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  Issue No 64 Official Organ of LaborNet 28 July 2000  




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The Union's Roots in Song

compiled from Musical Traditions by Margaret Walters

We look at some of the songs that kept working people going through their darkest hours.

Walter Pardon (1914-96) was a quiet, thoughtful, unassuming man who lived all his life in the village of Knapton in Norfolk working as a carpenter, and singing songs he'd learned from his Uncle's knee. He was a craftsman in a family that had been farm workers for many generations. He was an only child and remained a bachelor all his life. His mother's side of the family had a rich store of old songs, particularly her brother, Billy Gee who lived in the Pardon house for many years. The Depression threw Walter and Uncle together in a way, which ensured that he thoroughly learned all the family songs of the previous century. But there was no pub in the village and the tradition of singing the old songs died out in the immediate area, and was ridiculed. So - for twenty years Walter rarely sang outside the family home, treasuring these songs and singing them around the house and garden and keeping them alive in almost total isolation until his "discovery" by the English folk scene.

Stand Up Ye Men of Labour : The Socio-Political Songs of Walter Pardon was the title of an article by Mike Yates that leapt from the screen at the Musical Traditions web site and this piece draws from Yates' writing and from other articles about Walter (full details below). The songs and the stories Walter told to place them in context offer insights into aspects of nineteenth century social unrest and conflict.

Themes touched on include the effects of the Corn Laws, migration, child labour, resentment of farm owners who liked their workers to "show their obedience". The tenor of the songs is lifted with the growth of the union movement. Several members of Walter's family, including his father and Uncle Billy, joined the Trunch branch of the Union. Here are excerpts from two songs Walter sang (they appeared in an undated song book, 'National Agricultural Labourers' and Rural Workers' Union Song Book',which his Uncle owned.)

We Meet Today in Freedom's Cause

We meet today in freedom's cause

And raise our voices high.

We join our hands in Union song

To battle or to die.


Hold the fort, we are coming

Union men be strong

Side by side, keep pressing onward

Victory will come

An Old Man's Advice

My grandfather worked when he was very young

And his parents felt grieved that he should.

To be forced in the fields to scare away the crows

To earn himself a bit of food.

The days they were long and his wages were but small

And to do his best he always tried.

But times are better for us all

Since the old man died.


For the Union is started, unite, unite.

Cheer up faint-hearted, unite, unite.

The works begun, never to stop again

Since the old man died.

Needless to say, the farm owners had little time for union activity. Uncle Billy sang this verse to the tune of The Farmer's Boy:

I'll have no Union rascal, mind,

I've just sent them adrift.

And if the Union you're in league

I'll send you off as swift.

If you will work, do as you're told,

Nor use your tongue awry.

You can plough and sow, and reap and mow,

And be a farmer's boy, and be a farmer's boy.

It is interesting to note that most of the Union songs use hymn tunes - a fact in part confirming the thesis first proposed by the French historian Elie Halevy, namely that the growth of Methodism - in this case, by the use of Christian hymn tunes as settings for songs calling for social upheaval - had prevented an English revolution in the early 19th century. If so, then the Halevy thesis may be extended to the latter half of the 19th century as well.

The study of worker's music has been held back by the way in which middle-class Edwardian folksong collectors misinterpreted the beliefs and feelings of the people from whom they collected songs. Take for example the song 'We're All Jolly Fellows Who Follow the Plough', which is, on the surface, a simple enough song in praise of farm labour. In the mid-70's, while collecting in Sussex, two independent singers told Yates that they would sing this song at harvest suppers. It would be not only for the benefit of local dignitaries and guests of honour, but also for their fellow workers who were well aware that the song was not about a carefree country existence, but a medium for expressing all that was wrong in society. Despite what the farm owners might think, their workers were not jolly fellows. They did not enjoy rising at dawn to work all day in a wet plough field, and they were not happy about their employer's paternalism.

Most of Walter Pardon's socio-political songs are living proof of the tenacity, determination and creativity of the working class. They will probably not appeal to those folklorists whose outmoded, and basically bourgeois, conceptions cannot come to terms with that which is actually being sung by the working class. And yet, if we do have to use this terminology, there is little doubt that these songs are indeed real folksongs.

Recordings exist for much of Walter's repertoire. A double CD set (49 tracks), titled "Put a Bit of Powder on it, Father", and released recently, contains the union-related songs mentioned in this article. The set is available from: Topic Records by Credit Card for 15.72stg, inc. View and print the Ex-VAT Order Form at: and post it to Topic in London. Or phone them on: +44 20 7281 3465 and ask for Mail Orders.

Musical Traditions is an electronic magazine ( that has three lengthy articles about the songs of Walter Pardon - and this article has drawn on them heavily with the editor's permission. Visit the site and seek on the Articles page the following: Stand Up Ye Men of Labour : The Socio-Political Songs of Walter Pardon by Mike Yates; Walter Pardon : Put a Bit of Powder on it, Father by Rod Stradling and Mike Yates - a transcript of the comprehensive booklet accompanying the CD; and a review of these two CDs by Roly Brown. There is a wealth of information about Walter's earlier recordings and details of his life and character.

Margaret Walters is a Sydney folk singer heavily influenced by Britishtraditional singing styles. She performs with song-writer, John Warner and together they have a vast repertoire of songs about history, industry andthe environment.

Albums and enquiries:mailto:[email protected]


Margaret also works as an Editorial Assistant for the journal, LabourHistory.


*    Contact out history editor, Dr Lucy Taksa

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 64 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Greg Sword Unsheathed
The NUW national secretary is set to be endorsed as ALP Federal president next week. He talks about the relationship between the two wings of the labour movement.
*  Unions: Phone Rage, Headaches and Stress
A comprehensive survey of the call centre industry conducted by the ASU has revealed an industry workplace culture dominated by excessive monitoring and stress.
*  Economics: And the Winner Is .... Sydney?
Austrade chief economist Tim Harcourt looks at the export impact of the Sydney Olympics and asks if we'll win gold.
*  International: Western Sahara: Referendum Or War?
A June UN referendum in Western Sahara could have provided the people of Western Sahara a chance to exercise their right to self-determination and independence. It didn't.
*  History: The Union's Roots in Song
We look at some of the songs that kept working people going through their darkest hours.
*  Media: Unchaining the ABC
The ALP needs to rethink our public institutions to determine how they might better deliver the ends for which they were originally established.
*  Environment: Motorways Fail the Pollie Test
Our daily grind of congested roads, polluted air, and frustrated motorists is putting all and sundry to the test, and not least Liberal and Labor politicians.
*  Satire: Murdoch Launches Bid for Under-9s Netball Team
Sydney's lucrative junior league netball broadcasting market has been shaken by a bid by one of the world's most predatory entrepreneurs, Rupert Murdoch, to secure ownership of the most successful team in the league.
*  Review: Espionage a Trois
The Whitlams' brass section his teamed with some of the hippest cats in Sydney to make the sort of music you'll want to shoot baddies to.

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