I first heard this folk ballad at a medieval event. It was past midnight, with a merry gathering of people sitting around a roaring campfire. Someone requests this song, and the guy with the lute knows it, so he strikes up the lively tune and we all join in at every chorus:
Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys, Bedlam boys are bonny. For they all go bare and they live by the air, and they want no drink or money.
It captures me. Something about the trickiness of the lyrical beats & timing for the first half of each chorus, tripping me up until I eventually get the hang of it. Something about the even beats and rhymes for the second half of the chorus, so satisfying after the slightly perturbing first half.
The verses give the appearance of making sense, with the bones of a story almost laid bare, but the whole song is ultimately whimsical nonsensical poetry. And why not? Bedlam Boys is a mad little song about madness, with no author ascribed to the lyrics. The song Bedlam Boys is based off a poem called Mad Maudlin's Search, which in turn is a reply to a previous poem called Tom o' Bedlam from the early 1600s. Bedlam is the popular name given to the male asylum Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, and Maudlin refers to the female asylum, St Mary Magdalene Hospital.
Bedlam Boys was originally published in 1720 in Thomas D'Urfey's large collection of songs called "Pills to Purge Melancholy" with the title Mad Maudlin's Search for Her Tom of Bedlam. Many folk artists have covered the song, with Old Blind Dogs and Steeleye Span being the most commonly known.