Article MT134 - Part 3

The History Of It

The Medieval peasant lived hard, serving his time on the big country estates.  The way he lived, his isolation, his illiteracy, his social inferiority, meant that he kept certain ways of thinking and of expressing himself which were a carryover from the time when there was a relatively small degree of class development.  But when absolute feudalism began to crack up, his horizon started to widen.  As his life altered his oldstyle songs altered too; the free rambling tunes took on a more graceful shape.  The bare, wintry themes of the dark ages began to blossom like an ornamental cherry tree.  Under the blossom, though, the boughs remained the same.

The country was changing from being a producer of wool into being a manufacturer of cloth.  A new class of people were coming up fast - the townsmen.  They were a mixed lot, some free, some unfree, and a great deal of scrambling for position went on.  The merchants organised themselves in gilds, to be strong to get and hold.  And often in opposition to the merchants the craftsmen formed their gilds, too, and battened on the yeoman.  And what could the yeoman do but form their gilds in turn, and a thin time they had of it.

Towards the end of the 15th century, new worlds were being discovered, new trade rivalries were becoming acute; the towns, not the courts, were now the centre of intellectual life.  The aristocracy, the clergy and the merchants circled round each other wary and hostile, like ship's rats put in a cage to fight; but all of them were prepared to gang up on the peasantry.  The aristocracy was an old white rat - crafty, but losing its coat.  The church was an old black rat - and pretty sleek, despite its age.  The merchant class was a strong young rat and full of fight, but not yet confident.  Its big dumb brother was the peasantry.  It would use that big brother to frighten the white rat and the black rat, but it would not hesitate to keep him well out of the picture if there were any pickings around.  Still, there were strong links between the young merchant rat and its big dumb brother.  But let us drop this rat metaphor, for we are dealing with songs and rats do not sing as far as I know, whereas the people of the late Middle Ages sang a very great deal, so much so, in fact, that it is no exaggeration to say that the predominant and representative musical culture of that rowdy time was the popular songs.  All classes of townspeople and country people were making up folksongs and passing them on.  They were much in the air, and even the clergy who hated them could not keep them out of church, and folksong tunes and folksong lyrics crept right into the Solemn Mass itself.  A Worcestershire priest was kept awake all night by villagers dancing in his churchyard - they always danced in the churchyard; it was a pagan hangover - and singing a song with the refrain "Swete lemman, thine ore" : Sweetheart, have pity.  It seems that this priest could not get the song out of his head and next morning at mass, instead of chanting the Dominus Vobiscum he sang, "Sweetheart, have pity." The scandal was considerable, if we can take Giraldus Cambrensis' word for it.  But by the early 16th century, the clergy had got so used to the idea that famous musicians wrote masses on the tune of popular songs like The Western Wind, whose words, all that remain, are:

O Western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain? 
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

For a time there was a strong unity between the emotional life of the merchants and the lower classes.  They spoke with much the same kind of accent, they sang much the same kind of songs, they looked at life with much the same realistic common-sense and that accent, that commonsense, those songs were different from the speech, ideas and culture of the aristocracy and the clergy.  But that was not to last.  Soon the merchants and the middleclass gentry were not to stay spiritually so close to the lower classes.  Soon they were not to need their alliance.  When the fear of slipping back info feudal disorder was passed and the middle classes could stand firm on their own feet, they could develop their own culture, and a different one from the culture of the lower classes.  By about 1600, the peasant folksongs were still sung by other classes, but rather in a slumming spirit - already the lace-ruffed gentry of Elizabeth's time were finding them quaint.  They exploited that quaintness for their own polished and sophisticated ends.  The upper classes had a new style of music all their own - first the madrigals, a fashionable import from Italy, then the ayres, the solo art song with lute or keyboard accompaniment.  The folksong had meant that, by the nature of its subject matter and treatment, the peasant singer was submerged in the peasant audience.  The choral madrigal had meant that, by the nature of its form the individual was indistinguishable at least from his aristocratic friends who were singing with him.  But the new style of solo song tended to pull the individual up and away from his audience, to spotlight him.  So you get the beginning of something that later became a clear division between artist and audience who, till then, had been pretty well indivisible.  You get the beginnings of a commercially exploitable concert style.  You get the culture of the upper and lower classes parting tracks for good.  A quickly developing history lay ahead of what some call the bourgeoisie.  Feudalism was left far behind.  Spain, the rival, was defeated.  England was now a nation: soon she would have an Empire.  And beyond that bright prospect lay the dark satanic mills of the industrial 19th century.  The musical accompaniment to that historical pageant was written by Dowland, by Purcell, by Handel and Arne and - presumably because the English were too busy making money - by the German symphonists.  But that you can read about in the musical history books.  That concerns music written by the more illustrious men for - whether they liked it or not - the more illustrious classes.  (This is not said in any snobbish or carping mood; the isolation of the lower classes from culture was pretty complete.) But in this book we are not, for once, talking about the music of great individuals, but of the whole nameless and undistinguished masses of working people now sleeping in unknown graves.  Their culture - the old peasant culture - was to go on almost unaltered for two hundred years yet.  But it was a doomed culture, just as the peasantry as a class were doomed.  Still, do not let us run on too far ahead; that doom was not to show itself for a long time.

When you hear folksongs of any period, behind all the recitals of love and anger and desertion, of cruelty and violence, of hanged men and shanghaied sweethearts, of the beauty of a country spring and the bitterness of country labour, if you listen, there is something more : a deep longing for a better life, a longing that shows itself by plaintive turns of speech and by the melancholy of even the most idyllic tunes.

There are three ways of satisfying this longing for a better life: you can withdraw from the world into some mystical faith; you can change the world by political or social action; or you can transpose the world on to an imaginative plane, neither renouncing it, nor trying to change it, but colouring it with fantasy, sugaring the pill as they say.

In the folksongs there is not much flight into mysticism.  There are very few references to the legends and rituals of the Church.  You would think that the power of medieval religion would have impressed itself so deeply on the peasant's imagination as to have ruled out any other possibilities.  But not at all.

There is a vast number of songs making fun of the habits - especially the sex habits - of monks and parsons.  But let us be big-hearted and disregard these.  Then what have we left?  There are a few parable songs like Dives and Lazarus; but there is more of social criticism than religion in them.  There are carols; but most of them are on apocryphal or semi-pagan themes, and all the mystery the official church relies on is taken right out of them, as in the Cherry Tree Carol, where the pregnant Virgin is walking with her husband in an orchard:

O, up then spoke Mary
With words so meek and mild:
"Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
For I am with child."

O, up then spoke Joseph
With answer so unkind:
"Let him pluck thee a cherry
That put thee with child."

O, up then spoke the baby
Within his mother's womb:
"Bow down the tallest treetop
For my mother to have some."

Most of the real folk carols are like that, very clear, very barbarous, with nothing of the official odour of sanctity about them, neither in the words nor in the tunes.  In the enlightened days we live in, the surrealist painter Max Ernst painted the Virgin Mary laying the infant Jesus across her knee and smacking him, and the picture was impounded as a blasphemy.  But a common carol in Hereford is the Bitter Withy.

click to play MIDI file

As it befell on a bright holiday
Small hail from the sky did fall. 
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
If he might go and play at ball.

At ball, at ball, my own dear son,
It is time that you were gone. 
But don't let me hear of any doings
At night when you come home.

So up the hill and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour run
Until he met three rich young lords
A-walkin in the sun.

Good morn, good mom, good morn, said they.
Good morning all, said he. 
And which of you three rich young lords
Will play at ball with me?

