Posts Tagged ‘‘A Ballad History of England’’

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The Agitator, Part 3

May 28, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Last week, I posted the tune for the radical song, ‘The Agitator’, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. As with nearly all the other tunes from that book, I hadn’t noted down the words. Jess kindly supplied further information on them, pointing out that it was written in the 1870s to support the Agricultural Labourers’ Union. She also supplied further background information about the Union and the songs written by its members in their campaign for recognition and better wages and conditions. See the post ‘Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The Agitator, Part 2’. Now she’s kindly supplied the lyrics for the song itself.

The Union’s founder, Joseph Arch, said

Of course I was called an agitator; so I was, because everyone, who stirs people up to do things is an agitator, but those who so named me attached a bad meaning to the word. I was agitating for the right and not for the wrong; I was no ‘Arch Apostle of Arson’, as some one chose to call me. The Bishop of Gloucester (Dr Ellicott) was one of my worst enemies in the early days of the movement. He wanted me, and those, like me, ducked in the horse pond. As to the parsons generally, I never expected them to have much sympathy with us. Their stock argument against the Union was that it was ‘setting class against class’. This was their poll-parrot cry. ‘Oh yes, said they, ‘the men have a perfect right to try and improve themselves, and we will help them; but the Union is setting class against class’.

According to Palmer and Pamela Horn, who wrote a biography of Arch in 1977, the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union was founded in 1872. He believes that ‘The Agitator’ was written the following year, 1873, by the Union’s secretary, Henry Taylor. Taylor was a carpenter, who was admitted to the Union because of his previous trade union experience. The farm labourers’ unions produced a great number of songs, which were collected into a pamphlet, Songs for Singing at Agricultural Labourers’ Meetings (London and Leamington). These proved to be popular. According to Harold Evans in his Radical Fights of Forty Years, the pamphlet sold 120,000 copies.

The lyrics go

The Agitator
Tune – The Nobby Head of Hair

A jolly, jolly ploughboy I am, as you may see,
But never mind, I always strive to live by honesty;
I’ve always done my very best, by hard work, fare, and sweat, –
To get about the winid, boys, but I’m never out of debt.

Chorus
So I’ll agitate, I’ll agitate, whatever folks may say,
Till all have joined the Union, and get a fair days’ pay.

We care not what the Parsons say, -though they’re the chaps to know,
They say that all who agitate, to their dark friend must go;
And if ’tis tru, ’tis very clear, themselves had best look out,
So milt their agitation is, they often get the gout.
We’ll agitate, etc.

The farmers say they can’t afford to pay us proper wage;
But still they keep their carriages, and follow fashion’s rage;
‘Tis true that some poor farmers have their necks beneath the heel
Of selfish Lords, and unjust laws, which soon we must repeal.
We’ll agitate, etc.

The ‘Lords’ complain their rent of land, per cent. enough don’t pay,
‘Political Economy’s’ a law we must obey,-
If so, they’ll very soon become defunct throughout the land,
For ‘mongst the People I’m quite sure, for Lords there’s no demand.
We’ll agitate, etc.

They say the Labourers are not Serfs, – that we have liberty;
With our wages and our perquisites, how happy we might be;
But if we join the ‘Union’ chaps, say nought of better wage,-
O what a flare-up all at once! don’t they go into a rage?
We’ll agitate, etc.

They turn us out of house and home, they sack us there and then,
But off we go to other jobs,- we’ll do it, boys, like men;
For if to be successful with our cause we are inclined,
Why, then, a little sacrifice, my boys, we must not mind.
We’ll agitate, etc.

Our cause will prosper in the end, for all th’oppressors might;
We’ll do our best to help ourselves – ‘God will defend the right’;
‘The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower’,
So let us all take heart again, and whilst we have the power,
We’ll agitate, etc.

