“Billy Boy” is a traditional folk song and nursery rhyme found in the United States, in which “Billy Boy” is asked various questions, and the answers all center on his quest to marry a girl who is said to be too young to leave her mother.
It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 326. It is a variant of the traditional English folk song “My Boy Billy”, collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams and published by him in 1912 as number 232 in Novello’s School Songs.
The tone of the nursery rhyme is ironic and teasing, both the question and answer form:
Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy?
I have been to seek a wife, she’s the joy of my whole life
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother
Feeding has always been closely linked with courtship […] With humans this works two ways since we are the only animals who cook: the bride is usually appraised for her cooking ability. (“Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy?”) In some cultures this is far more important than her virginity.
In the last verse of the song, Billy Boy is asked how old the girl is. While his answer is a bit convoluted, it reveals an age that is old and not young – further adding to the irony and humor of the song.
The song was also parodied in 1941 by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in an anti-war protest song of the same name.
A line from the song was adapted as the title for Henry Jaglom‘s 1983 film Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, which concerns a middle-aged New York City musician who, after being dumped by her husband, develops a relationship with a middle-aged divorced social worker. The song “Billy Boy” is also performed in the film.
- Further variants have been recorded, that greatly extend the number of verses and tasks that the wife can perform. An extended version of the song in which the lover performs many tasks besides the cherry pie was collected by Alan Lomax and John Avery Lomax: it appears in American Ballads and Folk Songs. The Lomax version names the woman being courted Betsy Jane.
- A version of the song by Jerry Lee Lewis was released on the 1975 album, Rare, Vol. 1.
- Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal arranged and recorded the song in 1951. The recording was later featured on his 1959 album The Piano Scene of Ahmad Jamal, as well as on the 2008 Poinciana compilation album.[lower-alpha 1]
- Led by pianist Red Garland, the rhythm section of Miles Davis‘ band recorded Jamal’s arrangement of “Billy Boy” for Davis’ album Milestones (1958). It is the only track on the album that does not feature any horns playing.