We are all lords' and ladies' sons
Born in our bower and hall,
And you are nothing but a Jewess' child
Born in an ox's stall.

If you're all lords' and ladies' sons
Born in your bower and hall,
I'll make you believe in your latter end
I'm an angel above you all.

So he made him a bridge of the beams of the sun
And over the river danced he. 
The rich young lords chased after him
And drowned they were all three.

Then up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers run,
Crying: Mary mild, fetch home your child
For ours he's drowned each one.

So Mary mild fetched home her child,
And laid him across her knee,
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him slashes three.

Ay, bitter withy!  Ay, bitter withy!
You've caused me to smart. 
And the withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart.

You do not find many songs corresponding to Roman Catholic ideas.  But you do find a lot of songs which have a close connection with the gnostic writings of the early Christian fathers, or further back in history still, with the dark old pagan times.  And some of them are good songs too in their queer sinister way, like Down in the Forest:

click to play MIDI file

Down in the forest there stands a hall,
(The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring)
Is covered all over with purple so tall.
(And I love my Lord Jesus above any thing).

In that high hall there stands a bed,
(The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring)
Is covered all over with scarlet and red
(And I love my Lord Jesus above any thing).

All in that bed there lies a knight
(The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring)
Whose wounds they do bleed with main and with might.
(And I love my Lord Jesus above any thing).

And under that bed there runs a flood.
(The bells of Paradise, I heard them sing)
The one half runs water, the other runs blood.
(And I love my Lord Jesus above any thing).

And at the bed's foot there lies a hound
(The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring)
A-licking the blood as it daily runs down,
(And I love my Lord Jesus above any thing).

All at the bed's head there flowers a thorn,
(The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring)
Which never so blossomed since Jesus was born.
(And I love my Lord Jesus above any thing).

Pagan and early Christian themes overlap in such a song; the hall is evidently the Church and the sanctuary of the Grail even; the bed is an altar, it is the couch of the wounded keeper or the Maimed King; the dog is Joseph of Arimathea with the Grail at the sepulchre or at the foot of the Cross; the knight is the daily sacrifice - is Christ himself.  There are many well known songs of similar origin to this : the counting songs Green Grow the Rushes O, the Twelve Apostles, the Twelve Days of Christmas, and This is the Key of the Kingdom. The counting song of the Twelve Apostles is typical of all these:

Come, let us sing.
What shall we sing?
We shall sing you twelve.
What is your twelve?
The twelve, the twelve is gone to hell.
Eleven, eleven is gone to Heaven.
Ten, the ten commandments.
Nine, the nine do brightly shine.
Eight, the gable rangers.
Seven, the seven stars in the sky.
Six, the charming waiters.
Five are the family in the boat.
Four, the gospel makers.
Three of them are drivers.
Two of them are lilywhite babes,
Sitting on the green row.
One and one is all alone and ever will remain so.

There are many theories about what these songs mean, and one man's guess is as good as another, and some have more than guess to go on, but I attempt no interpretation.  I would remark on this, though, that in Eastern Europe, the service for the second night of Passover ends with two chants, both of them cumulative songs, and the first of these runs:

Who knoweth thirteen?  I, saith Israel, know thirteen.  Thirteen divine attributes, twelve tribes, eleven stars, ten commandments, nine months before childbirth, eight days before circumcision, seven days in the week, six books of the Mishnah, five books of the law, four matrons, three patriarchs, two tables of covenant, but one is God alone which is over heaven and earth.
The second of these chants has something of interest, too, for those who remember their nursery rhymes:
Then came the Most Holy, blessed be He, and slew the slaughterer who had slaughtered the ox which had drunk the water which had burnt the staff which had smitten the dog which had bitten the cat which had eaten the kid my father had bought for two zuzim; only one kid, only one kid.
(Here, so the rabbis say, the cat is Babylon, the dog is Persia, the staff is Greece, and so on.)

Animal totems were important in primitive magical religion, and they were important to the early Christian fathers too, because no new religion comes up without having in it some traces of the old.  Clement of Alexandria recommended the fish as a suitable propaganda symbol for Christians to chalk on walls (it was like a V campaign: the Greek for 'fish' is whthyos: I.Ch.theos stood for Jesus Christ the God), and long before Christianity had spread to the educated classes and become the official religion of the Roman Empire, there was a great deal of fish and river symbology about it.  There was also a great deal about the three vestures of light or robes of glory, about the recognition and adoration of the illuminated humble soul, about free holy pardon and the mystical union of the Bride and Bridegroom in the House of the Father, and about the mysterious Fisher King; and sometimes you get all these elements combined in one song, as in the Royal Fisherman, which the blacksmith at Potter Heigham in Norfolk, called Harry Cox, still sings:

One morning in the month of June
Down by the riverside,
There she beheld a bold fisherman,
Come rowing on the tide.

Morning to you, bold fisherman,
How come you fishing here? 
I've come a-fishing for your sweet sake
All on the river clear.

He lashed his boat up by the stem,
And to this lady went. 
He took her by the milkwhite hand
For she was his intent.

He then took off his morning robe
And laid it on the ground,
So she beheld three chains of gold,
All on his neck around.

Straightway she fell upon her knees
And loud for mercy called,
I thought you were a bold fisherman,
I see you are some lord.

Stand up, stand up, unto my father's hall.
There I'll make you my bride,
And you shall have a Royal Fisherman
To row you on the tide.

Another kind of religious songs that you would sometimes hear is what they used to call 'Egyptian hymns'; that is, the songs the gypsy tinkers and the pedlars of cane-baskets and carpet-beaters would sing through the villages perhaps as a guarantee of good character, though the songs were more often than not wild and barbarous enough in all conscience, and there is little evidence that anyone was taken in by them.  One that was still popular among Sussex gypsies in this century had as first line a distortion of the old hymn beginning: Christ me did ransom, died for you.  Early on a quiet morning, the singer dragging up the dusty road, singing the long sustained notes high and clear through his nose, with one hand pressed over his ear and the other holding a big bouquet of feather brooms, this song was something to hear:

click to play MIDI file

Christ made a trance on Friday view
He made it with his hand,
And made the sun clear all off the moon,
Like the water on dry land.

Like water on dry land, man Christ,
That died upon the cross. 
What can we do for our dear lord,
As he has done for us?

O hell is deep and hell is dark,
And hell is full of mice,
So we'll do as much for our saviour,
As he has done for us.

God was in France all Friday too.
All with his holy hand,
He made the sun clear all off the moon,
Like the water on dry land.

Coming back for a moment to the witchcults in the Middle Ages, we have already stated there was a defiance about their anti-clericalism which was almost a political thing.  The witches were not just people who tried to work spells.  They were devotees of a special nature religion.  They took to this religion either because they were backward or desperate or had a grudge against society or at any rate the Church.  This religion, this cult, goes back to pre-Christian times; it, or something like it, seems to have been the ancient religion of Western Europe.  (Does he know nothing of Celtic culture?) The god the witches worshipped was sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, sometimes a monstrous animal.  To Christians, every non-Christian god was an enemy of the Christian god, so they said the witchcult members worshipped the devil.  The god of the witches could change his shape as he chose, and so by a transfer of power, the witches believed or pretended to believe that they too could transform themselves into animals at will.  You can still hear songs from the old days that once had a deep magical meaning and were songs of the adoration of other animals than the Holy Lamb and pretty certainly these songs too, like the song of the Great Wren, were sung when the witches met up in the moonlit hills and danced round the Master.  Things change very much and instead of being dark and sinister many hymns in praise of the monstrous animals are now just dirty songs for a truckload of troops to sing, like the well-known Derby Ram.  Though perhaps things have not altered that much after all, for on the evidence of Lambert Danaeus and others these witchsongs were often somewhat rough to say the least, as I suppose one might expect songs praising a fertility god to be.  Plenty of them are well enough known: the Toe of the Mallard, the Jolly Old Hawk, the Lovely Mackerel, all follow much the same pattern as:

Of all the fish that swim in the sea
The red herring is the king for me.

