Radical Balladry and Poetry for Proles

Ballad Seller pic

19th Century Illustration of a Ballad Seller

A few days ago I posted a few pieces on Rob Young’s history of the British folk revival and folk rock, Electric Eden (London: Faber and Faber 2010), and the radical and political folk songs protesting about the conditions of the poor and demanding workers’ rights, such as The Poor Man Pays For All from the 1630s. The Chartist and trade union movements in the 19th century also included poets and song-writers, who attempted to get their message of popular democracy and just treatment for the workers across in verse and music. They included Ernest Charles Jones, a British lawyer, who was born in Berlin in Germany from British parents. In 1845 he became a member of the Chartist movement, and was co-editor, with Feargus O’Connor, of The Labourer, and Northern Star. Not surprisingly, he became embittered and alienated after he was imprisoned in the two years from 1848-50 for inciting the British public to revolt. He was a friend and follower of Karl Marx from 1850 to 1855, whose ideas influenced Jones’ Notes to the People of 1850-1 and the early years of his People’s Paper. Beer in his History of British Socialism, gives an example of his poetry, the Song of the Lower Classes.


We plough and sow- we’re so very, very low
That we delve in the dirty clay
Till we bless the plain – with the golden grain,
And the vale with the verdant hay.
Our place we know-we’re so very low
‘Tis down at the landlord’s feet,
We’re not too low – the bread to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.


“Down, down we go-we’re so very, very low,
To the hell of deep-sunk mines,
But we gather the proudest gems that glow
When the crown of the despot shines.
And whenever he lacks – upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We’re far too low to vote the tax,
But not too low to pay.


“We’re low, we’re low – mere rabble, we know,
But at our plastic power,
The mould at the lordling’s feet will grow
Into palace and church and tower –
The prostrate fall – in the rich men’s hall
And cringe ata the rich man’s door:
We’re not too low to build the wall,
But too low to tread the floor.


“We’re low – we’re low – we’re very, very low,
Yet from our fingers glide
The silken flow – and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride.
And what we get – and what we give
We know, and we know our share:
We’re not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear”.

Other Chartist leaders in their poems urged a general strike and a worker’s revolution in order to achieve democracy. One of Thomas Cooper’s speeches in Staffordshire resulted in ‘serious disturbance’, arson and destruction of property. Cooper himself summarised them in the following lines, according to Beer, in his 1845 Purgatory of Suicides.

“Slaves, toil no more! Why delve, and moil, and pine,
To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?
Slaves, toil no more! Up from the midnight mine,
Summon your swarthy thousands to the plain;
Beneath the bright sun marshalled, swell the strain
Of Liberty; and while the lordlings view
Your banded hosts, with stricken heart and brain, –
Shot as one man, ‘Toil we now more renew,
Until the Many cease their slavery to the Few!
We’ll crouch, and toil, and weave, no more – to weep!’
Exclaim your brothers from the weary loom: –
Yea, now they swear with one resolve dread, deep –
‘We’ll toil no more – to win a pauper’s doom!’
And, while the millions swear, fell Famine’s gloom
Spreads from their haggard faces, like a cloud,
Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:-
How ‘neat its terrors, are the tyrants bowed!
Slaves, toil no more – to starve! Go forth and tame the proud!

Britain’s mining and cloth industries may have been devastated, but the words are still resonant and very relevant. We are, after all, suffering under the class government of Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and their fellow financiers and aristos. And the lines ‘we’re too low to vote the tax/ But not too low to pay’ exactly describe the ‘Bedroom tax’.

Jess, one of the commenters on this blog, provided a bit more information. She writes

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 Anthology 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 Circular]

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

This last is well-worth looking at as an example of the aspirations of working class Christian radicals for social justice. It would frighten the modern, ultra-capitalist Christian Right faster than you could say ‘Social Gospel’.

Apart from the Chartists, other radical Left-wing groups and parties also produced song-books. Jess mentioned the Fabian Song book of 1912, which partly drawn from the Carpenter’s and Progressive song books. The ILP also produced a song book and the American Syndicalist union, the International Workers of the World or the ‘Wobblies’, are especially known for their songs. Jess writes about these:

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.

There is a very strong body of radical, Left-wing working class and folk literature, which is still very relevant. Jess notes that it’s been largely neglected by the Left, except for a very few aficionados and researchers, like Roy Palmer, the author of a Ballad History of England. She also recommended a number of other folk song researchers and experts:

I would recommend, if you can still get hold of it, the EFDSS CD collection of William Kimber. Parts of the interview it contains is fascinating, especially Kimber’s acceptance of the Women’s Morris.

Also worth seeking out are the recordings of Walter Pardon, who includes, on one of his albums, songs used by the Agricultural Labourers’ Union.

