Come all my lads that follow the plough -
The life of rural working men and women
Topic TSCD 655
One of George Ewart Evans' books on the folk life of East Anglia, I was unable to recall which, describes a local worthy who was nicknamed 'Good Old England'. He acquired this moniker when, after taking a day trip to Ipswich, some eight miles from his native Blaxhall, he walked exhausted into his local village pub and said "Thank God I'm back in good old England". I was reminded of that story for a number of reasons. First of all, the personnel on this disc are largely farming folk, the sort who feature in Evans' books, and the sort who might well have felt that that a trip to the nearest urban centre was something akin to visiting the moon. Secondly, it reminds us that farm worker's collectives tended to be not just isolated, but also highly integrated.
Nicknames, good or bad, are a sign that someone belongs and generally speaking, the greater the proliferation, the tighter the group. They are in fact one of the ways by which the status of Straighty Flanagan or Pop Maynard or Hockey Feltwell was recognised within their own working and social community. Finally, it is a useful anecdote to bear in mind when we try to assess the significance which work and occupation held in traditional communities. More of that anon. For the moment, if we were to take the subtitle of this disc at face value - and that surely should be lives not life - we might anticipate a record of songs about drinking and courting, or about fighting and sporting; about the things which filled up the spare time of working people, as well as portraying their mode of existence. We might also expect a good cross section of rural crafts and trades. In fact, the disc denies both expectations. All the items here are concerned with the world of work and all but three are connected to some extent with the economy of farming.
This is hardly surprising. It is not just the numerical superiority of farm labourers, compared with other rural trades, which makes the farming song so prolific. Proliferation is also a function of the social groups into which farm workers were frequently organised. If these were breeding grounds for social solidarity and interaction and song transmission, then it is only natural that people who found a sense of union with their fellows should sing about the thing which bound them together. If we regard the disc then just as a record of the working lives of farm people, plus a few trimmings, how does it stand up? Well, the opening pair of tracks certainly grabbed me by the ears. Whether it was through act of planning, or sheer accident, I have seldom found a more startling contrast than that which exists between Mary Ann Haynes' Hopping Down in Kent and Joe Heaney's Rocks of Bawn. Hopping was hard work and there were many disputes between pickers and owners. Nevertheless, the hop picking season was regarded as a holiday by large numbers of East End families, and song and performance alike are imbued with the holiday camp atmosphere. Heaney's contribution, on the other hand, is a cry of desperation from a soul locked into a backbreaking round of toil and torment and merciless employers. I have always regarded this recording as one of the finest ever to have emanated from Topic and it is fitting that it should have been included here. It is interesting to note, by the way, how straight it is sung. There is little of the massive ornamentation which supposedly characterises Connemara singers, and which Heaney used in later performances of this song. (sound clip Hopping Down in Kent / The Rocks of Bawn)
Those who never knew Joe Heaney may wonder at the intensity of the performance, especially if they were to realise that he never had any direct experience of farm work. The mode of agriculture in his native West Connemara consisted of potato plantations in small holdings, which were tended by their proprietors; the other significant means of sustenance being sea fishing from curraghs. Nevertheless, it was a poverty-stricken existence, and one which gave labourers from the West of Ireland ample preparation for the rigours and sordid conditions of the building trade in England. It is not the unremitting round of farm work, which Heaney rails against, but the endless cycle of hard physical toil and heartless gangers and squalid digs. I spent a fair bit of time in the building trade and I've done my share of singing around Irish communities in this country. I know full well how much The Rocks of Bawn symbolised labour relations among the Irish.
Sam Larner was another singer who had little contact with farming. He had few songs on that subject, but sings one of them here - The Pleasant Month of May. A fisherman for most of his working life, he described the only employment alternatives in his native Norfolk village of Winterton as being 'sea or jail'. There was nothing else. Whether it was through lack of identification with farm work, I do not know, but he does not seem to be on very firm ground with this 'little ditty' as he calls it. Perhaps I am showing my prejudices, for The Pleasant Month of May is not a favourite of mine. Indeed, I would echo Reg Hall's words when he tells us that the text sounds like a piece of eighteenth century hack writing - except that it is traceable back to a broadside published in the 1650s. All the same, the song is representative of a fair number of supposedly rural idylls, which extol the virtues of country life and say nothing about the rigours.
There are two other less than pleasing items from the English contingent. Before discussing them I want to stress that the selections in this series are for the most part well chosen. I would not quibble, even where singers have been included who are clearly past their best. It is often the oldest and the roughest singer who turns out to be the most capable at making a song breathe and live. As an illustration, we need to cross into Scotland for a moment. By the time Bill Leader recorded him in 1967, a lifetime of rough living and hard busking had reduced Davie Stewart's voice to little more than an uneven wobble. Yet he was able to pour such spirit into The Tarves Rant, precisely because the life he lived and the content of the song were one and the same. The audience on his other contribution to this disc, I Am a Miller to my Trade clearly shares my opinion. This track was recorded at the Blairgowrie folk festival and it brought the house down. Incidentally, am I the only one who hears Ghost Riders in the Sky pounding through the melody of this song?