And what shall I make of my red herring's guts?
Forty bright women and fifty bright sluts,
Besides prudenta, and wantons and every fine thing,
I will make much of my darling herring.

And what shall I make of my red herring's ribs?
Aylesbury great tower and Aylesbury great bridge,
Besides bridges and belltowers and every fine thing,
I will make much of my darling herring,

and so on for verse after verse.  In all these songs only faint traces of the old adoration remain and in their debased and more modern versions they are harmless enough to figure in collections of nursery rhymes, and that indeed is just what they do.

Among folksongs whose origins lie in primitive magical religion but few have preserved anything of what they started out with, though just now and then you come across a song supremely beautiful, supremely dignified and supremely candid, that has kept popular and dignified and even become increasingly so through the periods when all was decadence and the song was taken for a drinking song as happened with John Barleycorn, the song of the death and resurrection of the Corn King, who features in magical cults all over the world from the Hebrides to the Himalayas and for all I know beyond:

There came three kings into the east
Their victory to try. 
And they have took a solemn oath,
John Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and ploughed him down,
Put clods upon his head. 
And they have took a solemn oath
John Barleycorn is dead.

There he lay a full fortnight,
The dew on him did fall. 
Then Barleycorn got up again
And that surprised them all.

There he remained till midsummer,
And he grew thick and strong,
And Barleycorn he grew a beard,
And he became a man.

They took a weapon long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee. 
They tied him fast upon a cart
Like a rogue for forgery.

They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgelled him full sore. 
They hung him up before the storm,
And turned him o'er and o'er.

They filled up the deepest pit,
With water to the brim. 
They heaved in John Barleycorn
To let him sink or swim.

They wasted o'er a scorching flame
The marrow of his bones. 
But a miller used him worst of all,
For he crushed him with two stones.

And they took out his very heart's blood
And drank it round and round,
And still the more that they did drink
Their nature did abound.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise,
And if you do but drink his blood,
It will make your courage rise.

It would not be worth while paying so much attention here to the songs which hark back to primitive religion were it not that the witchcults patronising that religion, or a debased version of it, did represent something special in feudal times, something which can explain perhaps a bit about the medieval peasants' attitude to the Church and to the facts of life.  There is not a great deal we know about it but it does seem there was a big revival in the activity of the witchcults in the 14th century.  That century was everywhere in Western Europe the great age of peasant revolt.  Besides the 1381 rebellion in England, a vast class struggle was going on in France and Flanders after the Cokerulle rising and the establishment of the Communes at Ypres and elsewhere, and already the first distant thunder could be heard which was later to storm over Germany in the insurrection of the secret peasant societies of the Union of the Shoe and of Poor Conrad.

This was the time when the peasants began to hope, the time when the dead hand of poverty and isolation was beginning to lift, the time when the poor started to believe a different life was possible.  The stirring of revolt meant that political secret societies of all kinds came up like mushrooms.  The societies had a ritual of their own, and this ritual was something still to be found in the organisation of the Tolpuddle farm labourers five hundred years after the time we are dealing with now.  It is likely that this stirring of life revived the dying witchcult and gave it a new direction, and so you would expect to find the magical songs developing and taking on a new shape just at this time, and that surely enough is what seems to have happened.

I am indebted to the historian A. L. Morton for the suggestion that if this is a correct theory, the witch persecutions of the 15th century would seem to be part of the counter-attack of authority on the people as the wave of revolt began to recede at least in England and in Flanders, partly because of the defeat of many brave attempts at insurrection and partly because of the material improvement in living which it is generally agreed took place about this time.

The second way of satisfying a longing for a better world is by direct social action, by a group of people taking matters into their own hands and working out a plan and not stopping at anything, death or anything else if necessary, till that plan or at least part of it is carried through.  Hard times made many peasants into desperate men in the middle ages but though there was trouble enough it is pretty true to say that, all in all, political fight was not clearly understood by the country workers then nor indeed in later times; and since this conscious determination to change society was lacking or at any rate only imposed itself by degrees, you will find very little in folksong of direct political struggle.  What you do get is plenty of songs describing bad conditions and plenty satirising the habits of whoever happens to be on top.  Of course there may have been quite a body of wonderful folksongs dealing with social struggle as openly and as excitingly as you please, and they may have been suppressed even more fiercely than the ordinary secular songs and for this reason never been handed down.  There may have been; but if there were we have no proof of it.  Two things we know: that songs related to peasant revolt like the Cutty Wren are rare; and that a certain number of directly political songs from quite early times onward had been collected, and especially these flourished at the fagend of the folksong period in the early 19th century; and I am sorry to disappoint anyone but I must say truly that they are for the most part very poor things indeed.

Generally the English folksinger chose the third way of consoling himself for his life and hard times; he did not deny the facts of life nor did he sing about changing them, but he coloured them and wrapped them up in fantasy and to a certain extent disguised them, and even where they were sordid and stupid and brutal he turned them often into something beautiful and tragic and honourable.  He did it with the old songs of idealised heroism and of nature and its relation to man, and he did it with the love songs that came later, and the working songs, and later still with the crime songs of the 18th century before the folk songs turned into something empty and vulgar and debased, before they parodied themselves to death.  But the singer's feeling that this glamorised version of life is not real is nearly always underlined by the astonishing melancholy of the tunes.  Even songs with the happiest words commonly have tunes full of sadness and a pathetic longing.

By far the most of the ballads and lovesongs and songs of country life that you find in the familiar collections of Broadwood and Kidson and Baring Gould and Sharp are these songs of idealised life.  The commonest and saddest and most far-fetched fantasy of all is the fantasy of the lover who comes back from the grave, and this is the most familiar ghostly theme of the folksongs.  Sometimes the lover's return is something intimate and ecstatic and sad like The Cockcrow. Sometimes it is savage and angry and far larger than life, like James Harris, the Demon Lover:

The Cockcrow

click to play MIDI file

You're welcome home again, said the young man to his love,
I've been waiting for you many a night and day,
You're tired and you're pale, said the young man to his love,
You shall never again go away.
I must go away, she said, when the little cock do crow,
For here they will not let me stay,
But if I had my wish, O my dearest love, she said,
This night should be never, never day.

Ah pretty little cock, ah handsome little cock,
I pray you do not crow before day;
And your comb shall be made of the very beaten gold,
And your wings of the silver so grey.
But ah, this little cock, this handsome little cock,
He crew loud a full hour too soon;
I must rise up, she said, it is time for me to part,
For it's now the going down of the moon.

And where is your bed, my dearest dear, he said,
And where are your white holland sheets?
And where are your maids, my dearest dear, he said,
That wait upon you while you are asleep?
The clay it is my bed, my dearest dear, she said.
The shroud is my white holland sheet.
The worms and creeping things they are my serving maids,
That/wait upon me whilst I am asleep.

James Harris; The Demon Lover

click to play MIDI file

Well met, well met, my own true love,
Long time I have been absent from thee.
I am lately come from the salt sea,
And is all for the sake, my love, of thee.

I have three ships all on the sea,
And one of them has brought me to land.
I have four and twenty seamen on board.
You shall have music at your command.

