"The Highwayman" as written by and Alfred Noyes Phil Ochs....
The wind was a torrent of darkness
Among the gusty trees
The moon was a ghostly galleon
Tossed upon the cloudy seas
The road was a ribbon of moonlight
Over the purple moor
When the highwayman came riding
Riding, riding,
The highwayman came riding
Up to the old inn door

He'd a french cocked hat at his forehead
A bunch of lace at his chin
A coat of claret velvet
And breeches of brown doe-skin
They fitted with nary a wrinkle
His boots were up to the thigh
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle
His pistol butts a-twinkle
His rapier hilt a-twinkle
Under the jeweled sky

And over cobbles he clattered
And clashed in the dark inn-yard
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters
But all was locked and barred
He whistled a tune to the window
And who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter
Bess, the landlord's daughter
Plaiting a dark red love knot
Into her long black hair

"One kiss my bonny sweetheart
I'm after a prize tonight
But I should be back with the yellow gold
Before the morning light
Yet if they press me sharply
And harry me through the day
Then look for me by the moonlight
Watch for me by the moonlight
I'll come to thee by the moonlight
Though hell should bar the way."

He rose up right in the stirrups
He scarce could reach her hand
But she loosened her hair in the casement
His face burned like a brand
As a black cascade of perfume
Came tumbling over his breast
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight
Oh, sweet waves in the moonlight
He tugged at his rein in the moonlight
And galloped away to the west

He did not come at the dawning
He did not come at noon
And out of the tawny sunset
Before the rise of the moon
When the road was a gypsy's ribbon
Looping the purple moor
A redcoat troop came marching
Marching, marching
King George's men came marching
Up to the old inn door

They said no word to the landlord
They drank his ale instead
But they gagged his daughter and bound her
To the foot of her narrow bed
Two of them knelt at the casement
With muskets at their side
There was death at every window
Hell at one dark window
For Bess could see through the casement
The road that he would ride

They had tied her up to attention
With many a sniggering jest
They had bound a musket beside her
With the barrel beneath her breast
"Now keep good watch" and they kissed her
She heard the dead man say
"Look for me by the moonlight
Watch for me by the moonlight
I'll come to thee by the moonlight
Though hell should bar the way."

She twisted her hands behind her
But all the knots held good!
But she writhed her hands 'til her fingers
Were wet with sweat or blood
They stretched and strained in the darkness
And the hours crawled by like years
Till now on the stroke of midnight
Cold on the stroke of midnight
The tip of her finger touched it
The trigger at least was hers

Tot-a-lot, tot-a-lot had they heard it?
The horse's hooves rang clear
Tot-a-lot, tot-a-lot in the distance
Were they deaf they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight
Over the brow of the hill
The highwayman came riding
Riding, riding
The redcoats looked to their priming
She stood up straight and still

Tot-a-lot in the frosty silence
Tot-a-lot in the echoing night
Nearer he came and nearer
Her face was like a light
Her eyes grew wide for a moment
She drew a last deep breath
Then her finger moved in the moonlight
Her musket shattered the moonlight
Shattered her breast in the moonlight
And warned him with her death

He turned, he spurred to the west
He did not know she stood
Bowed with her head o'er musket
Drenched with her own red blood
Not till the dawn he heard it
His face grew grey to hear
How Bess the landlord's daughter
The landlord's black-eyed daughter
Had watched for her love in the moonlight
And died in the darkness there

And back he spurred like a madman
Shrieking a curse to the sky!
With the white road smoking behind him
And his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were the spurs in the golden noon
Wine-red was his velvet coat
When they shot him down in the highway
Down like a dog on the highway
And he lay in his blood in the highway
With a bunch of lace at his throat

Still on a winter's night they say
When the wind is in the trees
When the moon is a ghostly galleon
Tossed upon the cloudy seas
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight
Over the purple moor
A highwayman comes riding
Riding, riding,
A highwayman comes riding
Up to the old inn door


Lyrics submitted by ruben

"The Highwayman" as written by Phil Ochs

Lyrics © THE BICYCLE MUSIC COMPANY

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The Highwayman song meanings
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15 Comments

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  • +2
    General CommentFor all of you that say that she "only left out a few verses," remember that one of these verses is the verse about Tim the Ostler...the verse that makes the appearance of the British make sense and amplifies the tragedy inherent in the poem by several orders of magnitude.

