The wonderful singer and promoter Sophie Bostock was waxing lyrical about this book to me and I’m so glad that I bought it as soon as she recommended it to me. It is a gem. I learnt so much from this including songs such as The Cutty Wren, The Bitter Withy, and The Death of Bill Brown.
A.L. Lloyd is very thorough and includes lyrics, music and background to all manner of songs from around England and beyond going back as far as he dare go and then some.
This song is traditionally thought to date back to the 1300s and have been sung by participants of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Worth noting that wikipedia and academia are both are keen to point out that there is no evidence of this, but people in the trad folk tradition are equally quick to point out in return that academics historically often have little idea about the oral tradition.
In A.L.Lloyd’s excellent Folk Song In England he states:
(The song) is often thought of as an amiable nursery piece yet when it was recorded from an old shepherd of Adderbury West, near Banbury, he banged the floor with his stick on the accented notes and stamped violently at the end of the verses, saying that to stamp was the right way and reminded of old times.
What memories of ancient defiance are preserved in this kind of performance it would be hard to say , but we do know that the wren-hunting song was attached to pagan midwinter ritual of the kind that the Church and authority fulminated vainly against- particularly in the rebellious perdio at the end of the Middle Ages when adherence to the forms of the Old Religion was taken to be evidence of subversion, and its partisans were violently persectuted in consequence.
In the sleeve notes of an Ian Campbell Folk Group record, A.L. Lloyd had this further explanation:
Some of the most ancient, most enduring and at the same time most mysterious English folk songs are those concerned with the attributes and sacrifice of monstrous animals. At the end of the 14th century, when peasant rebellion was in the air, the old magical song of the gigantically powerful bird (presented by a kind of folklore irony as a tiny wren) took on a tinge of new meaning. For here was the story of a great fowl so hard to seize, so difficult to dismember but so apt for sharing among the poor; and what did that suggest but a symbol of seignorial property?
“O where are you going?” said Milder to Maulder “O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes “We’re off to the woods,” said John the Red Nose
“What will you do there?” said Milder to Maulder “O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes “We’ll hunt the Cutty Wren,” said John the Red Nose
“How will you shoot her?” said Milder to Maulder “O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes “With bows and with arrows,” said John the Red Nose
“That will not do then,” said Milder to Maulder “O what will do then?” said Festle to Foes “Big guns and big cannons,” said John the Red Nose
“How will you bring her home?” said Milder to Maulder “O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes “On four strong men’s shoulders,” said John the Red Nose
“That will not do then,” said Milder to Maulder “O what will do then?” said Festle to Foes “Big carts and big waggons,” said John the Red Nose
“How will you cut her up?” said Milder to Maulder “O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes “With knives and with forks,” said John the Red Nose
“That will not do then,” said Milder to Maulder “O what will do then?” said Festle to Foes “Big hatches and cleavers,” said John the Red Nose
“Who’ll get the spare ribs?” said Milder to Maulder “O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes “We’ll give them all to the poor,” said John the Red Nose
That there are algorithms out there on the internet that know so much about us all is shit scary. Some days it can be annoyingly useful though, like the day when it suggested that I might want to buy a 2nd hand copy of this book and I did… and was grateful for the recommendation. Grrrrrrrr….
The book is very geographically focussed on the north east lowlands of Scotland and explores advances in technology and the repercussions for workers through the medium of bothy ballads. Sounds ace, doesn’t it?
It covers the 1800s in detail and really helped me to understand the transition from women working the fields with a sickle, to men working the fields with scythes, and oxen pulling rudimentary ploughs, to a paid of horses pulling a far more modern device. It also explores the beginnings of automation, steam power and machines. All evidenced by songs. Brilliant.
Mo mhallachd aig na caoraich mhòr My curse upon the great sheep Càit a bheil clann nan daoine còir Where now are the children of the kindly folk Dhealaich rium nuair bha mi òg Who parted from me when I was young Mus robh Dùthaich ‘IcAoidh na fàsach? Before Sutherland became a desert?
Tha trì fichead bliadhna ‘s a trì It has been sixty-three years On dh’fhàg mi Dùthaich ‘IcAoidh Since I left Sutherland Cait bheil gillean òg mo chrìdh’ Where are all my beloved young men ‘S na nìonagan cho bòidheach? And all the girls that were so pretty?
