37  The lamentable Ditty of Little Mousgrove,/ and the Lady Barnet [Pepys 1.364-65]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: The lamentable Ditty of Little Mousgrove

Death - suicide Death - tragedy Emotions - anger Emotions - jealousy Employment - apprenticeship/service Gender - adultery/cuckoldry Gender - marriage Gender - masculinity Gender - sex Morality - romantic/sexual Violence - domestic Violence - interpersonal Violence - self-inflicted

Song History

The earliest known reference to this famous song occurs in Francis Beaumont’s play, The knight of the burning pestle, probably first performed in 1607. Merryweather, a ballad-obsessive who communicates mainly by singing snatches from songs, delivers lines from the Lamentable ditty as he prevents his long-suffering wife from entering their house (perhaps his performance is triggered by recollections of Lord Barnet’s climactic arrival at his Lady’s adulterous ‘bower’).

The oldest surviving copy of the ballad is from a slightly later date but it seems certain that earlier editions existed. We cannot rule out the possibility that the Lamentable ditty had originated as an orally-circulating song in a previous era. Such suggestions are always difficult to substantiate, though we do know that variant versions of our ballad circulated in the first half of the seventeenth century (see Related texts).

Certainly, the tragic tale about Little Mousgrove’s affair with Lady Barnet later became a very well-known folksong. An interesting and early version occurs in the Scottish ‘Glenbuchat ballads’, collected by an Aberdeenshire vicar in c. 1818. This seems to offer us a snapshot of a ballad as it passes from print into oral tradition, taking on local references and language as it does so. ‘Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard’ is also number 81 in the Child Ballads, and a search on the immensely useful online database hosted by the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library currently produces hundreds of hits. As a folksong, it proved particularly successful in North America and was discovered there on numerous occasions by the collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The basic story is usually clear and recognisable to those who know the original ballad but great variety occurs in first lines, vocabulary, plot details, and the names of characters and places. The song also appears under a range of titles, including ‘Matty Grove’, ‘Little Mose Grove’, ‘Lord Barnwell’, ‘Lord Banner’ and ‘Lord Vanover’. It frequently acquires local colour, and one version includes the rather un-Jacobean line, ‘So they both fell off to huggin’ and kissin’’.

Since the 1960s, the song has also been recorded on many occasions, and performances by Fairport Convention, Tom Waits, Martin Carthy, Joan Baez and many others are readily available. Jon Boden included it in his excellent ‘A folk song a day’ project, and one of the comments he received from a listener hints at the ballad’s relatability: ‘this is a great song especially poignant as I have had my “Little Musgrave” moment in the far distant past’.

As with other songs on our List A (see Methodology), it is very difficult to connect the ballad’s narrative to recorded historical events, and the song may, of course, have originated in elaborate exaggeration or fabrication. The seventeenth-century ballad collector, Anthony Woods, made an interesting note on the reverse side of his copy: ‘Jack a Musgrave & Tho. Dacres of the north, living in an[no domini] 1543’. These surnames were certainly well-known in the zone around the Anglo-Scottish border, and the Tudor chronicler, Edward Hall, identified ‘Thomas Bastard Acres’ and ‘Jack of Musgrave’ as valiant commanders who shared command when a Scottish incursion into northern England was heroically repulsed in 1543. This is an intriguing connection, though there is no evidence that it later led to a romantic tragedy, nor that Thomas Dacres ever held the title, ‘Lord Barnet’ (see also Related texts).

Not surprisingly, the ballad is referred to quite regularly in other literary works of the seventeenth century. In William Davenant’s The witts (1636), a male character, plotting to win the affections of a woman, boasts that he can sing ‘Little Musgrove’. An individual in William Cavendish’s The varietie (1649), believes that a widow has fallen in love with him and, in order to illustrate his point, sings the lines, ‘She cast an eye upon little Musgrave,/ As bright as the summers sunne’. In a similar instance of ballad banter, Sebastian in John Fletcher’s Monsieur Thomas parodies the song when he doubts the accuracy of a report from his servant:

‘If this be true, thou little tyny page,

This tale that thou tell’st me,

Then on thy backe will I presently hang

A handsome new Levery:

But if this be false, thou little tyney page,

As false it well may be,

Then with a cudgel of foure foote long

Ile beat thee from head to toe.’