Like very many of the other songs I’ve posted up here, it’s very much of its time. Nevertheless, also like the other songs, parts of it are still very relevant. People are being forced heavily into debt, and forced from their homes. And we are being led by an aristocratic government that keeps invoking economics to justify their attacks on the poor and working and lower middle classes. So let’s show them that, as the song says, there’s no demand for lords in 21st century Britain.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory

May 28, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Last week I posted the sheet music for ‘The New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’ from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. As with very many of the other tunes I’ve posted, I didn’t have the words, but assumed from the song’s title that it was about the hated ‘New Poor Law’, introduced by the Liberals in 1834 that set up the workhouses. That’s indeed exactly what the song’s about, and Jess has kindly sent me the words to the song. It was written by William Lamborn of Uffington. They go

I was forced as a stranger to wander from home
And all through the parishes to Faringdon to come
There to have my head shaved, which filled me with woe
And many a poor creature they have served also.
Home, home, sweet home,
There’s no place like home.

At six in the morning the bell it doth ring,
When every man’s allowance of ocum doth bring,
And if we do not pick it just as the keeper please,
He will be sure to stint you of your small bread and cheese,
Home, home, sweet home etc.

When the corn they do bring, to grinding we must go.
Both pease and both beans, and barley also;
And if we do but grumble, or even seem to gloom,
Full well we know the consequence, the blindhouse is our doom.
Home, home, sweet home, etc.

At seven in the evening, the bell it doth ring
When every man up stairs is obliged to swing,
Upon the iron bedsteads there he’s forced to lie,
Some a grieving, some a groaning, until the break of day.
Home, home, sweet home, etc.

And many more things, which I know to be true.
Such as parting man and wife, and children also,
O! what heathens and what brutes, are in our civil land,
For breaking the good laws which were made by God and man.
Home, home, sweet home, etc.

Beware, you blow’d out farmers, you noblemen beside,
though you may laugh and sneer, and at the poor deride,
How will you bear your sentence, upon the day of doom,
When you will call for water, to cool your parching tongue.
Home, home, sweet home, etc.

Perhaps you wont believe me, or care not what I say,
I will be bound that you will all upon a future day;
For I know that some judgment will soon you overtake,
Either in this world, or in the burning lake.
Home, home, sweet home, etc.

For those who made the poor laws they are the spawn of hell,
And of those that do uphold them the truth to your I’ll tell,
For the devil is their master, who put it in their heads,
And this they will prove all on their dying beds,
Home, home, sweet home etc.

So now I will conclude, and finish my sad tell,
I’ve given you all warning, before you are in hell;
And if you wont believe me, you will find it is true,
For God has declar’d it to oppressors as is their due.
Home, home, sweet home, etc.

The reference to the farmers and noblemen in hell asking for water ‘to cool their parching tongue’ come’s from Christ’s parable of Dives and Lazarus. Lazarus, a poor beggar, lies at the gate of Dives, the rich man, but is given no help by him. They both die, but whereas Lazarus ascends to paradise to be with Abraham, Dives finds himself in hell. He calls to Lazarus for help, but Lazarus cannot. He is not able even to answer Dives request to give him some water to put on his tongue.

This is clearly a very bitter song, which accurately describes conditions in the workhouse. Inmates were forced to pick oakum to provide caulking for ships, but doing this for too long wrecked their hands. As for the chorus of ‘Home, home, sweet home’, it’s very much a bitter comment on the song, ‘Home, Sweet Home’, which was composed at the same time. I can remember listening to a BBC radio programme on British music through the ages broadcast on Christmas, 1999, which remarked that the song, ‘Home, Sweet Home’, must have been viewed extremely bitterly by some because of the immense hardship and deprivation inflicted on the poor through the New Poor Law.

It’s clearly of its time, but, like many of the others I’ve posted here, it’s still relevant because of the way the Tories and Tory Democrats are reintroducing aspects of the workhouse and the legislation that supported. Such as the principle of less eligibility, that conditions on benefit should be made so hard and humiliating as possible in order to deter people from claiming it. And people have died, and are losing their homes and dignity through the Coalition’s welfare reforms, just as they did in Victorian Britain.

