Article MT054 - from Musical Traditions No 1, Mid 1983

Stand Up Ye Men of Labour

The Socio-Political Songs of Walter Pardon 1

'Men make their own history, but they do not know that they are making it'.

Karl Marx

Walter Pardon is a retired carpenter from the village of Knapton in Norfolk, who came to prominence in the mid 1970's as one of the few outstanding folksingers left in England today. 2

I first met Walter in 1977 and, partly at his request, began to record his entire song repertoire.  This project is now, to all intent and purpose, completed, and an examination of the recorded material shows just how important a singer Mr Pardon has turned out to be.

In this paper, the first in a proposed series that will examine Walter's repertoire, I wish to examine a number of his songs - some complete, others incomplete fragments - which, taken together, offer a unique insight into an aspect of 19th century social unrest and conflict.  It should be stressed at once that these songs have been placed together by myself: and not by Walter, who I suspect would not link them together in the manner that I do.

I am not a social historian, and so I am rather loath to probe too deeply into the social conditions that gave birth to these items.  Nevertheless, I feel that the importance of these songs lies not just in their origin, which in itself is important, but also in the fact that their strength of feeling is implied today by their being sung by Walter.  It is also confirmation of the fact that the world-view of 19th century rural agricultural workers was enlarged directly as a result of the dialectical effects brought about by the processes of capitalism.  Attitudes, expressed in song, changed because of this.

It is one thing to sing a broadside ballad about, say, a sea fight.  After all, change the name of the vessels - or the name of the battle and one fight is pretty much like another.  The same may be said about most of the songs and ballads sung by folksingers.  Just occasionally though, some songs are not like that.  Walter's uncle, Tom Gee, had one song which included this verse:

They would drive over poor folks
Who stand in the way.
You slave-driving farmers.
You pot-bellied farmers:
You're forced to give way
To the labouring men.  3
Walter cannot recall the song in full.  He knows that one couplet tells of the farm worker collecting his wages:
The labourer will go
With his cap in his hand.
Another couplet offers the farmer advice:
To the greedy old farmers
This maxim we'll tell

Although, sadly, the maxim itself has been lost in the intervening years.

On October 20th, 1825, William Cobbett made this observation of a farmer and his family in Reigate, Surrey:
'I dare say it has been Squire Charington and the Miss Charingtons; and not plain Master Charington, and his son Hodge, and his daughter Betty Charington, all of whom this accursed system has, in all likelihood, transmuted into a species of mock gentlefolks, while it has ground the labourers down into real slaves.  Why do not farmers now feed and lodge their work-people, as they did formerly?  Because they cannot keep them upon so little as they give them in wages'.

Rural Rides (1830)

This change in attitude had led to riots in 1816 in East Anglia.  In 1830 conditions were such that there was a general labourer's revolt.  A number of broadside ballads appeared c.1830, one being Come All You Swaggering Farmers.  The following version was collected by Clive Carey from John Willis of Sonning-on-Thames, who had learnt it from his father, John Willis of Hurst in Berkshire, who died in 1903, aged 75.
Come all ye swaggering farmers wherever you may be,
One moment pay attention and listen unto me.
It is concerning former times, the truth I do declare,
So different from the present times, if you wish them compare.


Lofty heads and paltry pride - I'm sure it's all the go
For to distress poor servants and keep their wages low.
The farmers sons, they formerly used to plough and sow,
And when the summer time did come, likewise to reap and mow.
But now, they're dressed like squires sons, their pride it knows no bounds;
They mount upon a fine bred horse and follow up the hounds.

The farmers daughters, formerly they used to card and spin,
And by their own industry good husbands they did wins.
But now, the card and spinning wheel are forced to take its chance,
While they're popped off to boarding school to learn to sing and dance.
In 1834, the year of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a New Poor Law Act was passed, supposedly to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.  Conditions were especially aggravated by the introduction of the Corn Laws, which were repealed in 1846.  Walter's uncle, Billy Gee, had the following verse which probably stems from this period:
Soon the ships will be coming in
Loaded with foreign corn.
We'll make those farmers rue the day
That ever they were born.
Some people sought escape in foreign lands: as in this verse, sung originally by Walter's mother:
Fare-you well old boys,
For really I must go.
Work it is so scarce and the wages are so low.
I'll cross the briny ocean, let it hail, rain, blow or snow.
I'm bound to emigrate to New Zealand.
Another uncle, Bob Pardon, told Walter the following verse that was originally known to Walter's grandfather.  It refers to a one-time owner of Whitehouse Farm in Knapton who employed children for a pittance:
Here we sit and do not care,
Pick crows and do not spare.
If old Coleman he should come
You must fly and I must run.
Other 19th century owners of Whitehouse Farm were the Blanchflower brothers.  According to Uncle Billy, John Blanchflower was liked and respected by his workmen.  On his death, his brother Tim took over the running of the farm.  Tim was greatly disliked, especially for his habit of making his men 'show their obedience', by touching their forelocks in his presence.  One morning the following rhyme was found chalked on Tim Blanchflower's front door:
Your brother John was like a lamb,
And you are like a lion.
Your men must work two days in one
As if they're made of iron.
Things were to change in 1872 when Joseph Arch (1826-1919) founded the first agricultural worker's union, The Warwickshire Agricultural Labourer's Union (later the National Agricultural Labourer's Union), which lasted until the year 1896.  Union activity was strong in Norfolk - Arch, in fact, became Liberal MP for NW Norfolk in 1885 - and is remembered today in one verse that was originally sung by Tom Gee:
Joe Arch is the man
Who started all this.
He's been a farm labourer
He knows what it is.
Of course union activity was widespread in other parts of Britain - not only in East Anglia as this contemporary broadside text (printed in Manchester by Thomas Pearson) shows:

