Radical Balladry: The Poor Man Pays for All

I found this piece in Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England 1588 to the Present Day (Batsford: 1979). The book is exactly what it’s title says it is: a collection of ballads dating from the late 16th to the late 20th century, describing contemporary life and events. Many of these are explicitly political, especially those dealing with the reform and working class protest movements for democracy and better conditions from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of them are quite long – the Poor Man Pays for All is 11 verses in length. For all its origins in the 17th century, it’s still very relevant today when the government is cutting taxes for the rich and throwing the tax burden onto the poor, who are also expected to pay their way despite the government’s austerity programme of wage freezes and cuts.

The Poor Man Pays for All

As I lay musing all alone
Upon my resting bed,
Full many a cogitation
Did come into my head:
And, waking from my sleep, I
my dream to mind did call:
Me thought I saw before my eyes
How poor men payes for all.

Me thought I saw how wealthy men
Did grind the poor men’s faces,
And greedily did prey on them,
Not pitying their cases:
They make them toil and labour sore
For wages too-too small;
The rich men in the taverns roar,
But poor men pay for all.

Me thought I saw an usurer old
Walk in his fox-fur’d gown,
Whose wealth and eminence controlled
The most men in the town;
His wealth he by extortion got,
And rose by others fall;
He had what his hands earned not,
But poor men pay for all.

Me thought I saw a courtier proud
Go swaggering along,
That unto any scarce allowed
The office of his tongue.
Me thought, were’t not for bribery,
His peacock’s plumes would fall,
He ruffles out in bravery,
But poor men pay for all.

Me thought I was i’th’ country,
Where poor men take great pains,
And labour hard continually,
Only for rich men’s gains:
Like th’ Israelites in Egypt,
The poor are kept in thrall;
The taskmasters are playing kept,
But poor men pay for all.

Me thought I saw poor tradesmen,
I’ th’ city and elsewhere,
Whom rich men keep as beads-men,
In bondage, care and fear.
They’ll have them work for what they list –
Thus weakest go to the wall.
The rich men eat and drink the best,
But poor men pay for all.

Me thought I saw two lawyers base
One to another say,
“We have had in hand this poor man’s case
A twelve month and a day:
And yet We’ll not be contented be
To let the matter fall;
Bear thou with me, & I’ll bear with thee,
While poor men pay for all”.

Me thought I saw a red nose host,
As fat as he could swallow,
Whose carcase, if it should be roast,
Would drop seven stone of tallow.
He grows rich out of measure
With filling measure small,
he lives in mirth and pleasure,
But poor men pay for all.

And so likewise the brewer stout,
The chandler and the baker,
The malt-man also, without doubt,
And the tobacco-taker.
Though they be proud and stately grown,
And bear themselves so tall,
yet to the world it is well known,
That poor men pay for all.

Even as the mighty fishes still
Do feed upon the less,
So rich men, might they have their will,
Would on the poor men cease.
It is a proverb old and tr4ue –
The Weakest go to the wall;
Rich men can drink till th’ sky look blue,

But now, as I before did say,
this is but a dream indeed,
Though all dreams prove not true, some may
Hap right as I do read.
And if that any care to passé,
I doubt this my dream shall,
For still ’tis found too true a case-
That poor men pay for all.

Other ballads in the collection include ‘A Political Christmas Carol’, ‘The New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’, The Agitator, and the ‘Man that Waters the Workers’ Beer’. The last song, by Paddy Ryan, is about a man, yes a very fat man, who waters the workers beer, adding meths, strychnine and other ‘orrible stuff in order to prevent there being a strong working class that could challenge the employers.

And needless to say, I can’t see some of this stuff being particularly welcome to Tories or the new parties of the Right.

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6 Responses to “Radical Balladry: The Poor Man Pays for All”

  1. pippakin Says:

    Reblogged this on Thinking Out Loud and commented:
    I really like this it shows how little has really changed and as far as this blog is concerned it shows how easy it is to manipulate and coerce the poor who are the victims of every abuse.

