Words by Francis Williams; tune "What is Greater Joy and Pleasure," 1730
What is happening in this song? Inmates of a debtor’s prison are greeting a new inmate. Who is singing it? The inmates already in prison. Who are they singing to? A new inmate. What do they do in the first verse? Extort money from the new inmate by threatening to take his coat. What do this and “knaves and beggars” say about many of the inmates? Petty thieves. How attractive does this prison seem to someone just “down on his luck”?
The inmates point out some advantages of being in debtor’s prison. What are they? Creditors can’t get you in jail: “Where no bayliff, dun ...” “Tho’ our Creditors are spiteful...” No cares: “...beggars find contentment,” “there’s nothing else to fear.”
What hints does this song give about attitudes about not paying back debts during this period? Considered a vice. What kinds of debts might people have during this period? Farm mortgages, ship passage, temporary loans to buy seed to be paid back when crops came in. What other options might they have for paying back debts if they couldn’t pay cash? Work it off, like an indentured slave to pay back ship passage.
What happens today when someone can’t pay their debts? Repossession, declare bankruptcy, ruined credit, can’t borrow anymore, garnish wages. What kinds of debt can you still be jailed for? Child support. Why is the penalty harsher for that debt?
Picture yourself as a Revolutionary soldier in Yorktown at the time of the British surrender. How would you feel when the British played this song?
This song appears in The Prisoner’s Opera a ballad opera by Edward Ward (produced in London, 1730), although it was reportedly written by Francis Williams, a Black Jamaican. It ridicules eighteenth-century prisons where debtors were often placed until their debts were paid. The tune, “What is greater Joy and Pleasure,” is an old English ballad tune often associated with tales of the sea.
This song was played at the Yorktown surrender at the end of the Revolution, according to the diary of St. George Tucker of the Virginia militia. He wrote: “Fryday, October 19th: 1781: ‘This Morning at nine o’Clock the Articles of Capitulation were signed and exchanged. At retreat beating last night the British played the Tune 'Welcome Brother Debtor' to their conquerors the tune was by no means disagreeable.” To be recognized in this unlikely setting, the song was obviously familiar and popular.
John Trumball's "The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis," ca. 1819-1820.
bayliff: A British official who serves papers and makes arrests.
dun: Someone demanding payment.
setter: One who grants a lease.
garnish: Illegal protection money demanded of new jail inmates.
This popular song first appeared in a ballad opera, then likely in home parlors, perhaps accompanied by harpsichord or violin (or both). It was probably not performed in the streets. The text is formal and set to a melodious and florid lyrical line, requiring a certain amount of vocal skill. Thus, the performers and the audience were likely among those affluent enough to have some training.