I think it’s entirely possible that the song could be revived, if altered a bit to make it rather more relevant to today’s conditions, to make this timeless point about the Tories attitude to the poor. Especially as we are led by farmers – Iain Duncan Smith – and noblemen – Cameron, Clegg and George Osborne.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The Ranters

May 27, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Yesterday, I put up the sheet music for the Diggers’ Song, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. As usual, I didn’t have the words, but Jess kindly supplied them, as well as the another Digger song, The Diggers’ Christmas Carol. As well as the Diggers, another radical Civil War sect were the Ranters. Jess in her comment to my post of the Diggers’ Christmas Carol, has also provided two examples of their poetry, expressing their radical, pantheist, Christian beliefs, along with another poem by Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers’ ideologue. Jess writes

Ranter Poems

“The Saints in virtue, which did aye excel,
This hainous heresie condemn’d to hell;
The General Councils with considerate ire
Adjudg’d these crimes to be calcin’d with fire.
Yee that so boast of spirit to be brim full,
Which say yee have no sin, your selves yee gull.
Com all yee missed, erring, gross mistakers,
Vain glorious Ranters, or censorious Quakers;
Bring all your tricks, your toies and wrested sleights,
Let’s poise them by the Sanctuaries weights.
Lord, if wee sin against thee and offend,
(For who sin’s not, that here his dayes doth spend?)
Wash me, O wash nee throughly from my sin,
Blood, and pollution which I wallow’d in. ”
[Divine poems being meditations upon several sermons, ….. And put into vers by William Wood of Eckington, Gent. 1655]

Another group of dissidents from round the same period as The Diggers were those termed ‘Ranters’. They are generally believed to have evolved from the Familist sect of Elizabethan times, whose core beliefs were ‘that perfection may be attained in this life’, denial of the Sabbath as a holy day, everyday should be a sabath and repentence must precede remission of sins’ [Hill, p.184]

They were known to hold their ‘meetings’ and festivals in pubs where the use of tobacco and alcohol was intended to heighten spiritual vision’. To more straight-laced sects ranter behaviour was licentiousness. The classic text on the group is A.L. Morton’s ‘World of The Ranters’, Nigel Smith edited a collection of their pamphlets whilst Christopher Hill devotes two chapters to them in his ‘World Turned Upside Down’

The pieces here come from two sources. Hill reprints the first in his ‘World Turned’

A Christmas Carol
They prate of God; Believe it fellow creatures”
There s no such bugbear; all was made by Nature.
We know all came of nothing, and shall pass
Into the same condition once it was,
By Nature’s power and that hey grossly lie
That say there’s hope of immortality.
Let them but tell what a soul is, then
We will adhere to these mad brain-sick men.
[Hill World Turned….” from ‘The Arraignment and Tryall, with a Declaration of the Ranters” (1650)]

The second two were found in the Clarke Mss [Also the original source of the better known ‘Diggers Song’] by Anne Laurence and published by her in ‘The Review of English Studies, Vol 31, 1980’ and are dated by her to c.1650. ‘ I have kept the spelling of her transcriptions from Clarke 18

Peter Davidson ‘Poetry and Revolution’ (1998) collects a lot of verse from the period, including a couple of other Winstanley poems. I

My Flesh the plagues of God consume,
With all Relacions of the same,
The which now makes mee out of Tune,
And I shall not bee in right frame;
Untill the vialls of Gods wrath.
Uppon this Earth of mine be powr’d,
And all the Idolls of the same.
Hee quite hath turned out of doores
For Christ our Kinge shall all things chuse
Out of his Kingedome that offend,
All things therin that are impure
Hee bringeth to a totall end,
And when those thinges are fully wrought
Such libertie then wee shall see
Within the Temple of our God
For Wee his Temple then shall bee,
For wee shall then rejoice and singe
Still praysing him that is our might
And ever Triumph in our Kinge
Hee is our libertie and Light.
[From Valentine Sharpe to J. Radman Castle Mary & Margery.]

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: Diggers’ Song

May 26, 2014

Digger Song

This is another tune from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. Like the others I’ve posted up, I don’t the words for it. Its place amongst the other ballads, which I copied from Roy’s book, suggests that it comes from the seventeenth century. So, I wonder if it’s about the Diggers, the Civil War Communist movement, that attempted to set up an ideal community on common land at St. George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649. They were inspired by Gerrard Winstanley, a cloth trader and farm labourer, whose Communist ideas were based on his radical mysticism, in which he hailed Christ as ‘the head Leveller’. The Digger movement was eventually suppressed by the local landlords, who destroyed the colony’s crops.