More recently, the Left has used songs to articulate its criticism of social injustice and promote its causes. I first came across Tom Lehrer’s satirical song about nuclear warfare, ‘And we’ll burn together when we burn’ in 1980s with the revival of CND in Thatcher and Reagan’s new Cold War. The same decade also saw Billy Bragg get onto Top of the Pops with his modern folk-song about the Miners, just when Thatcher was putting the boot into them. With this new attack on the poor and working class, it would be no bad thing at all if some of these songs were revived. It might even remind some of the Labour party’s leaders just whom they’re supposed to represent.

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4 Responses to “Radical Balladry and Poetry for Proles”

  1. untynewear Says:

    The trouble with the modern incarnation of English folk music is that it’s so very middle class, nice music for nice people. A bit twee.

    Ok, that’s a subjective opinion, although one formed after going to several folk clubs over the years. I also read Electric Eden, last year, and spent a lot of time checking out artists recommended therein on Youtube – I found most to be pretty boring frankly (the exceptions being the Third Ear Band and some of the Early Music Consort stuff).

    I think probably ‘folk’ music was doomed the minute Cecil Sharp & co got their hands on it, and it wasn’t until the advent of Punk in the mid-1970s that you really started getting again music that was dangerous enough for the esthablishment (in the shape of the BBC) to want to censor it – it’s long been believed, for example, that the Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen” was the real number one single during the week of the Queen’s 1977 jubilee, but that the charts were fiddled to avoid “embarrasment”.

    At the same time you were getting people like Steel Pulse and Linton Kwesi Johnson coming through from the British West Indian community – you want working class protest music ? Try LKJ’s ‘Ingland Is A Bitch’ or ‘ Wat About Di Working Class’…

    From Inglan to Poland Every step across di ocean
    The ruling class is dem in a mess, oh yes
    Di capitalist system are regress
    But di Sovjet system nah progress
    So wich one of dem yuh think is best
    When di two of dem work as a contest
    When crisis is di order of di day
    When so much people cryin’ out for change nowadays
    So what about di workin’ claas? ??
    What about di workin’ claas?
    Dem pay the cost, dem carry the cross
    An’ dem nah go forget dem ??
    Dem nah go forget dem plans

    Killer music too ! Eat your heart out, Billy Bragg.

    • jess Says:


      I have no intention of getting into a this vs. that agument.

      And I understand that being who you are, you have little cash to spare, so any recommendations I make are purely rhetorical

      Especially as I wholly agree with you about the power of LKJ’s verse, and his first album in particular, Poet and Roots.
      Maybe you should also have mentioned Misty too

      As for folk clubs, well some are and some aren’t.

      But I think you are being unfair to a number of, maybe not modern but certainly ‘revival’ artists

      Ashley Hutchings’ Albion Band recorded ‘Battle of the Field’ a couple of years before punk, but inspired many later bands such as the Levellers and The Men……”

      And his Kicking Up the Sawdust 1977, with Bob Cann, though not overtly political, can hold its own in any musical company.

      As for ‘ was doomed the minute Cecil Sharp & co got their hands on it”, that does not hold water at all.

      A Gergina Boyes points out, there was quite an ideological battle went on within the ;’collectors’ (one that paralleled the arguments between the Jacobin John Ritson and tory Walter Scott in the 1790’s) . If you look at the work of Frank Kidson you will find an entirely different attitude to the music and the people who made it than the one held by Sharp and his cohorts.

      But you misunderstand the nature of the music possibly. Despite the polite interest from above, the people who made the music, just carried on doing so. Fortunately some of it was recorded (try Veteran CD’s) , though not much made it onto the airwaves, let alone the jukeboxes.
      Try http://www.veteran.co.uk/Veteran%20Catalogue.htm

      But let me give you just one example of how the ‘left folk music’ makers never left the mainstream.

      You may have heard of Lonnie Donegan, and may be aware of his influence on music making. He started off as an afficianodo of Josh White an American folk singer whose music reached this country through the airwaves of the BBC, courtesy of a slightly left wing (Labour) presenter called Charles Chilton.(we will meet Charles in another context, another time)

      Unable to find the records he heard over the airwaves, he found them at Collets Book shop in Charing Cross Road (Formerly Hendersons, a syndicalist bookshop). The end result, as someone once said was ‘the beatles’

      The lineage is even stronger in Scotland, and you have touched on it, maybe unwittingly, in your own blog.

      I hope this does not come across as ‘ranty’. It is not meant to be.

      Oh, and Billy may not be Walter Pardon, but, like Carthy/Waterson, LKJ and Misty, never refused to play a benefit. Even if they were out of pocket themselves by doing so.