The Labourers Union

Air:- 'Poriant pour La Syrie'

In Eighteen hundred and Seventy-two
The down-trod sons of toil,
The wealth producers from the land,
Who tills the British soil;
From worse than Negro slavery,
They roused both near and far,
And their watch-word was Union,
For Union, Hurrah!

From Lincoln, Bedford, Warwickshire,
Worcester, and Oxford too,
From Hereford, and Gloucestershire
The joyful tidings flew,
The labourers joined this holy cause
With peace, order and law,
And their watch-word is Union,
For Union, Hurrah!

Long time has down trod labour writhed,
Beneath oppression's smart,
But now, the one word 'Union!'
Appals the oppressor's heart.
Kind Heaven has sent us advocates,
Though some un-colleged are,
They Heaven inspired, preach Union,
For Union, Hurrah!

Three Cheers for Labourers Unions!
The industrious sons of toil,
We'll now unite for labourer's rights,
Throughout our British soil,
England and Ireland will unite,
To have one Labourer's Union,
A fair day's work and fair days wages,
The Union, Hurrah!

The Bible tells us God's commands
'All men earn bread by toil',
And not oppress their fellow men,
To live upon the spoil,
And Labour's peaceful Unions,
They will support God's Law,
Three cheers for Labourer's Union,
Hurrah!  Hurrah!  Hurrah!
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.
Walter remembers being told that the union organisers tried to prevent non-union labourers from working on the land.  One Knapton family was forced to leave the village 'to the sound of trumpets and dustbin lids' 4 for working on a farm which had been 'blacked' by the Union.  As late as l910, workers on the Whitehouse Farm were on strike for Union recognition.

In 1906, George Edwards, another Norfolk man, founded the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers' and Small Holders' Union, the forerunner of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers.  Several members of Walter's family, including his father and Uncle Billy, joined the Trunch branch of the Union; and Walter remembers three songs from this period.  All three appeared in an undated song book, 'National Agricultural Labourers' and Rural Workers' Union Song Book' (Caxton Press, Maddermarket, Norwich), a copy of which was owned by Uncle Billy.  The booklet contains words to the following twenty six songs: 5

It is surely of interest to note that most of the Union songs in this booklet use hymn tunes which presumably were well-known - rather than folk tunes which presumably were not so well known.  It is also worth considering whether or not this fact is part confirmation of 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 three Union songs that Walter learnt from Uncle Billy Gee are We Meet Today in Freedom's Cause, An Old Man's Advice and Sons of Labour.  The first is based on the hymn Hold the Fort, written by Philip Paul Bliss and published in America in 1870, the second parodies the popular song My Grandfather's Clock, while the third follows the pattern of the hymn Hark the Gospel Tune is Sounding.

The following texts are as sung by Walter.  They show little difference from the printed sets.

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

Look my comrade, see the Union
Banner waving high.
Reinforcements are appearing
Victory is nigh.

See our numbers still increasing
Hear the bugle blow.
By our Union we shall triumph
Over every foe.

Fierce and long the battle rages
But we do not fear.
Help will come whenever it's needed
Cheer my comrades, cheer.

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.

My grandfather said in the noontide of life
Poverty was a grief and a curse.
For it brought to his home sorrow, discord and strife
And kept him poor with empty purse.
So he took a bold stand and joined the Union band
To help his fellow men he tried.
A Union man he vowed he'd stand
Till the day he died.

My grandfathers dead, as we gathered round his bed
These last words to us he did say:
'Don't let your Union drop, nor the agitation
Or else you will soon rue the day.
Get united to a man for it's your only plan.
Make the Union your care and your pride.
Help on reform in every way you can'
Then the old man died.

