From Naughty to Nice

"A Welcome Distraction From Chores" by Joseph Caraud

“A Welcome Distraction From Chores” by Joseph Caraud

Bell Bottom Trousers is a bawdy and lusty sea chantey, dating from about 1809 to 1815, and is based on an old folksong entitled Rosemary Lane. It was particularly popular in male-centered venues such as rugby clubs, army barracks and especially in the navy, where it can still be heard. The textual history of the song is complex, and verses have been added freely to versions of this song or borrowed from songs circulated under other titles. For two hundred years or more, sailors have sung a much bawdier, a much “bluer” version of the song.

Well, that certainly does not sound like the Bell Bottom Trousers that was heard in the 1940s or is remembered as one of the hit songs of 1944-1945, does it? The reason for this apparent discrepancy is because the song that we know as Bell Bottom Trousers is a sanitized version of the original. More about that later. Let me give you the background for this song first.

Rosemary Lane, also known as Bell Bottom Trousers, tells the story of a domestic servant-girl who was in service in Rosemary Lane. A sailor stops by, seduces the servant girl and makes grand promises of money as he departs, but in fact leaves her pregnant and alone to ponder her child’s future. The song refers to a time when a young single woman who became pregnant essentially saw her life ruined. In the third verse, the narrator switches to the third person at the pivotal moment of her momentous decision, which leads to disaster for her. With folk songs and sea chanteys, the songs go through a long period of an oral tradition before the words are committed to paper. Having said that, the following words are as close as I can find to being authentic.
I lived in service in Rosemary Lane,
I kept the good will of my master and dame.
Till a sailor came there one night for to lay,
And that was the beginning of my misery.

He called for a candle to light him to bed,
And likewise a silk handkerchief for to tie up his head.
To tie up his head as he used for to do,
Says he, “Pretty Polly, Won’t you come to bed too?”

This girl, feeling young and foolish, she thought it no harm
To jump into bed for to keep herself warm.
But what done next I’ll never declare,
But I wish that short night had been seven long year.

It was early next morning the sailor arose
And into her lap he threw handfuls of gold,
Saying, “This I will give, and more I will do
If you’ll be my Polly wherever I go.”

“And when your baby is born, you put it to nurse,
And sit like a lady with gold in your purse.
With gold in your purse and milk in your breast,
Saying, that’s what you’ve got by your sailor in the west.”

“And if it’s a boy, he shall fight for the king,
And if it’s a girl, she shall wear the gold ring.
She shall wear the gold ring and her top knot shall blow,
Saying, that’s what you’ve got by your sailor true blue.”

A version of Rosemary Lane was recorded by Anne Briggs. Listen to it here.
Rosemary Lane (click here)

Variants of the song exist under titles including Once When I Was a Servant, Ambletown, The Oak and the Ash, Home, Dearie, Home, The Lass that Loved a Sailor, and When I was Young.
Some variants make the sailor a “bold sea captain.”
The variants Home, Dear Home (or Home, Dearie, Home) and The Oak and the Ash include an additional refrain, from which these versions take their name:
Home, dear home, and it’s home we must be,
Home, dear home, to my dear country,
Where the oak and the ash, and the bonny birken tree
They are all growing green in my own country.

Although the variant Ambletown changes the song’s perspective to a narration of a letter informing a sailor that he has fathered a child, many lyrics, including the verse “If he’s a boy, he’ll fight for the king. . .” remain constant.

Here is the King’s Singers version of The Oak And The Ash.
The Oak And The Ash (click here)

William E. Henley used portions of the text of this cluster of folksongs for his poem “O Falmouth Is a Fine Town”
For it’s home, dearie, home — it’s home I want to be.
Our topsails are hoisted, and we’ll away to sea.
O, the oak and the ash and the bonnie birken tree
They’re all growing green in the old countrie.

O, if it be a lass, she shall wear a golden ring;
And if it be a lad, he shall fight for his king:
With his dirk and his hat and his little jacket blue
He shall walk the quarter-deck as his daddie used to do.

A sea-shanty adaptation of the song entitled Bell Bottom Trousers shares the basic plot, though the variant in question turns the tone from wistful regret to bawdiness:
I was a serving maid down in Drury Lane,
My master he was good to me, my mistress was the same.
When along come a sailor on shorted liberty,
And all to my wow he took liberty with me.

Singin’ bell bottom trousers, coats of navy blue,
Let him climb the riggin’ like his daddy used to do.

It was at a ball I met him, he asked me for a dance,
I knew he was a sailor by the way he wore his pants.
His shoes was neatly polished and his hair was neatly combed,
After the ball was over, he asked to see me home.

Singin’ a-bell bottom trousers, coats of navy blue,
Let him climb the riggin’ like his daddy used to do.

He asked me for an ‘ankerchief to tie around his ‘ead,
He asked me for a candle to light his way to bed.
I a foolish maiden not thinkin’ it no harm,
I jumped into the sailor’s bed to keep the sailor warm.

Singin’ a-bell bottom trousers, coats of navy blue,
Let him climb the riggin’ like his daddy used to do.

I knowed he was no Sampson but that night he went to town,
He laid me on the bed there ’til my blue eyes turned to brown.
And early in the mornin’ before the break of day,
A twelve pound note he gave me and some warnin’ words to say.

