“The Bully of the Town”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1896 (published by Charles Trevathan)
Keywords: homicide punishment police clothes
Found in: US(Ap,SE,So)


The bully has terrorized the entire town, including even the police. At last a hunter catches up with him and kills him. The people rejoice; all the women "come to town all dressed in red."


Laws describes "The (New) Bully" (for which cf. Spaeth, _Read 'Em and Weep_, pp. 193-195, or Gilbert, _Lost Chords_, pp. 209-210) as an offshoot of this traditional piece. Personally, I'd call "The New Bully" an arrangement, but I follow Laws.

Norm Cohen writes of this piece,

I discussed the history of The Bully in the brochure notes to JEMF LP 103:

Paramount Old Time Tunes.... "Basically, there are two received accounts of the genesis of this song. One was first published by James J. Geller in his "Famous Songs and their Stories (1931) [pp. 97-100, with the titles "'The Bully' Song" or "May Irwin's 'Bully' Song" - RBW]. This is the anecdote about sports writer and horse racing judge, Charles E. Trevathan, on the train back to Chicago from San Francisco in 1894, playing his guitar and humming popular airs to amuse the passengers around him among whom was May Irwin. He said he had learned the tune of "The Bully" from Tennessee blacks. Irwin suggested that he put [clean] words to the tune, which he did, and published it in 1896. She incorporated the song in her stage play, 'The Widow Jones.'

The other account, first published, as far as I know, by E. B. Marks in 'They All Sang' (1934) is that the song was popularized before he got his hands on it by 'Mama Lou,' a short, fat, homely, belligerent powerhouse of a singer in Babe Connor's classy St. Louis brothel, a popular establishment in the 1890s that drew from all social classes for its clientele.

Either Trevathan picked up the song from Mama Lou, or, equally likely, both learned it from black oral tradition in the South of the early 1890s. In support of this position is the fact that there were several sheet music versions of 'The Bully' published, some preceding Trevathan's 1896 version."

Gilbert, p. 209, also mentions the connection to Mama Lou; he quotes Orrick Johns to the effect that she was "a gnarled, black African of the purest type [who] sang, with her powerful voice, a great variety of indigenous songs." Johns cites her as one of the earliest sources for "Frankie and Johnnie" and apparently for "Ta-ra-ra Boom-der-e." But Gilbert also notes a version in Delaney's songbook #12, from 1896, with words credited to Will Carleton and music by J. W. Cavanagh.

It does seem likely that May Irwin is largely responsible for the song's popularity. Irwin was a notable popular singer who was at the height of her powers in the 1890s; In Sigmund Spaeth's _A History of Popular Music in _America__ she is credited with the song, "Mamie, Come Kiss Your Honey Boy" (pp. 265-266), and with popularizing George M. Cohan's "Hot Tamale Alley" (pp. 282, 339) as well as suh songs as "I Couldn't Stand to See My Baby Loose" (p. 347) and "Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose" (p. 285). She presumably also had some part in the song we index as "May Irwin's Frog Song (The Foolish Frog, Way Down Yonder)." Her biggest success of all (based on how many popular music histories mention it) was apparently "May Irwin's Bully Song," the Trevathan version of this song. - RBW

Same tune




  1. Laws I14, "The Bully of the Town"
  2. Leach, p. 767, "Lookin' for the Bully of the Town" (1 text)
  3. Darling-NAS, pp. 242-243, "The Bully of the Town" (1 text)
  4. MWheeler, p. 100, "Stacker Lee #1" (1 text, 1 tune -- a fragment, probably of this song though it does mention Stacker Lee)
  5. Geller-Famous, pp. 97-99, "'The Bully' Song (May Irwin's 'Bully' Song)" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Gilbert, pp. 209-210, "[Bully Song]" (1 partial text)
  7. DT 823, BULLYTWN
  8. Roud #4182
  9. BI, LI14