> Danny Spooner > Songs > Jolly Good Ale and Old
> Steeleye Span > Songs > The Beggar

The Beggar / Jolly Good Ale and Old

[ Roud 1573 ; Master title: The Beggar ; Ballad Index ShH78 ; VWML CJS2/9/1304 , RoudFS/S137451 ; Bodleian Roud 1573 ; DT BACK&SID , BCK&SID2 ; Mudcat 41977 ; William Stevenson]

Dave Burland sang The Beggar on his 1971 Trailer album A Dalesman’s Litany.

Roy Harris sang The Beggar’s Song on his 1975 Topic album Champions of Folly. A.L. Lloyd noted:

Cecil Sharp got this song from 86-year old Robert Parish at Exford, Somerset, in 1907 [VWML CJS2/9/1304] . Mr Parish could only remember a couple of verses and the refrain. The rest of the words are from a Devon version found by Rev S.  Baring-Gould. Particular interest attaches to the refrain, which is much older than the song. Indeed, the refrain probably wasn’t new when it first appeared in print as a drinking song in a pre-Shakespeare comedy, Gammer Gurton’s Needle (1575). The rest of the words of The Beggar’s Song belong to the beginning of the 18th century. Roy Harris can’t remember where he got it, but it’s printed in Sharp’s English Folk Songs.

Canterbury Fair sang Jolly Good Ale and Old on their eponymous 1977 album Canterbury Fair. They noted:

This to coin a well-used phrase, is ‘a bottler’ of a song, and goes under many titles, not the least of them, I Cannot Eat But Little Meat. It is, as will quickly be apparent, another song in praise of the “Amber Fluid”, as Australians like to call their beer. The song is, of course, English, and stems from the time when it was customary to close each act of the early dramas with a song. This song was sung in “a pithy, pleasant and merry comedy”—Gammer Gurton’s Needle, an English farce printed in 1575. Someone said that it was “the first drinking song of any merit in our language” but we think it rather a dubious statement, having some small knowledge of early English drinking habits.

Fairport Convention sang The Beggar’s Song on their 1988 album Red & Gold. They noted:

Maart[in Allcock] found this song on a Roy Harris LP, Champions of Folly.

Steeleye Span sang The Beggar, with trad. words to a tune by Bob Johnson, in 2000 on their CD Bedlam Born. Bob Johnson noted:

There were many songs in the mid-seventeenth century concerning drinking, begging & madness. The distinction between alcoholism and insanity was very blurred and Bethlehem Mental Hospital (Bedlam) was full of society’s rejects. On a lighter note, this song could be thought of as the folk-rock equivalent of the Hollywood musical song “We’re a couple of swells—we dine at the best hotels—etc.”

Paul Sartin sang The Begging Song, “collected by Cecil Sharp in a pub in Dartmoor”, in 2008 on Belshazzar’s Feast’s WildGoose albums The Food of Love.

James Findlay sang The Beggar in 2012 on his Fellside CD Another Day, Another Story. He noted:

A classic song recorded in Folk Songs of Somerset, from the singing of Robert Parish of Exford on Exmoor in 1907 [VWML CJS2/9/1304] . It talks of the plus sides to being a beggar with great enthusiasm, as many begging songs do. It originates from an old drinking song, I Cannot Eat But Little Meat, which was first printed in 1557 and claimed to be one of the “first drinking songs of any merit in our language.”

Pete Morton, Chris Parkinson and Emily Sanders sang The Beggar in 2016 on their Fellside album The Magical Christmas Tree.

Ninebarrow sang Back and Sides on their 2016 CD Releasing the Leaves. They noted:

A great song that we first heard sung by the fantastic James Findlay. It extols the virtues of begging and filling your belly with good ale. The ale part certainly struck a chord with us!

Narthen sang Jolly Good Ale and Old in 2023 on their No Masters album Now. They noted:

This was written by William Stevenson, probably sometime between 1550 and 1575. The language may be archaic, but you have to admire a song that stands the test of time.


Canterbury Fair sing Jolly Good Ale and Old

I cannot eat but little meat,
My stomach is not good;
But I do think that I can drink
With him that wears the hood.
Though I go bare, take ye no care
I am never cold;
I stuff my skin so full within
Of jolly good ale and old.

Chorus (after each verse):
Let back and sides go bare,
Both hand and foot go cold,
But belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old!

I love no roast but a nut-brown toast,
And a crab laid in the fire.
My belly I stuff with the good brown ale,
Much bread I never desire.
No frost, nor snow nor wind, I trow
Can hurt me if it would,
While I am wrapped and thoroughly lapped
In jolly good ale and old.

I care right nought, I take no thought
For clothes to keep me warm;
Have I good drink, I surely think
That none can do me harm.
For truly then I fear no man,
Though they be never so bold,
While I am armed and thoroughly warmed
With jolly good ale and old.

So now let them drink till they nod and wink
Even as good fellows should do,
They shall not miss to have all the bliss
Good ale doth bring them to.
And all good souls that scour black bowls
And them hath lustily trolled
God save the lives of them and their wives
Whether they be young or old!

Steeleye Span sing The Beggar

I’d rather be a beggar than a king
Tell you the reason why:
A king can’t swagger, nor drink like a beggar,
Nor be half so happy as I.

Chorus (repeated after every other verse):
Let the back and side go bare
Let the hands and feet go cold
Give to the belly beer enough
Whether it be new or old

Sometimes we lie like hogs in a sty
In a flock of straw on the ground
Sometimes eat a crust that’s rolled in the dust
And are thankful it can be found.

Sometimes we call at a rich man’s hall
To beg for bread and beer.
Sometimes we’re lame, sometimes we’re blind,
Sometimes too deaf to hear.

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend you
And the spirits that stand by the naked man
In the book of moons defend you

That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken
Nor travel from yourselves with me
Abroad to beg your bacon

Ninebarrow sing Back and Sides

I would sooner be a beggar than a king
And I’ll tell you the reason why
A king cannot swagger
Or walk like a beggar
Or be half as happy as I

Chorus (after each verse):
Let your back and sides go bare my boys
Feet and your hands go cold
But give to your belly, boys
Beer enough
Whether it be new or old

Oh, there’s a sixpence in my pocket lads
And I worked very hard for that
Oh there ain’t no Turk
That’s gonna make me work
When the beggin’ is as good as that

Sometimes we call at a nobleman’s hall
To beg for bread and beer
Sometimes we are lame
Sometimes we are blind
Sometimes too deaf to hear

Sometimes we lie like hogs in a sty
Frost and snow on the ground
Sometimes eat a crust
That’s rolled in the dust
And be thankful for what we’ve found!