Voice of the People - Volume 20

There is a man upon the farm -
Working men and women in song

Topic TSCD 670

cover "......  the vitality and richness of their art and entertainment are as deserving of serious attention as the popular culture and high art of other sections of the community."  Reg Hall.

If I were designing a series of anthologies along the lines of the present one, I would want the final anthology to say something about all the others.  I would want it, by summarising the themes of the series, in some way to epitomise the expressive musical culture of ordinary people.  The compilers of the Caedmon series, The Folk Songs of Britain, didn't attempt anything so ambitious.  Instead, their final volume left us with a litany of songs about frogs and farmyards and Old Mother Shipton and the muck that got strewn in Geordie's byre.  Reg Hall hasn't attempted any epitomisation either, at least not ostensibly.  In fact the booklet tells us that the present volume is intended as a companion to Volume 5; Come All My Lads That Follow The Plough.  This is substantially true, although the subject matter has been expanded slightly to include weavers and miners.  My observations on Volume 5, therefore, apply here also, especially those which are concerned with the labourer's self identification.  Indeed, when we consider this disc in the light of that identification, we see the glimmer of what I have just been talking about.  The song selection, to say nothing of the booklet notes, is so heavily weighted towards the satisfactions of the working environment, that I wonder if Reg Hall isn't trying to say something about the integration of pre-industrial humanity with its surroundings.  Are we to conclude, a la Marx and Rousseau, that industrial capitalism, in alienating the labourer from the productive process, and the protective security of the close knit community, to say nothing of the labourer's fellow humanity, also alienates him and her from the means of artistic expression?  More of that shortly, but first, I need to deal with one of the few alienating aspects of this disc.  The opening pair of tracks present Belle Stewart and Paddy Tunney, two of the biggest guns in Topic's arsenal, but unfortunately neither are on top form.

Photo by Ian Mason HillLet me say at once that I am a hopeless Belle Stewart junkie, who consistently refuses even the most painless rehabilitation.  Nevertheless, I feel that her solo LP did not show her in the best light, for her singing on that disc seems surprisingly constrained and introspective.  It is less of a problem with the big ballads.  Indeed, the incidence of female ballad singers reported by Gavin Greig, suggests that 'muckle sangs' were frequently sung in domestic situations like the one where this record was made.  However, when it comes to a lively, upbeat song like The Overgate, I miss the chuckle in the voice, and I miss the glint in the eye, and I miss the audience ... and I sure as hell miss Belle.

Paddy Tunney's The Wee Weaver is even further below par.  I spent a lot of time with Paddy Tunney the week that this recording, and several others used in Voice of the People were made.  I recall quite clearly that his voice was not in the best of shape.  On other tracks the fact is hidden by sheer artistry.  Here, however, he sounds strained and his delivery lacks the surety of the master.  I was surprised to hear him sing of 'Lough Erin', which doesn't exist, play Sound Clipwhere his mother used to sing of Lough Erne, which does.  However, reservations about the singing notwithstanding, the song is extremely striking (sound clip).  It would be easy to dismiss this three verse fragment, riddled with cliches about 'lovely Mary' and 'yon shady bower' as doggerel.  Yet I find the picture of a weaver, incarcerated in his workplace and musing on his true love, whilst allowing his mind to roam where he cannot, one of the most poignant and charming in all folksong.  The opening line too, "I am a wee weaver confined to my loom", is as arresting as anything I have come across in the canons of classic balladry.  I do not know whether there is any truth in the story that apprentice weavers were often physically tied to their looms.  But the job of weaving was tedious and repetitive and typically carried out in dark and dirty conditions, ruinous to the eyesight.  The realities of the weaver's workplace and living conditions, and of his consequentially slender chances of securing the favours of 'lovely Mary', present a bleak contrast to the pastoral images which engage his mind.  Just as the common people took their ideas of romance and courtship from the aristocracy, this song takes its imagery and courtly manners from the same source.  It may also have adopted its magnificent tune from the entertainers of the aristocracy, for it is handsome and wide ranging with some extremely awkward octave jumps.  We know not who made the grand airs of Gaelic Ireland, gems like Ar Bruach na Carraige Báine, or An Beinnsín Luachra, or the melody we currently discuss.  However, the poet Seán Ó Tuama suggests that they may have originated with professional harpers of the Gaelic aristocracy, and been carried into the folk tradition in the wake of Cromwellian dispossession.  It may well be so, although the claim lacks hard evidence.  I can only say that I find such melodies far preferable to the pseudo baroque creations, with which a later generation of harpers entertained the Protestant usurpers of old Gaeldom.

