Break it Down: I'se the B'y

This is a new thing: breaking down historical songs.  If you know me, you know I love 18th-century folk songs, particularly Irish-American songs and sea chanties.  But I've found you enjoy it even more when you understand what they're saying.  First, an old favorite, I'se the Bye.  I grew up on this song, and I used to believe that I was, in fact, the Boy.

I's the b'y that builds the boat
And I's the b'y that sails her
I's the b'y that catches the fish
And brings them home to Liza. (or Lizer)

I'm the boy that builds the boat, and I'm the boy that sails her.  This song is about self-sufficient fishermen from Newfoundland, Canada.

Chorus: Hip yer partner, Sally Thibault
Hip yer partner, Sally Brown
FogoTwillingateMoreton's Harbour
All around the circle!

This refers to three towns on the northeast coast of Newfoundland - a "circle" that would be navigated by the fishermen during fishing season.

Sods and rinds to cover your flake

The fishermen would dry the fish so they would last through the winter season.  The fish would be sun-dried on platforms, covered with grass sod and tree bark.  Apparently, the singer not only built and sailed the boat by himself, but also dried his own fish.

Cake and tea for supper
Codfish in the spring o' the year
Fried in maggoty butter.

"Cake" is hard tack.  Best euphamism I've ever heard for the stuff (it's rock hard).

I don't want your maggoty fish
They're no good for winter
I could buy as good as that
Down in Bonavista.

Predictably, Bonavista is another coastal town on the east coast of Newfoundland, but is far away from the "circle" described above.  The singer is haggling with someone over the quality of the fish, with someone claiming they could get that quality anywhere.

I took Liza to a dance
As fast as she could travel
And every step that she did take
Was up to her knees in gravel.


Susan White, she's out of sight
Her petticoat wants a border
Old Sam Oliver in the dark
He kissed her in the corner.

The chorus, and final verse, refer to a dance, presumably held at one of the local fishing towns.  Historically, these were modest communities and had little "big city" culture.  The girls turned out for the dance, but one girl in particular, who was remarkably pretty, nevertheless was so poor she couldn't afford a border on her petticoat.  That didn't seem to matter to Sam Oliver.