In music, a catch is defined as a type of musical composition where two or more voices repeatedly sing the same melody, beginning at different times. As a common tradition within rural communities, it’s growing popularity across 18th-century England led to the establishment of “catch-clubs”, where country choirs could “meet once a week, fortnight or month, and thereby entertain themselves and friends with such harmonious and inoffensive mirth”. In this article from 1923, C Henry Warren describes a gleeful night of singing and drinking at the Fleur de Lys, a catch-club, in 1768. Warren reimagines the “lusty, full blooded affairs” of the evening as “ten or a dozen sons of earth, busy with clay-pipe and brimming tankard” join in harmony. Warren includes examples of the popular choruses you would expect to hear at these country inns and introduces us to the rowdy “horny handed Bobs and Toms” who formed the choir.
In 1768 a certain John Arnold, “Philo-Musicae”, compiled an anthology of “the most celebrated songs and catches, canzonets, canons and glees ” of his time. They were intended, he pointed out, for the express use of “the great number of catch-clubs” existing up and down the countryside. Somewhat irrelevantly, it must be admitted, he called his little volume The Essex Harmony. Those who should go to him, hoping to find in his pages dialectical ditties or local folk-songs will be disappointed. Nothing is there, indeed, but a medley of such popular choruses and catches as, it may well be supposed, could have been heard at any country inn some convivial evening during the reign of King George III. Yet it is an illuminating little book. As one turns over its curious yellowing pages – lewd, comic, maudlin and fantastical as, by turns, they are – the lusty jollifications of those evening catch-clubs live again. For not all the sententiousness of the Philo-Musicae could persuade one, after reading his first few examples, that those evenings were anything but lusty, full-blooded affairs. Their gusto would be hard to match in these teetotal days. Let us turn in for a moment, then, at “The Fleur de Lys” (locally pronounced as lice, of course) and see for ourselves what a catch-club of 1768 was like.
Shutting the door upon the wind and rain, we draw aside the curtain of clean sacking that shelters the inn parlour from the draughts. The air beneath the beamed dark ceiling is already blue with smoke; a few doddering old fogies hug the open fire; and round a trestle-table set well in the centre of the tiled, saw-dusted floor, are ten or a dozen sons of earth, busy with clay-pipe and brimming tankard. ” A catch, a catch, boys,” cries Tom Clegg, “let us have a catch.” Forthwith the air rings with their guttural brazen notes:
Adam catch’d Eve by the furbelow,
And that’s the oldest catch I know;
Oh, ho, did he so!
Bob Davenport, tenor-lead in the choir up at the church gives them the note as they pass readily from catch to catch, till the landlord breaks in upon their enthusiasm to remind them of their thirst, and so they fall to gossiping again. Parson, of course, comes in for his share of the opprobrious scandal until old Shepherd Wright, over in the corner, interferes with: “Nay, lads; let the parson be and strike up agen with a song.” Tom, who is ever apt in his choice, shows his good sense by demanding “The Jolly Vicar”.
The stew’d cock shall crow, cock-a-doodle-do;
Aloud cock-a-doodle shall crow:
The duck and the drake shall swim in a lake
Of onions and claret below.
We’ll labour and toil to fertile the soil,
And tithes shall come thicker and thicker:
We’ll fall to the plough, and get children enow,
And, thou shalt be learned O Vicar…
Having thus concealed their private opinions under the doubtful testimonial of this chorus, they all proceed noisily to drink his health, allowing him to be one of the very best. So the evening passes. As the air becomes riper, thicker, the voices become huskier and the wits rapidly more vulgar. First one and then another protests that he will not sing another note unless the landlord brings in his deservedly famous punch, wherein:
Lemon and sugar so happily meet,
The acids corrected by mixing the sweet,
The water and spirit so luckily blend
That each from th’ extreme does the other defend.
Here, it is to be feared – save that now and then, out of a variety of solos, starts involuntarily some reminiscent round or other – the authenticated renderings of the catch-club proper end. Even in the reminiscent round wits are muddled, hiccups intervene, the notes come hesitant and out of tune, until finally it fizzles out in a bawdy riot of mirth. The punch has affected them all. Shepherd Wright, out of his nook, quaveringly pleads that “old am I, and therefore may, like Silenus, drink and play”. Then tenor Bob treats them to classic Handelian stanzas:
In-spire us, Genuis of the Day,
With an au-spi-cious beam.
But his linked sweetness, too long drawn out for such bucolic company, is soon put to silence by the roaring tones of Tom, who vulgarly, if more popularly, enumerates the unmentionable points in which Moon and Woman agree. Whereupon, the native note having been struck at last, a further inharmonious attempt is made at a lewd catch dealing, in distressing detail, with the touching and intimate amours of Lady Fanny. But now the air is rotten-ripe and the landlord calls a halt to the evening’s merriment. So with this final effort the club breaks up:
Fill, fill the bowls, ye loyal souls:
Rejoice with one accord;
And let each man, in a full can,
Drink health to George the Third.
A degenerate picture this; too degenerate, one might be excused in thinking. At any rate Philo-Musicae would never agree with us; but then, from his preface, it is obvious that he never set foot in “The Fleur de Lys”. Unless, of course, he speaks with his tongue in his cheek. He is lily-livered enough to view this rustic music-making as so much material for the propagation of pastoral reform. “Were it,” he sighs, “more encouraged and pursued, it would not only prevent the many Accidents, Mischiefs and other Bad Consequences attending those Diversions of Heroism, Cudgelling, Football-playing, etc, but would be the means of encouraging the Practice of one of the Sciences…” But our author’s estimation of the catch-club is altogether too ponderous. The canzonets and rounds he has so thoughtfully handed down to us are too native, too near to lore ever to have fulfilled such a pious, missionary purpose. Our author’s sermonising preface is as apt for the songs that follow as a mortarboard would be on a clown. One wonders did he never hear Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek – “that dog at a catch ” – rousing the night-owl with “Hold thy peace, thou knave”? He continues: “What can be more agreeable or commendable for country choirs than to meet once a week, fortnight or month, and thereby entertain themselves and friends with such harmonious and inoffensive Mirth?” No, it is certain he was never at “The Fleur de Lys”. As to the harmony, he was, perhaps, a better judge than his modern readers: but his pages certainly reveal a kind of mirth that is far from being inoffensive. And listen: our naive reformer has so far forgotten his audience as to suggest that the practising of catches “may introduce Peace and Tranquillity in a Neighbourhood”. He goes on to commend a practice that held in many places where “Publicans have put up gold rings, etc, to be sung for”. Well, either our author is most ludicrously ignorant or else the 18th-century landlord, as revealed in literature, is a most gross misrepresentation of the truth.
And what, one wonders, would be the comment of those horny-handed Bobs and Toms to hear themselves ostentatiously addressed as the “true Sons of Apollo?” O Philo-Musicae!
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