I learned this from the Watersons’ 1977 LP Sound, sound your instruments of joy. Bob Copper recorded the song in the 1950s from Frank “Mush” Bond of North Waltham in Hampshire. The song was included in Bob’s Book Songs and Southern Breezes and you can hear the original recording on The Voice of the People Volume 16, You Lazy Lot of Bone-Shakers, alongside Frank’s brother Sam singing ‘Where Does Father Christmas Go To?’. Both brothers were members of the North Waltham Jolly Jacks, a Mummers team founded by Frank, and which continued to perform up to about 1950. They went out on Boxing Day; ‘God Bless the Master’ was sung at the end of the performance, and if you invited them in for a bit of hospitality, you’d be treated to ‘Where Does Father Christmas Go To?’.
You can see the Jolly Jacks in action (but not hear them, unfortunately) in a silent film preserved by Hampshire County Council’s Wessex Film and Sound Archive:
Manydown Park films: Various Subjects 1929-1931
Silent B/W amateur film by Colonel A S Bates at his estate in Hampshire, England. Shows family activities and events, including North Waltham Mummers and the Vyne Hunt.
The text at the start of the film says:
The actors include 3 Bonds and all come from North Waltham. This family has performed this play for certainly five generations.
Reg Hall’s notes for the Voice of the People CD state that Frank and Sam’s father had been a member of the Overton Mummers (a few miles from North Waltham), and five generations seems entirely plausible.
I notice that A.L.Lloyd’s notes to the song on Sound, sound your instruments of joy say
A carol that is midway between a wassail and a hymn, so a link between pagan luck-wish and pious hope. The words were widespread on garlands and broadsides around 1850, and several versions have been collected in the Southern counties during the twentieth century (most recently by Bob Copper at North Waltham, Hampshire). The Watersons’ tune and words are close to the set found by Vaughan Williams in 1909 at Preston Candover, barely five miles from North Waltham. The song was much used as a Mummers’ Salutation, sung as an overture in front of the houses at New Year before the mummers began their patter.
The Full English shows that the song was in fact quite widespread in Hampshire, as well as Sussex, Surrey and Berkshire. My words are a bit of a mixture of the Watersons’ interpretation of the Preston Candover version and the version printed in Bob Copper’s book (which in fact supplements Frank Bond’s words with a couple of verses from Turp Brown, from nearby Cheriton). There was a time when I took delight in singing Turp Brown’s line “He was buried in some safe old acre”, but these days I’m more inclined to sing “sepulchre”, which is perhaps not such a memorable choice of words, but makes a lot mores sense.
God Bless the Master
Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina