History is boring. Loads of half-truths strung together by academics. Everything you learnt at school, all the Kings, Queens, Laws, Wars and Battles, you forgot straight away. Which means that real history – the lives of ordinary people, their struggles and their victories, not the glorified lives of the rich – is lost under the mountains of knighthoods and life peerages.
The real history of England is full of riots, revolutions, rebellions and insurrections. It’s a history of perpetual class war, waged by the poor, against the state, the clergy and the landlords. And unlike the history we learn in school, the history of rebellion is something we can learn from. And it’s a sight more interesting.
Throughout England’s history, whilst peasants and workers were marching, striking and fighting, there have been radical ballads and songs. Written to publicise and to inspire. Written so that some particular piece of history can be passed on from generation to generation. The Folk music of struggle, written by and for the common “folk”.
THE CUTTY WREN was written at the time of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 It tells the story of the capture of the wren – a symbol for the King – and it’s division amongst the poor people. An ancient custom in those times declared that for one day in each year the commoners would have the freedom of the kingdom, and it was on this day that the wren was hunted. The people obviously wanted more than this token relief from daily poverty and starvation: when the King tried to introduce a Poll Tax, further crippling the peasants, they ganged together and began to murder first the tax collectors and then the Lords and Bishops. The peasants had had enough.
Opposition to the tax created a spontaneous revolutionary army. Under the leadership of Wat Tyler, a commoner from Colchester, the people marched through Kent and into London. Palaces were ransacked. Archbishops were dispatched to meet their maker. For nine days the peasants had, in effect, control of England. The King proclaimed that servants, peasants, commoner – all were now free people.
The jubilation didn’t last long. At a prearranged meeting between Tyler and the King’s courtiers, and out of sight of the peasant army, Wat Tyler was murdered. The huge people’s army, too dependent upon his leadership, was divided and routed by the King’s soldiers.
The re-introduction of the Poll Tax in Britain, over six hundred years later, suitably demonstrated the historical link of outright defiance and resistance across the centuries. The Poll Tax, both then and now, was scrapped.
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?”
(Shakespeare, from ‘The Merchant of Venice’, 1594)
THE DIGGERS SONG was written in 1649 by Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers. The Diggers, unable and unwilling to pay exorbitant rents to rich landlords, took over wasteland and began to build their own community. Time after time they were attacked by local soldiers under orders from the priests and lords. Their growing crops were pulled up and discarded. The Diggers, staunch pacifists, were repeatedly beaten up; but offered no physical resistance. Moving from place to place, and encouraging others to follow their example, they struggled on for two years preaching a vision of common ownership of the land and shared labour.
What happened to the Diggers should have taught us two things. Firstly, by nature of their example, that common and equal work – without lords or masters – can be a practical alternative to the robbery and inequality of capitalism. Secondly, that a willingness to accept the violence and destruction of the state without fighting back is, in the end, self-destructive. St George’s Hill, the most famous of the Diggers’ plots of squatted land, is now a highly select residential area full of well-to-do stockbrokers.
“Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom, and writers in it’s defense! The times are auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Tremble all ye oppressors of the world. Take warning, all ye supporters of slavish governments and slavish hierarchies! Restore to mankind their rights: and consent to the correction of abusers. before they and you are destroyed together.”
(Richard Price, 1789)
THE COLLIERS’ MARCH was inspired by the events of October 1782, when a march of workers into Birmingham demanded regulation of food prices. So strong and threatening was the march that Officers of the Town promised to curb the prices of malt, flour, butter and cheese; knowing that any refusal would lead to food-riots, arson and looting. Around this time such marches and riots were commonplace. Recent comments by MP’s, cops and media, asserting that riots and attacks on police are unprecedented, show how little we are taught of the history of mass violent action against the state. It always has been, and always will be, a feature of any imbalanced and unequal society.
The “black gentry” in the song were the Colliers from the Black Country (around the English Midlands) whose march from Dudley into Birmingham was the subject of several songs and ballads. This song was written by John Freeth sometime around 1782.
“To all real lovers of Liberty. Be assured that Liberty and Freedom will at last prevail. Tremble O thou the oppressor of the People that reigneth upon the throne, and ye Ministers of State weep, for ye shall fall. Weep ye who grind the face of the poor. oppress the People and starve the industrious Mechanic. Lord Buekingham who died the other day had thirty thousand pounds yearly for setting his arse in the House of-Lords and doing nothing. Liberty calls aloud, ye who will hear her voice..!”
