Care to return to 1833? And 1970?

Every now and again I like to regale you with some esoteric musical item, firstly in case you like the music, and secondly because there are all kinds of truths in music.After all, it’s my blog! For example here I discussed the phenomenon of  “swing” to show that human reality can’t be entirely captured by science.

This weekend I was reminded of how I got fascinated by traditional English folk music just before I went to Cambridge (and ended up running the university folk club). It was through hearing a badly recorded radio broadcast of a ballad I’d heard in 1970, which seemed to have an uncanny emotional power. More on that broadcast later, but here’s the best-recorded version of the same song I could find, by an Irish group, The Voice Squad. If you’re up for it, listen to the whole story.

It’s actually a pretty accurate account of an incident in Normanton, Leicestershire, in 1833: three brothers who are poaching shoot and wound a gamekeeper; one is hanged and the others transported for life. I found some local history, recorded in the diary of the gamekeeper’s son. It appears that

Thomas Peach was a gamekeeper employed on the Normanton estate, who lived in a cottage near the vicarage in Empingham, with his wife Sarah and their eleven children.

In 1833, he was wounded by John Perkins, a 26-year-old from Ketton, who was subsequently hanged at Oakham. Perkins’ two brothers, who were from Easton-on-the-Hill, Northamptonshire, were transported for life in connection with the same offence. It created much ill feeling among the residents of Easton when one of the gang was acquitted in return for giving the names of the other culprits. This episode is commemorated in a ballad entitled ‘Oakham Poachers or The Lamentation of Young Perkins.’

I think what gives a ballad like this, with its apparently endless verses, its lyrical power is that, like the Old Testament narratives, it is so matter of fact about what, below the surface, is a swirling mass of deep moral issues. Why were these guys poaching? Is the keeper a villain or a victim? Is it a cruelty that three young brothers are condemned together (to country folk, transportation to Tasmania was like a sentence of death), or a mercy that two were spared the penalty of hanging? Was the death penalty for wounding inhuman, or was it more inhuman to shoot a poor man with 11 children while doing his job?

A bit of background. Much of the country was gradually enclosed for game estates, ousting the tenants from common land (and persecuting much of the wildlife to extinction – see here).

From ‘The Deserted Village’ by Oliver Goldsmith:

‘But times are alter’d; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,
And every want to opulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.

This was true of the land concerned in the song:

Normanton had already been enclosed when the estate was bought and the third baronet decided to remove the villagers to Empingham in order to make his park, which was eventually to enclose 900 acres.

But poachers were usually just fined, and you don’t have to shoot a man for the sake of a few pheasants. There are so many moral questions – and virtually no ideological leading from the song. It demands that you make the moral judgements as a mature human being. Unlike so much modern news-mongering, your mind isn’t made up in advance by which news-source you use. The ballad could leave you thinking the poachers got what they deserved, or that “it’s the rich wot gets the pleasure, and the poor wot gets the blame.” Or both. Fascinating how a penny-broadside ballad demands more from you, and therefore changes you more, than the New York Times!

The Old Testament narratives demand from us the same kind of moral maturity, and so risk our imposing our own warped judgement on them. The question is, where does the Bible expect us to form our moral landscape? In the open-ended spirit of the ballad, I won’t answer that.

But I will go on to use an unusual feature of the music to illustrate how the same facts can have a totally different effect on you, depending on the context. My apologies – this one is really for those with some knowledge of or instinct for music.

Here’s the actual recording I first heard in 1970, by the great traditional singer Martin Carthy (who was plagiarised both by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon) and the electric folk band Steeleye Span. Apologies for the recording, but see if you don’t agree that, musically speaking, it somehow seems more emotionally powerful than the Voice Squad’s version. If necessary listen to a few bars of each back to back.

Now, take it from me that the tune is identical, though they’re in different keys. But Carthy’s melody starts and ends on “E,” and the obvious key would therefore be E minor. For you guitarists, the chords would go something like Em – D – Em, Em – D – D -Em. Sounds a little mournful, but conventional.

But genius that he is, what Carthy has done is play chords in A major (A – G – A, G – D – G -A). Suddenly the same tune is in what the pundits call the “myxolydian mode,” and instead of being mournful, its both majestically tragic and angry. The effect is heightened by Tim Hart’s and Maddy Prior’s unusual harmonies as the song progresses. I don’t know about you, but it makes me somehow care about this old bit of local news, in a way that the otherwise excellent Voice Squad version doesn’t. And it was that (though I didn’t analyse it at the time) that made me think back in 1970, “Wow, this traditional music is strong.”

That, to me, is the power of music, in skillful hands. Which is an excellent thing, but also maybe a potentially dangerous one.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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