Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson
A-Beggin' I Will Go

Begging as an Occupation

One of the great occupational songs (you can hear it on the Virginia Company's album Nine Points of Roguery) is A-Beggin' I Will Go, which lists all the benefits of begging as a trade. Modern beggars just don't have the panache, the job training, the respect for their craft. Perhaps they could profit from learning this song.

Peter Kennedy has some of the song's history in his massive collection, Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, p. 497. He says William Chappell believed this song was sung as early as 1641 in Brome's comedy The Jovial Crew, (or The Merry Beggars), which was performed at The Cockpit theater, Drury Lane. A chorus of beggars in the play may also have performed a dance called The Beggar's Rant, and the popular song was later published as an instrumental piece for dancing. The earliest printed version listed is Playford's Choyce Ayres, printed in 1684, with almost identical verses to those still sung in places in England today. The first verse in the Playford book is: "There was a jolly beggar, He had a wooden leg. Lame from his cradle, And he was forced to beg."

This verse, of course, reminds us of that other popular song about beggars, the Irish song The Little Beggarman, which is sung to the tune Red Haired Boy. That beggar is Old Johnny Dhu, and he says "of all the trades and callings, sure, beggin' is the best, for when a man is weary, he can lay him down and rest." I guess everyone is agreed that one of the main benefits of the occupation is being able to lay down on the job whenever one desires. In this country, there's a song to the same tune, which is probably an American Civil War era song, with the words:

There was an old soldier, and he had a wooden leg. He had no tobacco, and tobacco he would beg.
Said this old soldier, "Will you give me a chew?" Says the other old soldier, "I'll be danged if I do!'"

Back to A-Beggin' I Will Go, one of the verses is: "I fear no plots against me, I live in open cell. Then who would be a King, when beggars live so well." Peter Kennedy explains this odd verse is thought to refer to James V of Scotland travelling in disguise. The Scots version of the song describes further how you should prepare yourself for your new career:

"Afore that I do gang awa, I'll let my beard grow strang, And for my nails I winna pare, for beggars wear them lang.
I'll gang to some greasy cook and buy frae her a hat, wi twa-three inches o the rim, A-glitterin owre wi fat."

Now that you have your outfit, you're almost ready... but don't forget your begging dish. A wooden leg is not a prerequisite for the job, as you can make do with crutches and an eyepatch. For further tips on embarking on your new career, here's the song complete with words and music.