The chief value of amateur musical performance among a local group or community is that it fulfils a role - or set of roles - defined by that community. What is of value is not that the texts and style of the music are in any way unique to such a group or community - indeed, that is only exceptionally the case - but that in each instance the content and form of amateur musical performance may have localised significances and its pleasures a localised context. These significances and pleasures obviously vary according to song, tune and performance, communal evaluation and context of performance may cause particular items to be ranked into aesthetic tiers according to criteria of functionality, group preference, and social and symbolic relevance. Furthermore, the sociology of such aesthetics may well become modified over time as new social and cultural patterns emerge. In the modern period of course, song is invariably disseminated via a capitalist market. Yet while the market is dominant, capital does not control every facet of cultural life. Local amateur performance may still involve a wresting of use and aesthetic value from a song's value in terms of exchange. And its reproduction in amateur music may not depend for its raison d'Ítre upon production of surplus value. Though gifts such as drink have commonly been made in appreciation of the art and artistry of this kind of musical performance, the performance itself within local cultures has not generally been connected above all with the realisation of profit.
There is no sense in idealising the indigenous and participatory cultural process involved in this, or romanticising either its real or alleged merits in the past. That so often and so easily is simply the cue for a reflex condemnation of particular genres of popular music mass-produced within market structures. Categories themselves can create dichotomies, though more commonly they reflect existing politico-aesthetic dogmas. So called 'folk' music has often been used to revile other kinds of music; Leon Rosselson's denunciation of rock as 'fascist' is simply a recent example in a long line of attempts to reinforce the aesthetic and ideological elevation of a romantically idealised 'folk' song over other musical styles and genres. 1 We are likely to make unsound and prejudiced assessments of the gratifications a particular music may give to its audience if we make judgements on the basis of opposed values. What counts in focusing on non-recorded popular music is to examine the conditions and characteristics of each kind or performance and each kind of reception.
Popular music is a notoriously volatile cultural phenomenon. One aspect of this is that popular songs produced within and mediated by commercial and industrial structures are not commodities in any straightforward sense. Demand is not simply dictated in a unilinear way by supply: and no matter how suggestible people may be, they are not merely puppets of cultural production. One thing which is interesting about the residual cultural activity of amateur performance and the formation of musical traditions in this century is the winning of a situated realisation of meanings, pleasures and values in the products of a culture and leisure industry. Similar processes of adoption and adaptation can be said to be at work then as in the transmission of so-called 'folk' song though not merely according to Sharp's simplistic and idealised criteria. This is not to deny the exploitation and construction of popular tastes by cultural entrepreneurs and businessmen, or the erosion of amateur musical performance by electronic technology. Big business and mechanical reproduction now command the field of popular song more than ever before and we ignore that at our peril regardless of whether we follow the paths of cultural pessimism or optimism with regard to mass culture as opened up by the work of Adorno and Benjamin respectively. But at the margins of the popular music industry, amateur performance still presents alternative modes of song reproduction. While 'traditional' musical study has only recently begun to liberate itself from the narrowly blinkered view produced by evasion of any analytical consideration of the effects of commercial processes on popular music, my point is that such processes are different to - though they dialectically interact with - the process of assimilation of songs into individual and group repertoires, and their reproduction outside the field of exchange relations in which they were originally produced. It is this dialectic that I shall be concerned to discuss, within a particular locale and period, as well as the tastes and skills of a particular performer.
The sketch given here is of an amateur singer and musician whose talent and accomplishments earned him a considerable reputation within his immediate locality. His place of performance was pub and cottage. The main reason he sang and played was because of his great joy of it, and while he sometimes played as an old man generally for his own entertainment, alone in his own home ... generally he performed for others, as well as himself, around the barroom table, in street procession or by a cottage fire. It is now over twenty years since his death, and I therefore intend only to assemble together the few remembered pieces of his life I have managed to gather from surviving members of his family and neighbourhood. These do, I think, combine to provide a sufficiently clear picture of the kind of man he was and the kind of popular song he most enjoyed.