Getting back to those unpleasing English items, I can hear little to justify Hockey Feltwell's Four Horses. It is poorly sung to an indifferent melody. Moreover, the text, about a horseman who takes his horses to a fair, waters them and drives them home again, is mundane in the extreme. Horsemanship was an important element of farm life and horsemen were justifiably proud of their skills, and that seems to be the reason why this song has been included. Such values are highly commendable, but I don't believe that they justify our being served such poor fare. Harry Upton's The Rich Lady Gay is somewhat better, although I still found the plot a bit thin. Even so, I was puzzled by Reg's dismissal of this song as lacking the 'resonance of reality'. The charge is undeniable, but quite a number of songs fantasise in similar fashion. We may wonder where the harm lies in people indulging their fancy.
Not all the English items are so insubstantial. There is a delightful piece of sexual fantasy In Bob Hart's The Farmer's Servant, and Jinky Wells' Maid of the Mill is a charming evocation of the sights and sounds of the Whitsuntide Morris. It was a treat also to hear Fred Jordan's We're All Jolly Fellows as Follow the Plough. Over the years, this song has come in for a lot of stick from certain radical elements of the folk revival. A pity that the detractors couldn't have listened more closely to the assertive nature of the words, and to what they say about the labourer's sense of dignity and identification with his working environment. Songs like these are not just good entertainment, they are living pieces of social history and the technique of detailing the ploughman's daily activities is mirrored by similar songs of workers in other industries. In calling them social history, I do not mean simply that such songs can inform the inept listener as to how the ploughman filled his day. Rather, that a little imagination can help us to see why English ploughmen, or Scots bothy workers, or American lumberjacks felt the need to set forth their daily routine in song, and why nobody does it now. I have already mentioned the importance of status within traditional societies, and the conferring of status comes about in no small measure through occupational identification. People are what they do for a living and they are liable to express this through song. This is one factor which led to the creation of songs like All Jolly Fellows, but there are others. Long working hours and a limited source of alternative activities made work much more of a primary focus of interest than it is now. Finally, in a world where practically everything had to be done by hand, the skill of the individual, whether he be a wood carver or horseman, was of paramount importance. The songs reflect these things. They speak of poor pay and rotten employers and lousy living conditions, but they also speak of occupational pride and job satisfaction.
The Irish keep a fairly low profile on this disc. That is largely because the employment of hired labour was never as important an element of the agrarian economy as it was in England and Scotland. Joe Heaney's tormented persona is obviously a hireling and the hiring system forms a backdrop to one or two of the other tracks. Otherwise, the only Irish song here which specifically involves hired labour is Tom Lenihan's The Cranbally Farmer. The historical location of Tom Lenihan's song is not Cranbally in Tipperary, as the text has it. Indeed, I doubt that such a place exists. In fact, it is Galbally in the County Limerick. Darby O'Leary, the farmer the singer hires out to, appears to have been a historical personage. According to local tradition, he lived at Ballyfanskeen, Co Limerick during the first half of the nineteenth century, and was widely known as a wicked old miser and a particularly bad master to work for. The point to note from this is that song and verbal testimony concur in historical detail and, in doing so, they remind us that not all employers were to be tarred with the same brush. (sound clip)
If hired labour was less common in Ireland than in England or Scotland, then it follows that there was less use made of hiring fairs. That is true, although hiring was a predominant practice in north east Ulster, and that part of Ireland is correspondingly rich in songs about the same. It is a pity then that none have been included here. One of the things which has shaped this series, and to some extent restricted its scope, is the fact that so much material is locked up in archives or else inaccessibly bound by copyright agreements. I know not the circumstances, but Eddie Butcher's splendid I Once Was a Daysman would have fitted here perfectly. If it has been omitted for contractual reasons, then that is something to be regretted. As compensation, the man is heard singing Tossing the Hay in delightfully bucolic fashion. There are several other noteworthy items from Ireland, including an angrily subversive Grazer Tribe from Straighty Flanagan of Inagh in Clare, and a couple of tracks originally cut for the 78 rpm market. The booklet is not very clear as to who the title of Straighty Flanagan's song refers to, so a moment's explanation may be in order. First of all, the word used is grazier, rather than grazer. That is how it is spelt in the Concise Oxford Dictionary and that is how Straighty pronounces it. The term, as it is used in the song, describes a class of farmers who were wealthier and altogether more substantial than the vast majority of their fellow countrymen. At a time when industrial expansion was urbanising the population of England, it was the graziers who used their productive power to keep that population supplied with cheap meat. It made great profits for the well-to-do, and probably did a lot to stabilise the price of English labour. But the effect of pushing down the price of cattle kept the grazier's own countrymen in penury.