    Here is the verse...it is the fourth verse in the original version, right before the stanza that starts out "one kiss, my bonny sweetheart." The emphasis is mine.

    "And dark in the old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
    Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
    His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
    BUT HE LOVED THE LANDLORD'S DAUGHTER,
    THE LANDLORD'S RED-LIPPED DAUGHTER,
    Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say..."

    One is supposed to infer that Tim, who is just a touch mental, snitched to the redcoats so that the highwayman would be arrested and Tim would have Bess all to himself. This makes the poem that much more tragic, because in trying to win Bess, Tim ends up indirectly causing her death.
    bars.of.a.rhymeon February 22, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis song must have a similar effect on most people. I often find it difficult to find emotion in songs, the lyrics have to be a special something to get through. The first time I listened to this song, and the lyrics came clear, I suddenly realised I was crying. That's a very rare moment for music. Loreena truly has the voice of an angel, and Alfred Noyes' works fit fantastically with her music.
    Arolason April 05, 2003   Link
  • +1
    General CommentBeautiful. Nothing but beautiful. But, Shiara, how can you be mad at the Highwayman for killing himself...? I know I wouldn't be able to live if I knew my love were dead. He died in a torrent of rage and love. Tragic but noble.
    SoakedinMercuryon April 05, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI wish the highwayman had gotten revenge on that evil little jerk that ratted them out.Tragedy aside however, it's a beautiful tale and a great ghost story to tell on cold halloween nights, or heck on any night for that matter
    Cris925on November 09, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
    exacerbatingon August 08, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song was originally a poem by Alfred Noyes. Loreena McKennitt did a wonderful job of putting the poem to music; she only left out like two verses. I think this is my favorite L.M. song - I cried the first time I heard it. I can't help but feel angry at the highwayman - Bess killed herself so that he could live, but then he just goes and gets himself killed in a moment of rage anyway! It's so tragic! I wonder if there's any truth to Noyes' story.
    Shiara514on August 14, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is great and tragic. I think there is some truth to the story. writters find most of their ideas from real life situations.
    highwayman86on November 27, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThere is proof that a highwayman lived around the time that Alfred Noyes wrote this poem. And Loreena only left out 3 verses. This is one of my favs of Loreena, even before I knew she made it into a song, I loved the poem. She did a great job of setting it to music. The melody is beautiful. By the way, in the first verse it's not "ghastly trees" it's "gusty trees." Just thought I should mention it.
    MrReallyBigBadManon April 06, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI had the same experience of listening to this song and finding myself in tears. She had an excellent story to work with in this poem, I am so moved by a woman who would kill herself to give her love a chance, and I felt wrenched when they shot him on the highway, "down like a dog on the highway." He was everything to her, worth her life, and yet to the king's men he was hardly even human. Just someone to be disposed of. Story is tragic, but I can't help but feel a little longing for that kind of devotion, what a powerful love.
    Skybluepoeton March 16, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentSkybluepoet, that's how I feel. I'm absolutely obsessed with someone loving somebody as deeply Bess and The Highwayman loved each other. I am not mad at the highwayman. He was enraged to hear what they did, and he wanted revenge immediately for what they did to her. He just acted out in rage, and unfortunately had very little control over it, and he...overreacted. That's the best word. He's justified, but he was reckless. And those men shooting him down like that was so horrible. Ugh, I wish the Highwayman had suceeded and gotten revenge on them. Tragic song.
    strybook23on March 16, 2006   Link

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