He always liked to go to the pub and have a drink and a good old singsong. He was a typical working man of that period in the way he commonly had a drop more drink than he should've done. He used to come back from the pub quite the worse for it pretty regular.'This recollection refers to the period after Kathleen had died, the thirties and forties, but it is also true of his earlier life, as his daughter recalled:
'He'd often get drunk. Sometimes he'd spend every penny be had, so there was none for our mother, and then there d be nothing for us. But we had someone next door who saw to it that at such tines we never went without ... sometimes he'd be drunk, and he'd be in a rage, smash things up, tip up the table with everything on it. He could be in filthy tempered when he got home. I've seen him throw the plate with his dinner on it into the fire many a time. Once my mother cooked him some bacon and eggs. She had to do it over the open fire in those days, on the bars which ran across, and a little speck of black fell across the white of the egg. Well, my mother put it in the table before she'd noticed it, and into the fire it went in was in such a rage he tried to break up the frying-pan it'd been done in. He pulled it one way and smashed it the other. He couldn't break it up and that got him in even more of a fury.'The violence was not only confined to the home. He was renowned as a tough little tiger of a man, very handy with his fists. Fred Deely of Deddington, one of the former village carriers and fuel merchants, told me:
'Bart Callow, he was a short, thickset man, always getting in fights. He fought a black man once, that was here with Wombwell's, all across the market square they were fighting. Oh, a terrible one with his fists. Like a bloody terrier he was!'But his aggressiveness did have a more positive side to it. He held fairly radical political opinions and principles which he held to fiercely and he endeavoured to resist the deference expected of the rural working class in his part of the country. The following recollections of him fill out this side of his character:
'He had really green fingers When be entered for a flower and vegetable show be always won prizes, but he considered himself entitled to these. Not because be was immodest, but be judged himself fairly as superior to the others in his class, and if he didn't win a prize for something when be thought he should have done, he'd say it was because the Judges were biased towards the rich. or he'd been snubbed because he wouldn't kneel before people. That's what he was like ... We were watching a man on a box, it was an election campaign and our teacher came by and ordered us off home. My father happened to be nearby, be was listening I think, but he heard our teacher talking to us and after he asked me what she'd said. He told me to stay right where I was, then he went over to the teacher and told her she had no right to command his children out of school hours She walked off in a huff ... He was a socialist before there were any socialists, my father. He never followed the sheep.'Another incident recollected by his daughter Fanny underlines the resentment he felt that wealth could buy respect, and that social pretensions were a source of admiration and awe. Miss Kitty Emmett (d. 1952) was an Irish-American Catholic whose inherited wealth brought her to England in search of a blue-blooded husband. 2 England in the early twentieth century was an ideal place in which to be rich and leisured. As William Clarke put it:
'Situated as she is close to the historic lands of Europe ... ships from all the world calling at her ports, with an old and well ordered society, a secure government, an abundance of the personal service desired by the wealthy, a land of equable climate, pleasant if not grand scenery, how can England help being attractive to the wealthy people who speak her own language.' 3This is what drew Kathleen Emmett across the Atlantic. Her quest was successful: she found, and married, the ninth Earl of Desmond and Denbigh in 1928. 4 As Fanny put it: 'She had money and wanted a title, he'd lost his money but had a title: they were ideally matched'. Miss Kitty's town house was in South Audley Street in London, and her country property in Clifton, a hamlet between Deddington and Aynho. Bart and Kathleen Callow had set up house here after getting married: Bart continued to live in Clifton for the rest of his life. Fanny Callow worked for Miss Kitty as a maid, and her place of work alternated between London and Clifton, depending on the time of year. Her opinion of her mistress pulls no punches:
'She was lousy with money. She was always having something done, having her garden landscaped, a sun-house built or extensions put on - but she was never satisfied. She'd wait 'til whatever was being done was finished, then she'd come along and kick up a fuss about something or other, make some argument, sack all the men on the job and then hire another lot to pull down the extension or whatever it was, and rebuild it ...Freethinking and independence of spirit were also manifest in Bart Callow's atheistic beliefs, and his refusal to follow the religious as well as the political sheep.
She was stinking rich, Miss Kitty, and that was her influence. She could make you or break you, regardless of the truth. You see, if you went somewhere else they'd ask for a reference from her, and if she'd perhaps taken some dislike to you that'd be it: you'd be finished. She could either write a good reference or a bad reference - it all hung on that. She was a monster in all sorts of ways. We'd call her something behind her back. Nobody really liked her.
She used to give strawberry and cream teas for children, but you had to curtsey in front of her and any father forbade it. He wouldn't have me bowing and scraping in front of her, because he said she was no better than he was. Oh, I was so upset, not to go, I cried ... I'd never tasted strawberries before. I was the only child who missed it ... Looking back, I'm glad he made me refuse.'
'Our Aunt used to go to chapel, and she came in one Sunday and said to my father: "You'd do a lot better if you got changed and came to chapel." He looked at her and said: "I don't like church, I don't like chapel, and I don't like those as goes to 'em." She flounced out.'During his life Bart Callow did various manual and semi-skilled jobs. He started off in life as a farm labourer, and then after his first marriage became a groom. He gave this up after being severely kicked by a horse, and went back to general farm work. After serving in the First World War, where he again worked with horses in the transport division, he had to settle for a poorly paid agricultural job once more. For most of his life he alternated between farm and building work, though in the interwar period he seems increasingly to have concentrated on the latter. After the Second World War 'he worked for the Ministry, at Barford Aerodrome. That was a transit port for prefabricated houses to go into Wales. He worked up there, though he was over retiring age then'. According to his grandson, 'he was just a general labourer'. He worked away a good deal, on building sites, railway bridge and viaduct construction, sewer laying and the like. 'He did farm work when he couldn't get anything else. What he did mainly was building and ground work - preparing for big sites and things like that'. His other major source of income was through his itinerant work as a hay-tier, most of which was paid piece-rate:
'There was quite a few people did that. They had these old machines with the weights on. You cut the hay out of the rick with a hay-knife, into squares weighing about forty pounds, then you put them into this machine. They had great big weights that pulled down tight on the hay. That's what they called a hay-tier. It compressed they hay. You stored the hay into a rick first, to compress it in the first place, then it'd be cut and done by a hay-tier for transportation for sale. The canal used to take the hay for the horses that draw the barge. But then of course balers came along and took over from hay-tiers.'As a building labourer working on a range of different jobs, or as a hay-tier in season, he was often away from home, sometimes for weeks at a time. Fanny:
'When he'd be due back, I remember, sometimes it'd be getting late and my mother'd be getting worried. And when he did come back there'd be nothing. All gone in drink. He used to stay on the drink for days at a time. I said to my mother ... when I'd grown up a bit ... I said: "Mother, I don't know why you put up with it - I wouldn't!" And she said to me: "My child, if you were me, you'd put up with it." 'It was perhaps not merely a sense of resignation which was expressed in this enigmatic statement. Bert Callow was not the sterotypical drunkard often portrayed in temperance literature - the work-shy, cowardly, spineless rogue whose only contribution to family life was to wreck it. He had a benign and considerate side to his character as well. Fanny again:
'Oh he could be ever so gentle and kind. He'd sing and dance and entertain. What he used to do, he put up a blanket on the wall with a lantern behind him. We sat in the dark and he made all kinds of creatures out of the shadow, with his hands and feet. Mother was a district nurse and he was very good, he could always be relied on to pick her up in the evening, wherever she was.'
