Week 221 – The Recruited Collier

Surely one of the gems of the post-war British folk revival. It brilliantly captures the desolation and despair of the young woman whose lover has enlisted and is off, to meet who knows what fate, to war.  And I love some of the phrases the song uses: “he ran for the golden guinea” and, my favourite, “a brigadier, or a grenadier, he says they’re sure to make him”, which neatly conveys the fact that the young recruit really has no idea what he’s signed up for.

I think I first heard this sung by Caroline Jackson-Houlston at one or other of the Oxford folk clubs in the early 1980s. Although it must also have been around the same time that I heard it on Dick Gaughan’s 1978 album Gaughan, and I think I probably wrote the words down from that LP. At the time I assumed it was an anonymous product of “the folk tradition”, from the Durham or Northumberland coalfields (indeed Gaughan’s liner notes say “This is actually from the NE of England”). It was only comparatively recently that I discovered that, like a number of folk club standards introduced to the revival by A.L.Lloyd (check out Reynardine and The Weaver and the Factory Maid for other examples), the song as presently sung probably owes as much to Bert Lloyd as it does to the tradition.

Lloyd printed the song in his 1952 collection Come All Ye Bold Miners. About which Roy Palmer wrote this:

It is clear that Lloyd’s editorial approach was not merely to reproduce the material sent to him. Sometimes the changes made were small… but others were far-reaching. On ‘Jimmy’s Enlisted (or the Recruited Collier)’ Lloyd laconically notes: ‘Text from J.H. Huxtable, of Workington. A version of this ballad appears in R. Anderson’s Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect (1808).’ In fact, the original is entitled simply ‘Jenny’s Complaint’, and features not a miner who enlists but a ploughman.

Roy Palmer, A. L. Lloyd and Industrial Song, in Ian Russell, ed., Singer, Song and Scholar, Sheffield Academic Press, 1986, pp.135-7 (quoted by Malcolm Douglas on this Mudcat thread).

Jenny's Complaint, from Robert Anderson's Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect (1808), from the Internet Archive.

Jenny's Complaint, from Robert Anderson's Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect (1808), from the Internet Archive.

Jenny’s Complaint, from Robert Anderson’s Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect (1808), from the Internet Archive.

Robert Anderson’s Ballads in the Cumberland dialect can be seen at the Internet Archive. Anderson (1770-1833) was a working class poet from Carlisle, a number of whose compositions (like those of Burns in Scotland) were taken up by “the folk”, and are known to have been sung into the twentieth century. Exactly what Mr Huxtable sang, and to what tune (Lloyd fitted his words to a new tune, possibly of his own devising) we shall probably never know. I’ve just finished reading Dave Arthur’s biography Bert, and it’s clear that, brilliant man though he was in so many ways, Lloyd was actually a bit of a fantasist. He put about, or at least acquiesced in accepting, various completely erroneous stories about his family background, and his own early life; and he was, for personal or political reasons, frequently less than transparent about the sources of the songs he published and popularised, and about the extent to which he had reworked some of those songs.

Now a lot of people won’t give a monkey’s about this, but the historian in me thinks it is important to try to disentangle the truth. Besides, if we lazily portray these songs as wholly “traditional”, we can have no complaint when lazy journalists and lazy editors present those same songs as evidence of what “the ordinary people” were thinking at a given point in history. Whereas they possibly tell us rather more about what British communists were thinking in the 1950s…

Of course, none of this in any way diminishes the beauty or power of the song. In fact, it just goes to show how good Bert Lloyd was at taking an old song, and turning it into something more singable, more resonant for a modern audience. All things being well, there’ll be another example along next week.

The Recruited Collier

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