This is a song I found on one of my occasional forays through the copies of the Sharp MSS held in the Library at Cecil Sharp House. Often when just browsing, rather than looking for anything in particular, it will be an unusual or striking title which first jumps out and grabs my attention, and that was almost certainly the case with this one. Sharp noted it down on 27th December 1905 from Susan Williams (1832-1915), of Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset.
The song has a long history – see Steve Gardham’s “Dungbeetle” article, The Distressed Maid for Musical Traditions, from which it is clear that this version is derived (and only slightly condensed) from ‘The Dublin Tragedy’, first published on a broadside printed by Mayne of Belfast in the mid nineteenth century.
Susan Williams (1832-1915), Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset. Photograph by Cecil Sharp. copyright EFDSS.
A late change of plan, in response to this morning’s snow.
I learned this about 30 years ago from Roy Palmer’s A Touch on the Times. The words are from a broadside printed by Sharp of London (from Nottingham University’s collection – I haven’t been able to find a copy on the web). Roy set it to a version of the well-known ‘Dives and Lazarus’ tune, which is the tune given in William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time.
For reasons best known to myself (and long-forgotten) I decided to sing it to a version of the ‘Whitstable May Song’ tune – but changed from a jolly 6/8 major key, into a suitably miserable minor key and, for the first few verses at least, in 4/4.
I didn’t notice this until many years later, but had I wanted to, I could have provided a justification for this choice of tune. The ‘Whitstable May Song’ is very similar to the tune of the ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ (see this YouTube video of Oyster Morris processing to the tune at the annual Whitstable May Day celebrations). And in the Oxford Book of Carols there is a note that the ‘Seven Joys’ tune was used by unemployed London labourers in times of hardship. The note is taken from Carols Their Origin, Music And Connection With Mystery Plays by William J. Phillips.
The writer well remembers, when we had a particularly hard winter nearly forty years ago [i.e. circa 1850], having heard this same carol tune sung round the streets of London by labouring men out of work, who tramped the streets through the snow, with shovels over their shoulders, singing the following doggerel verse, in hope of receiving pence from the charitably disposed:-
We’ve got no work to do, we’ve got no work to do
We’ve got no work to do, we’ve got no work to do
We’re all turned out, poor labouring men, we’ve got no work to do
The editors of the Oxford Book of Carols add
We can corroborate this for a later period, c.1890. only they sang, ‘We’re all froze out’
It’s worth noting that this is probably about as much as the labourers themselves did sing, and not anything like the eight verses printed on the broadside, and which I sing here.
The practice itself seems to have been quite common in the nineteenth century, and there are numerous reports, both sympathetic and hostile.
The market gardeners also felt the severity of the weather – it stopped their labours, and some of the men, attended by their wives, went about in parties, and with frosted greens fixed at the tops of rakes and hoes, uttered the ancient cry of “Pray remember the gardeners! Remembers the poor frozen out gardeners!”
are seen during a frost in gangs of from six to twenty. Two gangs generally “work” together, that is while one gang begs at one end of a street, a second gang begs at the other. Their mode of procedure their “programme” is very simple. Upon the spades which they carry is chalked “frozen-out!” or “starving!” and they enhance the effect of this “slum or fake-ment” by shouting out sturdily “frozen out”, “We’re all frozen-out! The gardeners differ from the agriculturalists or “navvies! In their costume. They affect aprons and old starw hats, their manner is less demonstrative, and their tones less rusty and unmelodious. The “navvies” roar; the gardeners squeak. The navvies’ petition is made loud and lustily, as by men used to work in clay and rock; the gardeners’ voice is meek and mild, as of a gentle nature trained to tend on fruits and flowers. The young bulky, sinewy beggar plays navvy; the shrivelled, gravelly, pottering, elderly cadger performs gardener.
Mayhew, though fully supportive of the honest working-man who seeks charity to feed his starving family, is quick to point out there were many imposters amongst the supposed frozen-out gardeners. And it is this side of the story which is presented in The Florist And Garden Miscellany for 1849-1850, published by Chapman And Hall (from which the illustration below is also taken)
For the tailpiece to our present Volume, we present our younger readers with a sketch illustrating a custom now extinct, at least in our neighbourhood. Some years back, as soon as inclement weather rendered it impossible for the men and women employed in the market-gardens to pursue their daily labours, they formed themselves into bands, and bearing bunches of vegetables upon poles, solicited donations from the charitably disposed, appealing to them with the cry of ” Pray remember the poor frozen-out gardeners !” As it was generally the most idle and profligate that composed these parties, and the proceeds were almost invariably expended in dissipation, it was considered an abuse, and was suppressed by the magistrates and police. Our cut gives an excellent representation of one of these parties.
Frozen-out gardeners, from the The Florist And Garden Miscellany 1849-50
This recording is another track from the Chris Wood and Andy Turner demo tape, circa 1985. If you’re familiar with the Magpie Lane recording of this song, you’ll recognise that our version was based very closely on Chris’s arrangement, especially that riff between the verses.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
I can’t actually remember much about the rest of the novel, but that opening sentence is totally unforgettable.
Which is completely unrelated to this week’s song, except that the narrator of the song very nearly faces a firing squad, and is saved from his fate – somewhat implausibly – at the last minute.
I came across this version in Cecil Sharp’s MSS at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Sharp had it in December 1908 from Jack Barnard at Bridgewater in Somerset.
Mr Barnard started the song with “the first time I deserted…”
That’s fair enough, but I thought I’d give the central character a bit of back-story, so I added an initial couple of verses (from an unnamed source) in the Alfred Williams collection.
Jack Barnard, photograph by Cecil Sharp; copyright EFDSS.
The Deserter, from the Bodleian Library collection.