Clearly, the playwright anticipated that members of the audience would know the ballad well enough to get the joke (see verse 9 of our featured edition). It has also been suggested that The lamentable Ditty may have been one of the sources that inspired Thomas Heywood’s play of 1607, A woman killed with kindness (see Hoffman).

The song was printed regularly in anthologies of ballads during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more occasionally as a broadside (there are examples in the Madden Ballads, for example). After 1800, however, its real strength seems to have been as a vernacular North American song that circulated primarily by word of mouth until it was ‘rediscovered’ and reprinted by Cecil Sharp and other collectors.

Christopher Marsh


Anon, The beauties of ancient poetry (1794), pp. 9-14.

Anon, The lamentable ditty of the little Mousgrove, and the Lady Barnet (1658-64), Bodleian Library, Oxford, Wood Ballads 401(91).

Anon, A select collection of English songs, 3 vols. (1783), vol. 2, pp. 215-19.

Francis Beaumont, The knight of the burning pestle (1613), K2r.

Jon Boden, http://www.afolksongaday.com/?p=3034

Mary Ellen Brown, ‘Child’s ballads and the broadside conundrum’ in Patricia Fumerton and Anita Guerrini (eds.), Ballads and broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800 (Farnham, 2010), pp. 60-61.

William Cavendish, The country captaine and the Varietie, two comedies (1649), ‘The varietie’, p. 58.

Francis James Child, The English and Scottish popular ballads, 5 vols. (1882-98), vol. 2, pp. 242-60.

William Davenant, The witts. A comedie (1636), F3r-v.

Mary Elizabeth Fissell, Vernacular bodies: the politics of reproduction in early modern England (Oxford, 2004), pp. 216-17.

John Fletcher, Monsieur Thomas. A comedy (1639), I1r-v.

Edward Hall, The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548), published as Chronicle: containing the history of England (1809), p. 856.

Dean A. Hoffman, ‘ “Both bodily deth and worldly shame”: “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnet” as a source for A woman killed with kindness’, Comparative drama 23.2 (Summer, 1989), pp. 166-78.

Madden Collection, Garlands, vol. 2, nos. 506 and 507, Cambridge University Library.

Thomas Percy, Reliques of ancient English poetry, 3 vols. (1766), vol. 3, pp. 57-62.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library: https://www.vwml.org/

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Featured Tune History

‘To an excellent tune’ (unidentified)

The purpose of this section is to provide brief notes on the melody followed by detailed evidence relating to  its career, paying particular attention to the ‘echoes’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was nominated for the singing of more than one ballad. In the list presented in the ‘Songs and Summaries’ section below, we have endeavoured to include as many of the black-letter ballads that used the tune as possible, under any of its variant names. Titles from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type (these are also in colour when there is a link to the relevant ballad page on the website). It should be noted that it is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).  In most cases, we list the earliest surviving edition of a ballad, though in many instances there may have been earlier versions, now lost.

Versions and variations

Sadly, the ‘excellent tune’ to which this song was sung in the seventeenth century does not seem to have survived. Our recording of The lamentable Ditty of Little Mousgrove therefore uses a melody  that brought to life a song called ‘Little Mushiegrove’, one of many later versions of the same text,  in early nineteenth-century Britain. In 1855-56, William Chappell transcribed the tune and referred to it as ‘the usual traditional version’. Notation is also provided in Bronson’s The traditional tunes of the Child Ballads.

Echoes (an overview)

The original tune is lost and, in the circumstances, it is not possible to say anything significant about its wider travels within early-modern balladry. In fact, it seems likely that these travels were extremely limited. It is unusual to find a song of such evident popularity and longevity that did not, as far as we can tell, provide a melody that was used on other ballads. Perhaps the lost tune became so strongly associated with this particular text that ballad-makers considered it inappropriate to use it as the setting for different songs. Given the frequency with which successful tunes were generally recyled, this is surprising.

