By Lily Murphy
‘Whiskey on a Sunday’ has been a popular song in the Irish folk scene for many years but it has no connection to Ireland at all! It was written by Glyn Hughes during the British folk revival of the late 1950s.
Hughes was born in Liverpool in 1932 and died tragically too young in his hometown in 1972. He was a well-known folk singer in the north of England during the ballad boom of the late 50s and early 60s.
The favourite of many balladeers, the song is sometimes better known as ‘Whiskey on a Sunday’ but it’s correct title is ‘The Ballad of Old Seth Davy.’
Seth Davy was a popular street entertainer during the 1890s in Liverpool. He was originally a sailor from Jamaica but Seth Davy became a fixed character on the streets of Liverpool where he entertained people, and especially young children, with his three dancing dolls which he made himself.
The famous dancing dolls were attached to the end of a plank which Seth Davy would tap with his hand to make them dance while he crooned his minstrel songs.
Seth Davy’s stage was the street outside the Bevington Bush Hotel on the north side of the city of Liverpool. He was known to sing minstrel songs and his most popular one which he was often heard singing was called ‘Massa is a Stingy Man.’
It is an old minstrel song from across the Atlantic and it contains the lines which would go on to form the later ballad about the street entertainer: ‘Sing come day go day, god send Sunday, we’ll drink whiskey all the week, and butter milk on Sunday.’
There are two versions of ‘The Ballad of Old Seth Davy,’ the original one written by Glyn Hughes and an Irish one which replaces some of the Liverpool place names with Dublin ones. When you hear the song performed in Ireland you will notice some of the lyrics are altered such as Bevington Bush which is replaced with the Dublin location of Beggars’ Bush.
It is not known who or why the lyrics were altered for Irish ears, but the song has been recorded by many artists over the years including The Ballad of Seth Davy, while in 1968 Danny Doyle’s recording of the song reached the number one spot in the Irish charts and stayed there for ten weeks.
‘The Ballad of Old Seth Davy’ ends on a rather sad note as we are informed that he died in 1902. His famous dancing dolls were thrown in a ‘jowler bin’ which is Liverpool slang for a rubbish bin that was a common feature in the alleys at the back of houses in the city, while the plank they danced on was used to patch up someone’s back door.
Although Seth Davy himself has long departed this world and the creator of the ballad has too passed on, the song will forever remain with us, whichever version of it that is sung!