Sunday, October 13, 2013

Maggie May and collective memory

I've had an example of the failure of collective memory this weekend. Someone mentioned the song "Maggie May" and quoted a short extract, saying it was by Rod Stewart.

Oh dirty Maggie Mae they have taken her away
And she never walk down Lime Street any more
Oh the judge he guilty found her
For robbing a homeward bounder
That dirty no good robbin` Maggie Mae

To the port of Liverpool
They returned me to
Two pounds ten a week, that was my pay  (that's the whole song)

Now I know this is not the case. I think this short version is from the Beatles album, Let It Be. I copied down this song in the late 1960s when the folk revival was in full swing, following the skiffle era of the 1950s. I think I learned it from the Spinners (the Liverpool ones, not the pop group of the same name) but I certainly sang it with the folk group I belonged to, and these are the words we sang:

Maggie May - As sung by Eggshelz in 1970

Come all you sailors bold, and when me tale is told
I know you all will sadly pity me;
for I was a bloomin' fool in the port of Liverpool
on the voyage when I first paid off from sea.

Oh Maggie Maggie May, they have taken you away
for to slave upon Van Diemen's cruel shore
For you robbed many a whaler, and many a drunken sailor
but you'll never cruise down Paradise Street no more.

I paid off at the Home, just back from Sierra Leone (Canning Place was the location of the Sailors' Home in Liverpool, see next verse)
Two pound ten a month it was my pay.
As I jingled all me tin I was sadly taken in
by a lady by the name of Maggie May.


When I steered into her, I hadn't got a care, (in Scouse, this rhymes)
I was cruising up and down old Canning Place;
she wore a gown so fine (or "crin-o-line"), like a frigate of the line,
and I being a sailor, I gave chase.


She gave a saucy nod, and like a farmer's clod
I let her take me line abreast in tow;
and under all plain sail, we ran before the gale
and to the Crow's Nest Tavern we did go.


Next morning when I woke, I found that I was broke,
I hadn't got a penny to me name;
I had to pop me suit, me long johns and me boots
down in the pawnshop, number nine Park Lane.


She was chained and sent away from Liverpool one day;
the lads they cheered as she sailed down the Bay,
and every sailor lad had never been so glad
as when they sent her out to Botany Bay.

Oh Maggie Maggie May, they have taken you away
for to slave upon Van Diemen's cruel shore
For you robbed many a whaler, and many a drunken sailor
but you'll never cruise down Paradise Street no more.

Other "red light" streets are also named in the chorus, including Peter Street and Lime Street.

Some history

Here's the link to the information available on Wikipedia about Maggie May (or as the Beatles' truncated version spelled it, "Maggie Mae".)
"Maggie May" (or "Maggie Mae") is a traditional Liverpool folk song (Roud #1757) about a prostitute who robbed a "homeward bounder": a sailor coming home from a round trip.
John Manifold, in his Penguin Australian Song Book, described it as "A foc'sle song of Liverpool origin apparently, but immensely popular among seamen all over the world".[2] It became widely circulated in a skiffle version from the late 1950s.
In 1964, the composer and lyricist Lionel Bart (the creator of the musical Oliver!), used the song and its backstory as the basis of a musical set around the Liverpool Docks. The show, also called Maggie May, ran for two years in London. In 1970 a truncated version of the song performed by the Beatles was included on their album Let It Be.

Stan Hugill writes of an early reference to the song in the diary of Charles Picknell, a sailor on the female-convict ship Kains that sailed to Van Diemen's Land in 1830. This indicates that versions of the song date back to the actual period of penal transportation mentioned in the lyrics as Maggie's fate. In the earliest known version the protagonist is "charming Nellie Ray", who may have been a real transported prostitute and thief.[1] 


This fogging up of memory happens all the time, I know. It's why hoax assertions and downright lies continue to circulate on social media - it seems to fit with what we remember and so we go along with it as "truth".

However, while this is a downside of the collective memory and one reinforced every day by our use of the World Wide Web, the upside is that we can use a search engine and check the truth of these "facts" before we decide to pass them on to inform - or usually MISinform - our circle of acquaintances., Hoaxslayer etc are our friends in these cases.

It also behoves us as historians, researchers and writers to check any blithe assertions we may make - because it's so easy for the critical reader to check whether we've been diligent or lazy.

And it would make social media a lot less confusing.

Sue Millard's books almost all have a rural or equestrian background and can be found on her web site,

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books.  

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