“Billy Broke Locks (The Escape of Old John Webb)”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1929 (Barry, Eckstorm, Smyth)
Keywords: prison escape dancing freedom
Found in: US(NE)


John Webb was imprisoned and well guarded, but "Billy broke locks and Billy broke bolts, And Billy broke all that he came nigh." Billy and John Webb escape on horseback, then relax by organizing a dance


An American rework of "Archie o' Cawfield," with which Roud lumps it; the revised version dates perhaps from the 1730s. It may have arisen out of an attempt at currency reform. In the early days of the English colonies, there was no universal system of coinage; Spanish money was common, but there was no fixed exchange rate.

Parliament decided to settle the matter by issuing a paper money, the "tenor." However, after a time the "Old Tenor" (referred to in the song) was replaced by the "New Tenor" -- resulting in civil disturbance. One of the chief culprits was one John Webb (Webber), a mint-master, who ended in prison but was rescued by friends. - RBW

Cross references


  1. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 393-400, "John Webber" (1 text plus four versions from newspapers and such, 1 tune)
  2. Lomax-FSNA 4, "Billy Broke Locks" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Roud #83
  5. BI, LoF004