Bart was known throughout his own area as a singer and musician, and he would perform whenever there was an appropriate opportunity and an appropriate audience. But he especially liked the Saturday singsongs, and in these he was a major participant, for his local reputation as a popular village musician numbered him among the best. Quick on his feet once the singing started, he took a leading part in the proceedings, directing the way the evening went, playing a variety of musical instruments, singing frequently and harmonising superbly with other singers.
Bart Callow's musical versatility was confined to those instruments he could readily afford. These included the accordion, melodeon, concertina, flute, brass penny whistle, jew's harp and harmonica. With all those he developed a considerable expertise. As well as the skill and accomplishment he showed in playing these instruments, what people remember most about his musical prowess was the gift of picking up a tune. As Chris Hartwell put it:
'He'd go anywhere there was a gathering. "Come on, Bart", they'd say, "give us a song." That's what'd happen. "Well, what do you want?" he'd say. "Do you know so-and-so?" "No, not really, but tell us how it goes." That's how it'd go on, and he'd pick it up just like that. He played the easiest things he could afford, which of course were the cheapest instruments around at the time. He was always poor. If he'd been able to get hold of better instruments he'd certainly have been able to play them without much bother. But it didn't seem to him to matter what it was, as long as music came out of it. And he'd play you anything you wanted. He'd pick it up just like that, if it was a tune. Same with songs. If he didn't know the words, he'd get somebody to hum the tune, then he always seemed to get it straight away. He had a gift for that, no doubt about it. Then of course when people started singing, he'd pick up the song.'Fred Sykes of Deddington told me: 'He never had a sheet of music in his house. There wouldn't have been any point, since he didn't read music. His music was all by ear'. He picked up tunes and songs not only from people round about, or while away from home during the War and as an itinerant labourer, but also from gramophone records and the radio. 'Once having heard a song on record or the radio,' according to his son-in-law Ern Hitchman, 'he'd simply plug away till he could sing it well, and that usually didn't take long.' 5 He also picked up songs from song books. These, says Ern Hitchman, 'contained only words, which he learnt, and found a tune for - if he didn't know of a tune - from somebody else.' He was a past master at improvisation. This would also extend to knocking out a tune on the rudest of instruments. Chris Hartwell: 'He was good on the comb as well, and he would play the old clappers if he didn't have anything else. Two pieces of wood, or two pieces of bone.' Generally he sang unaccompanied. The diverse instruments he played were for others to sing to, and more commonly for playing tunes only.
Though home and taproom were the usual contexts for his musical performances, he also played with the mummers at Christmas. Several of his brothers w re in the local mumming troupe, and Bart used to play the accordion for them on their rounds of Clifton and Deddington. The performance of the mummers was the occasion for an enormous booze-up, and Bart was renowned for knocking it back with the rest of them. Chris Hartwell told me:
'They used to come to the door, singing and making merry and all that sort of thing. My mother used to give them her home-made parsnip wine. They used to love it! My grandfather used to grow the parsnips for the wine, and she'd make it. Very strong stuff you know ...'Fred Sykes adds a few more details:
'oh yes, I remember the mummers calling. Black faces, old clothes, old rags. Bart Callow was always with them, dressed up like the rest. Some had horns fastened to their heads, some were in women's old cast-offs you know ... They used to get properly sozzled by the end of it ... There were songs as well, but nothing very old I don't think. Course they would be now!'In this early twentieth century period, in fact, the oldest song associated with the mummers (though of course by no means exclusively) was Henry Clay Work's My Grandfather's Clock. This was a very popular song at the time throughout the region, and many people still remember it. The rest of the mummers' songs appear to have been either late Victorian or Edwardian. 6 'Mummering' was not the only occasion for music-making at Christmas for Bart. Indeed, the Christmas-New Year period seems to have been one long binge and musical feast for him, for at that time of year 'he was never away from anywhere where there was singing.' Carols were a particularly fond source of pleasure, despite his atheism. Jean Hartwell:
'There is a Green Hill was a favourite. Silent Night - all them. He used to love singing carols, going round to relations and singing, or singing them at home when he came back from the pub. He'd always come in at Christmas and give you a song. You ask him to sing and get his old melodeon going, oh yeah, he'd go. He was really keen on carols. He really got going at Christmas time.'Music was one of the central passions and pursuits of his life. Its position of importance was shared only with gardening. As Chris Hartwell put its 'Singing and gardening were the main joys, the preoccupations of his life.' His gardening skills, attested by the prizes he frequently won at shows, have already been noted. All his vegetables and fruit were grown on an allotment. Chris Hartwell again:
He used to have an allotment, down the first lane on your left as you enter Clifton. He had a hut on the top end, with a window at front and back, so we could shoot the pigeons when they were on the green stuff in the winter. When the snow was on the ground we always went to the allotment to shoot. I used to take an oil-stove down there 'cause I was young and used to get very cold, and that made it a bit more comfortable than the hide we also used to shoot from. He sold the pigeons mostly, though of course he'd eat what he wanted himself. This was during the War that I'm talking about, early Forties. He used to sell these pigeons in the pub or to evacuees. Meat was short, you see, people were glad of them. He also sold a lot of what he grew in the allotment, in fact most of it. I'd say ninety per cent of what he grew he sold ... My grandfather always kept his allotment tidy and uniform. He'd get soft fruit, green vegetables, vegetables of all kinds - anything you could eat - and herbs as well, he grew all his herbs on the allotment. He had a chain of ground.'Bart's meagre income was also supplemented pig-killing and curing, at which he was very adept Whenever a pig's time had come, he was ready to hire himself out. In his earlier days he often went out poaching, and the results of his illicit night-time activities added a little more to the family purse. In later life he confined himself pigeon shooting.
