sing for your supper

Earn a favor or benefit by providing a service. It’s the same idea as having to wash dishes to pay for your meal at a restaurant.

Sing for Your Supper is an American popular song by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. The song was debuted in their 1938 Broadway musical The Boys from Syracuse. The lyrics describe a singer performing to earn his meals: 

Sing for your supper,
And you’ll get breakfast.
Songbirds always eat
If their song is sweet to hear. 

The song has been recorded by numerous jazz and pop artists over the years. Author Ethan Mordden used the title for Sing for Your Supper: the Broadway Musical in the 1930s.

In medieval England, it was usual for a wandering minstrel arriving at a local inn or pub to offer to sing a song or tell a story in return for a meal. Presumably, a talented minstrel would attract more customers for the host. The phrase ‘sing for your supper’ is first recorded in print in the early 1600s. Later in that century the meaning of the phrase included performing any service in order to earn something that you wanted.

The idea of singing for one’s supper was popularized by the English nursery rhyme, Little Tommy Tucker, first printed in 1744. The full version was produced in Mother Goose’s Melody (c. 1765).

Little Tom Tucker
Sings for his supper.
What shall we give him?
White bread and butter.
How shall he cut it
Without a knife?
How will he be married
Without a wife?

The ‘Tommy Tucker’ in this nursery rhyme was a colloquial term commonly used to describe orphans. Orphans were often reduced to begging or ‘singing for their supper.’ The reference to Little Tommy Tucker marrying and the lack of a wife reflects the difficulty of any orphan being able to marry because orphans had low social standing in the community.

So, what seemed an innocent song for young children became a sneering mockery of those who, in days when welfare was provided at the whim, or lack thereof, of the parish, were forced to beg (or perform) for food and charity.

There’d be no point in me singing for my supper, since I sound more like a crow than a meadow lark. I’d probably get thrown out, or have to wash double the dishes.

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