fall in love with someone else poor who wooed him, only to be abandoned at the first sign of gold elsewhere.
Variations of this song include “Railroad Boy,” a cover based on a performance by Buell Kazee that was performed by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in 1976 and recorded in a solo version by Baez.
The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection from Missouri State University (MSU) includes the recording of “The Butcher Boy” – two with references to “Jersey City,” one by Gladys McChristain sung in Huntsville, Arkansas in October 1958 and the other by Bill Ping in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1972 – among more than 1,000 Ozark Mountain folk songs recorded between 1956 and 1976 by salesman Max Hunter.
Dr Michael Murray is a music professor at MSU who led the project to digitize these songs.
While noting that he is not a folklorist, Murray shared his thoughts on Jersey City in an email:
“Although ‘The Butcher Boy’ as it appears in the Hunter Collection is likely American, it is clearly derived from several old Scottish-Irish ballads. These songs traveled first to the Appalachians and then to the Ozarks, picking up many variations and mutations along the way. Some of the common versions refer to “London Town” or “London City” rather than Jersey City.
“My best guess is that this is an erroneous reference to the UK jersey and not your home town of Jersey. I realize that there is no “Jersey City” in (old) Jersey. But I have encountered some interesting corruption from the original references.
One of them, Murray said, is a reference to the Queen of Arkansas.
So, the particular reference of this song is perhaps the old world mingling with the new – old Jersey and New Jersey, filled with follies of the heart and a lack of upward mobility.
Listen to the aforementioned versions on https://maxhunter.missourisstate.edu/.