  2. sdbast Says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  3. jess Says:

    I would also recommend Roy’s 1974 collection “A Touch On The Times”. There are quite a few copies still knocking about. [Actually anything with Roy’s name on it is worth picking up].

    More recently James Hepburn edited a two volume collection of mid 19th c street ballads, ‘A Book of Scattered Leaves’, pointing out the social significance of some of the period’s street literature. Hepburn also identifies the authors of some of this material.

    But the ‘doyen’ of the genre is Mary Ashraf whose 1974 ‘Political Song and Verse from Britain and Ireland’ sets the standard. That can still be found second hand, although you need to be wary of expensive POD versions.

    But if there is one figure whose significance is generally overlooked it is Allen Davenport, Spencean, Owenite and Chartist.

    He was a prolific composer of radical song and poetry throughout his life. His first major success was a ballad on the Caroline affair in 1820 for the printer, Pitts. Many thousands were supposedly sold by street vendors. He continued to publish up until his death in 1846

    But he was more than just a radical poet. He composed numerous street ballads and songs for the ‘free and easies’ [forerunners of the music hall]. For the last few years of his life he lived with the Neesoms, who, amogst many other things were ballad printers and Chartists. [Neesom and Davenport were also founder members of the East London Democratic Association, the radical left wing of London Chartism]

    These are a few introductory lines from “The Kings or Legitimacy Unmasked (1819)
    “Pray tell me friend, for you can tell such things
    From whom descended all the race of Kings;
    What gave them birth, what were their origin?
    They sprang from ruffian force, and venal sin;
    And few have reign’d who have not been a scourge,
    From mighty Nimrod down to the fourth George!
    Their tyranny with their succession run,
    From age to age, from father to the son;”
    [From; Chase (Ed) The Life and Literary Pursuits…. 1845, rep,1994

  4. jess Says:

    I forgot to mention, An Anthology of Chartist Verse has been published, not once, but twice.

    It first appeared from Progress Publishers in Moscow in 1956,[As An Athology of Chartist Literature] then largely reprinted by the Associated University Press in 1989. [As ‘An Anthology of Chartist Poetry’]. The second printing excised the Literary Criticism contained in the former edition [mostly reprinted from the Scottish Chartist Cirtcular]

    One version of the National Chartist Hymn Book can be viewed here;

  5. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks also for recommending these, Jess. I’ll look out for them the next time I’m in one of the music shops in Bristol, or some of the second hand bookshops I know. The Chartist Hymn book is also very interesting. Away from the British tradition of Radical folk song, some of the Wobblies’ songs have been reprinted in anthologies of popular songs from the early years of the twentieth century. I’ve come across them in the remaindered book shops, like The Works.

  6. jess Says:

    A version of the ‘Little Red Song Book’ can be found here;

    Click to access iwwlrs.pdf

    It’s last known printing in the UK was in the 1990’s and was done by Scottish Republican Socialists through Clydeside Press (who are still in business)

    Another American ‘Socialist Song Book’ can be found here

    The Pennsylvania ‘local’ who produced (I would guess around the 1930’s) patently drew on the ILP Songbook of c.1910, initially drawn up by Tom Anderson of Glasgow, but completed by the Glasiers [Anderson felt so annoyed at what they had done that he left the ILP for the Socialist Labour Party. For the latter organisation he produced a ‘Proletarian Songbook’ [primarily for use in his ‘Proletarian Schools’]
    More on Anderson here;
    http://www.radicalglasgow.me.uk/strugglepedia/index.php?title=Tom_Anderson ]
    Songbook cover here;

    Unfortunately, the only place you will find those Chartist Anthologies is in Research Libraries. The WCML certainly has the Moscow edition. (I was once told there are only 50 or so in the UK)

    Ironically the American one is even scarcer, with probably no more than 10 copies in the UK [It was kept away from Europe due to potential copyright problems}

    But I can easily get access to both, so if you have a query, or an interest, I will sort something out

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