      In my book, that’s a bunch of decent people, all of them

  2. untynewear Says:

    The important element of my post was – “Ok, that’s a subjective opinion”.

    Just my opinion as someone with an involvement in music – and as a musician myself – going back to the 1970s.

    If I’ve learnt nothing else, at least I’ve come to the conclusion that subjective opinions are all you can have about music, your own tastes shaped by experiences. What can I say ? I just find English folk music pretty dull and – as I said before – a bit twee. And good for Billy Bragg doing benefits and that, but his music still bored me shitless.

    If other people get off on it, good for them, but folk music isn’t some sort of pure distilled essence of England, as some folk musicians I have known have tried to convince me (and which was the message I got from the Electric Eden book).

    It’s of interest in a historical context, which is how Beastrabban is presenting it here, but does it have any actual relevence to most people today ? Did it really have much relevence to the majority of people back in the day ?

    Or to put it another way – does it have any actual relevence to most FOLK today ? Did it really have much relevence to the majority of FOLK back in the day ?

    Who knows ? It wasn’t the FOLK who wrote the books about it. I only know that I now read books about Punk , including events I actually attended, and find myself thinking “hang on, that wasn’t how it was, how it happened…”

    But its in a book now, so it must be true, I guess…

    • jess Says:

      “does it have any actual relevence to most FOLK today ? Did it really have much relevence to the majority of FOLK back in the day ?”

      Decide for yourself

      “If you’re inclined te hear a song, aa’ll sing a verse or two,
      And when Aa’m done yer gan’ te see that every word is true;
      The miners of South Medomsley they never will forget
      Fisick and his tyranny and how they have been tret;
      For in the midst of danger, these hardy sons did toil,
      For te earn their daily bread se far beneath the soil.
      Te make an honest livelihood each miner did contrive,
      But ye shall hear how they were served in eighteen eighty five.

      The miners of South Medomsley they ‘re gannin te mek some
      They ‘re gannin’ te boil fat Postick and his dorty candy crew,
      The maistors should have nowt but soup as long as their alive
      In memory of their dorty tricks in eighteen eighty five.

      Below the county average then the men was ten percent,
      Yet Fisick the unfeelin’ cur he couldn’t rest content;
      A ten percent reduction from the men he did demand,
      But such a strong request as this the miners couldn’t stand.
      The notices was aall served oot and when they had expired,
      Aall the gear was brought te bank, and the final shot was fired;
      Te hurt his honest working men this low lived man did strive,
      He’ll often rue for what he did in eighteen eighty five.

      Fisick was determined more tyranny te show,
      For te get some candymen he wandered to and fro’
      He made his way te Consett, and he saw Postick, the bum,
      He knew he liked such dirty work and he was sure te come.
      Fisick telled him what te de and were te gan and when,
      So at the time appointed, Postick landed with his men,
      With pollisses and candy men the place was all alive,
      All through the strike that Fisick caused in eithteen eighty five.

      Commander Postick gave the word, they started with their
      Though they were done at five O’clock, they dursent stop till
      And when they’d done aall they could and finished for the
      The bobbies guarded Postick and his dorty dogs away.
      Fisick was a tyrant and the owners was the same,
      For the torn oot of the strike, they were the men to blame,
      Neither them nor Postick need expect they’ll ever thrive,
      For what they did to Dipton Men in eighteen eighty five”.
      Tommy Armstrong
      The Mores
      Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
      Bespread with rush and one eternal green
      That never felt the rage of blundering plough
      Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
      Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
      In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
      Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
      Nor fence of ownership crept in between
      To hide the prospect of the following eye
      Its only bondage was the circling sky
      One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
      Spread its faint shadow of immensity
      And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
      In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
      Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
      Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
      Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
      And hath been once, no more shall ever be
      Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
      Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
      And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
      Is both the shadow and the substance now
      The sheep and cows were free to range as then
      Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
      Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
      To the wild pasture as their common right
      And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
      Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
      Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
      Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
      The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
      Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
      While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
      Free as the lark and happy as her song
      But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
      That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
      Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
      Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
      Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
      As poet’s visions of life’s early day
      Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
      To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
      And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
      Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
      And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
      Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
      Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
      Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
      In little parcels little minds to please
      With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
      Each little path that led its pleasant way
      As sweet as morning leading night astray
      Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
      That travel felt delighted to be lost
      Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
      When right roads traced his journeys and again –
      Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
      To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
      Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
      With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight
      Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
      Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
      He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
      As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
      These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
      Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
      Each little tyrant with his little sign
      Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
      But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
      A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
      And on the tree with ivy overhung
      The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
      As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
      When they go there they must no further go
      Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
      And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
      And birds and trees and flowers without a name
      All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
      And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
      Have found too truly that they were but dreams.
      John Clare

      Click to access clare-poems.pdf

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