Shellar, tha thu nist nad uaigh Sellar, you are in your grave Gaoir nam bantrach na do chluais The wailing of your widows in your ears Am milleadh rinn thu air an t-sluagh The destruction you wrought upon the people Ron uiridh ‘n d’ fhuair thu d’ leòr dheth? Up until last year, have you had your fill of it?
Chiad Dhiùc Chataibh, led chuid foill First Duke of Sutherland, with your deceit ‘S led chuid càirdeis do na Goill And your consorting with the Lowlanders Gum b’ ann an Iutharn’ bha do thoill You deserve to be in Hell Gum b’ fheàrr Iùdas làmh rium I’d rather consort with Judas
Bhan-Diùc Chataibh, bheil thu ad dhìth Duchess of Sutherland, where are you now? Càit a bheil do ghùnan sìod? Where are your silk gowns? An do chùm iad thu bhon oillt ‘s bhon strì Did they save you from the hatred and fury Tha an diugh am measg nan clàraibh? Which today permeates the press?
Mo mhallachd aig na caoraich mhòr My curse upon the great sheep Càit a bheil clann nan daoine còir Where now are the children of the kindly folk Dhealaich rium nuair bha mi òg Who parted from me when I was young Mus robh Dùthaich ‘IcAoidh na fàsach?
He came across an essay about a political pageant from the 1930s which has an interesting overlap with the structure of our show. The published essay is behind an academic paywall here but the author Mick Wallis has kindly provided his private copy of the essay which you can download from here if you don’t have an academic login to download from the link above.
Taken from the essay, here is the structure of a pageant performed to thousands of people in a stadium in the late 1930s:
Music and the People
1. Feudal England. A canon from 1350; songs ‘that have lived in the peasant tradition for centuries, only lately collected because they were beginning to be forgotten’; a primitive fertility ritual dance; a Hebridean spinning song. (No dramatic action.)
2. The Massacre of the Innocents. Parts of two pageant-plays are performed, as if to the villagers: after the famous complaint from the Second Shepherds’ Play, Herod and the Innocents – ‘no doubt much of its popularity owed much to the memory of the massacres of their own people after the rising of 1381’; the song King Herod and the Cock in which ‘the invincible spirit’ wins against the oppressor; a choir of early Christians, following an introductory verse by Paul Robeson; and, since ‘the play’s not finished yet’ (i.e., of history) the Basque Lullaby.
3. Peasants in Revolt. A return to 1381: John Ball addresses the crowd; a signal arrives from him; the march on London, singing The Cutty Wren; Tyler’s meeting with Richard II, and murder (‘All words spoken in this scene, except for the commentary of the Speaker, are taken from authentic records’); all the men of the Mass Chorus (nine choirs) sing The German Peasants’ Song.
Interlude. ‘The ancient ritual carried on / And the forbidden message spoke’: members of the Woodcraft Folk ‘come on in small numbers, like conspirators, and perform the Stag-Dance’, part of the cult which was ‘the bond of unity between the harassed peasants’.
4. Soldiers of Freedom. Two Announcers briefly set the scene for 1649 (the episode is not concerned with celebrating Cromwell). ‘One king may be dead, but who still owns the land? Six Levellers and the actor-singer Parry Jones sit at tavern tables and sing; an Announcer recounts their talk as they remain in tableau; a group of dancers; some Diggers brought on in ropes by soldiers; an Announcer hails them in verse while the soldiers order drinks; the Diggers sing Stand up Now.
5. Village Green to Concert Hall. Announcer’s verse reports the break-up of rural communities and the appropriation of their culture by bourgeois institutions; ‘A group of dancers enters and performs to the tunes from which The Beggar’s Opera was concocted. At the end of their dance, a proscenium arch appears over the platform, and a scene from the play is performed to the dancers as audience.
6. Changing Europe. 1792. French revolution, singing the Carmagnole, verses 1 and 2, dressed as French peasants of 1790
7. Prisoners. ‘Ludwig van Beethoven descends from rostrum’; ‘But who are these / In modern clothes appearing / Their haggard eyes / The brand of torture like a web of scorpions wearing?’; prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps enter and sing the Peat-Bog Soldiers’ Song.
8. Slaves. ‘Following this train of thought’, John Payne and his Negro Choir enter as slaves, singing a chain-gang song, a cotton-picking song, and some ‘songs of freedom, led by one of the foremost champions of freedom’, Paul Robeson’.