These jigsaw pieces of Bart Callow's life show us a man very much integrated into the vernacular culture of his village and neighbourhood. He appears to have taken part in many of the activities and customs characteristic of that culture the early twentieth century - singing, music-making, mumming, pig-keeping, gardening, poaching, pigeon-shooting, and Morris dancing. 7 His songs and a music, then, were part and parcel of an ensemble of cultural practices and pursuits, and should be understood in relation to them within the context of his biographical figuration and the course of his everyday life. But at the same time his musical prowess made him rather special. It is in fact for this that he is now most remembered. He found music irresistibly infectious. It was with him in everything he did, for even at his work, or his gardening, he would be whistling some tune or other. Jean Hartwell: 'Whistling, he used to whistle like anything I expect the only time he stopped whistling was when he was shooting or fast asleep.' His musical performances were much loved and requested locally. Fanny Hitchman:
'He was a good singer ... and was renowned for it round Clifton ... He was a person I remember singing most when I was a girl ... The first time I saw a wind-up gramophone I thought it was him inside! I thought some brute had made him go small and shut him up in this box, and made him go on singing by nudging him in the back with the handle every time he stopped or slowed down.'Chris Hartwell adds:
'He'd got a strong voice. And he could yodel beautiful. Ooh yeah! That was my favourite thing with him, when he got yodelling. Yeah, he could yodel anything. Real strong voice, and super at yodelling.'
It is important to distinguish between the songs Bart casually picked up with his ready ear and relative ease in remembering their words, and those songs he habitually sung as part of a more established and active repertoire. The former songs were taken up more for the sake of his audience; the latter were those which he regarded as his own favourite pieces, and which people now remember in particular association with him as a popular village singer. It is on these habitually sung pieces that I want to concentrate in the remaining part of this essay.
The predominant aesthetic tone of those favourite songs is what is conventionally described as 'sentimental'. The ascendant nineteenth century meaning of the word 'sentimental' pejoratively stressed what Raymond Williams has called 'a conscious consumption of feelings' rather than its earlier association with 'sensibility' from which in fact it gradually became distinct. 8 Certainly, from at least the mid-nineteenth century, the distinctive sense of the word announced a concentrated insistence on the fact and field of sentiment to the extent that this insistence became increasingly identified with certain pretensions and affectations of sensibility, which of course at the same time it simultaneously fostered. Consequently songs commonly described now as 'sentimental' with reference to the Victorian and Edwardian periods are characterised by what is typically regarded as an attenuation of emotional response. It is not possible here to embark on a cultural analysis of the sentimental mode, as manifest in these periods, in any detailed and developed manner. What it is important to stress above all, however, is the fact that the majority of songs in Bart's repertoire of favourite material were produced within a business and commercial context. This meant that in greater or lesser degree emphasis fell primarily, at the point of production and sale, upon a calculated arousal of particular kinds and ways of feeling.
It is instructive to contrast (though not for reasons for ideological condemnation) the symbolic with the sentimental mode in popular song. The former, in, for instance, the ubiquitously sung Foggy Dew or Seeds of Love, suggests an affinity between subject and object, between feelings and external phenomena, a symbolic affinity only mooted and darkly gestured at; the latter loudly imposes such affinity on its object, declaratively insists upon it to the point of pretence, often for the sake of moral piety as much as for the indulgence of feeling itself. The sentimental mode again contrasts with the ballad tale, where greater space is offered to listeners in negotiating their own response to the concerted unfolding of narrative content. What is also happening in this particular mode of song construction is the conscious appeal to certain emotions (at the expense of others less easily courted) which are to be consumed at the same time as felt.
