This is a very old (sixteenth-century?) example of the ‘drunk song’, a form closely related to the ‘exorbitant claim’ variety of nonsense song. Many more verses are recorded; it’s not hard to write more if you’re that way inclined. The title may be a very old mondegreen – what seems to be a forerunner of the song is called “Wha’s fu’ now?”, i.e. “who’s full”, in the sense of having had enough to drink.
The song’s history for me is more personal. It’s the first song I ever learned from another singer, rather than from a record or a score; also the last I learned that way for about 30 years (the next was probably Jones’s Ale). The year was 1976, the singer was this guy called Rob who was a mate of my friend Steve & ran an unaccompanied outfit with the truly awful name of Eyesteel Span; I remember I picked up the words and most of the tune OK but had terrible trouble getting the extra drop down to drun-ken, man. Then Steve turned up and we all forgot about it. A year later punk hit and I really forgot all about it.
After that I did a degree, did several jobs I didn’t much like (mostly in IT) and didn’t do very much singing, or not if anyone else could hear. After some time I started thinking that I’d never really sung anything to an audience, and that it wasn’t too late to give it a go. By this stage I was in my forties, married with two kids, working in journalism and finishing a part-time MA. I started going to a folk club that had recently started up locally and rapidly became a regular performer, singing whatever I felt like; I was particularly keen on Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Blegvad.
Five years after that folk club started up, a friend started a “mostly traditional” singaround as a kind of splinter-group. I went along; by this stage I’d completed a doctorate and written a book, I was working as an academic (which is where I should have been all along), and I was beginning to get seriously interested in traditional songs. When I got into that singaround I was greatly impressed, and greatly daunted. Everyone was doing old songs! Everyone was doing old songs that everyone else knew! Worst of all, everyone was doing old songs with choruses! I did When I was in my prime – which I’d done at the folk club previously – and pretty much got away with it, although the chorus singers didn’t have much patience with my intention of singing it in 3/4. About five minutes later, or so it seemed, the turn came back round to me, and I was lost. Dredging deep in my memory I came up with Who’s the fool now? and covered the panic I was feeling by challenging the room to keep up – I wasn’t going to announce the song, so they’d have to come straight in… The joke was on me – one line from me and a roomful of folkies walloped in, in harmony. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard – it was as if I’d stuck my head in a church organ. (And I’d started it!)
That night, I nearly screwed up the whole song at this point – I was so stunned by what had just happened that I just sat there listening to the echoes dying. Last Wednesday, on the other hand, I was ready, and I kept going. For this, another four and a half years on, is that same singaround: last Wednesday I sang Who’s the fool now? at the Beech, accompanied by… everyone. The sound quality isn’t great, particularly where my voice is concerned, but this (for once) isn’t about my voice: it’s about the first of the old songs I learned from another singer, and the singaround that made a traddie out of me.
This wasn’t the night that did it, mind you – that night I was mainly glad to get out in one piece. What really turned my head around was the night when I first heard Jones’s Ale – but that’s another story.