They and the Levellers still exert a certain influence on British Socialism and radicalism today. There was a drama documentary about them made by one of the radical British directors in the 1970s. This is still available on DVD from the British Film Institute, I believe. I have seen copies around in various record and DVD stores, so it’s definitely still around, if you’re interested. More recently, the British film, A Field in England, was released the other year. Set in the Civil War, it was about the debates over society, politics and religion of the period through the perspective of the local characters debating what they should do over a particular field. Possibly not one of the most exciting ideas for a film, it was nevertheless praised by the critics for its ability to create drama and tension through skilful direction and camera work. I’ve also got a feeling that amongst the great British thesps starring in the movie was Sean Bean, best known as ‘Sharpe’ from the series of books and TV series set in the Napoleonic Wars.

An excerpt from Winstanley’s A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and Armie of 1650 is included in the collection of 17th century political texts, Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, ed. by David Wootton, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986) 317-332.

On the other hand, the tune could simply be about people who have to dig for their living, rather than the radical political movement. In which case, it’s still interesting as another document on working class life from that period.

Tunes for Toilers: A Political Christmas Carol, Part 2

May 26, 2014

Peterloo Massacre

George Cruikshank’s Cartoon, Manchester Heroes, attacking the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

Yesterday I put up the sheet music to the 19th century ballad, A Political Christmas Carol, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noted the words when copying down the tune, so I had little idea of what it was actually about. Jess has kindly filled me in on this, pointing out that it’s by the radical journalist, William Hone. It attacks Lord Castlereagh, the prime minister responsible for the Peterloo Massacre, in which a crowd gathered to listen to the radical politician, ‘Orator’ Hunt, were charged by the a group of Hussars as a seditious mob. It also prompted Shelley to write his bitter attack on Castlereagh and the Conservative social order, The Mask of Anarchy. She states

You are almost certainly referring to this piece by William Hone, published, with an illustration by George Cruikshank, in 1820

“God rest you, merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember we were left alive,
Upon last Christmas day,
With both our lips at liberty
To praise Lord C———h
With his ‘practical’ comfort and joy!

He ‘turn’d his back upon himself’
And straight to ‘Lunnun’ came,
To two two-sided Lawyers
With tidings of the same,
That our own land must ‘prostrate stand’
Unless we praise his name –
For his ‘practical’ comfort and joy!
‘Go fear not’ said his L——p
‘Let nothing you affright
‘Go draw your quills, and draw five Bills,
‘Put out yon blaze of light;
‘I’m able to advance you,
‘Go stamp it out then quite –
‘And give me some “features” of joy!’

The Lawyers at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their friends a staring
To go and raise the wind,
And straight went to the Taxing-men
And said ‘the Bills come find –
‘For “fundamental” comfort and joy!’

The Lawyers found majorities
To do as they did say,
They found them at their mangers
Like oxens at their hay,
Some lying, and some kneeling down,
All to L—d C———h
For his ‘practical’ comfort and joy!

With sudden joy and gladness
Rat G-ff—d was beguiled,
They each sat at his L——p’s side,
He patted them and smiled;
Yet C-pl-y on his nether end,
Sat like a new born Child, ­-
But without either comfort or joy!

He thought upon his Father,
His virtues, and his fame,
And how that father hoped from him
From glory to his name,
And, as his chin dropp’d on his breast,
His pale cheeks burn’d with shame: –
He’ll never more know comfort or joy!

Lord C———h doth rule yon House,
And all who there do reign;
They’ve let us live this Christmas time –
D’ye think they will again?
They say they are our masters –
That’s neither here, nor there:
God send us all a happy new year!”

Also cited here
http://ruthmather.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/a-political-christmas-carol/
From Roy’s book

It is directed against Castlereagh, the target of Shelley’s ‘I ‘Mask of Anarchy’, and the butt of countless contemporary radical poets.

“The Mask of Anarchy
(Written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester.)
“As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim ;
Seven blood-hounds followed him :

All were fat ; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown ;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.”
……..
http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/Classic%20Poems/Shelley/the_mask_of_anarchy.htm

Castlereagh’s part in Lord Liverpool’s administration, along with Sidmouth, made him universally loathed.

Twenty years later Chartists would denounce the regime that gave the country Peterloo and Oliver the Spy. So hated was the government of the time that several armed insurrections were attempted, Spa Fields in 1817, Scotland’s Radical Rising of 1820 (and associated attempts in Lancashire and Yorkshire) along with Cato Street the same year

Shelley, incidentally, was an occasional customer of Clio Rickman, bookseller, printer, radical and close friend of Paine mentioned elsewhere.

