Fiction The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – The Music

Dick Turpin, one of the most famous of highwaymen
Dick Turpin, one of the most famous of highwaymen

(One in an occasional series of posts on the background material for my novel, Daring and Decorum. See the rest of the series here.)

I thought I’d post a collection of songs and other music that influenced or actually appear in Daring and Decorum: A Highwayman Novel. Most of them have to do with highwaymen, of course, but a couple are socialist/labor folk songs. I’ve also included some of the pieces Elizabeth and her friend Rebecca might have enjoyed.

First up is the Roches’ version of “The Road to Fairfax County.” I believe it was the first song I ever heard about a woman falling in love with a highwayman. After robbing her, this highwayman gives back all her money, which probably influenced me to have my highwayman return Elizabeth’s necklace, scaling a drain pipe to enter her bedchamber in the middle of the night. (When updating this post with a better version of this tune, I found out that Maggie Roche passed away since I first posted this. RIP, Maggie!)


Wow, bleak, huh? What he gets for stopping to dally with a woman instead of keeping his wits about him, if you ask me.

Bleaker still is the tune that probably influenced me the most – Loreena McKennitt’s musical treatment of Alfred Noyes’ lyric poem, The Highwayman. 


Not just one, but both lovers die heroically in this tale. But not to worry, romance fans, I gave myself the freedom to deviate from the poem’s story in several ways. For instance, unlike Bess the landlord’s daughter, my Elizabeth is the daughter of a vicar. And my highwayman is not… but wait, that might be too much of a spoiler. Let’s just say, should the book ever reach the point of having a cover, it won’t feature any hunky, shirtless rakes. What’s left, you ask? You’ll need to read the book to find out. (The first three chapters are posted here.) And to calm your fears even more, I’ve already started working on the second novel in the series, Silence and Secrecy. The ending can’t be too sad if there’s a second installment, right?

Socialist and labor songs crop up at various points in the book. My highwayman isn’t just in it for personal gain, but plays the role of a Georgian-period Robin Hood, even going so far as to take the name of Robin. One of Robin’s accomplices sings a scrap of the following tune to Elizabeth when she upbraids the highwayman as a traitor, and greedy to boot. You’ll have to click through to listen on Youtube. The lyrics go: “I’m a poor loom weaver as many a one knows/I’ve naught t’eat and I’ve wore out me clothes.”


This is just after the rogues have lured a band of redcoats into a bog. Robin isn’t a violent revolutionary, but will resort to such harassment to distract the militia from breaking up mobs of unemployed laborers. In the time and place this is set, late 18th-century Devonshire, the woolen trade in Exeter had declined due to competition from India, whose muslins were considered finer by the wealthy. Also, there had just been a poor harvest and a shocking increase in the price of wheat, a staple for the working class. So there were riots, and the militia did break them up, sometimes at the loss of workers’ lives. The highwayman is firmly on the workers’ side, but Elizabeth, as much as she sympathizes with the poor, doesn’t see how rioting or harassing the militia can help. (She has a brother in the Navy, which might further explain her sympathy for anyone in uniform.)

Another tune that informs the novel is “World Turned Upside Down” (aka “The Diggers Song”) by Leon Rosselson. It’s about a 17th-century group of radicals known as the Diggers, who sought to occupy land peacefully and work it for the communal good. They were “cut down,” if you believe the song, but according to Wikipedia (a worthy enough source for this blog post?), the truth is a little more complicated, involving violence conducted by the aristocrats’ gangs, but also hearings in court and timely retreats. Here’s Dick Gaughan singing his version of it in 1982:


The song doesn’t make an overt appearance in Daring and Decorum, since it was written in 1974, but in the first chapters of Silence and Secrecy I find I’m putting large chunks of it into the highwayman’s mouth. In one of those serendipitous research moments, just now as I was searching for a video of it, I found there’s another Diggers song (also called “Levellers and Diggers”) that does date to the 17th century. So maybe the Highwayman could have heard it and knows it well enough to paraphrase its sentiments. Here’s Chumbawumba’s version:


The lyrics are here. “The gentry must come down, the poor shall wear the crown” — a sentiment with which the highwayman might agree, although Robin steals only from the wealthiest men of business and the highest nobility. It’s a good thing Elizabeth, the object of the highwayman’s desires, is only a vicar’s daughter, or Robin might have a serious conflict of interest.

Music also forms a subject over which Elizabeth bonds with her new friend, Rebecca, in addition to exchanging books and taking long walks in the country. To learn what a proper young English lady living in the country might enjoy, I went to Jane Austen’s biography, to discover that she liked both Pleyel and Dibdin, two composers we don’t recognize so readily today. The former would fall under what we today loosely call “classical” and the latter was a composer of popular songs, sort of the Irving Berlin of the day. Here’s a collection of piano works by Pleyel (maybe Elizabeth or Rebecca could even handle one of the slower pieces):


But as they’re discussing their favorite composers, Rebecca can’t agree with Elizabeth in her admiration for Dibdin. She stammers a bit and claims it’s because some of his songs, such as “Meg of Wapping,” aren’t appropriate for a young lady. But the real reason, which she can’t admit to Elizabeth, is that her political sympathies are in remarkable accord with the highwayman’s (for reasons the reader has probably guessed by this point in the novel). She detests Dibdin as a “God and King man.” I read somewhere (which I can’t find right now, maybe in Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask?) that in the 1790s, when tensions ran high between proletarian mobs and the “God and King” gangs who wanted to keep French ideas off English soil, Dibdin would bring his singers and musicians out into the streets around Drury Lane and Covent Garden to cheer on the patriotic side. Rebecca was in London at the time and could have seen that, giving her a reason not to like his music.

In the end, however, they can both agree on “Tom Boling,” which focuses on the life and death of a loyal and steadfast English sailor, inspired by the death of Dibdin’s own brother:


I agree, Rebecca, not my cup of tea!

When Rebecca and Elizabeth travel to Bath, I had to take some historical liberties to have them see Dora Jordan as Rosalind/Ganymede in As You Like It, but the musical program they enjoy in the Upper Rooms the next night might have been very like this one, featuring Haydn, Handel, and Wraninski (Wranitsky?):

Bath Upper Rooms concert program
A concert program from the Upper Rooms dated just a couple of years after Rebecca and Elizabeth would have been there. (from

And last, it’s strange that I only recently realized that another outlaw song had to have influenced my decision to start this project: Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which I used to consider one of the greatest songs ever written (maybe I still do). I like Dick Gaughan’s version better, but I’ve already posted one of his, so here’s Mr. Thompson:


“I’ve seen you on corners and cafes it seems/Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.” A writer could kill for lines like that. “I see angels and ariels in leather and chrome/Swooping down from Heaven to carry me home” is also pretty damn great. (I realize I just misquoted it, but that’s how I’ve always heard it, taking ariels to mean spirits, giving the story a bit of a pagan quality. Turns out Ariel is a British motorbike, and it’s “angels on Ariels.” I like what I misheard better.)

There’s no chrome in my novel, obviously, but a black horse is a pretty good stand-in for a motorbike, and maybe the halter or saddle of Robin’s horse could be worked in silver. Also, it’s “Black hair and red love-knots,” not “Red hair and black leather,” that attract Robin to Elizabeth, but oh well. And no shotgun blasts to the chest, either. There is a musket blast in the Noyes poem, but I’ll have to leave you guessing how that works out. (If you can’t wait until the book is published to find out, you can volunteer to be a Beta reader by leaving a comment below.)

UPDATE: How could I forget “Newry Highwayman,” sung here by Solas:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow on Feedly