Sentimentality often dwells obsessively and morbidly upon commonplace things. In a number of Bart's favourite songs, songs of mourning, there is an insistent, almost fetishised association of a particular object with a dead loved one. The object then becomes the dominant image around which the expression of grief is woven. My Grandfather's Clock has already been mentioned. 9 This dates from 1876, and was first sung with great success by J B Ferrell of The Mohawk Minstrels. The Vacant Chair, written by Henry Washburn and composed by George E Root, commemorates a soldier's death:
We shall meet, but we shall miss himThe Ring My Mother Wore similarly gives sentimental value to a personal possession of the dear departed:
There will be one vacant chair 10
Beside the bed where fell my tearsWithin the context of Bart's local rural community, such elegiac expressions of sorrow at the expiration of a loved one suggest how he and others of his generation emotionally regarded and responded to the fact of death. Death is both romanticised and regarded as the great leveller in these songs (in the latter case extending and mobilising a long moralising tradition). In both these respects compensatory feelings were provided for and channelled with regard to the high mortality rate among the rural population, and with regard to such inequalities in medical care, nutrition, sanitation, shelter, provision for the elderly and infirm and the toll of labour upon the physical frame, as manifest the social class structure of the time. Both these compensatory features of songs concerning death in Bart's repertoire come together in the rather maudlin If Chose Lips Could Only Speak, which depicts a wealthy and powerful widower in 'a beautiful mansion surrounded by riches', mourning the loss of his deceased wife at whose portrait he gazes 'in sad despair':
The ring to me was given
She placed it on my hand and said
We'll meet again in heaven 11
If those lips could only speakAs with similar objects of fond association in the previous songs mentioned, this typical parlour ballad is constructed around the leitmotif of a picture reminding the mourner of the past; art is shown as unsatisfyingly outlasting life, taunting the lonely survivor with a remembrance of what has been and can no longer be again. Against this reality of fleeting time and scything mortality, wealth, power and privilege are seen to be of no avail in assuaging an excess of grief that stems from self-pity and an obsessive elevation of Woman.
If those eyes could only see
If those beautiful golden tresses
Were there in reality
Could I only take your hand
As I did when you took my name
But it's only a beautiful picture
In a beautiful, golden frame 12
In The Bells of St Mary's the song is constructed likewise around a repeated image. Whereas in 'broken token' songs sexual fidelity is narratively woven around the divided pledge, the stress here is upon the emotional relations between two people, the singer and his sweetheart waiting for him back home, and those relations are somewhat mawkishly represented, in a much more peremptory fashion, by the sound of church bells:
The bells of St Mary's at sweet eventideTwo major song themes in Bart's active repertoire, grief and nostalgic remorse, are combined in the widely popular Sweet Genevieve:
Shall call me beloved, to come to your side,
And out in the valley in sound of the sea
I know you'll be waiting, yes waiting for me
The bells of St Mary's, ah! hear! they are calling,
The young loves, the true loves who come from the sea,
And so my beloved, when red leaves are falling,
The love-bells shall ring out, ring out, for you and me.
At the porch of St Mary's I'll wait there with you
In your soft wedding dress with its ribbons of blue,
In the church of St Mary's sweet voices shall sing,
For me and you dearest, the wedding bells ring 13
The days may come, the days may go,Though he does not cite the source of his authority, Willson Disher 15 states that this 'drew tears in many a bar parlour'. Turner elaborates on the musical support for its lachrymose strains: 'This dying fall occurs in practically every phrase, and the ubiquitous pause marks bear witness to the emotional conception of the song'. Yet the sentimental attitude such songs generated and reproduced was not confined to the fact of death; it had in fact more general application and reference within a popular structure of feeling and disposition characteristic of the period. Bart's favourite songs served centrally to nourish this kind of attitude to the vicissitudes of fate and fortunes. The Blind Boy, a well-known Chirgwin song written by R Lee and composed by G W Moore, avoids confrontation with the social disadvantages of sightlessness by idealising domestic affection for its unfortunate victim. His family love him because he is blind, rather than in spite of that lamentable fact: it is in this that we can say the sentimentality resides. The song celebrates a love bred of pity and a romanticised familial saintliness:
But still the hands of mem'ry weave
The blissful dreams of long ago. 14
They love me, yes, they love me, and to me they are so kind,Another key emotion associated with the sentimental mode in popular song, at least in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period in which Bart's personality and cultural tastes were moulded, is that of nostalgia. This has already been touched on in relation to songs such as Sweet Genevieve, but it is a feature which in other songs in Bart's repertoire of favourite songs is associated more narrowly and particularly with feelings of homesickness (one of the original meanings of the word 'nostalgia') or at least with feelings of vague fondness for a place of past residence.
