Early in the summer of 2016 I received an invitation from Jack Windle, (that’s Doctor Jack who runs a splendid website called ‘proletics’ dedicated to the furtherance of historical South Yorkshire writing, and its radical traditions). The University of Sheffield was hosting its ‘Festival of the mind’ and Jack challenged me kindly, to set some songs by Joseph Mather, to some tunes of my own devising.
In order to answer that I need to give a bit of autobiographical context. (Groan!)
After leaving school I worked for four years on building sites and in steelworks and eventually, when out of work, ended up at a ten week WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) class on Rawmarsh Hill looking English Literature. The tutor Ted Hartley, encouraged me to do some A levels and go off to University. So that’s what I did.
I came back from Essex University in 1981 with a head full of Shakespeare, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Pablo Neruda. I thought I knew a bit about literature and poetry.
I’d managed to get myself a job as ‘Tutor Organiser’ for Rotherham, my home-town, for the WEA, (it was Ted’s old job!), with the ambition of ‘liberating’ literature and poetry from the vaults of the rich and distributing it promiscuously around the borough. It was literature and poetry, via the WEA, that had awakened my own mind to some of the things that had been going on historically across the planet, and to some of the ways in which the world had been constructed, to preserve power and wealth in the hands of a few, at the continuing expense of the many. I considered that if poetry had done that for me then if brought to the attention of others, it could have the same effect for them. Then, working together we could bring about fundamental structural changes for the world’s betterment. ‘Adult education’ it used to be known as.
Ray Fisher was the WEA’s District Secretary and he had a passion for what he called ‘local literature.’ He had a couple of shelves filled with books by and about people I’d never heard of. And they were all from this part of the world! I learned that there was another Elliott, Ebenezer, with two ls and two ts, that he’d been born in Masborough, now Rotherham, and that he became so famous for a few minutes in the early 1830s that he could sign himself E Elliott CLR and people knew that it stood for Corn Law Rhymer. He corresponded with the poet laureate Southey, he was famously blanked by Byron in the bank in Rotherham because he had dared, in his work muck, to introduce himself to his lordship, an act for which he took marvellously vituperative poetic revenge; he was praised after his death for his ‘volcanic dialect’ by Thomas Carlyle, and at the same time Wordsworth said that at his best he had written ‘as well as any of us.’ He had a statue erected in Western Park to his memory, paid for by subscriptions collected by the ‘working men’ of Sheffield – such had been the power of his Corn Law Rhymes.
James Montgomery had a statue plonked, quite rightly, at the side of the cathedral. There were others too, but my favourite of them all, Joseph Mather, ‘Ow’d Mather,’ was commemorated only by a fluke. John Wilson a friendly middle class benefactor collected together a sheaf of Mather’s scattered songs and ballads many years after his death and produced the one book that we have. Ray Fisher had a copy of ‘The Songs of Joseph Mather’ and he used to let me borrow it.
To one like me with degrees, certificates, publications etc., it seared across my mindscape like a lightning flash, or perhaps it just meandered like a murmuration of starlings and installed itself into chemical permanence in my bonce. I was supposed to know something about English literature and here were people who spoke and thought a bit like me, yet nobody mentioned them. That’s where my next literary education began.
Mather in particular inspired me. I came from an Irish house, and a childhood filled with hymns and ballads. Here was a bloke not unlike my own dad. An economic migrant from the rural economy, become metal-worker, blade-maker, occasional file-hewer; not so much ‘skilled’ in the later sense, rather it seems, a turner of his hand to whatever work might be available in the pre-industrial revolutionary smoke and smog of the burgeoning little city of the 1780s and 90s. Uneducated, possibly illiterate, though it seems he could read. Like many others of his ilk he appeared to know the bible back’ards, and when not bashing metals he hammered at words, making up songs and ballads, about his own life- and work-experience, and that of his own community; dark, dogged, highly charged with political insights and messages, telling the stories of his own people in crafted versions of their own language and idioms, and performing them in the hope of earning a few bob at fairs, markets, race meetings and public gatherings generally.