9. The People Advance. As Robeson’s Kneelin’ Low ends, the Mass Chorus sings the Chartist We’re Low and the Speaker takes up a prose narrative to take us forward to trade unionism – ‘To every trade its club, to every club its song’ – and ‘the Trades Unionists sit round a table and sing their song’ (unspecified), ‘the verse sung solo’; ‘the tide rose apace’, and in a few sentences taking in the Co-operative Movement, the Speaker takes us to the late 1880s – a crowd headed by William Morris enters, singing People of England; the Speaker relates the killing by the police of the demonstrator in Trafalgar Square in 1880, and William Morris gives his famous ‘Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay’; the Chorus marches off to the Russian 1905 Funeral March, ‘that now commemorates all those who have fallen in the fight for freedom’.
The Speaker makes a summation in verse of the Pageant, and reflects on its meanings for us now:
And having present struggles and despairs Sharp in our minds, remember too The past whose urgent influence prepares The issues of today, and know that you By today’s action map the future’s road…. Never so needed was that single will That unity of the people, to fulfil The claim for freedom, and to ensure our peace… It is time we answered, as they answer now In Spain, in China, in every tortured land…. Let our song rise whose simple power Can flood the boundaries that divide us still And make our common hope, our single will.
Then a procession of groups: Christian Hymn; Levellers’ Song; Marseillaise; People of England; ‘Bandera Rossa’ ; German Solidarity Song; Chinese Student Song; Spanish National Anthem; (and now not representations but actual) veterans of the International Brigade led by Fred Copeman; the Negro Choir. Paul Robeson sings The Land of Freedom, ‘the great song of liberated Soviet humanity’, with the Acting Chorus (twelve choirs); Tom Mann, the Dean of Canterbury, and Fred Copeman speak briefly on the theme ‘Music and the People’ . Finally, all (audience included) sing the American Men Awake! the Day is Dawnin
This is a lovely old Germany song which may be super old, but as ever, no one really knows… Here is what wikipedia has to say, and below is Pete Seeger’s adaptation into English. Note that these words are slightly different to the version embedded above. You can hear another version here but for some reason it will not embed outside of YouTube.
Die gedanken sind frei, my thoughts freely flower Die gedanken sind frei, my thoughts give me power No scholar can map them, no hunter can trap them No man can deny, die gedanken sind frei
I think as I please and this gives me pleasure My conscience decrees, this right I must treasure My thoughts will not cater to duke or dictator No man can deny – die gedanken sind frei
Tyrants can take me and throw me in prison My thoughts will burst forth like blossoms in season Foundations may crumble and structures may tumble But free men shall cry – die gedanken sind frei
Original German lyrics (with translation below)
Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten, Sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten. Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen Mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket, Doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket. Mein Wunsch und Begehren kann niemand verwehren, Es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker, Das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke. Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken Und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
Drum will ich auf immer den Sorgen entsagen Und will mich auch nimmer mit Grillen mehr plagen. Man kann ja im Herzen stets lachen und scherzen Und denken dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen, Sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen. Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine, Mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
Thoughts are free, who can guess them? They fly by like nocturnal shadows. No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them With powder and lead: Thoughts are free!
I think what I want, and what delights me, Still always reticent, and as it is suitable. My wish and desire, no one can deny me And so it will always be: Thoughts are free!
And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon, All these are futile works, Because my thoughts tear all gates And walls apart: Thoughts are free!
So I will renounce my sorrows forever, And never again will torture myself with whimsies. In one’s heart, one can always laugh and joke And think at the same time: Thoughts are free!
I love wine, and my girl even more, Only her I like best of all. I’m not alone with my glass of wine, My girl is with me: Thoughts are free!
Robin and Roo will be leading a sing-a-long this Sunday by The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest to mark the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter Of The Forest and linking this to land rights, fracking and universal basic income in our present day.
I’m not sure yet how relevant it is to the current show but if we end up working with our Scottish and Irish friends, this looks like a good place to start exploring due to the way it is indexed.
The parent part of the site also has lots of interesting stuff on it. What I love about this so much is that it is still in super old HTML style which means it is so much easier to navigate and search than all this fancy, flashing, fancy pants and usually pointless web design which is currently the fashion!