(From a confiscated broadsheet, 1793)
GENERAL LUDD’S TRIUMPH celebrates the Luddite rebellion of 1812. Cock-eyed history has meant that now we use the term “luddite” to mean someone who hates progress. In fact the original Luddites were opposed to a progress which put them out of work, left them starving, and condemned their families to misery and hunger. Luddism was a fight against unemployment; and a fight against greedy bosses discarding workers in order to accumulate vast wealth, in much the same manner as modern media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
When new machinery was introduced into the cloth-finishing mills of northern England, making manual finishing redundant, working men decided to act together to prevent the loss of their livelihoods. Using the name Ned Ludd a name signed on all proclamations, warnings and death-threats (!) issued by the Luddites – they began smashing the new machines. Bosses who installed the new machines were attacked after dark; machinery being transported to the mills was ambushed and wrecked. Great battles were fought between huge bands of Luddites and local regiments, posted to guard mills from attack.
The Luddites originated in Nottingham and spread throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire; it was never discovered if General Ludd, their mythical leader, was based on any real person. Eventually groups of Luddites were arrested and tried, some being hanged at York Castle, but it was for about three years that mill bosses were under constant threat of Luddite action. During this time the Luddites had the widespread support of their communities.
“I ham going to inform you that there is Six Thousand men coming to you in Apral and then We will go and Blow Parlement house up and blow up all afour hus labring peple Can’t Stand it No longer dam all such Roges as England governes. We Will soon bring about the greate Revelution then all these greate mens heads gose off.”
(From a piece of paper posted up at Chesterfield Market, 1812)
The early 1800’s saw uprisings by many sections of the poor classes – naval mutinies, revolts by agricultural workers, etc – and inevitably the rise of Trade Unionism and the Chartists.
CHARTIST ANTHEM dates from the 1840’s. A People’s Charter was drawn up In 1837 demanding more of a say for the masses of workers now slaving in factories and living in hovels. This Charter, which developed into Chartism, demanded amongst other things: votes for all adult males, annual parliament, and secret ballots. The movement grew and spread, and split into different sections – “Moral Force” Chartism, which wanted lawful change through education, and “Physical Force” Chartism which demanded armed insurrection.
Chartists in Birmingham rioted so much and so often that the city was placed under martial law. The then Home Secretary called on the middle classes to form volunteer corps, offering them arms and training – an open invitation to class war. Everywhere in England there were fights and battles between poor people and the military; work-houses, built to squeeze further cheap labour from those who couldn’t get work, were attacked and ransacked.
Chartists at the same time placed huge emphasis on petitions to the government; up to six million signatures on the third national petition. Parliament was unmoved. Whilst open rebellion and community action has the power to make demands, collected signatures can only make requests – and eventually the movement faded away after 1848, it’s calls for reform rejected out of hand by Parliament.
“Though infinite space grow dark, the soul of man Shall soar triumphantly. Within this cavern Are thousands, sworn to rise from out the mire, Whereto you damn them; they will rise, will rise Though war may hew their pathway, though their march Be in blood to the armpits! The slaves force-freed will make it A burning wreck; themselves amidst the flames, Maniacs, wild dancing..!”
(From ‘Mutilation’, Ebenezer Jones, 1843)
SONG ON THE TIMES was written sometime between 1845 and 1850, just after the repeal of the Corn Laws – a repeal which promised to bring cheaper bread, higher wages and more work. In fact it brought increased food prices, lower wages, and factories on short time. Between these years, too, famine struck and devastated Ireland, starving thousands and prompting a further exodus of Irish people to England.
“Utilitarian economists; skeletons of schoohmasters; Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many different dog-eared creeds; the Poor you will always have with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet still time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of adornment; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a Bare Existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you.”
(Charles Dickens, from ‘Hard Times’, 1854)
SMASHING OF THE VAN was written to tell the story of the Manchester Martyrs, three Irish men living in England who were hanged for their rescue of two Irish rebel leaders in 1867. The van, carrying Kelly and Deasey from their trial to Manchester gaol, was ambushed near a bridge by armed Irishmen Soldiers guarding the van were pushed aside as the locks on the fortified doors were shot off with a gun.
A soldier inside the van with Kelly and Deasey was accidentally shot as the door was blown open at gunpoint; and the three men captured afterwards, although little sure evidence was offered, were sentenced to hang. The two Irishmen rescued from the van were never caught. Every year in Manchester the three martyrs are commemorated by a march through the city headed by Republican pipe bands; a tiny Loyalist counter-demonstration usually turns up to wave orange flags and hide behind the rows of police.
THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN dates from the mid-1870’s. The idea of turning the world upside-down it’s centuries old, it’s origins rooted in customs and feasts. A dream of a new world where equality replaces division, where shared wealth replaces starvation, and where Lady Thatcher meets the Royal Family every week down at the dole office.
