Last week, as part of the University of Sheffield’s contribution to national humanities extravaganza Being Human Festival 2015 (#BeingHuman15), I managed to combine my interests in early modern drinking and song by organising and hosting a convivial evening of beer, ballads, and banter at venerable railway station watering hole The Sheffield Tap.
Over sixty locals with an insatiable thirst for historical harmonies and past drinking cultures joined us in the Tap’s sold-out function room, a stunning Edwardian space converted from the station’s former First Class Dining Rooms (and featuring a working microbrewery). Here, aided by a songbook (pdf) created especially for the event, early music expert and special guest star Lucie Skeaping of BBC Radio 3 and The City Waites led us in rousing renditions of eight seventeenth-century drinking ballads and catches, including: Joan’s Ale is New, a celebration of ‘the mother drink of England’ set to a ‘pleasant northern tune’; A Pleasant New Song in Praise of a Leather Bottel, a paean to the benefits of the humble leather bottle over new-fangled drinking vessels such as pewter tankards and glasses; and The Trooper Watering His Nag, a fantastically bawdy ditty involving the heavily euphemised interaction between a soldier and a barmaid.
Joan’s Ale is New, a catchy ode to the traditional beverage, got things started. National Library of Scotland Crawford 1130, via English Broadside Ballads Online, EBBA ID: 33749 (CC BY-NC 4.0).
The musical interludes were interspersed with roundtable conversations in which seven scholars – David Beckingham (Cambridge), James Brown (Sheffield), Kate Davison (Sheffield), James Sumner (Manchester), Alex Taylor (Sheffield), Tim Wales (Sheffield), and myself – informally tackled some of the big questions in drinking studies and fielded excellent questions from the barstools. Historian of science James Sumner also delighted the audience with a demonstration of the chemical adulteration of the Victorian pint (a progressively more disgusting process which involved, inter alia, vinegar, Tabasco, and various sulphates).
Many thanks to all of our ‘Tappers’, with a special shout-out to Lucie Skeaping; to Amy Ryall of the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise team and all at Being Human Festival 2015 for the initial invitation and subsequent logistical and marketing support; and to all of our guests who braved the elements for this memorable night of musical merrymaking on Platform 1.