Cecil Sharp's Note 78 (1916)

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No. 78. The Beggar

THE words of the refrain of this song are very nearly identical with the chorus of “I cannot eat but little meat,” the well-known drinking-song in Gammer Gurton’s Needle.This play was printed in 1575 and, until the discovery of Royster Doyster, was considered to be the earliest English comedy. Its author was John Still, afterwards, that is, 1592, Bishop of Bath and Wells. The song, however, was not written by him, for Chappell points out that “the Rev. Alex. Dyce has given a copy of double length from a manuscript in his possession and certainly of an earlier date than the play.” Chappell furthermore calls attention to the custom of singing old songs or playing old tunes at the commencement, and at the end, of the acts of early dramas. “I cannot eat” has been called “the first drinking-song of any merit in our language.”

The words of this Exmoor song, excluding the chorus, are quite different from the version in Gammer Gurton’s Needle. It appears that under the title of “The Beggar and the Queen,” they were published in the form of a song not more than a century ago (see A Collection of English Ballads from beginning of Eighteenth Century, volume vii, Brit. Mus.). The tune, which is quite different from the one given here, is clearly the invention of a contemporary composer, but there is no evidence to show whether or not the words were the production of a contemporary writer; they may have been traditional verses which happened to attract the attention of some musician. There is a certain air of reckless abandonment about them which seems to suggest a folk-origin, and they are, at any rate, far less obviously the work of a literary man than are the verses—apart from the refrain—of “I cannot eat.”

In The Songster’s Museum (Gosport), there is a parody of the above song (chorus omitted), which, in the Bagford Ballads (volume i, p. 214), are attributed to Tom Dibdin.

A tune to “I cannot eat” is given in Ritson, and in Popular Music of the Olden Time (p. 72), and is a version of “John Dory.” The tune in the text has no relation whatever to that well-known air, nor to any other tune that I know of. In my opinion, it may well be a genuine folk-air.

The singer gave me two verses only, the second and third in the text. The other two are from a version which the Rev. S. Baring-Gould collected in Devon, and which he has courteously allowed me to use. Mr. H. E. D. Hammond has recovered similar words in Dorset, but, like Mr. Baring-Gould, he found them mated to quite a modern and “composed” air.