And the ship wherein my love shall sail,
Is glorious to behold. 
The sails shall be of finest silk,
The masts shall be of red beaten gold.

I am now wed, James Harris, she said,
To a ship's carpenter I am bound,
And I would not leave my husband dear,
For twice ten hundred pound.

I pray you leave your husband dear,
And sail away with me. 
I'll take you where the white lilies grow,
All on the banks of Italy.

So she dressed herself in her gay clothing,
Most wondrous to behold,
And as she trod the salt water side,
She shone like glittering gold.

They had not sailed a league, a league,
And a league but barely three;
She cast herself down on the boards,
And wept most bitterly.

Ah told your tongue, Jane Reynolds, he said,
Let all your sorrows be.
I'll take you where the white lilies grow,
All on the bottom of the sea.

And as she turned her round about,
So taller he seemed to be,
Until the tops of that gallant ship,
No taller were than he.

He struck the topmast with his hand,
The mainmast with his knee,
And broke the shining ship in two
And dashed it to the bottom of the sea.

The special pride and intensity and beauty of folksongs is something that you see clearest in the lovesongs.  Joy and sorrow and the feelings of men and women who go together thinking only of the woman or the man and not at all of the future, are there without any evasion or dressing up, and it is this quality of candour in the folksongs which so often upsets those who otherwise speak well of them, and there is no doubt at all that many very beautiful songs have been suppressed by collectors on this account.  Yet even when those lovesongs are, as Cecil Sharp saw it, most obscene, they are usually moral; retribution nearly always overtakes adultery; and incest, a common subject, is treated neither as an abomination nor as a fine thing, but as something rather sad, with a tragic future, and commonly death ends the partnership quickly as in the song of the Sheath and the Knife, and in Elisabeth Hone:

Elizabeth Hone

Elizabeth Hone sits in a doorway
Weeping and making a moan,
And by there comes her brother George:
What ails thee, Elizabeth Hone?

I ail and I ail, my brother, she said,
And I'll tell you a reason why,
For I have a child between my two sides,
Is of you, dear brother, and I.

And did you tell father and mother of that?
And did you tell it was me? 
And he took out his keenest hunting knife
That hung there by his knee.

And he has cut off his sister's head,
Her body has split in three,
And he is off to his mother's house
And fair aghast was he.

What ails, what ails thee, Georgie Hone?
And why so fast do you run? 
I see by the pallor on your head
Some evil deed you've done.

Some evil deed I've done, mother,
And I pray you pardon me. 
For I have cut off my greyhound's head,
He would not run for me.

Your greyhound's blood was not so red,
George Hone, George Hone, my son. 
I see by the pallor of your head,
Some evil deed you've done.

Some evil deed I've done, mother,
And I pray you pardon me,
For I have cut off my sister's head,
And her fair body in three.

And what will you do when your father hears,
George Hone, George Hone, my son? 
I'll set my foot in a bottomless boat
And swim to the sea ground.

And when will you come home again,
My own son, Georgie Hone? 
The sun and the moon shall dance on the green
The night when I come home.

Folksongs deal mostly with the simplest things and in the commonest way and with a strong preference for tragedy in the songs that are deepest felt.  Now one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamenal is violent death, and God knows there are songs enough about that, and another simple thing is desertion in love.  Most of these ballads of inconstancy are girls' songs, which is what you would expect of a time when women were still reckoned very inferior socially, though of course Barbara Allen is a well known exception to all this.  The songs follow a common pattern, very direct, very impersonal and very calm.

They are some of the greatest of all, the most difficult to sing and the most beautiful to hear.  It is hard to believe the emotional intensity and the pure classical beauty that can be produced by one girl's voice without any instrument behind it, piano, melodeon or Jew's harp, singing very clear from the back of her throat and a little through her nose, as most folksingers did, some song like Unquenching Fire, as good an English song as any, though nowadays it can only be heard on the Newfoundland coast:

click to play MIDI file

As I went out one evening in Spring
Down by a silent sweet shady grove,
I heard a maiden making sad lament,
Who cried: Alas, I have lost my love.

My love was like an unquenching fire.
Like raging fire he did seem to burn. 
Into my cold grave I will retire
And to my friends I'll not return.

As far as one can tell these things, though there is little that can be said for sure, it looks as though most of the songs we know best, that is, those gathered and arranged by the persevering collectors of whom Sharp is justly enough the most respected, began in the 17th and 18th century, or at any rate if similar words and similar tunes were sung before, those words and tunes often changed violently about that time and were never the same again.  The nature of the songs did alter a great deal, and much of the blackness and the singing-skeleton quality of the feudal time went out of them, no doubt partly because the struggle with nature had grown far less bitter and partly for another reason.  From the 16th century on, pedlars were hawking broadside ballads, single songsheets, usually with a woodcut illustration at the top, through the city streets and about the countryside.  Some of the ballads were well known folksongs; others were comic songs and burlesques made up around some incident of the times, a famous hanging or the birth of a dogfaced baby or a new tax.  From all the different sources I have read and from the contemporary accounts it would seem the Golden Age of the ballad sheet and certainly its most profitable time was the 18th century.  But make no mistake, when I say 'Golden Age,' I do not mean that now the songs were at their best, for at this time it was usual for hacks to re-write the traditional country ballads to suit the altered taste of Islington and Seven Dials.  And many of the broadside ballads were not traditional songs but songs specially written for dealers like Dicey of Bow, one of the busiest broadsheet publishers, who was always ready to pay 2/6d. for a good song.

The business of journalism was growing, and Fleet Street now is a path of sweetness and light compared with Grub Street in the 18th century.  Many, perhaps the greater part, of the broadsheet ballads were written by Grub Street freelances and what they did in the way of debasing the style and convention of folksong should never be forgiven them, although no doubt the fault is not all theirs, it is also a fault of the times they worked in, and the change which was coming over the folksong audience.  You may know a folksong in all its familiar and debased forms and just now and then you may come across a variant which gives you an idea of what it sounded like before the vulgarisers and the burlesquers got at it, and you see that what had always appeared a piece of clodhopping bumpkin folderol was once something of great sincerity and beauty and passion.  The broadsheets of Dicey, of John Evans, and later of Catnach and Disley, of Jackson of Birmingham and Harkness of Preston brought a lot of things into folksong which do not by rights belong but which stayed right up to our own time - a bit of 18th century classicism sometimes, with sentimental shepherds and shepherdesses named Colin and Phillida, where the grass is called Flora's carpet and the sun is called Phoebus; and all that as you might imagine, has very little to do with the songs of a labouring people.

The townspeople were already so well dug in that country things seemed often rather quaint; country accents, country manners, country songs.  For at least half the 18th century, life was pretty plump and easy.  There were few embarrasingly rich and few distressingly poor.  The middle classes had three revolutions behind them, the Reformation, the Civil War and the Whig Revolution of 1688, and it looked as if the times of unrest were over for good.  Now the tradesmen, the master craftsman, the farmers, prospered nicely and the more they prospered the more pleased with life they grew.

What Defoe used to call the Middle Station of Mankind had reason to be self-satisfied.  They were making money hand over fist; there were war contracts, there was the monopoly control of a colonial empire, there was India to plunder, and trade was increasing abroad and at home farming was being established on a capitalist basis, and life was very beautiful.  They felt prosperity had come to stay, that everything was firm and stable and assured at last.  And to match this stability and balance, their art was classical, their emotion precisely ordered.  They sat fat and comfortable with their churchwarden pipes and they looked at the life of the common people with amusement and indulgence.  This was the great age of the sentimental travesty of lower class life, with its poems and paintings of romanticised cottage scenes.

