Old Joe Song

Oh, Joe, the Boat is Going Over
An article by Mike Yates, originally published on the Kyloe Records website (now inoperative)

Oh Joe! the Boat is Going Over – but which boat?

Whenever I think of East Anglian music, especially that used to accompany step-dancing, I usually think of the tune Oh, Joe! The Boat’s Going Over (Roud 1777).

Why? Well, because just about every East Anglian musician seemed to know it, and it is a tune that is easy to remember.

But what of the title? Most step-dance tunes have titles that indicate the type of tune that is being played – Sheringham Breakdown or Yarmouth Hornpipe for example – whereas Oh, Joe! suggests something else.

A song, perhaps? About 35 years ago, I did discover that the title was associated with a song, one printed by the London broadside printer Henry Parker Such.

I found the song listed in a catalogue issued by Such from his premises at 177, Union Street, Southwark. The song was listed towards the rear of the catalogue and, unlike the earlier entries, did not bear an issue number. But, it did say that another song, The Warrior’s Little Boy, was also printed alongside Oh, Joe! on the same sheet.

Such moved to Union Street in the 1840’s, originally to number 123. In 1862 the buildings in the street were renumbered and Henry’s print shop became number 177. The street was again renumbered in 1886, and so we can suggest that the catalogue must date from sometime during the period 1862 – 1886. However, this may not be the case, as at least four of the songs listed at the rear of the catalogue appear not to have been written until after 1886.

Michael Kilgarriff, in his monumental book Sing Us One of the Old Songs – A Guide to Popular Song 1860 – 1920 (Oxford, 1998) dates Young Men Taken In and Done For to 1888 and Across the Bridge, Don’t Leave Your Father, Boy and Where Are Those Boys? to 1889. So presumably the Such Family – old Henry had died in 1882 – kept adding new titles to their catalogue without bothering to amend their address. Alternately, it may be that the songs were written prior to 1886, but that Kilgarriff’s dates are later publication dates.

Eventually I came across a broadside without printer’s imprint which contained the two songs The Warrior’s Little Boy and Oh, Joe! The Boat’s Going Over. I can only assume that this is the sheet mentioned in the Such catalogue, although, according to Steve Roud in his Index, Oh, Joe! was also issued on a broadside by the Edinburgh printer Charles Sanderson.

The broadside text for Oh, Joe! runs as follows:

Oh, Joe! the Boat’s Going Over

I loved a charming creature, such a very timid maid,
She can stand almost anything but of water she’s afraid,
She’ll have a tidy fortune when her uncle dies some day,
While on a voyage to Dover once, that girl to me did say –


Oh! Joe the boat’s going over,
Oh! Joe you naughty man she cried,
Oh! Joe I wish you’d been in Dover,
Before you ever took me on the water for a ride.

The wind was blowing rather rough she clung so tight to me,
The boat began to pitch and toss, all on the briny sea,
She looked so wild she cried aloud in a frantic sort of way,
Her arms she flung around my neck and then to me did say –


I said Matilda don’t be afraid now there’s a dear,
With a smile she looked into my face, and gave me such a leer,
A kiss then from her cheek I stole, oh, she seemed rather shy,
And while I was kissing her, that girl to me did cry –


We landed safe in Dover, her uncle there we found,
He died two days after that, and left her eight hundred pounds,
I made Matilda my dear wife we’re so happy night and day,
While sitting by her fireside sometimes she’ll say –


In 1967 the collector Fred Hamer recorded a number of songs from an elderly Essex singer, Harry Green. One song collected from Harry was a version of Oh, Joe! but it was not the song issued by Henry Parker Such, although it did have the same chorus. Harry’s song was actually written by the Music Hall performer and songwriter John Read (1839 – 1920), who wrote most of his own material, including the well-known song Down by the Old Mill Stream – composed in 1885. Read’s song is given below:

Oh, Joe, the Boat’s Going Over

It happen’d on one afternoon in the month of May,
While walking out with a pretty little girl, I unto her did say;
Will you go, Miss, for a row, as we stood on the shore,
‘Twill do you good, she exclaim’d it would, as she’d not been there before.

SPOKEN:- And fool like I hired a boat and when we got on the water, just because the boat began to rock a bit she exclaimed –

Oh! Joe, the boat’s a going over,
Oh! Joe, you naughty man, she cried.
Oh! Joe, I wish you’d been at Dover,
Ere you ever took me on the water for a ride.

I pull’d with all my might, had not gone very far,
Before the girl commenced to scream, and said she’d tell her ma;
And as these words fell from her lips a steamer came close by
Which caused the boat to pitch and toss and her again to cry –


I felt uneasy in my mind, I scarce knew what to do,
I thought the girl would die with fright and so would all of you;
She said “dear Joe, oh take me home. Here I cannot remain,”
And then there came another wave which made her shout again –


Now thinking it would ease her mind, I pull’d towards the shore,
She told me I was very kind but would not go anymore
On the water for a row, and now unto this day,
If you want to make her cross, of course you only have to say –


John Read’s version of Oh, Joe!, words and music, was published in London by Charles Sheard & Company in 1881. They also printed a piano version of the tune – one that had been arranged by T.W.Steinway.

Clearly the Such broadside text and the Read songs are related. They both tell a story about a man taking a girl for a row on the water, and they share the same chorus. Presumably they also share the same tune. Read’s version, with its spoken patter is clearly intended for the stage. But did Read compose both songs? Was the success of one sufficient for him to follow up with another similar piece, or, more unlikely I think, were the two songs composed by different people?

There is no trace of Oh, Joe! in Kilgarriff’s book, though he does list two other songs with similar titles – Oh, Joe, I Want to Go to the Picture Show and Oh, Joe, With Your Fiddle and Bow – which could, I suppose also have been composed by John Read. Oh, Joe, I Want to Go to the Picture Show was popularised by Arthur Reece (1870 – 1964), while Oh, Joe, With Your Fiddle and Bow was sung by a group known as ‘The Versatile Four’, who were active during the years 1892 – 1927.

As I said before, the tune Oh, Joe! The Boat’s Going Over remained especially popular with East Anglian musicians. But, it has occasionally turned up elsewhere, most notably as one of the tunes used to accompany the Minehead Hobby Horse in Somerset. The Sussex musician Scan Tester also played a variant of the tune, which he called Not for Joe.

No doubt other musicians remembered the tune, but, to my knowledge, the following are all that remain on vinyl and/or CD:

Percy Brown (1) English Country Music from East Anglia Topic 12TS229 (2) Melodeon Players from East Anglia Veteran VTVS 05/06
Harry Cox The Bonny Labouring Boy Topic TDSC 512D
George Craske Melodeon Players from East Anglia Veteran VTVS 0506
Harry Green Old Songs and Folk Songs from Essex Veteran VT135
Minehead Hobby Horse Team The Voice of the People Vol. 9 Topic TSCD659
Old Hat Concert Band, The The Old Hat Concert Party Veteran OH-1CD
Walter Pardon Put a Bit of Powder on it, Father – the other songs of Walter Pardon Musical Traditions MTCD 305-6
Reg Reeder (1) Dulcimer Players from England Veteran VTVS 07/08 (2) Earl Soham Slog Topic 12TS374 Scan Tester I Never Played to Many Posh Dances As Not for Joe Topic 2-12T455/6.
Oscar Woods (1) Melodeon Players from East Anglia Veteran VTVS 05/ (2) Hidden English Topic TSCD 600

[Acknowledgements. My thanks to Reg Hall, Katie Howson and Rod Stradling for help with this piece.] Michael Yates 2005