Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Songs of Trades, or Songs for the People.

Men of genius have devoted some of their hours, and even governments have occasionally assisted, to render the people happier by song and dance. The Grecians had songs appropriated to the various trades. Songs of this nature would shorten the manufacturer’s tedious task-work, and solace the artisan at his solitary occupation. A beam of gay fancy kindling his mind, a playful change of measures delighting his ear, even a moralising verse to cherish his better feelings — these ingeniously adapted to each profession, and some to the display of patriotic characters, and national events, would contribute something to public happiness. Such themes are worthy of a patriotic bard, of the Southeys for their hearts, and the Moores for their verse.

Fletcher of Saltoun said, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make all the laws of a nation.” The character of a people is preserved in their national songs. “God save the King” and “Rule Britannia” were long our English national airs.

“The story of Amphion building Thebes with his lyre was not a fable,” says Dr. Clarke, “At Thebes, in the harmonious adjustment of those masses which remain belonging to the ancient walls, we saw enough to convince us that this story was no fable; for it was a very ancient custom to carry on immense labour by an accompaniment of music and singing. The custom still exists both in Egypt and Greece. It might, therefore, be said that the Walls of Thebes were built at the sound of the only musical instrument then in use; because, according to the custom of the country, the lyre was necessary for the accomplishment of the work.”1 The same custom appears to exist in Africa. Lander notices at Yàoorie that the “labourers in their plantations were attended by a drummer, that they might be excited by the sound of his instrument to work well and briskly.”2

Athenæus3 has preserved the Greek names of different songs as sung by various trades, but unfortunately none of the songs themselves. There was a song for the corn-grinders; another for the workers in wool; another for the weavers. The reapers had their carol; the herdsmen had a song which an ox-driver of Sicily had composed; the kneaders, and the bathers, and the galley-rowers, were not without their chant. We have ourselves a song of the weavers, which Ritson has preserved in his “Ancient Songs;” and it may be found in the popular chap-book of “The Life of Jack of Newbury;” and the songs of anglers, of old Izaak Walton, and Charles Cotton, still retain their freshness.

Among the Greeks, observed Bishop Heber, the hymn which placed Harmodius in the green and flowery island of the Blessed, was chanted by the potter to his wheel, and enlivened the labours of the Piræan mariner.

Dr. Johnson is the only writer I recollect who has noticed something of this nature which he observed in the Highlands. “The strokes of the sickle were timed by the modulation of the harvest song, in which all their voices were united. They accompany every action which can be done in equal time with an appropriate strain, which has, they say, not much meaning, but its effects are regularity and cheerfulness. There is an oar song used by the Hebrideans.”

But if these chants “have not much meaning,” they will not produce the desired effect of touching the heart, as well as giving vigour to the arm of the labourer. The gondoliers of Venice while away their long midnight hours on the water with the stanzas of Tasso. Fragments of Homer are sung by the Greek sailors of the Archipelago; the severe labour of the trackers, in China, is accompanied with a song which encourages their exertions, and renders these simultaneous. Mr. Ellis mentions that the sight of the lofty pagoda of Tong-chow served as a great topic of incitement in the song of the trackers, toiling against the stream, to their place of rest. The canoemen, on the Gold Coast, in a very dangerous passage, “on the back of a high curling wave, paddling with all their might, singing or rather shouting their wild song, follow it up,” says M’Leod, who was a lively witness of this happy combination of song, of labour, and of peril, which he acknowledged was “a very terrific process.” Our sailors at Newcastle, in heaving their anchors, have their “Heave and ho! rum-below!” but the Sicilian mariners must be more deeply affected by their beautiful hymn to the Virgin. A society, instituted in Holland for general good, do not consider among their least useful projects that of having printed at a low price a collection of songs for sailors.

It is extremely pleasing, as it is true, to notice the honest exultation of an excellent ballad-writer, C. Dibdin, in his Professional Life. “I have learnt my songs have been considered as an object of national consequence; that they have been the solace of sailors and long voyagers, in storms, in battle; and that they have been quoted in mutinies, to the restoration of order and discipline.”4 The Portuguese soldiery in Ceylon, at the siege of Colombo, when pressed with misery and the pangs of hunger, during their marches, derived not only consolation, but also encouragement, by rehearsing the stanzas of the Lusiad.

