Escape of Old John Webb

Tom Drake

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 Nick Reynolds (vocal, guitar), Bob Shane (vocal, guitar), Dave Guard (vocal, guitar), Buck Wheat (bass):
        Album: STRING ALONG (Original Capitol LP record release) T/ST 1407  - 1960 TRACK TIME: (N/A) AMERICAN GOLD Album: SOLD OUT / STRING ALONG (Capitol CD re-issue of previously available tracks from SOLD OUT and STRING ALONG) CDP 796735 2 - 1992 Album: THE CAPITOL YEARS (Capitol four disk CD compilation of previously available tracks from the Dave Guard and John Stewart era Trios) CDP 7 96748 2 - 1995 Album: THE GUARD YEARS (Bear Family Records CD re-issue of previously recorded material) BCD 16160 JK - 1997 -- TRACK TIMES: (2:33)
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CLICK HERE to view larger image. a 1960 music industry trade publication Capitol Records promotional ad for The Kingston Trio, announcing the release of their single "Bad Man Blunder" and "Escape of Old John Webb." The original advertisement measures approximately 15.5" x 11" overall. CLICK on the thumbnail to view larger image
Posted by Tom Drake to the KINGSTON TRIO PLACE FORUM on 2/5/2000, 2:45 pm as a new thread "On Top Of Old Folkie" The post was in response to multiple posts by others speculating on the origins/authorship of "The Escape of Old John Webb. I was going to leave this subject alone, but you all seem sincerely interested, so here's how I "wrote" The Escape of Old John Webb.

Bobby Shane (yes, we all called him Bobby back then) was a friend and knew of my music/academic background and asked me to find him some old songs. I spent a couple of days in the library and sent him some tunes. John Webb made it to the top of the pile. None of us understood the content or knew its background. Someone (I think it was Voyle Gilmore) suggested I fill in the gaps so the lyrics made more sense. I wrote the linking verses and changed things around to tell a linear story. The end.

Until Bobby called from the studio and said there was no copyright on the piece so they were putting me down as the writer. I had no idea what that meant. And no expectations. But when my first royalty check exceeded my annual salary as a high school English teacher, I was soon in the music business.

This is not an apology. The revision of public domain material is an established and vital part of the folk process. You take what you hear and you bring it up to date. What changed in our day was how it got passed on. Hit records were unheard of. Mass popularity was a myth.

The Lomax passage quoted is probably as accurate as folk scholarship can be. The text was not an instant bestseller in 1960. I didn't see it until decades later. My source for John Webb was far more mundane -- a popular songbook from the 40's or 50's that described it as a rousing revolutionary ditty. Perhaps a more appropriate credit would have been, "Traditional: Adapted By..." because I definitely created the content of the Trio's version. But just for the record (ha ha) I never said I "wrote" it. I did, however, gratefully take the money.

The arrangements then were usually done jointly by the guys in rehearsal. I was at a few of them in Dave's time and they pretty much worked it out amongst themselves until it got good. With Buckwheat to keep them in tune.

Finally, I'm awed and appreciative that there is so much affection for the Trio and what we did on the fly 40 years ago. Thanks to all. It's very gratifying.

-- Tom Drake

Posted by Pete Curry on 9/8/2000, 11:19 pm In the KT song "The Escape of Old John Webb," I've always wondered why the prisoner is identified as "Bill Tenor" in the first verse and as John Webb (or "Johnny") everywhere else.

After forty years, I think I've found the answer.

According to Alan Lomax's "Folk Songs of North America," the song (which is titled "Billy Broke Locks" in his volume) dates back to about 1737.

Quoting Lomax: "At that time exchange in the colonies was based upon Spanish coinage, which brought a different price in the various capitals. Parliament attempted to resolve this confusion by several issues of paper money called 'tenors'; but when the 'new tenor' replaced the 'old tenor,' disturbances broke out in Massachusetts... John Webb (or Webber) then mint-master of Salem, Massachusetts, apparently stuck to 'Old Tenor,' and for this offence [sic.] was sent to prison."

Anyway, Webb's friends broke into the jail, helped him escape, and the rest we know.