Hone and Rickman frequented similar circles, though Rickman was also closer to the various Spenceans in his neighbourhood, forming business partnerships with them occasionally to publish radical ditties.

I might also add that Rickman printed and edited the second, expanded edition, of the first identifiably radical songbook.in 1798.

So, this is another ballad to remember and hum the next time an innocent person is killed or injured by the police, heavy-handedly trying to control a crowd of protesters. Especially as Boris Johnson is now trying to purchase those three water cannon from the Germans. They also suffered massive radical demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s after a left-wing demonstrator was killed by one.

Cato Street is, from what I can remember, also quite significant from the point of view of Black history. One of the conspirators caught drilling on Spital Fields and prosecuted for preparing to take in an uprising against the government was the mixed-raced son of a West Indian planter and one of his slaves. I’m afraid I really can’t remember the man’s name, but apart from his involvement with the radical Spenceans he had launched a huge debate in the press about the morality of slavery as he denounced the system, which had allowed his father to exploit his mother. I believe he’s one of the Black lives covered in Gretchen Herzen’s book on the history and lives of Black Brits before the abolition slavery, Black England: Life Before Emancipation.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: A Political Christmas Carol

May 25, 2014

Political Carol 1
Political Carol 2

This is another tune from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. As I said, I’m afraid I didn’t note down the words while I was copying the sheet music. I thus don’t have any more on this than it’s title. This suggests that it’s a song about working class discontent, and the lack of generosity and humanity by the upper classes at a time of seasonal hardship. I’ve written it down following a ballad tune on the Battle of Waterloo, which suggests that it was also written in the years of political reaction and oppression for the working class following the Napoleonic Wars. This was the time when the aristocracy tried to crack down on trade unions and other forms of working class organisation from a fear that a revolution would also break out over here.

So although it’s spring, it’s also relevant to the current political climate, where the Tories and Lib Dems are also doing their level best to grind working people down, the economy is in tatters, poverty is rising and there is precious little generosity or help from the authorities in the form of unemployment benefit. And the government is also trying its best to ban trade unions, while Boris Johnson shows his fear of the great unwashed by trying to purchase three second hand water cannons from the Germans.

So it’s another one to hum and whistle on the way to the Jobcentre or Work Related Activity.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The Agitator, Part 2

May 25, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Last week I posted up a number of radical British folk songs and ballads, including the 19th century tune, ‘The Agitator’, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. I’d only managed to note the music for this, and assumed that it dated from the Chartist agitation for the extension of the franchise to working men. I was wrong about this. The ever-informative Jess, put me right about it in her comment on the post. She pointed out that it actually came from the 1870s, and was part of a number of tunes composed to promote the Agricultural Labourers’ Union, composed by the radical journalist, Howard Evans. She wrote

‘The Agitator’ dates from the 1870’s

Roy Palmer probably garnered it from Howard Evans’ “Songs for singing at Agricultural Labourers’ meetings”, 1875

Evans, a Radical journalist;
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Evans_(journalist)]

later recalled;

“Early in the labourer’s movement I conceived the idea of bringing song into service by using popular tunes. I am no singer, but at a meeting in Sundridge, in Kent, I ventured a first experiment. It was heartily received and published in the ‘Labourer’s Chronicle’ others followed in quick succession, and before long was issued a Labourer’s Song Book, with a few songs by other writers, which from start to last reached a circulation of 120,000 copies” “Evans, Radical Fights of Forty Years 1913, p.42

But when the proprietors of the paper attempted to revive Feargus O’Connor’s Land Scheme (borrowed from the ideas of Thomas Spence [See Chase; The People’s Farm]);

“A violent quarrel broke out in our ranks. Ward and Vincent, the proprietor of the ‘Chronicle’, conceived the absurd idea of buying land with the twopences of the labourers. Of course most of them would be in their graves before they could get even a small piece of land…Ward and Vincent hoped to get [Joseph] Arch on their side, because he was at variance with Taylor, the secretary; but Arch was too level-headed a man to entertain such an absurd project. It became necessary to save the Union by starting another paper”