Songs and Summaries

We know of no ballads that shared a tune with the Lamentable Ditty during the seventeenth century.

Christopher Marsh


Bertrand Harris Bronson, The traditional tunes of the Child Ballads (4 vols., 1959-72), vol. 2, p. 290.

William Chappell, Popular music of the olden time (2 vols., 1855-56), vol. 1, p. 170.

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Soldier with sword and shield

The purpose of this section is to provide evidence relating to  the career of the image under discussion, paying particular attention to the ‘reflections’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was chosen to illustrate more than one ballad. The list given below includes all ballads from the Pepys and Roxburghe collections that feature this woodcut or a close variant (these are the two largest collections, including approximately 3300 sheets, in total). References to ballads from other collections occur only when the featured edition of the song under consideration here (or the featured edition of another song from our list) comes from such a source. Ballads from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type, and they also appear in colour where there is a link to another song in the database. Please note, however, that the editions of hit songs listed below are not necessarily those for which digital images are presented on this website. Cross-references to other examples of our featured woodcuts are also presented in bold. It is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).

Reflections (an overview)

Not surprisingly, the main role played by this combat-ready soldier was to signify militaristic manliness (in several of his earlier outings, he stood at the head of a squadron of soldiers, but after this the woodblock appears to have been cut in half or selectively copied so that he appeared alone). The recruiting song, Gallants to Bohemia, is a good example of the dominant masculine vibe.

There was, however, considerable variety within this basic pattern. On The Lamentable Ditty, for example, he represents an angry husband who discovers his wife in bed with another man. On other sheets, he also appears as a Biblical warrior who must sacrifice his daughter, a soldier who relaxes while on leave by seducing unsuspecting maidens, and perhaps even the wife of a Royalist commander who dresses as a man in order to confront the enemy. His somewhat historical appearance also fitted him for a song about an ancient Jewish prophecy. Thus, he appears fairly regularly, and there were inverted versions of the woodcut in which he faces to the right rather than the left. The copying of woodblocks can often be taken as a sign that an image was successful. Despite his popularity, later editions of the hit song about Little Mousgrove dropped him in favour of a different picture scheme.

[See 'Postscript', below, for additional notes on the woodcut].

Songs and summaries:

The lamentable Ditty of Little Mousgroue, and the Lady Barnet (H. Gosson, 1601-29).  Pepys 1.364-65; EBBA 20172. Gender – marriage, adultery, sex, masculinity; Death – tragedy; Emotions – anger; Society – service and apprenticeship. A man commits adultery with the wife of an aristocrat and all three parties face the consequences (picture placement: he appears on the right, next to a woodcut featuring a couple in bed).

The praise of Sailors, heere set forth, with their hard fortunes (I. Wright, 1602-46).  Pepys 1.418-19; EBBA 20196.  Employment – sailors/soldiers; Gender – masculinity; Violence – at sea. This describes the hardships that sailors endure and commends them for their honesty and industry (picture placement: he appears, right-facing and with supporting soldiers, immediately beneath the title).

Calebbe Shillocke, his Prophesie: or, the Jewes Prediction (T. P., 1607).  Pepys 1.38; EBBA 20024.  Religion – Judaism, prophecy, divine intervention, sin/repentance; Death – general, result of immorality; Nature – wonders; Violence – divine; Society – criticism. This sets out the many disasters – plague, war, earthquake, floods -  foretold for the present date by a Jewish prophet (picture placement: in a fuller version of the woodcut set beneath the title, he is backed by a group of armed soldiers and faces right, rather than left).

Gallants, to Bohemia. Or, let vs to the Warres againe (G. E., c. 1620).  Pepys 1.102-03; EBBA 20043.  Employment – sailors/soldiers; Emotions – patriotism; Gender – masculinity; History – heroism; Politics – foreign affairs; Religion – Catholicism/Protestantism. Men are hereby invited to join the war in Bohemia, thus living up to the example set by all the great English soldiers of the past (picture placement: on the right side of the sheet, he appears over the text in a fuller and inverted version of the woodcut, complete with supporting soldiers).