A great deal of this sentimental idyllic feeling came into the folksongs and not through the broadsheets merely.  The stability and equilibrium and relative comfort was felt among the agricultural labourers too, and how could it be otherwise?  And now you get that chain of folksongs of great conventional charm that are known so well and featured in every folksong recital by concert singers because the tunes are so pretty and the words so quaint and there is no depth and no darkness and no bitterness or offence in them as there is in so many of the folksongs which originated at other times.  I do not need to deal with them in great detail, but I will quote a couple just so that you can be sure you see what I mean:

Searching for Lambs

click to play MIDI file

As I went walking one May morning,
One May morning betime,
I met a maid from home had strayed,
Just as the sun did shine.

What makes you rise so soon, my dear,
Your journey to pursue? 
Your pretty little feet that tread so neat,
Strike off the morning dew.

I am going to feed my father's flock,
His young and tender lambs,
That over hill and over dale,
Lie waiting for their dams.

O stay, O stay, you handsome maid,
And rest a moment here,
For there is none but you alone,
That I do love so dear.

How gloriously the sun doth shine!
How pleasant is the air!
I'd rather rest on my true love's breast,
Than any other where!

Now thou art mine and I am thine,
And no man shall uncomfort thee,
We'll join our hands in wedded bands,
And a-married we shall be.

Sheep Shearing

Here's the rosebud in June, the sweet violet in bloom,
And the lark singing gaily on every green bough,
The pink and the lily and the daffydowndilly
To adorn and perfume the sweet meadows in June. 
While out the plough the fat oxen go slow
And the lads and the lasses a-sheepshearing go.

Now the shepherds have sheared all their fine fattening sheep,
What joy can be greater than to talk of the increase. 
Here's the ewes and the lambs, the hoggets and rams,
The fat wethers, too, that will make a fine show. 
While out the plough the fat oxen go slow
And the lads and the lasses a-sheepshearing go.

This sentimental and romantic idealisation of popular life in the countryside amused and charmed the respectable middle classes, and while the mood was on them they took a kindly and indulgent view of the low orders.  But from time to time those same lower orders would try to get themselves some of the assured prosperity of the middle station by marrying out of their class, which was the only hope they had, and then there was hell to pay.  No folksong theme was commoner in the 18th century than the ploughboy who wants to marry the rich man's daughter and who is pressed to sea out of the way by the girl's angry father as in the Brisk Young Ploughing Boy :

It is of a brisk young ploughing boy was ploughing on the plain,
And his horses stood down in yonder shade. 
It was down in yonder grove he went whistling to his love,
And by chance there he met a comely maid.

Now when the aged parents they come for to know
That her love she was courting on the plain,
They set for the press gang and pressed her love away,
And they sent him to the wars to be slain.

So she sailed till she came to the ship her love was in,
And unto the captain did complain.
She said: I've come in search of my pretty ploughing boy
Who was sent into the wars to be slain.

Then four hundred bright guineas she did swiftly lay down,
And so carefully she told them all o'er,
Until she had her pretty ploughboy all in her arms,
And she hugged him till she got him safe on shore. 
She told them bells to ring, And so sweetly she did sing,
Just because she found the lad that she adore.

The broadsheet customers liked the happy ending of songs of that sort, though they liked, too, the thrills and theatricalism of the tragedy songs which in the 18th century songsheets were still mixed with one or two moments of true emotion, though in time the moments of emotion got fewer and the theatrical trimmings got so that they dominated the whole thing and turned it into a burlesque.  But early in the 18th century, at the time I am writing of, tragic ballads were this mixture of good and bad, true and false, like The Nightingale:

My love was a poor farmer's son
When first my tender heart he won. 
His love to me he did reveal. 
I little thought of the Nightingale. 

My cruel father made it so
That he from me was forced to go,
A press gang sent which did not fail
To press my love on the Nightingale. 

And on that fatal day sailed he,
My lover he was torn from me,
What bitter grief my heart did feel,
When my sweetheart sailed on the Nightingale. 

On the 14th of November last,
The wind it blew a fearful blast. 
The ship she carried too much sail,
To the bottom went the Nightingale. 

That very night my love was lost,
To me appeared a deadly ghost,
With hair erect and visage pale,
My love come back from the Nightingale. 

My father's house I will forsake,
My way to lonely woods I'll make,
My lover there I will bewail,
Whose life was drowned on the Nightingale.

Ever since there have been folksongs a lot of them have been plain news reporting, and well known to all collectors are songs like the Bedding of Jane Seymour ("Queen Jane lay in labour for ten days or more") and the Rising in the North, an account of the rebellion of the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland in 1569.  The great time of the historical ballads was the end of the 16th century when the English first realised themselves to be a nation and became curious about their past, when Raleigh and Holinshed were at work, and Shakespeare was writing the historical plays.  There is a strong chance that he got the plots of several of these plays off the ballad sheets.

The broadsheet ballad sellers were always quick to bring out songs on any event catching the public fancy - births, marriages and deaths, battles and wrecks and murders.  There was plenty of difference between the old news-songs and those of the broadsheet Golden-Age times, as you can see by contrasting a hollow, austere account like The Royal Duke of Grantham - which some believe celebrates the death of William de la Pole, the Humber merchant) money lender and parvenu fist Duke of Suffolk who was assassinated in the 15th century having climbed right into the court up a ladder of I.O.U.'s - with a typical piece of 18th century reporting, the Cloy Tragedy.

The Royal Duke of Grantham

click to play MIDI file

Six dukes went a-fishing
Down by yon seaside. 
One of them spied a dead body,
Come floating on the tide.

The one said to each other,
These words I heard them say:
'Tis the Royal Duke of Grantham
That the tide have washed away.

They took him to London
To a place where he was known;
From there up the Humber
To the place where he was born.

Black is the mourning,
And white is the wand,
And so yellow are the flamboys,
That they carried in their hand.

He now lies between two towers,
He lies in the blue clay.
And the Royal Queen of Grantham
Went weeping away.3. Shakespeare has a scene in which Queen Margaret laments over the head of Suffolk, after his body has been flung upon the shore at Dover. (Henry VI, Part 2, Act iv, Sc. 4.)3

That cold, passionate, wolfish quality did not fit the feel of the 18th century at all, and in the news reporting songs, just as much as in the others, the hard true classicism was avoided and replaced by something with grace and picturesque beauty, but something much smaller and more ornamental, and that shows even clearer in the melodies than in the words, with the old tunes like the stone they made the gargoyles of, and the new tunes, the 18th century tunes, like tinted china for sentimental figurines such as you still see in the junk shops.  But the figurines are often excellent in a delicate way, and so are the songs, at least those seeming to date from the first half of the 18th century, when the Cloy tragedy occurred:

click to play MIDI file

It was a young girl in the Isle of Cloy,
She fell in love with a servant boy.
So soon her parents they come to hear
They separated her from her dear.

So to disgrace her whole family,
They sent this young boy away to sea,
On board the Tiger, a man-o'-war,
To act the part of a poor sailor.

This young boy hadn't long been on the main
Before a cruel fight began
And it was his sad luck to fall.
He was struck dead by a cannon ball.

The very same night this poor boy was slain,
She dreamed she heard him a-call her name.
With heavy sigh and bitter groan
Close to her father's bedside she came.

As she stood weeping scarce could refrain,
The tears rolled down from her eyes like rain,
And mourning sore for her own true love
She hanged herself to the beam above.

Her sorrowing servants they stood around,
Pinned to her bosom a note they found:
I dreamed I heard him a-call my name,
And so I know my true love was slain.