“I know the heroic struggles the English working class have gone through since the middle of the last century – struggles no less glorious because they are shrouded in obscurity and buried by the middle class historian. To revenge the misdeeds of the ruling class, there existed in the Middle Ages, in Germany, a secret tribunal called the ‘Vehmgericht’. If a red cross was seen marked on a house, people knew that it’s owner was doomed by the ‘Vehm’. All the houses of Europe are marked with the mysterious red cross. History is the judge – it’s executioner, the proletarian.”
(Karl Marx, 1856)
POVERTY KNOCK is a factory worker’s’ song, written to be sung over the rhythm of the flying ‘shuttles and clankin1g’s of mill machinery. Conditions in the cloth mill’s of the 1890’s, when this song was written, were hot, noisy and dangerous. Injury and even death from the awkward and unsafe weaving machine’s was commonplace. And yet the continual knocking of the shuttle was at least a surety that you’d be able to eat – “guttle” – in a time when unemployment ‘still meant virtual starvation and misery.
Far from bringing safer, more leisurely work, the advances in automation meant only that the bosses could ‘screw more production out of fewer people for less money. From the Luddites to the cotton-machinists to the printworkers of modern times, the master/boss relationship is unchanged. Threat of unemployment keeps wages low, keeps workers in fear of a willing workforce waiting to step into any available job, and keeps the boss’s profits high. For how long will these songs be sung? When will we sing only of pleasure leisure and victory?
“Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making; or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.”
(William Morris, 1844)
IDRIS STRIKE SONG was written in 1911, and sung as a music hall appeal to both general public and scabs who were breaking the Idris strike. In 1910 the women at the Idris soft drinks factory, organised by the Federation of Women Workers, resisted two attempted wage cut’s. So the following year, the management tried instead to make the workers pay for the improved sanitary conditions which the union had forced the bosses to install. When the Federation resisted, it’s leader – Mrs Lowin, a widow with two children – was sacked outright.
A strike followed. The management drafted in local unemployed men and boys who obviously weren’t part of the FWW; the strike was broken despite the strength of solidarity amongst the women, broken by the rank’s of unemployed workers desperate for job’s. A jobless workforce then – as now – was the biggest single reason for the collapse of strikes and disputes. Despite the defeat, the will and resistance of the women echoed the strength of women’s struggle for equality in the early part of the twentieth century.
“When Sir Edward Grey rose to acknowledge a vote of thanks, Annie (Kenney) stood on a chair to ask again, ‘Will the Liberal Government give women the vote?’… Christabel (Pankhurst) strove to prevent her removal, but Liberal stewards and policemen in plain clothes soon dragged both from the hall. Determined to secure imprisonment, Christabel fought against ejection. She cried to her captors: ‘I shall assault you!’, and retorted, when they pinioned her, ‘I shall spit at you!’. Christabel was charged the next day with spitting in the face of a police superintendent and an inspector. One question to the police witnesses was the only explanation she gave to the court: ‘Were not my arms held at the time?'”
(Sylvia Pankhurst, from ‘The Suffragette Movement’, 1909)
HANGING ON THE OLD BARBED WIRE was written by soldiers in the trenches in the first world war. Designed to be sung whilst marching, the song is one of many showing the dissent and disgust at the way war perpetuates the inequalities of rich and poor – those with the money give the orders, those without money face the guns.
“This is the position in a sentence: The nations, the peoples, are not at war, and they have no cause for war. Little minorities of bosses and formalists are ordering vast masses of enslaved soldiers of destruction, and hosts of civil onlookers to penury and distraction.”
(Editorial, Daily Herald 1914)
The words are sung, with a couple of exceptions. exactly how we found them written. To start chopping and changing them all to fit in with modern language and ideas would have destroyed the reason why we wanted to do them like this (Which isn’t to say that folk music isn’t to be changed, edited and modernised.) Consequently the language and meaning seem a bit peculiar at times.
Recorded Woodlands Studio, April 1988
Engineered by Neil Ferguson
Songs arranged and sung by Chumbawamba
With thanks to Armlcy Mills Industrial Museum
Ideas, songs and inspiration from:
“A Radical Reader” Edited by C. Hampton
“The English Rebels” Charles Poulsen
“The Poor Folk’s Guide To The Revolt Of 1831” J L Carr
“Anarchy – A Graphic Guide” Clifford Harper
“The Risings Of The Luddites” F Peel
“Stand Together” Hackney & Islington Music Workshop
“100 Songs Of Toil” Karl Dallas
“A Touch On The Times” Roy Palmer
“A Ballad History Of England” Roy Palmer
Chumbawamba on this recording are:
Alice Nutter was otherwise engaged
Dunst was reading football fanzines
Agit-Prop & Chumbawamba
Box 4, 52 Call Lane, Leeds, LS1 6DT, England
Distributed by Southern Studios
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