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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1858134.
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)

Ballad-The Two Sisters

Being somewhat of a traditionalist and murder-ballad aficionado, it seem natural to make this Child Ballad the subject of my first post here. Jealousy, murder and a magical instrument, what’s not to love?

twosistersThis ballad was apparently published as a broadside in the 1650s under the title “The Miller and the King’s Daughter.” These title-characters have come and gone in the various versions of the song on both sides of the Atlantic, but the gist of it remains the same. An older sister (often a brunette) pushes the younger, fairer one in the sea or a river, most often to seduce the knight that did like both but clearly preferred the younger fairer one. The body drifts away to a bank where it is find by a miller. In some version, the miller disappears to be replaced by a minstrel, and sometimes both characters appear. The musician (miller or minstrel) decides to turn the dead girl’s corpse into an instrument (as you would…) sometimes a harp, sometimes a fiddle. He then goes to play the instrument in front of the parents of the two girls, or in front of the knight who has married the elder sister. The instrument begins to play by itself, telling the story of the younger sister and finally putting the blame on the elder one by the end of the ballad.

Justice is therefore served and it is once again proved that crime doesn’t pay (or at least not eternally, since in most versions the elder sister did marry the knight and live in wealth before the harp’s revelations.)

Musically, most versions include a refrain at the end of each verse, which has greatly varied. You’ll notice that the English versions presented below have varying refrains (the one in Pentangle’s version, “Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom” is actually taken from another Child Ballad, Riddles Wisely Expounded; but other version have gone with different refrains as you’ll see with Emily Portman), while the American, Irish and Scottish Gaelic version went with “Oh, the wind and the rain”.

Research seems to have established the Scottish origin of the ballad, although English variants do exist and are the ones which influenced the American iterations of the tune.¹

It is also worth noticing that the ballad sometimes appears in fairy tale collections in prose, under the title Binnorie. This and other tales of singing bones from all over the world (yes, this is apparently a genre…) can be found collected, translated and edited by Prof. D.L. Ashliman on the website of Pittsburgh university.

Personal favorites:

This version by British folk artist Emily Portman is by far my favorite. The simple voice and harp accompaniment (by Rachel Newton) creates a light and yet eerie atmosphere which of course evokes the tune played by the magical harp at the end of the ballad. Very subtle harmonies are to be heard on the refrain during the drowning scene, and again towards the end of the ballad as the harp plays the accusatory tune. The refrain is wisely omitted at the end of some of the verses which avoids too much repetition. A little reverb seems added to the conclusion of the ballad, to suggest the illusion of “the king”s hall” in which the minstrel brings the magical harp.

Pentangle perhaps has the most famous version on the eponymous album Cruel Sister, released in 1970-the band’s only album completely made up of arrangements of traditional songs. McShee’s lead vocals (harmonized by the men), Jansch’s guitar and Renbourn’s sitar stand out in this track which, as I mentioned before, lifts the refrain from another totally different ballad.

An “Irishified” version can be found on Altan‘s Local Ground album, which sets the story in County Clare, Munster, Ireland. It’s interesting to note that the band, well know for its song in Irish, decided to keep the lyrics in English, and went with the “Wind and Rain” refrain.

Unlike Altan, the ever-wonderful Scottish folk singer and multi-instrumentalist Julie Fowlis did translate the song into her preferred Scottish Gaelic to offer a bilingual Gaelic/English and necessarily-shortened version of the tune on her album Uam.

Finally, we’re moving on to the other side of the pond where the tune took root as well. The best version is to me given by one of my personal goddesses, Gillian Welch. She and her duet partner David Rawlings harmonize on the Irish version (notice the mention of Country Clare) on the soundtrack of Songcatcher, a movie about a musicologist discovering and collecting traditional tunes in the Scots-Irish communities of Appalachia at the turn of the twentieth century.

And finally, a more bluegrassy arrangement of the tune by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, on guitar and mandolin.

Fans of Loreena McKennitt may also checkout her version under the title The Bonny Swans. Tom Waits also did a version on his Orphan album.


¹ Taylor, Archer. “The English, Scottish, and American Versions of the ‘Twa Sisters’.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 42, no. 165, 1929, pp. 238–246. http://www.jstor.org/stable/535038.