Songs for the Armistice

Today we remember the end of the first world war. In the folk idiom, war has always been an inspiration for songs of loss, sorrow and disillusion, sometimes veering into the overtly political. I’ve compiled a little playlist to keep you down throughout the day. You’re welcome.

The titular Faded Coat of Blue is that of a Union Soldier during the American Civil war (the Confederates wore gray.) The unidentified narrator, who only speaks of the soldier as “my brave boy”, dwells on his lonely an anonymous death on the battlefield (being buried in a “lonely grave unknown”.) The last words of the dying soldier go to his family:  “And tell my sweet sister, so gentle, good and true,/ That I’ll meet her up in heaven in my faded coat of blue.”

Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier is very probably of English origins, and sounds very similar to Siúil A Rún, an Irish ballad popularized by Clannad. AA Bondy’s version on the album Divided and United, which aims at gathering music from both sides of the Civil War that tore America apart, relies on a spare electric arrangement that strays from the usual traditional approaches. Yet, the minimalist melody and heavy percussive beat give this lament all the emotional force needed to accompany the desperation of a young woman “crying her fill”, facing the double loss of seeing her lover go to war, and having to sell her possessions to help him by equipment “sell you wheel, sell your tin of silver, buy your love a sword of steel”.) From Ireland to England to the young United-States, the adaptations of this song have shown its universal appeal thanks to the narrative voice of a “collateral victim” of war (a them which modern artists will come back to as we’ll see further down.)

The Foggy Dew is much more linked to a particular context: that of the Easter Rising of 1916. With Britain at war on the European front, Irish rebels led an ultimately unsuccessful rising to free Ireland from British rule. Thought the song still extols the value of the rebels and the just cause of war, the narrator cannot help but notice the hefty price to pay to some measure of freedom (“For I parted then with valiant men whom I never shall see more/ But to and fro in my dreams I go and I kneel and pray for you,/ For slavery fled, O glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy dew.”)

While she refers to no precise conflict, the shadow of Vietnam looms over Joni Mitchell’s 1969 a appella dirge. Her addressee, “Johnny” or “America” itself, has betrayed its values, trading the beautiful “fiddle” pour the military “drums”, trading the “handshake” for the “fist”. Not totally disillusioned, she still tries to make overtures, as a Canadian, to “[her] friend” America, proposing to “help [America] find the peace.” In the final line, she highlight the then almighty position of America on global affair: when it goes to war, we “all […] fear the beating of  [its] drum.”

Collateral damages are put back at the center by Malvina Reynolds when she writes What Have They Done to the Rain? in 1962. When she covered this song, Joan Baez warned her audience: “the gentlest protest song I know: it doesn’t protest gently but it sounds gentle”. And indeed, the end of the first verse sounds gentle enough for one who doesn’t know the message of the song:  “Just a little boy standing in the rain/ The gentle rain that falls for years/ And the grass is gone, the boy disappears/ And rain keeps falling like helpless tears.” However, once you realize that the “rain that falls for year” is the fallout of nuclear testing, the disappearance of the little boy because as gruesome as it is poignant. Without ever mentioning war, Reynolds writes a devastating song about the consequence of arms race and unchecked technological development.

Once again, no specific war is mentioned in the song written by Ochs in 1963 and (hugely) popularized by Baez in 1964. War in itself is not the topic of the song, it is just one element in a list of many social ills. As he mentions crime, alcoholism, or vagrancy, Ochs reminds his listeners of the social realities that lead some to these situations. “Show me the country, where the bombs had to fall/ Show me the ruins of the buildings, once so tall/ And I’ll show you a young land/ With so many reasons why” sings Ochs (or Baez) in his final verse. As long as society doesn’t change, there is no hope to avoid wars. Like the two previous songs, it is hard not to see the influence of the Vietnam war creeping into the lyrics.

I’ve already written about how her anti-Vietnam War positions got Buffy Sainte-Marie blacklisted by the government. Yet, I couldn’t fail to include this song again in such a playlist. Her Universal Soldier is of all nationalities, religions, ages and fights with spears as well as missiles. He will never stop killing, for the sake of ideology as diverse as democracy, communism or fascism, for the fundamental reason that fighter always believe in the righteousness of their cause. The last verse is where the song becomes controversial: “His orders come from far away no more/ They come from him, and you, and me/ and brothers can’t you see/ This is not the way we put an end to war”. She points out our own responsibility in electing warmongers.

In 1985, Suzanne Vega wrote one of the most emotional song about war, The Queen and the Soldier. Reverting the trope of the female voice representing pacifism while the men wage war (as see above in Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier, and below in Travelin’ Soldier), we see this time a male soldier questioning a female ruler about the necessity of war. The Soldier manages to elicit a heartfelt response of the Queen who acknowledges she has no choice but to wage this senseless. However, the Soldier will pay a dear price for this rare moment of earnestness of the Queen when, “ashamed” of having shown her tue feelings, she puts back her iron mask at the expense of the Soldier.

The last song of this playlist is also the most recent one. Release in 2002 by the country-pop outfit Dixie Chicks, the tearjerker would trigger a shitstorm of epic proportions. Seemingly about the Vietnam war, the song follows the exchange between a “pretty little girl with a bow in her hair” and the eponymous travelin’ soldier until [SPOILER] his untimely death on the battlefront. The lyrics send us full-circle back to the oldest song of this playlist: Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier.