The early English folk song collectors, Sharp, Kidson, et al, were fond of the splendid melodies of the folk, but disparaging of the words they carried.  They felt them to be ignorant and humbled and inferior to the poetry of polite society.  I hear a lot of poetry in The Wee Weaver.  I hear it too in Belle Stewart's song of an Auchtemuchty farm worker who gets rolled by a prostitute and her policeman pimp.  If a line like, "She winked at me with the tail of her ee" isn't poetry I don't know what is.  Come to that, if poetry can be identified as simple language containing subtleties of meaning, what do we make of a couplet like:

"When an awful knock came tae the door
At the breaking of daylight".
In her broad Perthshire accent, Belle makes the second line sound as though she is singing 'at the breaking of delight' : a grey dawn, a rude awakening and an apt comment on the hard ways of the city.

There are few subtleties of meaning in Fred Jordan's We Shepherds are the Best of Men.  Yet it is a wonderful song, solid and stoical as the English countryman himself.  Cecil Sharp habitually, and inaccurately, referred to the makers and singers of such songs as peasants.  Photo by Doc RoweThe term yeoman would have been just as inaccurate, but a little more apt and a lot more charitable.  Fred's song of a shepherd, who puts the welfare of his sheep before his own comfort, is a masterful tribute to the dignity and values and work ethic of the labouring poor of a former age.  It is by no means the only such salutation on this disc.  As an example of the songwriter's craftsmanship, I do not feel that Willie Scott's The Shepherd's Song is in the same league as We Shepherds.  Nevertheless, the two song makers shared a similar outlook.  What's more, those of us who remember Willie Scott will recall how much he and his singing exuded that dignity, and those values.

At first sight, Jack Elliott's industrial mining songs sit oddly among these rural offerings.  There is no reason why they should.  Our picture of industrial Britain is one of pollution and smoky chimneys and squalid back to back housing.  Likewise, our picture of industrial workers is one of regimented regimes, of clock cards, of production lines, and of trade union organisation.  These are images powerfully reinforced by the cover of that seminal Topic LP, The Iron Muse.  The contents of the same further reinforce our impression that a body of industrial folksong exists in Britain, that it retains a separate identity to rural folksong, and that its natural milieu is the big city and the factory production line.

I contend that British industrial folksong is largely an invention of Marxists of the post world war two folksong revival, who sought to use proletarian song as a means of channelling proletarian consciousness.  The myth was inspired by examples of workers in the American south, where industrialisation represented a head-on collision between sophisticated capitalist organisation and rural labour.  There, mountaineers from the backwoods of Appalachia carried their folkways into the mines, factories and mills.  They used their musical talents to good effect in militant and often extremely violent confrontations with their employers.  The process of industrialisation in Britain, however, was rather different.  As with America, British factory masters drew initially on rural labour.  Indeed, their premises were typically located in rural areas and their work forces, like those of the American south, carried their folkways into the factory.  Unlike America, however, the factory system did not suddenly emerge, for here there were no pre-existing models for owners to draw on.  Rather, the system grew up as an extension of existing rural industries, and the history of industrialisation in Britain is one of progressive renunciation of rural custom and practice.  Therefore, as that system developed, and as rural work forces began to take on the character of a conscious industrial proletariat, rural folkways were abandoned or pushed aside.  The development of the factory system, then, went hand in hand with the development of mass society, and the decline of the integrated small community.  In Britain the folksong tradition was not nurtured by the factory, it was crushed by it.

That is why industrial folksongs manifested primarily in those industries whose roots predated industrialisation, and which retained a measure of pre-industrial communal organisation.  They represent a continuation of pre-industrial revolution craft traditions, rather than an emergence of industrial class consciousness.

The natural abode of folksong is not the big city or the production line, but the isolated small community.  Just as the occupational songs of farm workers reflected community and isolation, so do the mining songs on this disc.  The two which Jack Elliott sings here, The Banks of the Dee and In the Bar Room, are too well known to merit lengthy discussion.  However, at first listening, In the Bar Room seemed to be taken at an uncomfortably faster tempo than on the Elliott Family Folkways LP.  It isn't.  It was recorded at Birtley Folk Club, at a time when foot stomping audiences and large audible boots were all the rage.  In my relatively nostalgic moments I recall the folk clubs of the sixties and seventies as catalysts for a flowering renaissance of creative popular activity.  Hearing the stomping audience on this track reminds me that nostalgia is never quite what you thought.  It is interesting to contrast The Banks of the Dee, and its warning about over-production, with several other items on this disc, notably Jamsey McCarthy's Come to the Hiring.  If songs like these are to be believed, working men and women of the nineteenth century had a better understanding of the laws of supply and demand than did most economists of the period.  Come to the Hiring is a jokey affair, which ranges over various subjects, but makes much of the miserable lot of contemporary hirelings, compared with that of a previous generation:

Yeah, it's not like the day of the good old time,
When the master and mistress together would dine.
Eggs, butter and bacon to cover the table,
To strengthen your body and shove out your navel.
Did the Irish countryside ever see such a golden age?  I know of little in the way of supporting evidence and I doubt its existence.  However, there is extensive testimony that Irish farm workers, despite their Catholic allegiance, preferred working for Protestants.  Protestants were generally more prosperous than their Catholic neighbours and usually had the biggest farms.  That meant economies of scale and that meant they were able to pay better wages and provide better living conditions.  To compound this observation, aficiandos will recall that, on Volume 5, there is a song called The Grazier Tribe.  It describes how the large farmers, in supplying cheap meat to England, impoverished their smaller competitors and, presumably, prevented them from paying living wages.  It may be therefore that this song is a contemporary of the Grazier Tribe and harks back to a time before the graziers wrought their deleterious effect on the Irish rural economy.