A new Ballad of the Souldier and Peggy (F. Coules, 1624-56).  Roxburghe 1.370-71; EBBA 30250. Gender – marriage, courtship, femininity, masculinity; Morality – familial, romantic/sexual; Family – children/parents; Emotions – longing, sorrow, contentment; Employment – sailors/soldiers, crafts/trades; Nature – sea; Places – travel.  Peggy, a married women, runs off with a soldier, but returns home within three months and seeks forgiveness of her husband (picture placement: he stands over the opening line, ‘It was a brave Souldier’, and alongside a Woman in plumed hat).

A proper new ballad, intituled, Jepha Judge of Israel (F. Coles, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, 1661-63).  Roxburghe 3.201; EBBA 31618.  Religion – Bible, Christ/God; Family – children/parents; Death – execution; Violence – between states, interpersonal; Emotions – sorrow; Politics – foreign affairs, obedience; Employment – sailors/soldiers; History – ancient/mythological; Morality – general.  A metrical version of the Biblical story (Book of Judges) in which Jephthah has to fulfil an oath to sacrifice his daughter in thanks to God following a military victory (picture placement: in a reversed version, he appears beneath the title and alongside a woman who holds a fan before her).

The Valiant Commander, with his Resolute Lady (F.Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright,  J. Clarke, W. Thackeray and T. Passinger, 1680-81).  Pepys 2.208; EBBA 20819.  Gender – marriage, femininity, masculinity; Politics – controversy; Violence – civil war; Emotions – love; Bodies – clothing; Places - English.  A besieged Royalist commander and his beloved wife, disguised as a man, fight fiercely against their foes (picture placement: he appears on the right side of the sheet, alongside a man with a sword in its sheath).

The manner of the Kings Tryal at Westminster-Hall (W. Thackeray and T. Passinger, 1687-88).  Pepys 2.204-05; EBBA 20816.  Crime – treason, punishment; Death – execution, godly end; Politics – controversy, domestic, treason; Royalty – authority, criticism; Violence – punitive; Emotions – sorrow; Family – children/parents. An account of the trial and execution of Charles I, setting out the charges laid, the king’s response, and his speech on the scaffold (picture placement: he appears on the far right, alongside a Beheading).


The fuller version of this image, with the attendant soldiers, appeared on the title-page of A Jewes Prophecy, OR Newes from Rome (London, 1607), a work that was translated from Italian and published by Henry Gosson. It seems likely that the ballad, Calebbe Shillocke, his Prophesie (see above), served to popularise and publicise the contents of the book.

Christopher Marsh

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Related Texts

This section identifies other printed texts of the early-modern period that seem closely related to The lamentable Ditty in some way (see list below). The most significant piece is an alternative version of the song that was printed in John Mennes’ Wit restor’d in several select poems not formerly publish’t (1658). It was clearly inaccurate to imply that ‘The old Ballad of Little Musgrove and the Lady Barnard’ was a new publication, though Mennes’ version differs from our ballad in numerous particulars: there is a reference to ‘Mattins and Masse’ at the beginning; the Lady’s love-nest is in ‘Buckelsfordery’ rather than Barnet; the page is to be rewarded with land rather than marriage to the Lord’s daughter; Lord Barnet, upon arrival at the bower, lifts the bed-covers and asks Mousgrove how he likes ‘my lady sweet’; and, at the end, the vengeful aristocrat cuts his wife’s breasts off and then asks his servants why they did not intervene to prevent him from committing this terrible act.

It is notable that some of the playwrights who mentioned the song (see Song history) were clearly drawing on this alternative version rather than upon our printed ballad. Beaumont’s Merryweather, for example, delivers a line - ‘And some they whistled, and some they sung’ – that is not found in the broadside. The fact that he did so many years before Mennes’ publication seems to imply that this alternative version was already commonly known at the start of the seventeenth century, raising the possibility that our broadside was actually a re-working of an existing song that may or may not have been in print as a single-sheet ballad that has not survived.

