Watkin’s Ale

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WATKIN'S ALE. English, Country Dance Tune (6/4 time). F Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AABBCC (Chappell): AABBC {end on AA} (Barnes). The air appears in Francis Tregian’s Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, vol. 2 (1609-1619) and Dorothy Welde's Lute Book. Chappell finds a very few references to the tune in literature dating to 1592, and mentions two old ballads, one called “A Ditty delightful of Mother Watkin’s Ale” and another entitled “As Watkin walked by the way.” Neither ballad was “suitable for publication” he says, meaning that they were too bawdy or risqué for his Victorian-era publication. However, the ballad begins:

There was a maid this other day,
And she would needs go forth to play;
And as she walked she sithd and said,
I am afraid to die a mayd.
With that, behard a lad,
What talke this maiden had,
Whereof he was full glad,
And did not spare
To say, faire mayd, I pray,
Whether goe you to play?
Good sir, then did she say,
What do you care?
For I will, without faile,
Mayden, giue you Watkins ale;
Watkins ale, good sir, quoth she,
What is that I pray you tell me?

‘Watkin’s Ale’, as it turns out in the ballad, is semen (he promises to give her some of ‘Watkin’s ale’, which, when she has tasted it, she can’t get enough). Reginald Nettle, in his book Sing a Song of England (1954), says, “The Watkins celebrated in this tune was ‘Mother Watkins’, which will serve as a reminder that the brewing of ale was once a domestic duty.” Nettle finds Thomas Weelkes set to the tune the following words in his Ayeres of Phantasticke Spirites (1608), referring to Will Kemp, the famous Shakespearean actor, dancer and performer:

He did labour after the tabor,
For to dance then into France.

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Barnes (English Country Dance Tunes, vol. 2), 2005; p. 139. Chappell (Popular Music of the Olden Times, vol. 1), 1859; p. 265.

Recorded sources:




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