Of course the comfortable English stability of the 18th century, the thing Stubbs reflected in his pictures of fat horses and fine pastures and plump elegant harvest girls in tranquil fields, all that was not permanent though many thought it had come to stay.  They thought that from now on the movement of history was to be a gradual and comfortable rise, with roast beef and a long pipe and a fat bag of money behind the chimney for everybody.  But the movement of history is never like that, and in this case, T. A. Jackson has aptly compared it with a great wave about to break on the shore.  There is a moment when the reared up mass of water is poised in seemingly stable equilibrium.  For an instant it seems as if it has expended all impetus and achieved finality.  The wave is never so clear and translucent as in the instant before it comes crashing down.  And at this moment in history, the moment before the wave broke, in the literature and the painting and the folkmusic of the time, England stands out clearer than ever before, and you can see every tree and flower, every sheep in the meadow, every character in the village.

The wave was about to come crashing down.  It was to race across the country in two great floods.  Two interfused currents of history were to swirl through the villages, and the lower classes were never to be the same again, nor their ways of living nor their songs.

These two historical movements were the capitalisation of agriculture and the industrial revolution, and between them they broke up the village communities as a maelstrom breaks a picturesque but wormeaten ship.

Ever since the Black Death the Enclosures had been going on, the Enclosures whereby the common lands on which the villagers grew their crops were turned into private pasture.  The process was a slow one at first.  Despite occasional risings in protest against this robbery from up top, the yeoman class, as a class, hardly noticed the encroachment.  They remained what is called the backbone of the nation.  But when the new technical, capitalist farming began in the 18th century, and pretty well all the communally cultivated land that remained was joined to big compact estates working a scientific kind of mixed farming, the yeoman class was done for.  The big landowners who led the revolution in agricultural technique, men like Jethro Tull and Lord Turnip Townsend, dug the folksingers' grave.  They stall-fed their cattle and they bred special fat sheep, and the new ways of stockraising meant new ways of growing fodder, and that in turn meant spending a lot of money; and so the peasant who farmed his open field and often the yeoman who worked his little farm were frozen out and their means of livelihood was cut away from under them.  It stood to reason: the more agricultural technique improved the more it became possible to economise on labour; rents went up like a rocket and wages came down like a bomb.  There were many consequences to the speed-up of enclosures and the restrictions of the Settlement Acts but here we are interested in folksong and what conditioned it, and what we notice first is a rise in the rate of illegitimacy, and a great deal of cruelty and hardship.  In the old days, farm servants saved and married late so as to have a little place of their own.  But as the enclosures spread and spread and the chances of tilling the common lands grew less, the labourer's hope of a home of his own shrank too.  The records of the time noticed it: 'The practice of consolidating farms operates as a check to matrimony and tends to licentiousness' we read in Duncombe's Herefordshire, and in Young's Suffolk, written in 1797 : 'In the last ten years we see a high price of corn and a great multiplication of unlawful births as the labourer has no advancement to hope.'  The number of labourers was increasing fast and on current wages they had not much of a future.  One song of the time began:

Come all you bold Britons wherever you be,
I pray give attention and listen to me. 
There was good times, but they've gone by complete,
For a poor man lives now on eight shillings a week.

Such times in old England there never were seen
As the present ones now; but much better have been. 
A poor man's condemned and looked on as a thief
And compelled to work hard on eight shillings a week.

At this time the farm labourer was commonly an independent and intelligent man with nothing of the simple-mindedness that always goes with cunning, and which later came to be reckoned as the most typical thing about the country lower classes.  He had food and work, but no comfort and no capital, and if he had a wife and children they were like a set of shackles round his feet.  He was a very poor man but was no thief, and to judge by all the records there was little crime in the country districts in the first half of the 18th century.  The labourer was a respectable man but he was a man and since he could not easily marry the illegitimacy rate was high: as high as 15 per cent.  among farmworkers in many counties.

There were always songs of seduction and betrayal but at this time they became as common as blackberries and the theme of the countrygirl seduced by the farmhand and left with an unwanted baby is as characteristic of the 1760's as that of the servant girl arrived in the big city and at the mercy of the upper class bounder is characteristic of the 1890's.

Commonly in these songs something of the dignity and idyllic charm of an earlier time remains but the tone is altering:

Bird in a Cage

click to play MIDI file

As I went out one May morning
To hear the birds so sweet,
I hid myself in a green shady dell
And watched two lovers meet.

You courted me, was what she said,
Till you got me to comply. 
You courted me with a merry mood.
All night with you I lie.

And when your heart was mine, false love,
And your head lay on my breast,
You could make me believe by the fall of your arm
That the sun rose in the West.

I wish your breast was made of glass
That all in it might behold. 
I'd write our secret on your breast
In letters made of gold.

There's many a girl can go about
And hear the birds so sweet,
While I, poor girl, must stay alone
And rock my cradle and weep.

There's many a star shall dwindle in the west
There's many a leaf below,
There's many a curse shall light on a man
For treating a poor girl so.

Oh I can sing as lonely a song
As any little bird in a cage,
Who twelve long months astray have been gone,
And scarce fifteen year of age.

A gradual change was coming over the life of the agricultural labourers like the creeping shadow of a cloud on a sunny day that alters the colour of everything, only this cloud was not going to lift.  When the farmhands found it was no use waiting for an improvement in their fortune, their old thrifty idea of saving up, buying a farm and marrying late went by the board.  Now they married early and recklessly.  Work was getting scarce and wages were cut to the bone and the skilful and respectable agricultural labourer was becoming shiftless and desperate.  Up in the North, steam power had come in, and from the hills the farmhands could see the smoke plumes rising of the new town industries.  By the time machine production had spread from the Lancashire cotton factories to the Yorkshire woollen mills round about 1790 a great army of country unemployed was drifting into the towns.

By 1795 wheat was costing 75s. a quarter and the labourer who was trying to keep his family on 8s. a week had his back to the wall.  That year, there were bread riots everywhere; and the frightened authorities worked out the Speenhamland scheme whereby wages were subsidised from the rates, the subsidy to vary according to the cost of bread, so that nobody would starve and everyone said it was a great humanitarian thing and a fine piece of social legislation.  Everyone, that is, except the farm labourers who thought they could see what was going to happen.  And what they were afraid would happen, did happen; the farmers cut the wages down knowing they would be made up at least to just above starvation level, out of the Poor Rates.  So in many areas the entire working population of proud independent and skilled men were pauperised, were living on the parish; they were sent from farm to farm by the local authorities till someone gave them work at any price; or else their labour was put up for auction.

Under Speenhamland you got an allowance for each child, and now a woman who had illegitimate children found it easier to marry than one who had not; her children were a kind of dowry.  Early in the 19th century a young farm girl at Swaffham, in Cambs.  who had five illegitimate children, was drawing the handsome sum of 18s. a week to the envy of all the girls in the neighbourhood.

Things were not brighter in the industrial towns.  Wages were low, so children were set to work as soon as they could hold a broom.  Machinery meant long hours and few jobs, and the exploitation of women and children made unemployment worse among the spinners and weavers.  The things that came from the revolution in industry and agriculture were made no better by the catastrophic run of bad harvests from 1789 to 1802, and by the fact that the years from 1793 to 1815 were taken up with war on a scale never known before.

So the rents and profits and tithes of the upper classes increased, and the working classes got to know more about poverty, starvation and crime than they had ever dreamed of.  All traces of the old idyll had gone, and for the first time the violent crime ballad became the characteristic kind of folksong.  Here is a typical song of the time:

James MacDonald

You young and old that are so bold, I hope you will draw near,
For it's one of the cruellest murders that ever you did hear. 
It's all of a fair servant girl, her age was scarce sixteen,
And the humbling of her pride was my delight, when something came between.