We ourselves have been a great ballad nation, and once abounded with songs of the people; not, however, of this particular species, but rather of narrative poems. They are described by Puttenham, a critic in the reign of Elizabeth, as “small and popular songs sung by those Cantabanqui, upon benches and barrels’ heads, where they have no other audience than boys, or country fellows that pass by them in the streets; or else by blind harpers, or such like tavern minstrels, that give a fit of mirth for a groat.” Such were these “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” which Selden collected, Pepys preserved, and Percy published. Ritson, our great poetical antiquary in these sort of things, says that few are older than the reign of James I. The more ancient songs of the people perished by having been printed in single sheets, and by their humble purchasers having no other library to preserve them than the walls on which they pasted them. Those we have consist of a succeeding race of ballads, chiefly revived or written by Richard Johnson, the author of the well-known romance of the Seven Champions, and Delony, the writer of Jack of Newbury’s Life, and the “Gentle Craft,” who lived in the time of James and Charles.5 One Martin Parker was a most notorious ballad scribbler in the reign of Charles I. and the Protector.

These writers, in their old age, collected their songs into little penny books, called “Garlands,” some of which have been republished by Ritson; and a recent editor has well described them as “humble and amusing village strains, founded upon the squabbles of a wake, tales of untrue love, superstitious rumours, or miraculous traditions of the hamlet.” They enter into the picture of our manners, as much as folio chronicles.

These songs abounded in the good old times of Elizabeth and James; for Hall in his Satires notices them as

Sung to the wheel, and sung unto the payle;

that is, sung by maidens spinning, or milking; and indeed Shakspeare had described them as “old and plain,” chanted by

The spinsters, and the knitters in the sun,

And the free maids that weave their threads with bones.

Twelfth Night.

They were the favourites of the Poet of Nature, who takes every opportunity to introduce them into the mouths of his clown, his fool, and his itinerant Autolycus. When the musical Dr. Burney, who had probably not the slightest conception of their nature, and perhaps as little taste for their rude and wild simplicity, ventured to call the songs of Autolycus, “two nonsensical songs,” the musician called down on himself one of the bitterest notes from Steevens that ever commentator penned against a profane scoffer.6

Whatever these songs were, it is evident they formed a source of recreation to the solitary task-worker. But as the more masculine trades had their own songs, whose titles only appear to have reached us, such as “The Carman’s Whistle,” “Watkin’s Ale,” “Chopping Knives,” they were probably appropriated to the respective trades they indicate. The tune of the “Carman’s Whistle” was composed by Bird, and the favourite tune of “Queen Elizabeth” may be found in the collection called “Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal Book.” One who has lately heard it played says, “that it has more air than the other execrable compositions in her Majesty’s book, something resembling a French quadrille.”

The feeling our present researches would excite would naturally be most strongly felt in small communities, where the interest of the governors is to contribute to the individual happiness of the laborious classes. The Helvetic society requested Lavater to compose the Schweitzerlieder, or Swiss Songs, which are now sung by the youth of many of the cantons; and various Swiss poets have successfully composed on national subjects, associated with their best feelings. In such paternal governments as was that of Florence under the Medici, we find that songs and dances for the people engaged the muse of Lorenzo, who condescended to delight them with pleasant songs composed in popular language; the example of such a character was followed by the men of genius of the age. These ancient songs, often adapted to the different trades, opened a vein of invention in the new characters, and allusions, the humorous equivoques, and, sometimes, by the licentiousness of popular fancy. They were collected in 1559, under the title of “Canti Carnascialeschi,” and there is a modern edition, in 1750, in two volumes quarto. It is said they sing to this day a popular one by Lorenzo, beginning

Ben venga Maggio

E ‘l gonfalon selvaggio,7

which has all the florid brilliancy of an Italian spring.

The most delightful songs of this nature would naturally be found among a people whose climate and whose labours alike inspire a general hilarity; and the vineyards of France have produced a class of songs, of excessive gaiety and freedom, called Chansons de Vendange. Le Grand-d’Assoucy describes them in his Histoire de la Vie privée des Français. “The men and women, each with a basket on their arm, assemble at the foot of the hill; there stopping, they arrange themselves in a circle. The chief of this band tunes up a joyous song, whose burthen is chorused: then they ascend, and, dispersed in the vineyard, they work without interrupting their tasks, while new couplets often resound from some of the vine-dressers; sometimes intermixed with a sudden jest at a traveller. In the evening, their supper scarcely over, their joy recommences, they dance in a circle, and sing some of those songs of free gaiety, which the moment excuses, known by the name of vineyard songs. The gaiety becomes general; masters, guests, friends, servants, all dance together; and in this manner a day of labour terminates, which one might mistake for a day of diversion. It is what I have witnessed in Champagne, in a land of vines, far different from the country where the labours of the harvest form so painful a contrast.”

