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Some bawdy songs exist in versions that range from the mildly indecorous to the gratuitously rude, and “The ball of yarn”, collected virtually all over the English-speaking world, is one of the best examples of this. Like a number of other comically bawdy pieces, this one began life as a parody. The target of the burlesque is a now forgotten sentimental piece, “Winding up her little ball of yarn,” with words by Earl Marble and melody by Polly Holmes, published in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon, in 1884. The narrator of the Marble-Holmes song is a schoolmaster who woos and weds the school committeeman’s daughter (an “apple dumpling sort of girl, with…tender eyes of blue”), whom he first saw knitting a garment in the parlour of her home. Since the original song enjoyed no special popularity, the parody presumably dates from shortly after its appearance. Parody versions in various strengths have been very widely known to singers of bawdry. Liverpool seaman Stan Hugill even heard the ribald “Ball of yarn” sung as a capstan shanty in the 1920s.
The melodies of all collected versions plainly derive from that of the original.
It was also collected from Danny Brazil, to the same tune as Ray Hartland’s.