Walter Pardon may be heard singing An Old Man's Advice on the album 'A Country Life' (Topic 12TS392).

Sons of Labour

Sons of Labour, who've been toiling
Through the hungry moil of years,
See upon the world's horizon
Demons in the light appears.
Haste you, greet him with the sunlight
Born of hope, of better times.
Crown his with the right to lead you
Join the legions to his line.


Do not tarry, do not tarry,
Now's the great momentous time
Join the Union's rank in thousands
Swell the number of its line
Do not tarry, do not tarry,
And the crown of victory's thine

Soon he'll rout the pangs of hunger
That so long have pierced your breast
Give you homes in which to shelter
When by cold and storm depressed
Give you rights of every comfort
Where no tyrants dare to tread
In the glow of human justice
In the land of living bread.

Look ye, see he even signals
Sword in hand to lead the way
Haste ye, muster to his standard
Time is precious, don't delay
Only trust him, he wlll lead you
With the standard to the fight
And return with you victorious
With your crowns of human right

I intend to include this song on Walter's album 'Best of the Bunch - A Norfolk Garland' - a future Folk Classics LP.

Walter Pardon is, I think, the only singer from whom these three songs have been collected.  When I first met him, I asked him to write down the title of all the 'old' songs that he knew.  His list included An Old Man's Advice, which he had previously sung to Roy Palmer, but he did not include the other two titles.  It was only after recording An Old Man's Advice that I discovered the other two songs.  Possibly Uncle Billy had told Walter that the songs had been written some time prior to the Great War and so Walter did not feel that they were 'old' songs.  There is, however, the alternate possibility that as the songs deal with issues that are almost contemporary, they cannot, by reason of this fact, be 'old' songs.  If this is the case, then song collectors - including myself - will have to urgently reconsider the implications inherent in such words as 'old'.

The study of worker's music has, for far too long, been held back by the restraints placed upon it with the use of the term 'folkmusic'.  Cecil Sharp's three prime factors for the development of folkmusic (continuity/variation/selection) are no longer adequate cornerstones for the study of this music; and one is sorely tempted to do away with the term 'folkmusic' altogether.  If anything, Sharp's theoretical work, and that of his latter day disciples, has, over the years, hindered, rather than developed, the study and understanding of this music.  Over the years I have been forcibly struck many times 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 me that they would sing this song at harvest suppers.  It would be not only for the benefit of local dignitaries and guests of honour (often townspeople), 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.

Folklorists have long recognised that this process occurs in black American folksong where, say, southern sharecroppers sing insults to their mules, which other blacks realise are intended for the white bosses.  Recently Roger de V Renwick has made an inroad into the complex web of English folksong meanings.  6 He has, by way of a structural analysis, successfully shown that the song The Bold Fisherman is not a remnant of a medieval religious paean, but rather yet another song in which the absent lover returns in disguise to test the fidelity of his sweetheart.  Structuralism might be a weighty topic, but English folksong study urgently needs others to follow Renwick's lead.

Most of Walter Pardon's socio-political songs do not fit easily into Cecil Sharp's scheme of things; yet they 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.

Mike Yates - 1983


  1. Much of the theory and structure of this essay is unashamedly based on 'The Socio-Political Works of Fiddlin' John and Moonshine Kate' by Gene Wiggins, in Southern Folklore Quarterly, 40 (1977), pp. 97-118.
  2. Walter Pardon, born 4.3.14, can be heard on three albums.  A Proper Sort (Leader LED 2063) issued 1975. Our Side of the Baulk (Leader LED 2111) issued 1977, and A Country Life (Topic 12TS392).  A fourth album Best of the Bunch - A Norfolk Garland ( A future Folk Classics LP, is due to be released in 1983.  Three other songs can be heard as part of a 2-record set An English Folk Music Anthology (Folkways FE38553J issued 1981).
  3. Unless stated otherwise, all song texts are as sung by Walter Pardon to the author, 1978 - 1981.
  4. Walter Pardon, 25.6.78. Many examples of 'rough music', as a form of social control, have been noted in the past.  For a general description see E P Thompson 'Rough Music: Le charivari Anglais', Annales: Economies, Societes, Civilisation, 27 (1972), pp. 285-312.
  5. I know of one other Agricultural Union Song Book - Songs for Singing at Agricultural Labourer's Meetings by H Evans (Leamington. No date). It contains the following eighteen songs only one of which specifically stipulates the use of a hymn tune:
  6. Roger de V Renwick, English Folk Poetry (London: Batsford, 1980).

Article MT054

Top of page Articles Home Page Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 3.10.02