Week 179 – O Good Ale

It is of good ale to you I’ll sing And to good ale I’ll always cling, I like my mug filled to the brim And I’ll drink all you’d like to bring, O, good ale, thou art my darling, Thou art my joy both night and morning.

A rather wonderful event took place yesterday at Cecil Sharp House – Ten Thousand Times Adieu, the Bob Copper Centenary Event, aka Bobstock. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and in the event was delighted to be able to take part, deputising for Tony Engle in a one-off reunion of the seminal quartet Oak (last previous performance, 1972!). Here’s a hot-off-the-press review of the event on the Guardian website. At the end of the night, all the invited performers got up on stage to join three generations of the Copper Family in singing ‘Thousands or More’ and ‘Oh Good Ale’. Blasting out those two songs, standing just behind John Copper (I suspect our relative heights may mean there will be no photographic evidence of my presence on stage at that point!) and next to Maddy Prior (who must take a lot of the blame for getting me hooked on traditional music as a teenager) is something I won’t forget in a hurry.

The finale at Bobstock - thanks to Ronald Ellis for the photo

The finale at Bobstock – thanks to Ronald Ellis for the photo

So here’s my rendition of ‘Good Ale’. I must admit it’s a song I’d almost forgotten that I knew, until a couple of weeks back, when I saw that the Coppers had sung it when Harveys Brewery in Lewes started brewing their Copper Ale. Although I hadn’t sung it in years, I found that I remembered most of the verses, and a quick scan of the good book soon reminded me of the rest. In latter years, when I saw Bob singing this with the family, he was always rather apologetic (understandably enough) about the “two black eyes” verse, and I’ve improvised an alternative, less misogynistic rhyme for “if my wife did me despise”. Misogynist lyrics notwithstanding, this was a song Bob was very fond of. It was one of his grandfather “Brasser” Copper’s songs. “Brasser” was landlord of the Black Horse in Rottingdean and would apparently say to new employees “Now you can drink as much beer as you like… but you can only drink singing beer and not fighting beer” (see Ale Tales: a social history of brewing in Lewes and across East Sussex p31). This division of beer into “singing beer” and “fighting beer” was one which Bob inherited. I remember reading an interview with Bob where he said that, although the Coppers drank plenty, they always drank singing beer, not fighting beer. I thought that quotation came from an interview conducted by Vic Smith in either Musical Traditions or Traditional Music but I’ve re-read a couple – one in print and one online – and can’t find it. Maybe it was in Folk Roots or Southern Rag.  In any case, here it is from an interview on Australian national radio

if we used to go out with the local pub to a darts match or something like that, on the way back we’d drink plenty of beer, but we always drank singing beer, not fighting beer, that’s a very important distinction. It doesn’t matter how much singing beer you have, but you don’t want any fighting beer.

And to end on a related quotation, here is Bob interviewed by Vic Smith in 1984, and printed in Musical Traditions No 3, Summer 1984

he was a very sort of worthy member of the family for drinking ale. It’s a tradition we’ve kept up just as eagerly and well, I think, as the singing. And he used to say, y’know, about beer, “Well cocky. A pint o’beer is enough for any man. Two’s too much and three ain’t half a-blooming-nough!”

Good ale thou art my darling, published by H. Such between 1863 and 1885; from Broadside Ballads Online.

Good ale thou art my darling, published by H. Such between 1863 and 1885; from Broadside Ballads Online.

O Good Ale

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