Quite a number of these songs, then, show a strong identification, on the part of the labourer, with his or her working environment.  However, and more so with this disc than with volume 5, we find identification with work being broadened out to show an identification with the simplicities of rural living generally.  There is for instance Big John Maguire's The Neatly Thatched Cabin, in which the poet muses on the humble cottage of his birth, contrasting it favourably with the abodes of the rich and famous.  There is also George Maynard's Ground for the Floor.  The latter is the product of an eighteenth century elite society who, even at that early stage, found the simple rural life an idyllic alternative to smoky urban chimneys.  I find myself wondering why George Maynard, who knew all about the realities of country living, would have wanted to sing it.  Yet sing it he did, and we can gauge the significance of the song by the fact that it had been in his family for three generations.  Along similar lines, there is Harry Holman's There Was a Poor Thresherman, a song I find more notable for its superb tune than for its text.  Here, the stoicism of the labourer is poignantly underlined, for the song turns out to be the widely known Nobleman and Thresherman (Roud 19), minus the labourer's noble benefactor.  This then is one thresherman who has to be content with his lot; he has no alternative.  The song is a lot more subdued than Come to the Hiring, yet the final verses of these two songs are strikingly similar. 

Harry Holman:

God bless all you farmers, that take to us poor men.
I wish of them with all my heart their souls in heaven may spend,
And those left behind us a better pattern take,
That they may follow after as quick as they can.
Jamesy McCarthy:
Here's a health to all farmers wherever they'll be.
That's kind to their servants in every degree.
We won't curse the bad one, the truth I declare,
For I know that the devil has got his own share.
Photo by Brian ShuelThe unity of work, song and person is further highlighted by a pair of ebullient cornkisters from the itinerant bothy worker, Jimmy McBeath.  They are his famous Come all ye Tramps and Hawkers, a song so like its singer it could have been written for him, and a less well-known ploughman's song, Airlin's Fine Braes.  The text of the latter is a little confused, but the gist is plain enough; he who allows misbehaving with the lasses to interfere with his work, will never make a good ploughman.  I never had the pleasure of meeting Jimmy McBeath.  However, if reports of the loveable old rogue are accurate, this song is another characterisation of its singer.  Reg Hall seems puzzled by the use of the word ranting in this song.  Surely it is a local derivative of ran tan, meaning to live it up?  Jimmy McBeath's compatriot, the wonderful Willie Scott, almost brings the disc to a close with another song of rural joy, When the Kye Comes Hame.  I am almost as daft about Willie Scott as I am about Belle Stewart, but this is one song which had previously escaped my attention.  It is not even listed in Alison MacMorland's splendid publication, Herd Laddie of the Glen, and I am wondering at what stage in his life Willie Scott might have learnt it.  In any event, the text contains another word which Reg was unable to identify - bergenet.  play Sound ClipI am guessing, but the rest of the verse suggests that the word in question might be bergamot, a tree of the citrus family notable for its seductive fragrance.  (sound clip)

Not everything on this disc emphasises satisfaction with the labourer's life style.  Those items which don't include the disc's only instrumental piece, The Job of Journeywork, from the Belhavel Trio.  This was a pre-war recording ensemble which featured accordeon, fiddle and uilleann pipes chanter.  The sound restoration here matches the lavish standards of the rest of the series.  Therefore, I can only conclude that the near inaudibility of the chanter must be due to problems of instrumental balance at the time of recording.  There is also a rather disenchanted, but very amiable The Flies are on the Turmits, from Ted Laurence of East Anglia.  This is a different song entirely to that famous Wiltshire anthem, The Turmit Hoer, even though both songs share the same motif.  I'm wondering therefore whether 'the flies are on the turmit' might be a country expression meaning 'things aren't going right'.

The wheel comes full circle, closing as it opened with Belle Stewart.  play Sound ClipThis time it is Belle at her most prodigious, singing her own composition, The Berry Fields of Blair in front of a live audience.  (sound clip)  I cannot think of a more fitting note on which to end this disc and this review and for that matter, this entire series.  Her song, which deals with all the strands of humanity who used to flock into Blairgowrie for the berry picking, summarises more than words can say what The Voice of the People is about.  It is a celebration of the Belle Stewarts of this world and it is a celebration of their art and culture.  It cannot be either without first being a celebration of people as people; as emotional, sensate human beings, who are moved by hurt and pain and joy and laughter, and who just occasionally find within themselves the spark of creativity, which enables them to share with us some tiny portion of their lives.  It is about that thread of common humanity which binds us all.

Fred McCormick - 20.3.99

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