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|Broadsides often described current events. According to the Burl Ives Songbook John Webb and Bill Tenor were jailed in Salem, Massachusetts around 1730. The imprisonment was unpopular and a mob freed them. A twenty verse broadside appeared shortly after the raid. The government advertised for information as to the author and publisher, but the information was never discovered.
Historical records indicate John Webb was a counterfeiter. He printed counterfeit notes that were evidently well known as counterfeit, but accepted as currency for a time - probably because of the shortage of money in New England in the 1730s. The Boston Evening Post of October 16, 1738 relates that John Webb, of Salem Massachusetts, was apprehended passing counterfeit five pound notes of Rhode Island. He escaped but was found hiding in his mother's attic in Salem. Webb was released from jail in November 1738 due to insufficient evidence. There is no indication that a mob broke him out of jail.*
The name "Bill Tenor" is possibly a play on words. The common name for pound notes was old tenor bills of credit.*
It is possible that John Webb became a folk hero because his "old tenor" notes (Bill Tenor?) got many debtors out of debtors prison.*
The ballad is similar to Child Ballad #187 (Jock o the Side) which probably dates to the 1550s. Jock is taken prisoner and is broken out of jail. Child Ballad #186 (Kinmont Willie) also relates the escape of a prisoner. Both ballads are from the Scottish border. It is also related to Child #188 (Archie o Cawfield).
There were nine to guard the British ranks,
and five to guard the town about,
And two to stand at either hand,
and one to let old tenor out.
There was eighty weight of good Spanish iron,
Between his neckbone and his knee,
But Billy took Johnny under his arm
And lugged him away right artfully.
And Billy broke locks,
And Billy broke bolts,
And Billy broke all that he came nigh,
Until he came to the dungeon door,
And that he broke right manfully.
They mounted their horse and away did ride
(And who but they rode gallantly),
Until they came to the river bank,
And there they alighted right merrily.
And then they called for a room to dance
(And who but they danced merrily),
And the best dancer among them all
Was old John Webb who was just set free.
The Burl Ives Song Book
See Bibliography for full information.
*Ron Michener who was kind enough to respond to a post on the Town Crier.