They love me, yes, by love me, Because I am blind. 16
The Miner's Dream of Home is of course nothing if not an expression of nostalgia, telling as it does of an emigrant miner's dream of being back in Old England, listening to 'the sound of old village bells' on New Year's Eve and wending his way homeward through valley and dell to a an idealised domesticity and a tearful reunion with his mother and father:
At the door of the cottage we met face to faceI have previously discussed the complex problem of personification, identification, nostalgia and continuity in relation to a similarly yearnful emigrant song sung in nearby Adderbury by William 'Binx' Walton. 18 I would suggest the fulfilment of a similar role in rural culture for this song of Bart's as for Good News from Home: a projection of feelings of loss among villagers left behind by those emigrating to the colonies, onto the persona of the miner as manifested in performance by the singer. 19 Very much the same kind of idealised retrospect can also be witnessed in The Miner's Dream of Home, with the major stress falling upon the positive aspects of the past so that the feeling of loss became transmuted into pleasure, for that is precisely what is entailed in the process of nostalgic effect. Returning to the place of one's original upbringing is even suggested as an infallible panacea for emigrant homesickness in one of the best known songs in Bart's song-bag, I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen. This has proved to be durably popular over the past century. It was written in 1875 by Thomas Paine Westerndorf (1848 - 1923) in reply to another song, the currently popular but since forgotten, Barney, Take Me Home Again. 20 That returning home could be credited with such transformative potential, and the connection of this central theme with the growth of the song's reputation as a standard 'old time' number, is no doubt due to what I have suggested elsewhere, is the remarkable power - as well as appeal - of nostalgia in vernacular popular culture over the past hundred years and more. 21
'Twas the first time for ten weary years
Soon the past was forgotten, we stood hand in hand,
Father, mother, and wanderer in tears
Once more in the fireplace the oak log burns bright,
And I promised no more would I roam;
As I sat in the old vacant chair by the hearth,
And I sang the dear song 'Home, Sweet Home' 17
Nostalgic retrospection is also the main feature of the three Stephen Foster songs in Bart's repertoire of favourite songs: Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home and Old Black Joe. 22 The idealised Uncle Ned 'darky' of these songs is difficult to place in the village culture of the region and period with which we are dealing in this essay. The question it seems essential to ask is how the particular stereotype deployed in these pieces functioned in relation to the situated meanings made of them, and the pleasure derived from them, in such a local cultural context. In many ways the overall mood and tone of these plantation songs is hardly different to that of songs such as The Miner's Dream of Home. This is essentially to do with a longing for things in the past which cannot be relived, and it is this longing which justifies within the song's own terms the idealisation of those irrevocably lost things. Though it would take too long to justify here, a case could however be made for possible identification by labouring villagers with the philanthropic Negro stereotypes of this kind of song. 23 Whether or not that kind of identification, however intermittent and partial, and however contradicted by attitudes of prejudice and hostility in other contexts, constituted one possible source of situated meaning for these songs, it is also worth considering the further possibility that they would have been understood symbolically in relation to English labourers' own experience and expectations of old age, for in all three songs the singer is in the position of looking forlornly back in old age to the idyllically happy days of youth. The question, then, is in what ways did these songs resonate within the context of village experience, attitudes and values?
The two main alternatives available to the poor when they became too old and feeble to support themselves was either to enter the workhouse or to go on the parish. 24 Most naturally opted for the latter, but the poor relief they received was absurdly small: for example, in the Bicester Poor Law Union in Oxfordshire, during the 1870s, old people living alone received only two shillings a week and two loaves, with some restricted to one shilling a week and one loaf. 25 Sums of only two or three shillings a week were typical of Oxfordshire unions in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some old people could of course manage to scrape together a living from odd jobs, and if lucky, could grow a certain amount of food in their allotments or gardens. Some as well were assisted by their family, though their offspring were usually in indigent circumstances themselves. Whether their efforts to postpone or avoid the day of entry were successful or not, the prospect of it coming was dreaded among the rural poor in Oxfordshire. As Flora Thompson said of labourers at Juniper Hill in the north of the county: 'it was a common thing to hear ageing people say that they hoped God would be pleased to take them before they got past work and became a trouble to anybody.' 26
Few things were as abhorred in the countryside as the 'bastille', which in view of the prison-like regime and conditions is hardly surprising. Married couples were usually separated on entry (despite the 1847 legislation to the contrary). Inmates were forced to wear workhouse dress, and provided with a monotonous and scant diet. Leisure activities and visiting were severely limited. The country workhouse was in fact in many ways what is now called a total institution, and all expectations of old age for the poor in the Victorian period were inevitably shaped by its presence. 27 These expectations would certainly not have been so bleak by the 1920s and '30s, and conditions for old people of little means not as severe as in years gone by, but memory of those conditions dies hard, as many an oral historian can testify. The reality of the black slave's existence in the Deep South is of course sentimentalised in Foster's homely vignettes, much as English shepherd and cottage life often was, as for example in I'll Take You Home:
Where laughs the little silver stream,But that would not preclude the symbolic resonances of the songs within the cognitive experience and understanding of the labouring community, and within the accommodative modes and procedures of a subordinate meaning-system. Sung in an era when 'nearly every farm lane led eventually to the distant workhouse', 29 the transmogrification of the hated 'bastille' into such sweet pastoral images as the 'little old log cabin down the lane' jolts us now into recognition of the power and necessity of metaphor and symbol to enable victims of the Poor Law to survive a Prospect of desolation without surrender to despair. 30
Beside your mother's humble cot,
And brightest rays of sunshine gleam
There all your grief will be forgot. 28
Metaphor and symbolisation involve the understanding or experience of one thing in terms of another. In particular circumstances and contexts, the process of symbolic understanding and experience crystallises as meaning or displacement of meaning in a recognition of the propensity of poetic imagery to stand for or temporarily conceal the reality with which it is associated for the participants. It is therefore my suggestion that a metaphorical understanding of these songs served as a means by which the poor simultaneously confronted and eschewed one of the harshest facts of their existence. Metaphorical and symbolic references to the workhouse in working class life varied according to locality, situation and circumstances and perhaps more importantly, according to sense and usage. Intense feelings of anger and maybe hope are implied in the condemnation of 'little bastilles', while references to The Land of Hope and Glory, and The Land of Promise, on the other hand, are steeped in a desperate irony. In view of the grim reality of the workhouse, it is hardly surprising that such alternative allusions to it mediated working class experience and response its existence.
