Jolly Good Ale and Old (Back and Sides Go Bare)
DESCRIPTION: With chorus, "Back and sides go bare, go bare, Both hand and feet go cold...." The singer laments his sad state: "I cannot eat but little meat, My stomach is not good." He discusses his lack of clothing. But he, and his wife, revive for ale.
EARLIEST DATE: 1575 (Gammer Gurton's Needle)
KEYWORDS: drink clothes hardtimes MiddleEnglish
FOUND IN: Britain
REFERENCES (14 citations):
Sidgwick/Chambers-EarlyEnglishLyrics CXXXIII, pp, 229-231, "(no title)" (1 text)
Shay-BarroomBallads/PiousFriendsDrunkenCompanions, pp. 43-44, "Back and Side Go Bare, Go Bare!" (1 text)
HarvardClassics-EnglishPoetryChaucerToGray, pp. 190-192, "Jolly Good Ale and Old" (1 text)
Chappell-PopularMusicOfTheOldenTime, pp. 72-73, "I Cannot Eat But Little Meat" (1 text, 1 tune)
Chappell/Wooldridge-OldEnglishPopularMusic, p. 94, "(I cannot eat but lyttyl meat)" (1 tune, partial text, connected to "John Dory" [Child 284])
MANUSCRIPT: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library Dyce 25.F.40 (MS Dyce 45),folios 23-25
ADDITIONAL: (author unknown), edited by Charles Whitworth, _Gammer Gurton's Needle_, New Mermaids, 1984 (as part of _Three Sixteenth-Century Comedies_); second edition (separately published), W. W. Norton, 1997, pp. 17-18, "(no title)" (1 text)
John Gassner, editor, _Medieval and Tudor Drama_, 1963, 1987 (references are to the undated Applause Books paperback), has Gammer Gurton's Needle on pp. 346-402; this song, which opens Act II, is on pp. 356-357.
Norman Ault, _Elizabethan Lyrics From the Original Texts_, pp. 41-42, "Of Jolly Good Ale and Old" (1 text)
Reginald Nettel, _Seven Centuries of Popular Song_, Phoenix House, 1956, pp. 49-50, "(no title)" (1 text)
MANUSCRIPT: Source: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library MS. Dyce 25.F.40 (Dyce 45), folio 23
cf. "Let the Back and Sides Go Bare" (chorus)
NOTES [889 words]: The books which print this often give very confusing notes about its origins. The earlier Ballad Index notes followed this in error.
The basic fact is this:
The earliest surviving printing is in Gammer Gurton's Needle, which was printed by Thomas Colwell in 1575. There is a facsimile on p. 1 of GammerGurtonsNeedle/Whitworth. The play is attributed only to "Mr. S., Master of Arts."
In Gammer Gurton's Needle, at least as we have it, the song appears at the very beginning of Act II, with the prefatory note, "First a Song." (GammerGurtonsNeedle/Whitworth, pp. 17-18). No singer is indicated; it's just dropped into the middle of the text. There are four stanzas and chorus, and the singer's wife is named "Tib" in the third verse -- significant, because Tib is a character in the play, being the maid to Gammer Gurton.
Which would seem straightforward enough -- except that, in 1562/1563, Thomas Colwell was licensed to print a piece, "Dyccon of Bedlam" (GammerGurtonsNeedle/Whitworth:, pp. xi-xii). The main character in Gammer Gurton's Needle is "Diccon, the Bedlam." Thus it is almost certain that this 1562 entry is for an earlier version of Gammer Gurton's Needle. Whether it was never printed, or all copies have been lost, we do not know; all we can say is that no copy of an earlier edition survives. (Colwell doesn't seem to have been a very noteworthy printer; none of my histories of printing mention him. It is not a good piece of typesetting, and uses mostly very primitive typefaces; I would easily have believed it to be fifty or more years older than it was)
The play Gammer Gurton's Needle has been attributed to William Stevenson, and hence he is sometimes listed as the author of the song. The STC, for instance (#23263, p. 541), attributes the play to him. But this is only a chain of inference. To repeat, the play is attributed only to "Mr. S." The title page also says that the drama was played "not longe ago in Christes College." So scholars went searching for a "Mr. S." who was at Christ's College, Cambridge at the appropriate time. Henry Bradley found that a "Sir Stevenson" was a producer of plays at the college in 1559/1560. He was a Bachelor of Arts in 1550-1553, and a Master of Arts in 1559/1560 (he was likely away from the college during Mary Tudor's reign, 1553-1558). He left the college in 1561 to take a prebend at Durham Cathedral, and died in 1575 (GammerGurtonsNeedle/Whitworth, pp. xii-xiii).
