Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

O! Dear, What Can the Matter Be

And now for a shopping tip for the gentlemen, who ask that age-old question, "What does a woman want.... from the Fair?" And for a list of trinkets, souvenirs, "fairings", our shopping list can be found in an old familiar song O! Dear! What can the matter be? Its words should be a tip off to us that it is appropriate in words and age to sing at trade fairs. It can be found in William Chappell's The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. (There was a Dover Books reprint edition, which can probably be found in most libraries.) The words Chappell gives are:

O! Dear! What can the matter be? Dear, dear, what can the matter be?
O, dear! What can the matter be? Johnny's so long at the Fair.
He promised he'd buy me a fairing should please me,
And then for a kiss, Oh! he vowed he would teaze me;
He promised he'd bring me a bunch of blue ribbons,
To tie up my bonny brown hair. And it's (chorus)

He promis'd he'd bring me a basket of posies,
A garland of lilies, a garland of roses,
A little straw hat, to set off the blue ribbons
That tie up my bonny brown hair.

Chappell says this song became popular on stage in the 1790s, and in The British Lyre, or Muses' Repository of 1793, is listed as "the favorite duet" sung at Harrison's concerts. I have also found a version which could be the original of this song, in an amusing little book Lovers, Rakes and Rogues: Amatory, merry and bawdy verse from 1580 to 1830, by John Wardroper [Shelfmark Books,London 1995], ISBN 0-9526093-0-4, and in paperback! This version has an Irish cast to it, being titled Blood-an-Ouns! Och, dear, dear! What can the Matter be? "Blood-an-ouns comes from the oath "Christ's blood and wounds".

At sixteen years old you could get little good of me, Then I saw Norah, who soon understood of me.
I was in love, but myself for the blood of me Could not tell what I did ail.
'Twas dear, dear! what can the matter be? Och, blood-an-ouns! what can the matter be?
Och, gramachree! what can the matter be? Bothered from head to the tail.

Well, Father O'Flannagan wasn't able to help him, but Norah seems to have eventually taken care of the matter. A satirical parody was also written during William Pitt's disastrous 1793-4 campaigns against the French:

Oh dear, what will become of us! Dear, dear, what will become of us!
Oh dear, what will become of us? Billy's so fond of the wars!

As to the above shopping list, the little straw hat is fine, but those posies are going to be pretty wilted by Christmas.