The extinction of those songs which formerly kept alive the gaiety of the domestic circle, whose burthens were always chorused, is lamented by the French antiquary. “Our fathers had a custom to amuse themselves at the dessert of a feast by a joyous song of this nature. Each in his turn sung — all chorused.” This ancient gaiety was sometimes gross and noisy; but he prefers it to the tame decency of our times — these smiling, not laughing days of Lord Chesterfield.

On ne rit plus, on sourit aujourd’hui;

Et nos plaisirs sont voisins de l’ennui.

These are the old French Vaudevilles, formerly sung at meals by the company. Count de Grammont is mentioned by Hamilton as being

Agréable et vif en propos;

Célèbre diseur de bon mots,

Recueil vivant d’antiques Vaudevilles.

These Vaudevilles were originally invented by a fuller of Vau de Vire, or the valley by the river Vire, and were sung by his men as they spread their cloths on the banks of the river. They were songs composed on some incident or adventure of the day. At first these gay playful effusions were called the songs of Vau de Vire, till they became known as Vaudevilles. Boileau has well described them:—

La liberté franchise en ses vers se déploie;

Cet enfant de plaisir veut naître dans la joie.

It is well known how the attempt ended, of James I. and his unfortunate son, by the publication of their “Book of Sports,” to preserve the national character from the gloom of fanatical puritanism; among its unhappy effects there was however one not a little ludicrous. The Puritans, offended by the gentlest forms of mirth, and every day becoming more sullen, were so shocked at the simple merriment of the people, that they contrived to parody these songs into spiritual ones; and Shakspeare speaks of the Puritan of his day “singing psalms to hornpipes.” As Puritans are the same in all times, the Methodists in our own repeated the foolery, and set their hymns to popular tunes and jigs, which one of them said “were too good for the devil.” They have sung hymns to the air of “The beds of sweet roses,” &c. Wesley once, in the pulpit, described himself, in his old age, in the well known ode of Anacreon, by merely substituting his own name!8 There have been Puritans among other people as well as our own: the same occurrence took place both in Italy and France. In Italy, the Carnival songs were turned into pious hymns; the hymn Jesu fammi morire is sung to the music of Vaga bella e gentileCrucifisso a capo chino to that of Una donna d’amor fino, one of the most indecent pieces in the Canzoni a ballo; and the hymn beginning

Ecco ‘l Messia

E la Madre Maria,

was sung to the gay tune of Lorenzo de’ Medici,

Ben venga Maggio,

E ‘l gonfalon selvaggio.

Athenæus notices what we call slang or flash songs. He tells us that there were poets who composed songs in the dialect of the mob; and who succeeded in this kind of poetry, adapted to their various characters. The French call such songs Chansons à la Vadé; the style of the Poissardes is ludicrously applied to the gravest matters of state, and convey the popular feelings in the language of the populace. This sort of satirical song is happily defined,

Il est l’esprit de ceux qui n’en ont pas.

Athenæus has also preserved songs, sung by petitioners who went about on holidays to collect alms. A friend of mine, with taste and learning, has discovered in his researches “The Crow Song” and “The Swallow Song,” and has transfused their spirit in a happy version. I preserve a few striking ideas.

The collectors for “The Crow” sung:

My good worthy masters, a pittance bestow,

Some oatmeal, or barley, or wheat for the Crow.

A loaf, or a penny, or e’en what you will; —

From the poor man, a grain of his salt may suffice,

For your Crow swallows all, and is not over-nice.

And the man who can now give his grain, and no more,

May another day give from a plentiful store. —

Come, my lad, to the door, Plutus nods to our wish,

And our sweet little mistress comes out with a dish;

She gives us her figs, and she gives us a smile —

Heaven send her a husband! —

And a boy to be danced on his grandfather’s knee,

And a girl like herself all the joy of her mother,

Who may one day present her with just such another.

Thus we carry our Crow-song to door after door,

Alternately chanting we ramble along,

And we treat all who give, or give not, with a song.

Swallow-singing, or Chelidonising, as the Greek term is, was another method of collecting eleemosynary gifts, which took place in the month Boedromion, or August.

The Swallow, the Swallow is here,

With his back so black, and his belly so white,

He brings on the pride of the year,

With the gay months of love, and the days of delight.

