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The Compleat Barley Mow

As I was recently polishing off a pint of ale I was reminded of a time many years ago when the minstrel group Wine Woman & Song would regale us with an old favorite, The Barley Mow, during pub sing at the Brewer’s Pub at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. With a bit of time on my hands I decided to find out more about this old tune. For instance: what’s a “barley mow”? What’s a nipperkin? What’s a drayer? What’s a slavey?

First, let’s begin with the song.

While several popular variations can be found around the pub singing world the earliest recorded transcription of The Barley-Mow (note the hyphen between the words ‘Barley’ and ‘Mow’) was in 1855 by an English music scholar named William Chappell, who included the song in a two-volume work he titled The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time.

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Chappell’s notes for the song read as follows:

THE BARLEY-MOW

The barley-mow is a song still well known in many of the counties of England. In Hertfordshire, it is frequently sung by the countrymen in ale-houses after their daily labour. Mr. J. H. Dixon prints a Suffolk version in his Songs of the Peasantry, and Mrs. Sandys, the Devonshire and Cornwall version, in his Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect.

It is customarily chanted at the supper after the carrying of the barley is completed, when the stack, rick, or mow of barley is finished.

The size of the drinking measure is doubled at each verse. The brown bowl is supposed to contain half-a-pint; the next is “We’ll drink it out of the pint, my boys;” then the quart, pottle, and gallon, on to the barrel or hogshead, if the lungs of the singer enable him to hold out for so many verses. The words increase in number as the song goes on, for after “nipperkin, pipperkin,” the singer adds one of the larger measures, pint, quart, pottle, &c., at each successive verse, always finishing (as in verse 1), “and the brown bowl”.

This is after the manner of one of the Freemen’s Songs in Deuteromelia, beginning “Give us once a drink, gentle butler,” where the singers first ask for the black bowl, then the pint pot, quart pot, pottle, gallon, verkin (firkin), kilderkin, barrel, hogshead, pipe, butt, and finally the tun.

Here’s the page from the book:

 

Modern Lyrics

Over the course of the song Barley Mow continues adding drinking vessels to its chorus (it is unsurprisingly referred to as a cumulative chorus song due) before winding down to a breathless final delivery by the lead singer. Each group that takes this song adds their own flavor to it. Here are the lyrics in the version as performed by Wine Woman & Song on their album Pretty Close to ‘D’:

Here’s good luck to the gallon,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the gallon,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the half barrel,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the half barrel,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the barrel,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the barrel,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the barrel, the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the landlord,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the landlord,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the landlord, the barrel, the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the landlady,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the landlady,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the landlady, the landlord, the barrel, the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the daughter,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the daughter,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the daughter, the landlady, landlord, the barrel, the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the drayer,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
(What the hell is a drayer??),
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the drayer, the daughter, the landlady, landlord, the barrel, the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the slavey,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the slavey,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the slavey, the drayer, the daughter, the landlady, landlord, the barrel, the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the brewer,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the brewer,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the brewer, the slavey, the drayer, the daughter, the landlady, landlord, the barrel, the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow (nyah, nyah, nyah)

 

Here’s good luck to the company,
Good luck to the Barley Mow,
Jolly good luck to the company,
Good luck to the Barley Mow

Here’s the company, the brewer, the slavey, the drayer, the daughter, the landlady, landlord, the barrel, the half barrel, gallon, the half-gallon, quart, the pint, the half-a-pint, gill, the half-a-gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and a brown bowl.

Here’s good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow!!!

 

– – –

I do remember many a pub sing when Naughty Nellie Peachbottom would raise a cheer from the crowd as she slalomed down through that list without missing a beat or passing out at the end, and if you’ve been to enough of my PiratePalooza Pubcrawl & Pubsings you may have seen Nellie perform this song live on stage.

Now let’s look at those unusual words in the song! Like, what are gills and quarter-gills? What’s a nipperkin? The answer is that they’re all units of measure that have fallen out of common use.

For you bean counters out there here’s a table listing the measurements of each vessel in Imperial and metric units.

 

Vessel SizeVolume in MillilitersVolume in Imperial Fluid Ounces
Barrel16,3659.2 ml5,760 fl.oz.
Half Barrel 81,829.6 ml2,880 fl.oz.
Gallon4,546.09 ml160 fl.oz.
Half Gallon2,273.05 ml80 fl.oz.
Quart1,136.52 ml40 fl.oz.
Pint568 ml20 fl.oz.
Half a Pint284 ml10 fl.oz.
Gill142 ml5 fl.oz.
Half a Gill71 ml2.5 fl.oz.
Quarter Gill35.5 ml1.25 fl.oz.
Nipperkin17.75 ml0.625 fl.oz.
Brown Bowlvariesvaries

So next I just had to know: what exactly is a drayer? Also: is a slavey a slave, as in a SLAVE??? The answers were all near to hand…

A drayer is a person who drives a truck or a cart designed for delivering beer barrels or other heavy loads.

This is a photo by Wikimedia User Johnlp and can be found on the Wikipedia entry for Trolley (horse-drawn).

 

 

Okay, so what’s a slavey? You have to admit that sounds pretty bad.

V0019239 A pretty maid carrying drinking chocolate on a tray. Stipple
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
A pretty maid carrying drinking chocolate on a tray. Stipple engraving by A. H. Payne after Liotard, c. 1743.
1743 By: Jean-Etienne Liotardafter: Albert Henry PaynePublished: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

During a certain time in Britain ‘slavey’ was slang for ‘serving maid’. Some dictionaries equivocate it to words like ‘drudge’ or ‘menial’ or ‘dogsbody’. Enlightenment and sensitivity to the condition of slavery were not yet on the cultural radar at the time that this song came into popularity.

 

Units of Measure

Perhaps you’re wondering “How did they drink a Quarter Gill of this stuff? What is that??” to which the answer is: at one time they actually made drinking vessels sized for many of these interesting pours. I don’t know if economics or culture drove the wide variety of sizes, whether those sizes were regional or if their popularity occurred over a large time of span. They are what they are.

To help you envision them though, I have taken the liberty of linking to some eBay auctions to show you some real world examples of these vessels, and if you’re reading this within a day or so of publication you might actually be able to win one of the auctions to which I’ve linked.

 

Pint = 568 ml (20 Imperial fluid ounces)

eBay Auction Link for Full Pint pot

 

Half a Pint = 284 ml (10 Imperial fluid ounces)

eBay Auction Link for Half-Pint Pot

 

Gill = 142 ml (5 Imperial fluid ounces)

eBay Auction Link for Full Gill cup

 

Half a Gill = 71 ml (2.5 Imperial fluid ounces)

eBay Auction Link for Half-a-Gill Mug

 

Quarter Gill = 35.5 ml (1.25 Imperial fluid ounces)

eBay Auction Link for Quarter Gill cup

 

Nipperkin = 17.75 ml (0.625 Imperial fluid ounces)

Mint Julep Cups website for Nipperkin cup

 

Brown Bowl = the volume of your cupped hands

 

And here ends (for now) my research into the Barley Mow.

I look forward to your contributions!

 

 

 

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