Oh the love I have for the dear folksong, "The Crabfish"! Seventeen years ago I wrote a Master's thesis about the different ways folksongs encounter textual variation. I analyzed many different versions of "The Crabfish" because it had demonstrated over 400 years of variation. In addition to this written thesis, I illustrated the song in the form of a children's book, as shown above. Though it is unpublished, this book stands as my favorite and most satisfying artistic endeavor.
Okay, so why all the variation in this particular song? Simply said, it originally was a "bawdy" song, complete with potty humor! Because of this, it got transmitted orally, longer than other songs. In addition, well known folksong researchers, such as Cecil Sharp, felt that he needed to tone down the song to appeal to the audiences of the early 1900's when it went to print. This particular version was collected by Cecil Sharp and has two verses I added to the song.
So what are the very earliest records of this song? As early as 1400, story of "The Crabfish" was found in Italy. In this tale the man brings home a crab and puts it in the 'chamberpot' for the time being. In the middle of the night, his wife gets up to use the bathroom or the 'chamberpot.' She screams out in terror as the crab bites her. She calls for her husband who tries to help her but is bitten on the nose by the other crab's pinchers and is held in a most embarrassing position. This humorous story was obviously well-liked because it was found over 200 years later in France.
In the late 1700's a man from England by the name of Bishop Percy was visiting his friend. He happened to spot some papers lying underneath a bureau that was being used by the maid to light the fire. He discovered that these papers had songs and stories in them from the 1600's. These papers became one of the oldest collections of English stories and songs ever found. In this collection, we find "The Crabfish" song with a similar story line as the tales found in Italy and France.
For hundreds of years, versions of "The Crabfish" have been discovered in many European countries as well as the United States. The story changes a little in each version and more remarkably, the nonsense refrains are almost all different, reflecting the character of the region it was sung. In some versions the man and his wife chase the crab all around the room with a broom and a spatula trying to kill it. In other versions, the husband and wife call the neighbors to come help pull off the crabfish that is clutching both of them. Incidentally these versions are the most humorous and the most filled with potty humor. The longest version comes from Ireland with a whopping 32 verses! This 1750 version tells how the town brings the crab to court and puts him on trial for biting the man and his wife.
So there you go - more details than you probably cared to know! If you are interested in this lively folksong you can find the lyrics here.... The Crabfish