When thinking about English folk song, it is all too easy to think of classic English folk music as collected by Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, and others. Songs of an agrarian existence, sometimes idyllic, often times not, which harked back to the time when the majority of people made their living from the land. In fact, that was to be the subject of this blog post until I got distracted by a slim, home-made volume of much grittier, urban songs.

Michael Raven: The Jolly Machine (publ. 1974)

Jolly machine by Michael Raven
The front cover of the song book.

Already you get the sense of something completely different from the front cover. Here are no songs about farm labourers and pretty lasses, instead Michael Raven focusses on the ‘songs of industrial protest and social discontent’ from the area all around Birmingham. The photograph used is of four coal miners from Wednesbury, taken in the 1880s. The dirtied work clothes and the coal-blackened faces are testament to the men working in the area of the West Midlands known as the Black Country.

Coal pits in the Black Country
An engraving taken from ‘Griffiths’ guide to the iron trade of Great Britain’, publ. 1873

The Black Country

The American consul in Birmingham, Elihu Burritt, described the area in 1862 as being ‘black by day and red by night’. Geographically, the area is hard to describe, but might be thought as being most of modern Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, and Wolverhampton. It was an area of intense industrialisation during the second half of the nineteenth century, having a large number of open-cast and deep mines. The coal fuelled numerous ironworks and foundries. It’s not difficult to imagine the pollution that resulted.

All the goods produced in the ‘workshop of the world’ could easily be distributed elsewhere, first by using the extensive canal network, then later in the century, the new railways.

Iron works of W. Barrows and Sons
Iron works of W. Barrows and Sons (from the same source as above).

The Songs

Michael Raven introduces the songs in this fashion:

Most of the songs first appeared on either broadsides or in local newspapers, but in most cases have been adapted and set to music by various of our contemporaries involved in the folk revival. … Indeed, if the great bulk of industrial material is ever to achieve the grandeur of our traditional rural folksong, such development is a necessity.

The composers of the songs are only acknowledged in the notes. Sometimes they’re by Raven himself, others use traditional tunes, some are by other folk artists.

Needle making

Redditch, a town in Worcestershire, was a centre of needle making in the nineteenth century. Access to raw metal from the Black Country’s iron foundries was easy. However, one fundamental aspect of the Industrial Revolution was the rapid increase in factory-based manufacturing using machines. This note from the bottom of a broadsheet entitled The Needle Makers Lamentation shows us the practical effect of this on the cottage (ie home-based, non-factory) industry in Redditch:

The bearers … have been thrown out of employment by the rapid improvement of machinery, as two men and three boys can do the work of ten men.

Raven sets the verses to the traditional tune, ‘A-begging I will go’, which seems appropriate. Here’s the opening couple of verses:

Good people all attend awhile, And lend an ear, I pray, While we unfold the reason why, We’re wandering here today.  — It is because we’re out of work, And bread we can’t procure; To see our children pine for food, What parents can e’er endure.

Nail making

Nails Closeup
Machine-made nails

Unsurprisingly, nail making in Bromsgrove faced the same problem. This was a similar, unregulated cottage industry which benefited from the plentiful supply of iron from the Black Country. It was an industry which might have involved all the family. A Midland Mining Commission report of 1843 gives a vivid picture of one such operation:

The best forges are little brick shops of about 15 feet by 12 feet in which seven or eight individuals constantly work together with no ventilation except the door and two slits, a loop-hole in the wall. The majority of these workplaces are very much smaller and filthy dirty and on looking in upon one of them when the fire is not lighted presents the appearance of a dilapidated coal-hole. In the dirty den there are commonly at work, a man and his wife and daughter, with a boy or girl hired by the year. Sometimes the wife carries on the forge with the aid of the children. The filthiness of the ground, the half-ragged, half-naked, unwashed persons at work, and the hot smoke, ashes, water and clouds of dust are really dreadful.

This is about the same period as the song text Raven includes in his collection. The nail makers were caught in a system of middlemen who consistently underpaid and often required the nail makers to obtain their food and other necessities from their own shops or pubs. This practice, known as ‘trucking’, persisted in the Black Country long after it had been made illegal. These and other grievances led to several disturbances and strikes. Here’s the opening verses of the Nailmakers’ Strike, set in the book to a tune of Raven’s composing:

Oh you nailmakers all that day remember well The last strike of which this tale I do tell, How cold and hungry we that heavy day To Bromsgrove town did take our toilsome way. And those nailforgers, miserable souls, Will not forget the giver of coals, Nailmasters are hard-hearted files, And the way we took was thirteen miles.

Once again, looking at one of our scores has taken me on another fascinating journey.