The versions of the song that appear in eighteenth-century anthologies such as Percy’s Reliques (1766) and the anonymous Beauties of ancient poetry (1794) are usually closer to Mennes’ alternative text than to our ballad, though all surviving broadsides are based closely on The lamentable Ditty. It is, as ever, difficult to be certain about the lines of influence, though we can state clearly that later folksong versions of the Mousgrove ballad reveal strong traces of both seventeenth century texts.

There are also several other ballads that clearly referenced The lamentable Ditty, perhaps with the intention of acknowledging and thus harnessing its success. Another of our hits, John Armstrong’s Last Good-Night, includes a line in which ‘Little Musgrove’ is identified as the Scottish warrior’s foot-page (and the page has a horse named ‘Grissel’, the heroine of yet another best-selling song). The two surnames are connected again in a publication with the classic ‘spoiler’ title, A pleasant new ballad, shewing how Sir John Armstrong and Nathaniel Musgrave fell in love with the Lady Dacres Daughter of the North; and of the strife that was between them for her, and how they wrought the Death of one hundred men. The first lines of this song - ‘As it fell out one Whitsunday,/ the blith time of the year’ – clearly echo the opening of The lamentable Ditty, and it is intriguing to note that the noble, northern Dacres were also identified by Anthony Wood, perhaps fancifully, as the family to which the character of Lord Barnet belonged. It is entirely possible, of course, that this web of information tells us more about southern English imaginings of the border country than about any historical reality. Consumers evidently liked ballads in which the north was packed with beautiful women, each one of them surrounded by armed, angry and amorous men named Musgrave, Armstrong and Dacres.

Christopher Marsh

Texts (in chronological order)

John Mennes, Wit restor’d in several select poems not formerly publish’t (1658), pp. 174-78.

A pleasant new ballad, shewing how Sir John Armstrong and Nathaniel Musgrave fell in love with the Lady Dacres Daughter of the North (1663-74).

Thomas Percy, Reliques of ancient English poetry, 3 vols. (1766), vol. 3, pp. 57-62.

Anon, A select collection of English songs, 3 vols. (1783), vol. 2, pp. 215-19.

Anon, The beauties of ancient poetry (1794), pp. 9-14.

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The lamentable Ditty of Little Mousgrove,/ and the Lady Barnet.

To an excellent tune.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text]


AS it fell on a light Holyday,

as many more does in the yeere,

Little Mousgrove would to the Church and pray

to see the fair Ladyes there,

Gallants there were of a good degree,

for beauty exceeding faire,

Most wonderous lovely to the eie,

that did to that Church repaire.


Some came down in red Velvet,

and others came down in Pall,

But next came down my Lady Barnet,

the fairest amongst them all,

She cast a looke upon little Mousgrove,

as bright as the Summers Sunne,

Full well perceived then little Mousgrove,

Lady Barnets Love he had wonne.


Then Lady Barnet most meeke and mild,

saluted this little Mousgrove,

Who did repay her kinde courtesie,

with favour, and Gentle Love,

I have a bower in merry Barnet,

bestrewed with Cowslips sweet,

If that it please you, little Mousgrove,

in love me there to meete,


Within my Armes one night to sleepe,

for you my heart have wonne,

You need not feare my suspicious Lord,

for he from home is gone.

Betide me life, betide me death,

this night I will sleepe with thee,

And for thy sake I’le hazzard my breath,

so deare is my love to thee.’ [‘so deare is thy love to me’ in later editions]


What shall wee doe with our little Foot=page,

our Counsell for to keepe,

And watch for feare Lord Barnet comes,

whilest wee together doe sleep?

Red Gold shall be his hier, quoth he

and Silver shall be his fee,

If he our Counsell safely doe keepe,

that I may sleepe with thee.