For a broader ‘portrait of the agricultural labourer in the nineteenth century’ I suggest Roy Palmer’s ‘The Painful Plough’

Mike Yates’ valuable essay on Walter Pardon adds another dimension to these songs
http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/pardon.htm

The linked essay on the folksinger, Walter Pardon, mentions a number of his songs, some sadly only now half-remember fragments. Many others have been recorded whole, with the article reproducing several of them: Come All Ye Swaggering Farmers, The Labourer’s Union, An Old Man’s Advice, and Sons of Labour.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The Agitator

May 22, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Over the past few days I’ve been posting the sheet music to various radical folk tunes and songs as examples of the long tradition of working class radical popular music and poetry. On Tuesday I posted the music from Robin Williamson’s collection of British fiddle tunes for ‘The Rights of Man’ hornpipe, celebrating the work of the 18th century American revolutionary, Tom Paine, who was born in Thetford. Yesterday I put up ‘The New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England, which I assume attacked the establishment of the workhouses in 1832 by the new Liberal government. Today it’s the turn of ‘The Agitator’, again from Palmer’s book. As with yesterday’s tune, I’m afraid I didn’t note the words at the time. The title suggests it comes from the early 19th century during the period of intense Chartist agitation, when working men campaigned for the extension of the franchise to all men over 21 and the reform of parliament so that working men could enter it. There were two aspects to the campaign. One consisted of peaceful meetings and the compilation of petitions to parliament. Much less peaceful were the ‘physical force’ Chartists, who saw revolution as the only solution to the problem of creating democracy in England. Here’s the tune.

Agitator Tune

As with the ‘New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’, this issue is still very relevant today. There is still a problem with the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in parliament. Despite the introduction of equal suffrage and the payment of MPs, parliament is still dominated by the upper and middle classes, who have increasingly turned away from working class and very much legislate in their own interests. The aristocratic background of Cameron and Clegg, and the cabinet they lead is very much an example of this. Parliament needs to be reformed and made more representative of the working class. Now.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory

May 21, 2014

Poor Law Tune

I’ve been blogging over the past week or so about British radical folk song and working class ballads and poetry, partly as a corrective to the ahistorical, ‘merrie England’ folksiness presented by the English Democrats in their abysmal election video. Such sentiments aren’t exclusive to them, however, and are shared widely by the British Right. It’s very much a Conservative vision of England and Britain, composed of contented peasants and benign, paternal landlords. The reality was often very different, and the working class, artisans and poorer tenant farmers and agricultural labourers frequently took to music and verse to express the hardship, discontent and exploitation they experienced at the hands of the upper classes. Roy Palmer collected a number of these in his A Ballad History of England (B.T. Batsford 1979).

This is my handwritten copy of the tune for the Ballad ‘The New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’ in Palmer’s book. I’m afraid I didn’t note down the lyrics, being simply interested in the music itself at the time, and the book itself appears to be out of print. The tune’s nevertheless still interesting, and relevant today. The New Poor Law was the Liberal legislation setting up the infamous workhouses – the ‘new bastilles’ for the poor, based on the principle of less eligibility. Conditions in them were supposed to be so horrific, unpleasant and degrading, that the poor and unemployed would be deterred from entering them if they could possibly avoid it. The same principle motivates the Tory and Tory Democrats’ welfare reforms, so that signing on has been made similarly unpleasant and degrading in order to put people off claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance if they can possibly help it. And just as the inmates of the workhouse were given pointless, menial tasks that destroyed them physically and mentally, like picking oakum, so the unemployed placed on workfare through Iain Duncan Smith’s wretched welfare to work reforms are similarly given menial and pointless jobs that lead absolutely nowhere, except to make a profit for the private firms taking part in the scheme. So it’s another 19th century tune that could be re-introduced, just possibly, for the new poor of the 21st century, to whistle and hum on their way to Jobcentre or another protest rally.

I’ll post another radical working and lower class ditty tomorrow.

Radical Balladry and Poetry for Proles

May 15, 2014

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.

1.

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.

2.

“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.

3.

“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.

4.

“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;
http://www.calderdale.gov.uk/wtw/search/controlservlet?PageId=Detail&DocId=102253

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;
http://pronoblem.com/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
http://www.mediafire.com/view/?o6tbi8b3qf6dgbw

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.