The remaining songs among those habitually sung by Bart which I have so far not mentioned are, with two exceptions, of the familiar 'folk' song type. The Sweet Nightingale, Tom Pearce's Grey Mare and The Farmer's Boy were well-known throughout the region, as of course elsewhere. 31 The Mistletoe Bough had a particular significance in local legends though other places have also laid claim to inspiring the song, written in the 1830s by Thomas Haynes Bayley (1797 - 1839) and composed by Sir Henry Bishop. The song has been associated with Exton Hall, Rutland, the Copes of Bramshill, a vicar's daughter in Somerset and the Lovels of Derbyshire; according to Katherine Briggs, it is the name Lovel which has attracted association of the tale with Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire. The song was 'very popular at village concerts' in the region, and has been 'taken up by traditional singers and printed on street ballads'. 32 As with The Farmer's Boy, this song is different in sentimental quality to the others discussed above, primarily because of its appeal to its audience lying intrinsically in the narrative content and structure the difference basically stems from the degree to which overt populist arousal of an attenuated emotional response is the underlying imperative: an encouragement of a consumption of sentiment rather than of an 'education of desire' and a more self-conscious way of feeling.
The two exceptions mentioned earlier are both soldier songs. Tipperary is perhaps the best known song of the First World War, though in fact it dates from before the time Tommy Atkins took it as his anthem. 33 According to one estimate, Tipperary 'was tried and proved in the crucible of patriotic emotions, and it came very near to permanence as the one folk tune of the [early] twentieth century'. 34 Pulling is undoubtedly right in ascribing the nostalgic and patriotic appeal of the song to the troops to the lines 'Goodbye, Piccadilly; farewell, Leicester Square', rather than in any reference to Tipperary. 35 The 'vague emotional charge' which has come to be the hallmark of patriotic feeling over the last century or so is in fact closely akin to the sentimental mode of popular communication and response. 36
In promoting identification with nation rather than class, patriotic sentiment characteristically elided the social injustices of proletarianisation and structural poverty for the rural labourer. In this respect the other soldier song of Bart's, Three Cheers for the Scarlet and Blue, is the inverse of his songs of nostalgic longing for home and country, for it tells of a young man grown sickened with the repetitive dullness and dead-end quality of life on the land, who in consequence takes the shilling for a life of adventure, like many goaded or gulled into uniform before him. The song was written by John J Blockley in the 1870s. 37 Bart may have picked it up during his army days, but it was well known throughout Oxfordshire and the Thames Valley, and he could well have learnt it from local sources. The song connects with feelings of antipathy to farm work increasingly felt among the young in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but reasons for the drift from the land - the chronically low agricultural wage, for example, along with entrenched expectations of deference in rural social relations - are buried beneath the glorification of a soldier's life and a surge of patriotic ardour.
The emotional feelings and states associated with grief, pity, pathos, patriotism nostalgia and romantic love are as we have seen characteristic of the sentimentality of many popular songs of fifty to a hundred years ago. While the outwardly distinguishable features of the sentimental mode vary from period to period (as evidenced for example in the modern abandonment of orphans, blind children and dying mothers as staple objects of the sentimental response), it is nevertheless associated here with an emergent consumerist form of cultural production. It is in this respect that the sentimental was calculated, in terms of content, themes, style and an engineering of response, since a commercial end was foreseen and intended via the means of popular song writing and publishing, regardless of the unconscious forces to which the sentimental mode may have given form. I began this article by referring to the dialectical interplay between mediated and situated meanings, pleasures and values, and noted the danger of idealising the performance of song occurring at the peripheries of economic enterprise or against the grain of modern development. That danger must be stressed. The capitalist market's primary object - the accumulation of surplus value - mobilises a concentration of resources and action on what will sell most in the most widespread way in the shortest length of time. It is in this respect that the commercial circumscribes and compromises any aesthetic or use value. The particular constructions put upon what I have identified as key sentimental feelings in this period were those calculated to most easily precipitate an emotional response, and it is that ease which is one measure of sentimentalism. As Marshall Berman has put it:
'Those traits, impulses and talents that the market can use are rushed (often prematurely) into development and squeezed desperately till there is nothing left; everything else within us, everything nonmarketable, gets draconically repressed, or withers away for lack of use, or never has a chance to come to life at all.' 38The danger of idealising local and amateur musical performance is also that of ignoring or underplaying the fact that it is precisely this kind of performance which has been intensively and l extensively marginalised, and the extent of its autonomy narrowed, by the popular music industry of the last hundred years and more.
It may be tempting to leave it at that. But the realisation of meanings and values in any cultural product is never one of simple and direct relay between processes of production and consumption, even when the manipulation of popular cultural life appears, from a critical perspective, to be quite blatantly and self-confidently exercised. Tony Davies has made a similar point with regard to the romance fiction of the period:
'.. the history of popular reading suggests that its pleasures, the uses to which it puts its texts and genres, the modes of sensation, excitement and escape, as well as knowledge, that it stimulates, may not be as securely locked into the 'legitimate antitheses' of the ideological economy as most socialists, and some feminists, have supposed. Reading, like riding on trains, has its unruly as well as legitimated pleasures, to which the ticketed destination, the timetable of secure significations, sets only a provisional terminus.' 39While I think it is easy to overestimate the potential for 'subversive readings' of this kind, and to forget or to minimise the corrupting power of the market, it is because the terminus of meanings, pleasures and significances of popular song is to some degree always provisional that we have to have regard for their values and significations in use and in context.