Thus Stevenson is by far the best candidate for the person responsible for presenting the play (so, e.g., Garnett/Gosse, volume II, p. 163, though they also mention attributions to John Bridges, bishop of Oxford from 1603 (died 1618) and to John Still, Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1593 (died 1608); on p. 153 they quote two stanzas and declare the attribution to Still "not likely").
But certain cautions are indicated even for the attribution to Stevenson. First, we have to assume that Gammer Gurton's Needle is indeed the same as Dyccon of Bedlam and that the statement that the play was recently presented goes back to the vanished printing of the latter play, because Stevenson couldn't have presented anything at Christ's College any time close to 1575! This is a reasonable but not certain assumption. Second, it assumes that Stevenson was author as well as presenter of the play, for which we have no evidence at all -- the STC shows no works by Stevenson except this. The bottom line is, Stevenson is the only reasonable candidate we have, but we cannot prove that he was the author. And even if he wrote Gammer Gurton's Needle, that's not proof that he wrote this song.
That's particularly true because there are variant forms. The four verse version of Gammer Gurton's Needle is also that of Ault and Nettel. But the version in the Sidgwick/Chambers-EarlyEnglishLyrics and HarvardClassics-EnglishPoetryChaucerToGray has eight stanzas and gives the wife's name as Kit. It appears this is the version from the Dyce manuscript, which Alexander Dyce published in his 1843 volume The Poetical Works of John Skelton (died 1529). It does not appear that the poem itself is by Skelton. Its inclusion in the Dyce manuscript is rather odd, since most of the other material in the manuscript is religious. No one seems to have a date for the manuscript, but the fact that the Digital Index of Middle English Verse includes the song implies that they think it earlier than 1500. All of this is sufficiently speculative that I've stuck with 1575 as the "Earliest Date."
At least the song is relatively relevant to Gammer Gurton's Needle; the plot of the play revolves the loss of the needle, which is needed to sew up the clothes of Gammer Gurton's servant Hodge; if the needle is not found, Hodge will soon find that his back and sides will be bare!
Thomas, p. 9, says there are "numerous references to an early inclusion of certain" nursery rhymes in Gammer Gurton's Needle, nursery rhymes that she herself admits are not in the printed text. But she does not document the source that claims the rhymes were in Gammer Gurton's Needle.
The "back and sides go bare" chorus seems to have been quite popular; in this index, see also "Let the Back and Sides Go Bare." Granger's Index to Poetry, if I read it right, cites six different poems with this first line. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.2
- GammerGurtonsNeedle/Whitworth: (author unknown), edited by Charles Whitworth, Gammer Gurton's Needle, New Mermaids, 1984 (as part of Three Sixteenth-Century Comedies); second edition (separately published), W. W. Norton, 1997
- Garnett/Gosse: Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, English Literature: An Illustrated Record four volumes, MacMillan, 1903-1904 (I used the 1935 edition published in two volumes)
- STC: A. W. Pollard, G. R. Redgrave, et al, A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland & Ireland And of English Books Printed Abroad 1475-1640, The Bibliographical Society [of London], 1963
- Thomas: Katherine Elwes Thomas, The Real Personages of Mother Goose, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., 1930
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