Francis James Child chose to call this comic song of husbandly impotence in the face of brazen female adultery “Our Goodman,” an eighteenth-century title. It is number 274 in his collection. The song has been found all over the English-speaking world, and Child lists numerous Continental analogues.
Whenever the Dubliners performed “The Seven Drunken Nights” in the 1960s, Ronnie Drew would advise the audience, “But we’re only allowed to sing five of them.” Even the five-night version, learned from the poet Seamus Heaney and ending, like Ray Hartland’s and Alice Frankcom’s version, with a whiskered “baby”, is said to have been banned from Irish radio as indecent. Thanks in part to numerous commercial recordings in Britain and America under a variety of titles (including “The Cabbage Head Song”), “Our Goodman” is one of the most popular songs of the folksong “revival.” Bawdy songs tend to grow bawdier over the decades, and later stanzas of “Our Goodman” can include more graphic discoveries, more far-fetched explanations, and more explicit refutations. Some recent “Renfaire” versions end by mocking a presumed English lack of sexual stamina. Such twists add to the song’s popularity. Nowadays the song is often performed as a stage duet. Much of the humour stems from the relentless dramatic irony of the buildup, and many younger singers seem to interpret the song as a feminist statement.
The American singer Oscar Brand introduced “Our Goodman” to American college audiences in the 1950s. Steeleye Span recorded “Four Nights Drunk” in 1971, set to the reel tune, “The Primrose Girl.” In New York fifty years ago, Professor Lighter learned a two-melody version in which the husband is a sailor, “home from the sea.” The tune used for his wife’s replies (“‘You old fool, you damn fool, you son of a bitch!’ said she”) was that of “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main!”
Notes by Jon Lighter