Yet, even if we could consider that the narrative isn’t really original, the story of the song itself makes it a powerful antiwar anthem: in 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines introduced the song to a London audience by expressing her shame to share common Texan origins with warmongering president George W. Bush who started a war Iraq that very year. Of course, Southern fans didn’t take it too kindly and went as far as organizing event in which they brought their Dixie Chicks albums to have them rolled over by a bulldozer (!!) Although Maines apologized about attacking the president (still maintaining that “[she] just want[ed] to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost”), and Bush himself spoke up about the singer’s right to her freedom of speech and opinion, the Dixie Chick’s career never quite recovered and they’ve only recently been back in the spotlight.

This playlist can be found here, on my YouTube channel here, with a British bonus, courtesy of Kate Bush (which sadly didn’t fit the specifics of this blog.)



Spinners and songsters-Songs from textile workers

Girl Working at a Cotton Mill
Young girl working in a North Carolina cotton mill.

As I was preparing a class on the history of labor in the US, I delved into the narratives of textile workers, especially women. Of course, it brought to mind several folk songs and I decided to dig a little deeper into the musical depiction of textile work in various English-speaking countries.

The songs that I was reminded of seemed to have various purposes. Some of them seemed to be simple songs used by textile workers to pass the time or give themselves a working pace, while others document their living condition and some are downright protest songs (looking at you, Hedy West.) Again

Waulking songs

Waulking is an old practice which was kept alive into the twentieth century by Gaelic Scots, mostly in the Hebrides apparently. It is the process by which women clean and beat the tweed to soften it. Of course, beating the cloth created a rhythm, and the women added vocals to this rhythm. Vocals can be lyrics in Gaelic or meaningless syllables (called “vocables”), could talk about romance or be simple gossip between the women taking part in the luadh.

The structure in itself is (necessarily) repetitive, as the lead singer gives the words and melody, which are repeated by the chorus of women as the lead singer takes her breath. This is visible in the video below or in this one.

Nowadays, artists like commercially successful Capercaillie of Julie Fowlis have brought those songs to a new audience. These songs have also been exported by Scottish migrants to Nova Scotia and more precisely Cape Breton, where enthusiasts keep the heritage alive by performing and sharing their “milling songs” (more history and audio on this link.)

In Scotland, some women seem keen to keep this tradition alive:

Songs of weaving

Moving on to a completely different beast, I am leaving behind the Scottish handicraft as citizens of the British isles were thrust into the industrial revolution in the 19th century and had to adapt to a whole new production system.

One of the most lyrical songs on the period was probably even older than that. The Four Loom Weaver probably originated in The Poor Cotton Weaver, which is supposed to have been written in the very early nineteenth century according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The song, dug up by renowned folklorist Ewan McColl, inspired Silly Sisters June Tabor and Maddy Prior (of Steeleye Span fame) to record it on the first of their two records. They revisited it 42 years later in the video below. Tabor introduces the song by explaining how skilled workers saw their wages fall by nearly two thirds, but the song has reemerged several times throughout the nineteenth century in times of crisis, and even made an appearance in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 Mary Barton: “Do you know “The Oldham Weaver?” Not unless you are Lancashire born and bred, for it is a complete Lancashire ditty. I will copy it for you”. The version presented in the novel is lyrically similar to other versions of the song, with added regional accent.
The narrator is a weaver without work who can only look at his own clothes falling apart as he tries to survive on nettles.

The weaving idiom has spawned many other songs, but not all as grim as the Four Loom Weaver. The Doffing Mistress is ripe with spinning vocabulary: frames, doffers, tying up ends… Not going into the technicalities of doffing which I don’t claim to master (but Wikipedia does), let’s just say the process of doffing the frames require small, nimble and speedy hands, which made it ideal employment for children. In this traditional song, the doffing boys have a new supervisor, or “doffing mistress”, Elsie Thompson, who benevolently “helps them at every [spinning] frame” and urges them to “tie up the ends [of fiber]”. If they are happy to oblige the new doffing mistress, they won’t obey the same orders coming from the boss: “Yes, tie our ends up we surely do/ For Elsie Thompson but not for you.” I guess Elsie has some sort of… “natural authority”?

In Anne Briggs’ a-Capella version, the little nonsensical refrains adds to the  illusion of the tune as a work-song, meant to be performed while they worked.

Protest Songs

Of course, the industrial revolution and the industrialization of the textile industry evolved in a similar way in the USA. One of the best-know composition on the subject is without a doubt Cotton Mill Girls, by Hedy West (to whom we owe the folk classic 500 Miles, made famous to my parents’ generation by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and to my friends by Justin Timberlake and Carrey Mulligan. And consider yourselves lucky I’m leaving out the 1960s French adaptation.)
Back to Cotton Mill Girls, written at the height of the folk revival in the sixties, West speaks from the perspective of one of these children who fled the countryside (“go to cotton country and get ahead”) to work in terrible conditions in the cotton mills (“us kids worked twelve hours a day, for 14 cents of measly pay”). This reflects the real lives of families who left the rural South of the US at the turn of the 20th century to move into cotton mill villages of the Piedmont. Such villages offered houses to the families of mill-workers (some of which even had running water) but also allowed the bosses to control every aspect of their lives. By 1890, in some states, the work force of the cotton mills was made up by 40% of women and 25% of children between 10 and 15.¹ Child Labor was legal in the US until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

For more scholarly information on cotton mill villages, head over to JStor :

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd et al. “Cotton Mill People: Work, Community, and Protest in the Textile South, 1880-1940.” The American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 2, 1986, pp. 245–286.
That’s it from me on the topics of waulking, weaving and spinning. Not promising anything, but I’m quite interested in looking into miner’s songs for a future article…

¹Victoria Byerly, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls. Personal Histories of Womanhood and Poverty in the South (Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1986)