Come bring out your good humming stuff,

Of the nice tit-bits let the Swallow partake;

And a slice of the right Boedromion cake.

So give, and give quickly —

Or we’ll pull down the door from its hinges:

Or we’ll steal young madam away!

But see! we’re a merry boy’s party,

And the Swallow, the Swallow is here!

These songs resemble those of our own ancient mummers, who to this day, in honour of Bishop Blaize, the Saint of Woolcombers, go about chanting on the eves of their holidays.9 A custom long existed in this country to elect a Boy-Bishop in almost every parish;10 the Montem at Eton still prevails for the Boy-Captain; and there is a closer connexion, perhaps, between the custom which produced the “Songs of the Crow and the Swallow,” and our Northern mummeries, than may be at first suspected. The Pagan Saturnalia, which the Swallow song by its pleasant menaces resembles, were afterwards disguised in the forms adopted by the early Christians; and such are the remains of the Roman Catholic religion, in which the people were long indulged in their old taste for mockery and mummery. I must add in connexion with our main inquiry, that our own ancient beggars had their songs, in their old cant language, some of which are as old as the Elizabethan period, and many are fancifully characteristic of their habits and their feelings.

1 Dr. Clarke’s Travels, vol. iv. p. 56.

2 In the poem on the entrenchment of New Ross, in Ireland, in 1265 (Harl. MS., No. 913), is a similar account of the minstrelsy which accompanied the workers. The original is in Norman French; the translation we use is that by the late Miss Landon (L.E.L.):—

Monday they began their labours,

Gay with banners, flutes, and labours;

Soon as the noon hour was come,

These good people hastened home,

With their banners proudly borne.

Then the youth advanced in turn,

And the town, they make it ring,

With their merry carolling;

Singing loud, and full of mirth,

A way they go to shovel earth.”

3 Deip. lib. xiv. cap. iii.

4 The Lords of the Admiralty a few years ago issued a revised edition of these songs, for the use of our navy. They embody so completely the idea “of a true British sailor,” that they have developed and upheld the character.

5 In Durfey’s whimsical collection of songs, “Wit and Mirth,” 1682, are several trade songs. One on the blacksmiths begins:—

Of all the trades that ever I see,

There’s none to a blacksmith compared may be,

With so many several tools works he;

Which nobody can deny!”

The London companies also chanted forth their own praises. Thus the Mercers’ Company, in 1701, sang in their Lord Mayor’s Show, alluding to their arms, “a demi-Virgin, crowned”:—

“Advance the Virgin — lead the van —

Of all that are in London free,

The mercer is the foremost man

That founded a society;

Of all the trades that London grace,

We are the first in time and place.”

6 Dr. Burney subsequently observed, that “this rogue Autolycus is the true ancient Minstrel in the old Fabliaux;” on which Steevens remarks, “Many will push the comparison a little further, and concur with me in thinking that our modern minstrels of the opera, like their predecessor Autolycus, are pickpockets as well as singers of nonsensical ballads."— Steevens’s Shakspeare, vol. vii. p. 107, his own edition, 1793.

7 Mr. Roscoe has printed this very delightful song in the Life of Lorenzo, No. xli. App.

8 The late Rowland Hill constantly sang at the Surrey Chapel a hymn to the tune of “Rule Britannia,” altered to “Rule Emmanuel.” There was published in Dublin, in 1833, a series of “Hymns written to favourite tunes.” They were the innocent work of one who wished to do good by a mode sufficiently startling to those who see impropriety in the conjunction of the sacred and the profane. Thus, one “pious chanson” is written to Gramachree, or “The Harp that once through Tara’s Halls,” of Moore. Another, describing the death of a believer, is set to “The Groves of Blarney.”

9 The festival of St. Blaize is held on the 3rd of February. Percy notes it as “a custom in many parts of England to light up fires on the hills on St. Blaize’s Night.” Hone, in his “Every-day Book,” Vol. I. p. 210, prints a detailed account of the woolcombers’ celebration at Bradford, Yorkshire, in 1825, in which “Bishop Blaize” figured with the “bishop’s chaplain,” surrounded by “shepherds and shepherdesses,” but personated by one John Smith, with “very becoming gravity.”

10 The custom was made the subject of an Essay by Gregory, in illustration of the tomb of one of these functionaries at Salisbury. They were elected on St. Nicholas’ Day, from the boys of the choir, and the chosen one officiated in pontificals, and received large donations, as the custom was exceedingly popular. Even royalty listened favourably to “the chylde-bishop’s “ sermon.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53