Roots of Radicalism

Traditional British folk song


THE earlier ballads of knightly heroism and magic with their numerous narrative verses gave way to shorter folk songs on less exalted but more varied themes.

These were more concerned with the lives and feelings of ordinary people. They were at once both more personal and more universal, in the sense that they reflected the experiences and emotions of some anonymous individual, but that these were experiences and emotions that were shared or appreciated by all. They were often purely lyrical, devoid of any narrative content.

Many were concerned with amatory affairs and adventures, and often reflected loss and regret. When people are having a good time, evidently, they have other things to do than make and sing songs. Emotional losses, on the other hand, often serve as a spur to artistic creativity. Singing of one's own loss could be therapeutic, and singing of someone else's a consolation. A degree of resigned fatalism provided an emotional escape route from a struggle that could not be won.

In the Blacksmith, a girl sings of her betrayal by a false lover ― a common theme in male as well as female songs:

A blacksmith courted me, nine months and better.

He fairly won my heart, wrote me a letter'.

With his hammer in his hand, he looked so clever,

And if I was with my love, I'd live for ever.

The girl receives news that her love has married someone else:

"What did you promise me when you sat beside me?

You said you would marry me, and not deny me."

"If I said I'd marry you, it was only for to try you,

So bring your witness, love, and I'll never deny you."

As in the Two Magicians, referred to in Part Three, the blacksmith is a symbol of masculine sexuality.

Symbolism was an important feature of many folk songs, and there was an established code of symbolic meanings attached to different birds, flowers, herbs and trees. The cuckoo was a bird of falsity and deception, while the nightingale and lark denoted erotic encounters. The rose was a symbol of true love, thyme a symbol of virginity, and the weeping willow a symbol of loss.

Symbols drawn from the natural world and elsewhere were also employed to convey quite explicit erotica. Unlike the soulless, crude and debased folk songs of the modern rugby club, these old songs had a tasteful if earthy charm.

Rural man, schooled by agricultural life, had a more healthy and natural attitude to sex. He was free from that modern schizophrenic oscillation between puritanism and obsession which has been the legacy of urbanization and Christianity. Rural man viewed procreation as a natural and enjoyable function in organic sympathy with the natural environment. He may not have expressed it philosophically, but that is the psychology reflected in his songs.

Aspects of the Two Magicians ― in this instance the 'chase' and shape-changing ― are again reflected in Hares on the Mountain: from which we quote a couple of snatches:

If pretty maids could run like hares on the mountain,

They would laugh for to see the young men run a hunting.

Hunting metaphor is again employed in the Bonny Black Hare:

If pretty maids could fly like blackbirds and thrushes,

They would laugh for to see the young men beat the bushes.

Hunting metaphor is again employed in the Bonny Black Hare:

The birds they were singing on the bushes and trees,

And the song they sang was: "Oh, she's easy to please."

And I felt her heart quiver and I knew what I'd done.

Says I: "Have you had enough of my oId sporting gun?"

The answer she gave me, oh, her answer was:

"Nay, it's not often, young sportsman, that you come this way.

But if your powder is good and your bullets are fair,

Why don't you keep firing at the bonny black hare?"

The agricultural symbols of ploughing, sowing, reaping and mowing were also in widespread use:

As I was a-walking on the fourteenth of July,

I met a maid and I asked her age, she made me this reply:

"I have a little meadow I've kept for you in store,

And it's only due l should tell you, he never was mowed before."

She said: "My handsome young man, if a mower that you be,

I'll give you good employment if you'll come along with me."

So it was my good employment to wander up and down

With my taring scythe all to contrive to mow her meadow down.

Besides erotica the later songs encompassed many characteristic aspects of eighteenth and nineteenth century life and fantasy. There are songs of women dressing up as soldiers or sailors to pursue their lovers, or purely for adventure. There are songs about highwaymen. There are songs about avoiding or suffering the press gang ― an early and very arbitrary form of conscription. There are songs about horse-riding and cock-fighting. And there are songs about poaching and transportation.

Unlike other criminals the poacher was treated sympathetically in folk song. The enclosure of common land had deprived country people of rights they had enjoyed for centuries. The penalty for poaching was transportation and seven years bonded labour.

Unlike Black slaves, who were owned for life and thus represented a valuable asset to be taken care of, these White slaves were worked to death by masters who tried to extract as much labour as possible from them during their limited period of bondage. If they survived seven years there was still virtually no chance of return, and transportees never saw their wives or children again.

The most well-known transportation ballad is Van Diemen's Land, which tells of transportation to, and life in, Tasmania. Versions abound all over the British Isles with characters cast in the local English, Scottish or Irish idiom.


An ingredient absent from earlier songs but found in later ones is humour. Tailors, renowned for their alleged cowardice and ineptitude, were a favourite butt for folk humour:

It's of a brisk young tailor, a story I'll relate,

He lodged at an inn called the Ram and the Gate;

The Ram and the Gate was the place he did dwell,

And wine and women's company he loved exceeding well.

Oh well, Oh well, Oh well, my lads, Oh well,

And wine and women's company he loved exceeding well.

Now the tailor he'd been drinking a glass or two of wine,

And not being used for to drink it made his face to shine;

It caused his face to shine, just like the rising sun,

And he swore he'd have a bonny lass before the night was done.

So he took her in his arms and called her his dear honey,

But while they were a talking, she was fingering of his money;

She was fingering of his money when the tailor smiled and said:

"If you lend me your petticoats, I'll dance like a maid."

The tailor pulled his breeches off and the petticoats he put on,

The tailor danced a dance, and the lassie sang a song;

The tailor danced a dance and they played a pretty tune,

And she danced the tailor's breeches right out of the room.

Oh have you seen a tailor as undone as I'm undone?

My watch and-my money and my breeches they are gone;

And now l am undone I'll become a 'garden flower',

And if ever I get my breeches back, I'll never dance no more.

Alcoholic drink was another popular subject for song. John Barleycorn echoes the ritual slaughter of a year-king which we examined in Part Two. This version was collected in Bedfordshire. The first three lines were spoken. (We omit the chorus):

There were three men came from the North

Their fortunes for to tell,

And the life of John Barleycorn as well.

They ploughed him in three furrows deep,

Laid clods all on his head,

And they all began to sing joyously,

John Barleycorn is dead.

Oh John Barleycorn is dead.

There came a shower of rain,

Which from the clouds did fall,

John Barleycorn sprang up again,

And he did amaze them all,

And he did amaze them all.

They came with their long hooks,

To cut him off at the knee,

They dashed his head against a stone,

And they used him bitterly.

And they used him bitterly.

They came with their crab sticks,

And cut him skin from bone,

But they served him worse than that,

They crushed him between two stones,

They crushed him between two stones.

After another two violent verses it is revealed that John Barleycorn is not an actual man, but the spirit of barley: They worked their will upon John Barleycorn

But he lived to tell the tale,

For we pour him into an old brown jug,

And we call him home-brewed ale,

And we call him home-brewed ale.

Later historical ballads were created, but mostly lacked the necessary appeal to survive in the oral tradition. Some of those that did survive will be featured in future instalments.

The tunes of these later ballads in England tended to be more wandering, and A. L. Lloyd attributes the acceleration of this process to lack of security caused by socio-economic dislocation. At base, however, the factor of large-scale Irish immig­ration seems to have been the cause.

The later songs which we have quoted in this instalment have a pre-industrial if not altogether rural flavour. Side by side with this predominantly rural mainstream, a new current of distinctly urban songs was flowing and gathering pace in the industrial cities . . .