I will have none of your Gold, said he,

nor none of your Silver fee,

If I should keepe your Counsell, sir,

twere great disloyaltie.

I will not be false unto my Lord,

for house nor yet for land,

But if my Lady doe prove untrue,

Lord Barnet shall understand.


Then swiftly runnes the little Foot=page,

unto his Lord with speed,

Who then was feasting with his deare friends,

not dreaming of this ill deede:

Most speedily the Page did haste,

most swiftly did he runne,

And when he came to the broken Bridge,

he lay on his brest and swumme.


The Page did make no stay at all,

but went to his Lord with speed,

That he the truth might lay to him,

concerning this wicked deed.

He found his Lord at supper then,

great merriment there they did keepe,

My Lord, quoth he, this night on my word

Mousgrove with your Lady does sleepe.


The second part; To the same tune.


IF this be true, my little Foot=page,

and true as thou tellest to me,

My eldest daughter Ile give to thee,

and wedded shalt thou be.

If this be a lye, my little Foot=Page,

and a lye as thou tellest to mee:

A new paire of Gallowes shall straight be set,

and hanged shalt thou be.


If this be a lye, my Lord, said he,

a lye that you heare from me,

Thou never stay a Gallowes to make,

but hang me upon the next tree.

Lord Barnet then cald up his merry men,

away with speed he would goe,

His heart was sore perplext with griefe,

the truth of this he must know.


Saddle your horses with speed, quoth he,

and saddle me my white Steed,

If this be true as the Page hath said,

Mousgrove shall repent this deed.

He charg’d his men no noise to make,

as they rode all along on the way,

Nor winde no hornes, quoth he, on your life,

lest our comming it should betray.


But one of them that Mousgrove did love,

and respected his friendship most deare,

To give him knowledge Lord Barnet was neere,

did winde his Bugle most cleere,

And evermore as he did blow,

away Mousgrove and away:

For if I take thee with my Lady,

then slaine thou shalt be this day.


O harke, faire Lady, your Lord is neere,

I heare his little horne blow,

And if he finde me in your Armes thus,

then slaine I shall be, I know:

O lye still, lye still, little Mousgrove,

and keepe my backe from the cold,

I know it is my Fathers shepheard,

driving sheepe to the Pinfold.


Mousgrove did turne him round about,

sweete slumber his eyes did greet.

When he did wake, he then espied

Lord Barnet at his beds feete.

O rise up, rise up, little Mousgrove,

and put thy Clothes on,

It never shall be said in faire England,

I slew a naked man.


Here’s two good swords, Lord Barnet said,

thy choice Mousgrove thou shalt make,

The best of them thy selfe shalt have,

and I the worst will take;

The first good blow that Mousgrove did strike,

he wounded Lord Barnet sore,

The second blow that Lord Barnet gave,

Mousgrove could strike no more.


He tooke his Lady by the white hand,

all love to rage did convert,

That with his sword in most furious sort,

he pierst her tender heart,

A grave, a grave, Lord Barnet cryde,

prepare to lay us in,

My Lady shal lie on the upper side,

‘cause she’s of the better kin.


Then suddenly he slue himselfe,

which grieves his friends full sore:

The deaths of these three worthy wights,

with teares they did deplore.

This sad mischance by lust was wrought

Then let us call for grace,

That we may shun this wicked vice,

and mend our lives apace.

London Printed for H. Gosson.  FINIS.

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This ballad is included according to the criteria for List A (see Methodology). The evidence presented here is accurate, to the best of our knowledge, as of 1st January 2024.

Shirburn ballads: not included.

Appearances on Ballad Partners' lists: Coles, Vere, Wright and Gilbertson, 1656; Coles, Vere, Wright and Clark, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689 (as 'Little Musgrove').

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: 1630.

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 11

No. of extant copies: 10

New tune-titles generated: none known.

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none known.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 434 references, with extensive evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. 52).

POINTS: 0 + 20 + 5 + 22 + 10 + 0 + 0 + 15 = 72 

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This box will be used to highlight any new information on this song that might come to light after the launch of the website.

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