This girl she was a servant girl and I was a farmer's man. 
All in the county of Oxford we went walking on the green. 
And when she told what ailed her, I gave her this reply:
O Annie, we will go no further for here you have to die.

O James, think of your baby dear, and do not give me fright. 
Don't think of double murder on this dark and grisly night. 
I pray to God all on my bended knee that if you'll spare my life
I'll promise never more to trouble you or ask to be your wife.

But what she said was all in vain, I swore I'd hear no more. 
And I cut her throat with my claspknife and left her in her gore. 
And when that I seen her body a-lying on the ground,
I turned and quickly run from there where I should not be found.

'Twas on a Monday morning all by the break of day,
By chance there was a farm girl come passing by this way. 
She seen this girl a-lying all hidden in the fern,
And when she seen the shape she was, her heart with grief was torn.

She cried aloud for help to come, and soon the news was round,
And they searched the country high and low the murderer to find. 
Then quickly they at once surrounded me, I told to them my name,
And they spit on me and took me prisoner and locked me up in gaol.

And here I lie with troubled mind until my trial day,
And when that they have found me guilty, the judge to me did say:
It's all for your cruel murder, your death you now must pay,
So James MacDonald I will hang you all from the gallowstree.

Some said the labourers were poor because they were profligate.  Others felt like John Hewlett, the author of the Insufficiency of the Causes, who wrote in 1788

"Whatever the vice and immorality of the poor, it has not originally been the cause of their extreme indigence, but the consequence. There is indeed, I cannot help thinking, something peculiarly ungenerous in our complaints of the burdensomeness of the poor.  Within the last forty years the rent of our houses and land are increased by millions, the wealth of our farmers is augmented on similar proportion; that of our merchants in a degree infinitely greater.  Shall we then grind the faces of the poor and squeeze them to death, and then have the cruel absurdity of ascribing their fate to their increasing vice and profligacy?"

There was no getting away from it, the labourer had lost a lot of his old probity and dignity, but the causes were clearly not in themselves moral but economic.  The farmhand was becoming less of a man than his father, had less of his skill with the land and less interest in his work, and in the worst time of all he and his womenfolk became utterly demoralised.  Crime of all kinds became common, from mere thefts of wood, to arson, incest, rape, murder.

Gangs of thieves were formed which included as well as unemployed labourers, artisans and poor farmers, and these broke into cornlofts and barns and sold the stolen grain to the first buyer.  Or they revenged themselves on the rich farmers by burning their ricks.  In The Revolution in Tanner's Lane we read :

"In 1816 the situation of the working classes had become almost intolerable.  Towards the end of the year wheat rose to 103s. a quarter and incendiarism was common all over England.  A sense of insecurity and terror took possession of everybody.  Secret outrages, especially fires by night chill the courage of the bravest as those know well enough who have lived in an agricultural county, when just before going to bed, great lights are seen on the horizon; when men and women collect on bridges or on hilltops, asking "Where is it?" and when fire engines tearing through the streets arrive useless at their journey's end because the hose has been cut."

Often several fires in one district on the same night would announce plainly to the propertied classes that the old idyllic concord of the village community was gone, and in its place was class war of the most unmistakeable kind.

As the rustic communities became demoralised and broken up, the old folksongs became decadent and almost depraved in style and full of new modern tricks that were no good for anything.  The new urban proletariat was taking the country songs over and ridiculing them by absurd parodies.  Already the representative folkmusic was the street song and not the country song.  The brave hardy tough songs of a former time no longer pleased, and a crop of new ones, decadent and sad and sickly enough to suit an overworked and undernourished slum proletriat was coming up to take their place.  In the introductory volume to the Oxford History of Music, A.  H.  Fox Strangways shrewdly remarks that the song of the murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn has a tune "that had begun as a plangent dorian, sojourned for a while as a plaintive aeolian and ended life as a placid mixolydian." That decline in feeling was something common to the early 19th century and the causes are clear enough.  But for a time yet, the best of the street songs still had something of the old folksong dignity, as the Bunch of Roses had, a very popular song (pretty certainly Irish originally) celebrating with great impersonality the retreat of the Grand Army from Russia.  "The bunch of roses" was a common name for the redcoated British Army.

click to play MIDI file

By the margin of the ocean one morning in the month of June,
'Midst the feathered warbling songsters, their charming note and melting tune,
There I espied a female who seemed to be in grief and woe,
Consulting with bold Bonaparte concerning a bonny bunch of roses O.

Then up spoke young Napoleon and took his mother by the hand,
Saying: Mother dear, have patience until I am able to take command. 
I'll raise a terrible army and through tremendous dangers go,
And in spite of all the universe I'll conquer that bonny bunch of roses, O.

The next time I saw young Napoleon down on his bended knees fell he. 
He asked the pardon of his mother, who granted it most mournfully. 
He said: I'll take an army and o'er the frozen Alps will go,
And I will conquer Moscow and return to the bonny bunch of roses O.

So he took five hundred thousand men and kings likewise to bear his train. 
He was so well provided for that he'd sweep the world alone. 
But when he come to Moscow, he was overcome 'by driving snow,
While Moscow was a-blazing, so he lost his bonny bunch of roses O.

After Waterloo there was a whole crop of songs about Napoleon with fine sonorous titles like The Grand Conversation on Napoleon, or The Illumination of the Royal Corsican, with big striding Mixolydian tunes of very wide compass, often running more than an octave and a half, which made them very satisfactory for shouting 4. When I say shouting I mean it too in the sense in which it is applied to the cornfield negro. The street singers commonly pitched their songs; about a fifth higher than their voice would really take. They used voice breaks, slides and high rasping wails, and in that way lines which on paper look merely sad and tearful become as thrilling as an Indian warwhoop.4 in the streets by the balladmongers, who did a roaring trade in such ballads during the general rejoicing that followed the Treaty of Amiens.  The rejoicing did not last.  The ballads died down at the end of the streets, and of the peace of 1815 Cobbett wrote:

"The alliterative words, peace and plenty, sound well in a song, or make a pretty transparency in the window of an idiot; but the things which these harmonious words represent are not always in unison."
When the Army contracts dried up, when hundreds of thousands of demobilised soldiers and sailors were returning to an already overstocked labour market, while Europe was still too poor and battered to care about buying any quantity of British goods, all the conditions were present for a first-class slump; and right enough the slump came, and there were riots all over the country which repeated on a more political plane the machine-wrecking riots of the Luddites.

The Luddites had been mostly cloth finishers and croppers who saw machinery as something which was doing them out of a livelihood and so resolved to wreck it wherever they could get to it.  All sorts of handcraftmen on the edge of starvation joined in their conspiracies out of desperation.

The breaking of the machines began in Nottingham and spread to Yorkshire, and from March llth, 1811, for five years the riots and wrecking went on.  Large bodies of armed men would steal up to a mill at night, overpower the watchman, set their guards, threaten with death who should sound the alarm, and then set to, destroying the machinery with sledge hammers and ripping the cloth to pieces.  The Luddites had many songs and all were of as wild, defiant and unreasoning character as the men themselves, with no trace of political moralising such as you get in the later songs of, say, the Blanketeers, for in fact the Luddites had little idea except of destruction.

One Luddite song from the Heckmondwike district of Yorkshire, which was the centre of some of the most powerful and violent wrecking gangs, runs:

Come all you croppers stout and bold,
Let your faith grow stronger still. 
For the cropper lads in the county of York
Have broke the shears at Foster's Mill.