Lomax then prints the lyrics as he got them--from "British Ballads from Maine" by Phillips Barry (Yale University Press,1929). The first verse in Lomax is as follows:

There were nine to hold the British ranks,
and five to guard the town about,
And two to stand at either hand,
and one to let Old Tenor out.

"Old Tenor" (as opposed to "Bill Tenor") makes sense because it is clearly a reference to John Webb who stood up for the old currency. But apparently, somewhere between the publication of the Barry book in 1929 and the Trio's recording in 1960, "Old Tenor" got changed to "Bill Tenor." Thus the prisoner ended up with his mysterious double-identity!

Regards, Pete Curry

Posted to the Kingston Crossroads by Fred on 12/22/2001, 10:30 am

FOLK SONGS OF NORTH AMERICA by Alan Lomax refers to the song as "Billy Broke Locks" and has the following to say about it:
"Phillips Barry believes that, about the year 1700, a new wave of colonists from Britain brought a group of ballads into New England which did not reach the southern states. Among these he cites "Captain Kidd," and the Scots 'Archie o' Cawfield,"' upon which the present ballad is based, and whose story runs as follows . . .

"Archie Hall of Liddesdale, one of three reiving (cattle rustling) brothers, lies prisoner in Dumfries jail. Dickie and Jockie Hall ride to his rescue. Jockie, a man of Homeric stature and strength, bursts the iron bolts of the dungeon with a blow, and though the prisoner has "fifteen weight of good Spanish iron on his fair bodie," picks him up in his arms, observing, "I count him lighter than a flea." The three brothers make good their escape by swimming their horses across a river that daunts their English pursuers. In the Scots ballad they refer to each other affectionately as 'billie'. In Scots dialect, 'billie' meant comrade or buddy; thus in our ballad, 'Billy' takes the place of 'Jockie.'

"Very likely 'Archie o' Cawfield' was one of the ballads Cotton Mather had in mind when in 1713 he lamented 'the vogue of the foolish Songs & Ballads which hawkers and pedlars carry into all portions of the Country.' There is no doubt that it served as the model for 'Billy Broke Locks,' composed around 1737, when the colonists of Massachusetts became involved in a currency dispute with the crown.

"At that time exchange in the colonies was based upon Spanish coinage, which brought a different price in the various colonial capitals. parliament attempted to resolve this confusion by several issues of paper money called 'tenors;' but when the 'new tenor' replaced the 'old tenor,' disturbances broke out in Massachusetts, and two satirical broadsides entitled 'The Death of Old Tenor' and 'The Dying Speech of Old Tenor' were published--and suppressed. John Webb (or Webber) then mint-master of Salem, Massachusetts, apparently stuck to 'Old Tenor' and for this offence was sent to prison. When his friends broke into jail and rescued Webb, someone celebrated the event by re-making 'Archie o' Cawfield' to tell the story of the escape of the man who had stood up for 'Old Tenor,' and so is identified with 'Old Tenor' in the chorus".

The Lomax version has some slight wording differences from the KT version. For example in the first verse instead of the phrase ". . . And one to let Bill Tenor out," found in the KT version, the Lomax version has "And one to let the Old Tenor out," which makes sense in light of the historical basis on the song.

It's an interesting song and one of my favorite KT numbers.
--Fred 

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Escape of Old John Webb
Five men to guard the British rank 
and five to watch the town above
And two to stand at either hand 
and one to let Bill Tenner out.

He had eighty weight of Spanish iron 
between his neck bone and his knee,
But Billy took Johnny up under his arm 
and lugged him away right manfully.

Chorus:
And Billy broke locks and Billy broke bolts 
and Billy broke all that he came nigh,
Until he came to the dungeon door 
and that he broke right manfully.

So they stole them a horse and away did ride 
and who what they rode gallantly,
Until they came to the river bank 
to the river runnin' wild and free!

The British were comin' close on their heels 
and who but they stood fearfully,
'Till Billy took Johnny up on his back 
and carried him over it easily.

Chorus

So they called at the inn for a room to dance 
and who but they danced merrily
And the very best dancer among them all 
was old John Webb who was just set free!

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Last revised: March 30, 2006.