The sentimental songs of the Victorian and Edwardian periods - of which those I have been considering here are a fairly representative sample - are most commonly associated with the middle and lower middle class parlour. What is interesting about Bart Callow's repertoire is that it displays the appeal of the polite sentimental mode in song for the rural working class as well. We cannot however simply assume an identical appeal across different class formations. I would like to conclude by suggesting that the appeal of such songs may in certain respects have crossed the boundaries of class experience, and yet in other ways such songs may have had a quite specific connection with that experience. At a general level, within the mould of a repressive social order, singing and listening to sentimental songs may have provided a legitimate occasion for releasing or indulging in certain feelings otherwise normally denied expression. The sentimental song in this period provided a code for these particular feelings, and its performance may also have provided an opportunity, bracketed off from the real conditions of existence, whereby such feelings could be gratified in a socially acceptable manner which in turn legitimated the pleasure taken in them. It is important as well that this process of coded emotional expression and gratification was a public one, for its occurrence within a local public context would have established recognition of the commonality of the feelings which text and tune engendered, and thus rescued them from submergence in the private realm of fantasy.
The attraction of the sentimental song for working class people bears many resemblances with other aspects of an historically developing popular 'culture of consolation', though by situating it in that context I do not mean to imply that such song simply provided a deep trough of low pleasure. Though the polarity is perhaps over-simple and in some ways misleading, it would seem that working class participatory reproduction of the sentimental song of the period had both positive and negative aspects. The particular feelings gratified via immersion in the performance of sentimental song were, within the patriarchal order of the time, commonly regarded as 'feminine', as characteristic of an 'inferior' female sensibility. Displaying these feelings in other everyday contexts was precluded for men by a whole host of pressures, norms, models, standards and expectations, many of which were internalised from an early age. The social construction of sensibility during Callow's lifetime was defined in great degree by definite - at times rigid - antitheses between gender roles and identities at work and in the home, despite the class distinction between women (often in paid labour) and ladies (ornaments for bourgeois male delectation).
Yet certain aspects of male identity in Callow's lifetime were class-specific, and Callow was in no significant way untypical of other men of his generation, class and locality in that his own sense of himself as a man appears, from what we can glean from recollection and anecdote, to have been moulded by the social structure of the time in which he existed. The kind of aggressive masculinity he displayed was common among village working men at the time, as was his irresponsible and selfish drinking habit. The drunkard's secret guilt often found a pathological outlet in morbid or maudlin sentiment as much as it did in domestic violence, though the displaced attraction to such sentiment in song or verse was at the same time lodged in a wider structure of repression. Where the open realisation of tender feelings by men in so many contexts would have been scorned as effeminate or defeatist, such feelings seem to have found compensatory expression in the emotional excess of particular kinds of song. Callow's personality was fraught with oppositions, most notably between callousness and aggression on the one hand, and on the other the gentleness and patience required in his gardening, the delight in play with his children and perhaps also in companionship with his grandchild. It is in the context of these oppositions that these particular songs relate to the man.
Yet it is much more important to understand such phenomena in the structural contexts which produced them than it is to denigrate one man in whom they were so interwoven. Callow was not only bound up in the prevailing pattern of working class male identity; he was also forced into certain experiences by poverty, the social organisation of labour, and international conflict. Hardship, unemployment and war led to the long intervals away from home, and it is not difficult to see the appeal of those favourite songs of nostalgia for family and domestic life in the context of his forced absence from it. His contradictory behaviour when at home does not so much detract from that as explain the distortedly exaggerated expression which his longing for and appreciation of his home and family perpetually found.
It is with these sorts of consideration in mind that we have to develop a general sense of the role and significance of sentimental song for men in this period. In the Midlands countryside where Callow lived, such songs proved appealing as a displaced focus of feeling at exactly the time when agricultural labour was becoming increasingly displaced, when rural social life was becoming rapidly transformed and many established moral references and standpoints were being challenged and undermined. The appeal of such songs for working class people would then have been grounded in feelings of alienation and loss bred of the economic and social forces in which popular destinies were swept up. The lives of many of the rural poor were in crucial ways beyond their control.
By contrast with middle class pleasure, where sentimental song and verse provided an emotional counter to the imperatives of utilitarianism and the puritan ethic, it is in the passivity and the denial of action which sentimentality intends that such songs may be said to have found a psychological correlate in working class experience. Hence so many of the songs in Bart's repertoire being concerned with victims of circumstances. Hence so many of his songs having to do with regret and loss, with the idealisation of what has been, with fond dreams of the past. Like many other people suffering from the disadvantage of being socially positioned at the bottom of the class structure, Bart Callow was a deeply frustrated man.
'His house was said to be unfit for human habitation. It was pulled down, condemned and pulled down. This was in Pepper Alley, Clifton, the second cottage along. It was in about 1955. He finished up in the old people's home in Adderbury. That's where he went in the end.'
|Top of page||Articles||Home Page||Reviews||News||Editorial||Map|