The wind it blew, the sparks they flew,
Which alarmed the town full soon,
And out of bed poor people did creep
And run by the light of the moon.

Around and around we all will stand,
And sternly swear we will,
We'll break the shears and windows too
And set fire to the tazzling mill.

The disturbances after Waterloo were more political, more reasoning.  There was little anarchy in the hunger march of the Blanketeers, and there was less in the crowd of 80,000 who had gathered to hear 'Orator' Hunt at St.  Peter's Fields, and were charged by a detachment of yeomanry who got so busy with their sabres that in a few minutes eleven people were killed and over four hundred injured.  When in 1822 the hated Prime Minister Castlereagh committed suicide and his coffin was carried to Westminster Abbey, ragged men trudged along the gutters and sang to the holidaymaking crowds who gathered to cheer and catcall the dead statesman, and the kind of song they sang was precisely the same miserable and undistinguished sort of thing the unemployed hawked in the gutters and at the bus stops during the depression time of the early 1930's.  We will let one specimen suffice as an example, which is no better and no worse than hundreds of its fellows, but there is no point in quoting more than one of this kind of thing because they are so poor and so lacking in pride or passion or technique or beauty or even surprise that they do not qualify as folksong at all but as something else, though I am not sure what:

The Mechanic's Appeal to the Public

Mechanics now are at a stand,
And trade in all quarters is bad. 
They're complaining all over the land
And their children are hungry and sad.

Travel Britain wherever you will,
You may behold everything dead,
The tradesmen are all standing still
And their children are crying for bread.

Then, good people, attend to my rhymes,
And pity a mechanic reduced;
For appealing to you in these times,
I submissively hope you'll excuse.

As a fine, sincere and proud thing the folksongs were marked for death now.  After the 1820's they slid more and more into burlesque; burlesque of love, burlesque of crime, burlesque of social conditions and customs, and as burlesques they reached their finest flower in the musichall songs of the 90's.  But as burlesques they do not concern us here, though if you wanted to know what they sounded like you should go to the Players' Theatre in London, where every evening the members laugh themselves silly at the absurdity of these poor songs and somehow never seem to tire of it.

In the country districts the old folksongs were flowering for the last time.  For sixty years the villagers who had lost their rights over the common lands took their revenge by organised poaching on the landowners' game preserves, and on a scale that was close to guerilla war.

Between 1770 and 1830, a series of laws increasing in severity were passed by Parliaments made up mostly of landowners; and by 1817 the fighting between the gangs of armed poachers on the one hand and rival gangs of the gentry and their keepers on the other hand had become such a lethal affair that any person not belonging to the class entitled to hunt game, and found in a wood with a gun or anything else the magistrate could call a weapon, was liable to transportation.

This was the great age of the poacher songs and some like The Lincolnshire Poacher are among the best-known of all English songs, and many of them testify to the bitterness of the conflict between the lower class poachers and the keepers, the representatives of the upper class; and that conflict was something deeper than a mere matter of trespass and law breaking; it was a kind of class war as open as the Bread Riots had been:

The Death of Bill Brown

Come all you gallant poaching lads,
That ramble through the midnight woods,
Pray listen to my tragic clown. 
I'll sing you the death of poor Bill Brown.
I'll sing you the death of poor Bill Brown.

One stormy night as you shall hear,
All in the season of the year,
We went in the woods to catch a buck,
But ah, that night we had sad luck,
For they shot at Bill and his head was struck.

When we got to the wood our sport begun,
But I seen the keeper present his gun. 
I called on Bill to climb the gate
And drop the buck, but it was too late,
For Bill was struck and he met his fate.

Then dying he fell upon the ground,
And in that state poor Bill I found. 
And when he seen me he did cry:
Revenge my death!  I will, said I,
I'll kill the sod you were caught by.

I knew the man as shot Bill Brown,
I knew him well and could tell his clown;
And to describe him in this song,
Black jacket he had and red waistcoat on,
I knew him plain and his name was Tom.

I dressed in black next night in time,
I got to the wood and the clock struck nine.
The reason was, and I tell you why,
To find that keeper I did go try.
Who shot 'my friend and he shall die.

I ranged the wood all over then,
I heard the steeple striking ten,
I heard a footetep on the green,
And I lay in the ditch lest I be seen.
For up come the moon and I seen Tom Breen.

Then I took my gun fast in my hand
Resolved to fire if Tom did stand,
Tom heard the noise and he turned him round;
I fired and brought him down to the ground.
My hand gave him his deep death wound.

Now revenge you see my hopes have crowned.
I've shot the man as shot Bill Brown.
I've shot the keeper, our enemy.
Farewell, Bill Brown, farewell to thee.
For I've crowned your hopes and your memory.

In only three years between 1827 and 1830 more than 8,500 men and boys were convicted as poachers and a very high proportion of them transported.  If you got transportation, even if only for what was called a light term of seven years, you did not as a rule see your home again, for no return passages were paid.  And very many well-known songs of this time were about Botany Bay and Van Diemen's Land:

click to play MIDI file

Come all you gallant poaching boys,
That ramble free from care,
That walk out of a moonlit night
With dog and gun and snare,
I'll have you quit night walking
Or you'll rue it out of hand,
You'll rue it that your last career
Is to Van Diemen's Land.

Young Tommy Brown from Nottingham,
Jack Williams and poor Joe,
We was three daring poachers
As the gentry well do know. 
At night we was trepanned
By the keepers hid in sand,
Who for fourteen years transported us,
Unto Van Diemen's Land.

The first day that we landed here
Upon the fatal shore,
The squatters come around us,
Full twenty score or more. 
They ranked us up like horses
And they sold us out of hand,
And they yoked us up to ploughing frames,
To plough Van Dieman's Land.

Our hovels that we do live in
Are built of mud and clay,
And rotten straw for bedding
And to that we daren't say nay. 
They fence us in with raging fire
And we slumber as we can
To keep away the wolves and dogs
Upon Van Dieman's Land.

It's often when in slumber
I have a pleasant dream
With my sweetheart a-sitting down
All by the crystal stream. 
Through England I go roaming
With her at my command,
Then I wake up broken-hearted
Upon Van Diemen's Land.

So all you lively poacher lads,
This warning take by me,
I'll have you quit nightwalking
And to shun bad company,
And throw you by your dogs and snares
For I will tell you plain
If you knew of half our hardships
You would never poach again.

In 1830 came what has been called "the last labourers' revolt," which began with the Captain Swing rising in Kent, whose manifesto declared: "We will destroy the cornstacks and the threshing machines this year; next year we will have a turn at the parsons; and the third year we will make war upon the statesmen." The revolt spread westward and it grew more violent and desperate as it spread, but it was like a fire in a dead bush that races and flares but has no heat.  The rising was soon extinguished.  Starvation, pauperisation, demoralisation, transportation had sapped the strength of the villagers, and destroyed their solidarity.  They had fight still, but no staying power.  As a vital class they were done for, and as they went down they took their culture with them.

Agriculture had become the poor relative of industry and the farm workers who had been the heroes of many of England's political struggles, from the 14th century, through the Elizabethan age and past the time of Cromwell, lost their initiative and their character and sank into a torpor.  They still sang the old folksongs, they still do in remote parts of the country, but less and less.  They had not the heart to make up new ones because somehow the old idiom no longer suited their outlook and the sad change that had come over their way of life.  And so the wave of folksong retired and the tide went away out and has not come back again, not even in sight yet, unless some have keener eyes than mine.

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