I’ve recently been enjoying browsing the Full English collection, put together by the EFDSS and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. One curious find was the above letter from one Agnes W. Agar to the early folksong collector Lucy Broadwood (1858-1929), which includes some rather curious speculations on The Dilly Song. While the speculations about magic are surely way off the mark, the correspondent’s reference to farm men calling it a “secret society song” is interesting. Whether these men were pulling the old antiquarian’s leg, belonged to a rural trade fraternity (such as the Horseman’s or Miller’s Word), or believed that it had an association with Freemasons and their music (- see Katherine Campbell’s article in Oral Tradition [pdf]) cannot be inferred simply from the letter, which I have transcribed below. Broadwood herself has some lengthy notes on the song on pp. 154-9 of her English Country Songs, although this does not appear to be the source where she connects the song with Freemasonry – presumably this was detailed in the correspondence that precedes the letter reproduced below. A note on the song being sung at a Masonic gathering is in an 1887 issue of The Freemason’s Chronicle, but with no deeper association than it being a popular song sung by a brother during a social gathering alongside F.E. “Oh, Danny Boy!” Weatherley’s The Skippers of St. Ives.
24 Wonford Road
July 3rd 1921
Very many thanks for your exceedingly interesting letter concerning the “Dilly Song:” I regret that the further details I can add are rather meagre, & only from hearsay.
The friend who gave me the words & tune enclosed herewith, received them from an old antiquarian in Axminster. This person had himself heard the song sung by the farm men at a Harvest Home merry-making in Shropshire, many years ago, & was told by the singers that it was a “secret society song.”
I think he was responsible for the meanings I gave in the S.W.G., with the exception of the “Trefoil,” which is my own conjecture for (3): I did not think the “Holy Trinity” at all clearly connected by sound with “rifle,” so added “trefoil” to my own notes, (taken about 2 years ago). At any rate, I have not come across anything more convincing since.
I have also received a letter a day or two before yours from an old gentleman in Canterbury, also asking for my tune, & sending me his, which her remembers singing when a boy in company with others. I have taken the liberty of giving him your address, & of begging him either to communicate with you direct, or to give me permission to send you his tune & the further particulars he remembers if he sends them to me.
I explained to him that I put you first in the matter as the editor of the F.S.S. Journal, to whom the information would be specially valuable, because he is evidently an aged man, & might not with to undertake a double correspondence on one subject.
Your theories interest me greatly, but I know very little of Freemasonry.
I had thought that the juxtaposition of Biblical references with astronomical & kabbalistic pointed to such occultism as one finds developed in such modern writings as those of Eliphas Levi, Papus, & hosts of others: I do not know much of these things in detail, but ancient & medieval occultism of the “magician” type deals so largely with the personages of the scriptures, astronomical symbols, the great angels of the Bible (& the Qabala) – the latter as given, for instance in the “Key of Solomon the King,” wherein are also the planetary “Pentacles,” – that I always mentally connected with the “Secret Society Song” with the literature of that type. That accounted, in my mind, for the “secrecy,” for the evident symbolism of the whole thing, and also for the number of variants in so many languages; one perhaps a concentration of the system of a different occultist or magician. As many “Keys” as there are versions would be needed on such a hypothesis, though! (apart from corruptions of the text). I expect all this sounds very nonsensical to you, but I have never come across anyone really interested in the “Dilly Song” before, so please forgive me for inflicting my own ideas on you!
At any rate, there is always some undercurrent of connection between occultism & freemasonry, & many symbols are common to both, whether the interpretations are identical or not , & in occultism at least they are many & various.
Please do not trouble to return my tune – I have it in a MS book. The East Kent tune is better: if you do not receive it in due course I can send it to you, as I copied it.
The song seems to me something like a short “Key” of perhaps mnemonic degenerated into a kind of incantation or evocation which would necessarily be used with some form of ritual.
Have you tried any “Co-Masons”? They might be some use in penetrating the arcana of their order! Though I understand that the Co-Masonic Lodges are not regarded as the real thing by the regular Lodges. Still, it might be a possible source of information on Masonic symbolism & its interpretation.
I fear I have let my pen run away with me, but my interest in your letter & the variants you possess is very great, so please let that be my excuse. If I can be of the smallest assistance, it will be a very great pleasure to me:
Yours very truly
Agnes W. Algar