Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight

HERRING’S HEAD

On the traditional song, collected across the British Isles, celebrating the ways the herring underpins everything of social importance

HERRING’S HEAD

The Herring’s Head or Herrin’s Heid is a cumulative traditional song often thought of as Scottish in origin, although this may be more to do with predominating versions in the early days of the folk revival. Somerset can apparently claim the most versions.

In Scotland and the North East of England, they lose the g, change or lose assorted other vowels and consonants and it’s heid. In the South of England you keep more letters and it’s head.

Herring’s Head

What’ll we do with the herring’s head? (or red herring’s head)
What’ll we do with the herring’s head?
We’ll make it into loaves o’ bread! (or feather beds)
Herring’s head, loaves of bread
And all manner o’ things! (or And all such things or And all sorts o’ things)

Of all the fish that swim in the sea
The herrin’ is the one for me!
How are ye the day? How are ye the day?
How are ye the day, my hinny-o?

or:
The herring is the king of the sea,
The herring is the fish for me!
The herring is the king of the sea,
Sing wack-faloodle-day!

or:
The herring is the king of the sea,
The herring is the one for me!
Sing fa-la-la-la-lie-do!
Fa-la-la-lie-do!
Fa-la-la-la-lie-do-lie-day!

or:
The herring is the king of the sea,
The herring is the fish for me!
The herring is the king of the sea,
Sing fol the do or die!

or:
Of all the fish that swim in the sea,
Red herring it is the fish for me,
And all such things!

[The verses continue, often with eyes…]

And what’ll we do with the herring’s eyes?
And what’ll we do with the herrin’s eyes?
We’ll make them into puddings and pies
Herring’s eyes, puddings and pies
Herring’s head, loaves of bread
And all manner of things!

[In no particular order, the verses accumulate…]

Herring’s gills / physical pills
Herring’s scales / a ship with sails (or a ship that sails or staples and nails)
Herring’s back / a fishing smack (or a lad called Jack)
Herring’s fins / needles and pins
Herring’s guts / a pair o’ boots [this one works better in the North]
Herring’s tail / a barrel o’ ale (or Newcastle Brown Ale or a ship o’ steel or sharks and whales)
Herring’s belly / jams an’ jelly (or jars o’ jelly or a lass called Nelly or a colour telly)

In the version from North East England with the line in the chorus repeating How are ye’ the day, this is accompanied by the action of shaking hands with the person standing next to you. For a song celebrating the rich and varied community benefits of the herring, it’s a great addition, reaffirming the neighbourliness of the community so blessed.

The chorus versions where the herring is celebrated as the king of the sea certainly go back. Nashes Lenten Stuffe (1599) sees the trickster scam of the accidental inventor of red herring introducing it to the pope as The King of Fishes.

The version with red herring, collected by Jim Eldon and Steve Gardham in 1972 at Aldborough – in a range of versions involving Alan Grey, Lesley Smith and John Hodson – also has a narrative introduction:

A fisherman was taking his son for the first time out fishing and as they were pulling away the son said, ‘What are we catching today, Dad?’

Dad says, ‘We’re catching red herrings today, lad.’

‘Why are we catching red herrings, Dad?’

‘Because of all the fish that swim in the sea red herring it is the fish for me.’

Meanwhile, a variant seemingly from both sides of the Irish Sea brings it all down to one herring and a focus on the infrastructure of hearth, home and community. The singer Eliza Carthy suggests the Welsh of the chorus means something like over the hills and over the bridge.

Herring Song
There once was a man who came from Kinsale,
Sing aber o vane, sing aber o linn
And he had a herring, a herring for sale!
Sing aber o vane, sing aber o linn

Sing man of Kinsale, sing herring for sale,
Sing aber o vane, sing aber o linn;
And indeed I have more of my herring to sing,
Sing aber o vane, sing aber o linn.

So what do you think they made of his head?
The finest oven that ever baked bread!

Sing herring, sing head, sing oven, sing bread…

So what do you think they made of his back?
A nice little man and his name it was Jack!

Sing herring, sing back, sing man, sing Jack…

So what do you think they made of his eyes?
The finest dishes that ever held pies!

Sing herring, sing eyes, sing dishes, sing pies…

So what do you think they made of his scales?
The finest ships that ever set sail!

Sing herring, sing scales, sing ships, sing sails…

So what do you think they made of his fins?
The finest cases for needles and pins!

Sing herring, sing fins, sing needles and pins…