Both the commercial tracks are of considerable interest and tell us quite a bit about the practices of the early record industry. The older of the two, Back of the Haggart, was cut in New York in 1928. Despite the fairly late date, Irish music had first appeared on commercial record some twelve years earlier, it leads us back to an era before record companies had worked their influence on performance practices. The tune is played on a pair of melodeons by the Hyde Brothers, who perform in a fast, rhythmic pull-push fashion, and are clearly used to playing for dancing rather than for listening. From this we can attach some consequence to the fact that only one melody is played, for the habit of coupling two or more tunes in a single performance is something of a media invention. The record companies encouraged the practice when they realised that people were buying discs more for listening to than for cutting a step with. Finally, it is also nice to see that the Hyde Brothers are devoid of that other media invention, piano accompaniment.
The other track dates from 1946 and is unusual in that it features Paddy Beades, one of the few authentic country singers who made it onto commercial record. By the time this disc was cut, record companies had been satisfying the demand for Irish dance music for about thirty years. As a result, a formidable array of traditional musicians came to adorn the company catalogues. Recording outfits were, however, chary of committing any singer to disc who didn't sound as though he or she had a background in either the music hall or the drawing room. In the late 1950s, after other companies had lost interest, Gael Linn began a programme of issuing traditional musicians and singers on 78 rpm records. They were motivated not so much by commercial exigencies as by a desire to propagate what they perceived as Irish national culture. The effect of this was to limit their quest for authentic singers entirely to exponents of the so called sean nós. Some very fine Gaelic performers were exposed to the listening public as a result of this policy, but the Paddy Beades' of this world went largely unrecognised. The song he sings here, The Bonny Labouring Boy, is a further illustration of record company practices and attitudes. Firstly, where instrumentalists usually found themselves straight jacketed by unsympathetic piano, the singer here is straight jacketed by unsympathetic fiddle and accordeon. Both instrumentalists pump away without the slightest regard for the singer, or for the words of the song. Secondly, there is a mistake in the text, in that the roles of the mother and daughter are reversed. Clearly none of the recording staff picked the error up and I rather doubt that they even listened to the song. Such lapses were common in the early days of 78s, and were not helped by conditions during the depression, when reduced sales and recording budgets placed ever greater pressure on performers and engineers. I am surprised though to find an example from such a late date.
In the finish it is the Scots who have this disc, although their impact is scarcely one of numbers. Only six Scots singers, plus one accompanist, have been mustered, but they have some splendid bothy songs, raw and pithy as an Aberdeen east wind. Apart from the aforementioned Davie Stewart, we have two fine offerings from John MacDonald, and two more from the King of the Cornkisters, Jimmy McBeath. He sings a pair of the aye best warhorses, Nicky Tams and The Barnyards o' Delgaty, that ever graced the folk clubs of Scotland and England. If you feel that endless successions of guitar thumpers have reduced these songs to a pair of dispirited old nags, all I can say is, go and listen to the man who lived the life he sang. (Sound clip Jimmy McBeath. Barnyards o' Delgaty. Tk 18 vs 1 & 2 0'00" - 0'48"). The bothy items are complemented by a staggeringly beautiful Lovely Molly, from Lizzie Higgins, who never seems to have put a note wrong in her life, and a splendid piece of propaganda; The Lads that was Reared Among Heather, from the illustrious Willie Scott.
To a fair number of punters these tracks will be nothing new, for they were part of the backbone of Topic's LP catalogue. The real find then is another commercial record. This time it is 1930 vintage and features Willie Kemp from Aberdeen. The name did not ring too many bells and, on first hearing, I presumed he was a farm worker who had somehow wandered into a recording studio. In fact, while he enjoyed enough contact with farm servants to be able to sing like one, Willie Kemp was a printer by trade, and the manager of a cardboard box factory, and a semi-professional entertainer. I find strong parallels between this and the Paddy Beades track, in that both are rare examples of genuine traditional singing on early commercial disc. Both artists are accompanied moreover, but in Willie Kemp's case, the accordeon backing of Curly MacKay comes across as much less of a restriction to the singer. I shall look forward to hearing the two protagonists on other volumes of this series. In the meantime, I will make the most of the song they perform here, Wi Ma Big Kilmarnock Bonnet. It is somewhat reminiscent of our friend back in Blaxhall, being about a 'soft plooman chiel' thrown on the strange environs of the big city. Such songs are fairly common in the bothy repertoire and we may conclude that, however hard the work and mean the farmer, the fairm toon afforded the individual a measure of security. Personally, I'm wondering how Willie Kemp managed to get this song - which involves a pair of prostitutes fleecing the Kilmarnock bonnet wearer - past the censorious record executives. Maybe they never thought to listen to the words. (sound clip)
Fred McCormick - 18.2.99
|Top of page||Home Page||Articles||Reviews||News||Editorial||Map|