Nobody knows anything about the music he employed. He might have sung everything unaccompanied; he might have worked ad hoc with musicians, a fiddler perhaps; he might have composed his own melodies. Far more likely it has always seemed to me, he was one of the few bobbydazzler South Yorkshire embodiers of the ’people’s tradition’ that we know anything about, even though all we know is next to nothing.
By that I mean he heard, adapted, borrowed, chopped, changed and tailored , as appropriate, the tunes and melodies that he heard from other singers, either local or passers through. That for me is how the people’s tradition has always worked, developed and evolved. It’s a mucky, grubby, from pawing by innumerable gentle and powerful dirty hands; a vibrant, dynamic and exquisite vehicle capable of transmitting as great an artistic experience as any other art-form Radio Three might mention. Its most marvellous exponents include Shakespeare, Robert Burns and the yet-to-be equalled Ann On.
Mather’s flat vowelled late eighteenth century Sheffield demotic, with its overtones of biblical rhetoric and phrasing, filtered through an ancient stand-in-the-street-and-sing- it ballad tradition confirmed some of my deepest intuitions about human songs and their roots.
The very first time I read ‘The file-Hewer’s Lamentation’ it seemed to arrange itself to the tune of ‘The boys of Mullaghbawn,’ on an old cassette-tape I’d somewhere acquired of songs by Paddy Tunney from County Fermanagh. No one knows the source of the original tune, though the words we have seem to pertain to the United Irishmen’s 1798 rising. I like to think either that Joe picked up a variant of that very tune listening to some itinerant Irish labourer looking for work in the alleys of early industrial Sheffield, or even more pleasing is the idea that the same Irish singer heard Joe’s song and took the tune back to Ireland where it became ‘The boys of Mullaghbawn.’
At the same time I was struck by the staggering courage involved in composing and singing publicly, ‘God Save Great Thomas Paine.’ That the tune is what has since become the national anthem is obvious. To sing such a piece, just a few short years after the French Revolution during what some historians have referred to as ‘the English reign of terror,’ calling for the overthrow of kings and aristocracy and championing democracy, represents an act of such breath-taking bravery as to be barely believable. And to think that he was singing this song and others with similar sentiments to fellow Sheffielders in the streets surely offers us challenging insights into the nature of the local culture; the city was considered ‘disloyal;’ ‘barracks and bastilles’ had to be built; militias and yeomanry had to be recruited and drilled; the ideological battle for the next fifty years was made articulate, between the plain English, common-sense, Republican ideas of Paine; ‘The People and Reform,’ against the flowery, murderously oppressive polysyllables of the turncoat Burke and his ‘church and king,’ to whom the common people were a mere ‘Swinish Multitude.’
All that and more, emblematised in the words and defiant singing of a bloke from Cack Alley, just off West Bar, known to locals as ‘Shitten Entry.’
So when, many years later, courtesy of Jack Windle and Sheffield University’s Festival of the Mind, I was offered an opportunity to set some of Joe’s pieces I was delighted. It nudged me towards doing what I should have done years before. I was able to bend tunes to fit six more pieces in addition to the two above, most of them emerging from my small but well-mellowed crock-full of Irish airs and melodies. Though my attitude to the provenance of each of the tunes remains open and flexible, sceptical and even mischievous, if you like. Who is to say that the above wandering Irish man was not a woman? Ann On herself even? Gathering sheaves of tunes during her dalliance with Joe before making her way back over the water to share them with all and sundry. I could swear that when I hear such as ‘Biddy Mulligan, ’Patrick was a Gentleman,’ ‘Rosin the Bow,’ ‘The Dean’s Chapter,’ and ‘Kevin Barry,’ I can detect clearly beneath them, as sure as I’m plinking on this banjo, Mather’s own tunes donkeying their beneficent ways through the beaming and appreciative crowd.
We did a small run of the 8 song CD and they’ve almost all gone. But we’re getting some more. Let me know if you want one (A fiver plus post and package!)