Posts Tagged ‘‘The Poor Man Pays for All’’

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.

Advertisements

Radical Balladry: The Poor Man Pays for All

May 13, 2014

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.