Singin’ a-bell bottom trousers, coats of navy blue,
Let him climb the riggin’ like his daddy used to do.

He said “Take this my darlin’ for the damage I have done,
You may have a daughter, you may have a son.
If you have a daughter, jounce her on your knee,
And if you have a son, send the bastard out to sea.”

Singin’ a-bell bottom trousers, coats of navy blue,
Let him climb the riggin’ like his daddy used to do.

Now listen all you maidens to my girlish plea,
Don’t never let a sailor get his hand upon your knee.
I trusted one once and he put off to sea.
And left me with a daughter to bounce upon my knee.

Singin’ a-bell bottom trousers, coats of navy blue,
Let him climb the riggin’ like his daddy used to do.

Oscar Brand recorded this version of the song in 1958. You can hear it here.
Bell Bottom Trousers (click here)

An even bawdier version exists. Here are those words:
There once was a waitress
In the Prince George Hotel
Her mistress was a lady
And her master was a swell
They knew she was a simple girl
And lately from the far
And so they watched her carefully
To keep her from all harm

Singing bell bottom trousers
Coats of navy blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do

First come the company
Of the Prince of Wales Huzzahs
They piled into the whorehouse
And they packed along the bars
Many a maid and mistress and a wife
Before them fell but they never made
The waitress from the Prince George Hotel

Singing of bell bottom trousers
Coats of navy blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do

The Forty Second come marching into town
And with them come the compliment of
Rapists of renown
They busted every maidenhead that came
Within their spell but they never made
The waitress from the Prince George Hotel

Singing of bell bottom trousers
Coats of navy blue
Let him Climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do

One day there came a sailor an ordinary bloke
A bulgin’ at the trousers with a heart of solid oak
At sea without women for seven years or more
There wasn’t any need to ask what he was looking for

Singing bell bottom trousers
Coats of navy blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do

He asked her for a candlestick to light his way to bed
He asked her for a pillow to rest his weary head
And speaking very gently just as if he meant no harm
He asked her if she’d come to bed just so keep him warm

Singing of bell bottom trousers
Coats of navy blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do

She lifted up the blanket and a moment there did lie
He was on her, he was in her in the twinkling of an eye
He was out again and in again and plowing up a storm
And the only word she said to him “I hope you’re keeping warm”

Singing of bell bottom trousers
Coats of navy blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do

Then early in the morning the sailor he arose
Saying here’s a two pound my dear for the damage I have caused
If you have a daughter, bounce her on your knee
If you have a son, send the bastard out to sea

Singing of bell bottom trousers
Coats of navy blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do

Now she sits aside the dock a baby on her knee
Awaiting for the sailing ships a-comin’ home from sea
Awaiting for the jolly tars and navy uniform
And all she wants to do my boys is keep the navy warm

Singing of bell bottom trousers
Coats of navy blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do

bell

Now that you know the background to the story, let me turn to the version that we all know from 1944.

In 1944, bandleader Moe Jaffe took credit for words and music, without collaboration, on Bell Bottom Trousers – although he would freely admit that it was not an entirely original concept, and that he had based his song on an English nineteenth century bawdy folksong. Fortunately, Jaffe’s antiseptic version was tame enough to have it played on the radio. This version enjoyed great popularity during World War Two, and at the time was recorded by at least nine different performers, among them, Tony Pastor, Guy Lombardo, Louis Prima, Jerry Colonna. These recordings made Bell Bottom Trousers the number two selling song for 1944-45 and second only to the Cole Porter/Robert Fletcher hit, Don’t Fence Me In.

Tony Pastor and his Orchestra recorded the song on 4 April 1945. It first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on 19 May 1945 and lasted fifteen weeks on the charts, peaking at #2.
The recording by Guy Lombardo’s orchestra was recorded on April 20, 1945. It first reached the Billboard magazine Best Seller chart on 23 June 1945 and lasted thirteen weeks on the charts, peaking at #2.

Kay Kyser recorded the piece on April 2, 1945. It first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on 9 June 1945 and lasted ten weeks on the charts, peaking at #3.

The recording by the Louis Prima orchestra was recorded in February, 1945. It reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on 26 May 1945 at #6, and stayed on the charts for six weeks.

The recording by Jerry Colonna was released by Capitol Records and first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on 21 July 1945 and lasted four weeks on the charts, peaking at #7.

The Jesters, a white vocal trio, not to be confused with the 1950s R&B group, recorded the song and it peaked on the Billboard charts at #11, staying on the charts for three weeks.

To listen to a song, click on the song title. To download a song, click on the song title, then right click on Save target as

Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra, vocals by Jimmy Brown Bell Bottom Trousers
Tony Pastor and his Orchestra, vocals by Ruth McCullough Bell Bottom Trousers
Kay Kyser and his Orchestra, vocals by Slim Ferdy and Quartet Bell Bottom Trousers
Louis Prima and his Orchestra, vocals by Lily Ann Carol, Louis Prima and Chorus Bell Bottom Trousers
Jerry Colonna Bell Bottom Trousers
The Jesters Bell Bottom Trousers

Non-Charting versions
The Four Blues Bell Bottom Trousers
Connee Boswell and her V Disc Men Bell Bottom Trousers
Ginny Simms, Edgar Fairchild and his Orchestra Bell Bottom Trousers

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