“There’s a number of work to be done…”
This is a much-performed traditional (Roud number 1667), collected in Dorset by Henry Hammond in 1906 (originally from singer Edith Sartin, a relation to Paul Sartin of Bellowhead / Faustus fame). I’d heard it sung at sessions for years and years and years, but never knew it was called ‘The Sheep-Stealer’, so I never put two and two together about what the words actually meant. Once I did, I completely fell in love with it. I’ve read some people say it’s basically just one long brag about a crime spree, and I’ve read others who say it’s about a starving man trying to feed his family. Personally, I’m not convinced about either. This may sound pedantic, but no one who is starving could carry a fully grown ewe (about the weight of a person) from one field to another, and although this sheep stealer seems unapologetic, I love the way that the song seems more interested in what his big hope in life is: to build a fine house on the moor. Also, this song seems so much about Thomas Hardy’s Dorset that I wonder whether it might have actually been written by Thomas Hardy himself.
You can find out more about this song here: https://www.vwml.org/roudnumber/1667
I am a brisk lad but my fortune is bad,
Indeed I am wondrous poor.
Oh but I do intend my fortune to mend,
I shall build me an house on the moor, my brave boys,
I shall build me an house on the moor.
The farmer he keeps fat oxen and sheep
And a neat little nag on the down.
But in the middle of the night when the moon does shine bright
There’s a number of work to be done, my brave boys,
There’s a number of work to be done.
For I’ll roam around on some other man’s ground,
I shall take a fat ewe from his pack.
And with the aid of my knife, I shall shorten its life
And I’ll carry it home on my back, me brave boys,
I shall carry it home on my back.
Then my children shall pull the skin from the wool,
And I’ll carve it up to the bone.
And when the constable comes I will stand with my gun
And I’ll swear all I have is my own, my brave boys,
I shall swear all I have is my own.
For I am a brisk lad though my fortune is bad,
And I am most wondrous poor.
Oh but I do intend my life for to mend,
And to build a fine house on the moor, my brave boys,
And to build a fine house on the moor.
Credits & Copyright
Traditional, adapted by James Bell. Recorded and released by James Bell in March 2018. (P) House of Lyra.