Regarding English madrigals, and in particular, “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!”

I thought since there were so many last Thursday night who had not shared our long history of “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!” that I would present here what little I’ve been able to find about it.  The best synopsis I’ve been able to find online is from the Hogfiddle site, which got its info from a 1984 BBC television series, called Magical History Tour.  I’m copying in the pertinent bits of the blog post here.  Those who wish to dig deeper into this fascinating subject can read the rest of the post on madrigals here.

HUM 223:
Harry Belafonte says without the influence of African American musicians, “When the Saints Go Marching In” would have sounded like an old English madrigal. Maybe, maybe not. But the popular music that Englishmen brought to America didn’t sound anything like today’s. Let’s get a taste of what they sounded like …

We’ll listen to two madrigals from a 1984 television series by the British Broadcasting Corp. (apparently from a rerun with Italian subtitles) called the “Madrigal History Tour,” narrated and sung by the King’s Singers, a popular group of English classical musicians. Both were written about the same time the British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts were established. A madrigal is simply the name we give to a type of secular song that was popular in England, as well as continental Europe, during the 1500s and 1600s. While they sound very “classical” to 21st-century ears, some of them were obviously targeted to appeal to young men studying at Oxford, Cambridge or the Inns of Court (women were not allowed to attend the universities or to study law). Songs like this were the forerunners of today’s popular music.

The first deals with the alleged glories of tobacco, first brought back to England from Virginia and other colonies in the early 1600s. Smoking tobacco was a huge fad, and it was controversial. The song was set to music by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), who was a serious composer of choral music, organist of Winchester College and Chichester Cathedral, although he was also “noted and famed for a comon drunckard and notorious swearer & blasphemer.” It’s called “Come, sirrah, Jack, ho …” which means something like, “come here, servant Jack.” They are singing in an old-fashioned English pub, like those of the 1600s.

The words are:

Come sirrah Jack ho,
Fill some tobacco,
Bring a wire and some fire,
Haste haste away,
quick I say,
do not stay,
shun delay,
for I drank none good today.

I swear that this tobacco
Is perfect Trinidad-o;
By the very very Mass,
never never was
better gear
than is here,
by the rood,
for the blood,
it is very very good,
’tis very good.

“Sirrah” was a form of address used with servants, kind of like “hey waiter!” Trinidad was a type of tobacco grown in the West Indies, and the “rood” was an old English word for the cross. By the 1600s, swearing by the cross was considered a mild oath like “damn it” or “darn it.”

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