Friday, 10 January 2014

Who'll be a soldier? Desperation and the modern folk tradition

...And he sang as he walked through the crowded streets of Rochester
"Who'll be a soldier for Marlborough and me?..."

A song of whisky and despair, for me,  a song half chanted, half crooned, the monotony of the refrain turned into a plaint against fate, against poverty. It is a song for the Medway towns.

Much of this is because of the way I heard it first, in the basement of The Command House, cried out by Chatham's favourite son. Riding on my coat-tails passport to the Medway Arts scene, I lurked at the back.  It felt old to me, as old the misery of being broke, as bleak as the folk-imagination can muster:

..."Oh I," said the young man, "have oft endured the parish queue
There is no labour or work here for me...

The folk tradition is conservative and subversive in equal measure. It at once defines normative roles (the recruitment sergeant) and offers criticism of structures of power those roles enforce. It is, as Adam Fox says, "inherently subversive and irreverent" and what else does the throw-away quality of that verse convey but the powerlessness with which the young and dispossessed see the promise of the recruitment centre - put so conveniently in the poorer areas of town - and wonder if they might as well not join the army. Without the benefit of a trade, an apprenticeship, what way do young men have of earning a wage?

...To be paid with the powder 
or rattle of the canon ball
Wages for soldiers for Malborough and me...

 The song keeps calling back to 'the King's Shilling', a soldier's first day of pay, taken in advance as they take their oath. Between 1700 and 1860, the average wage of a London carpenter rose from around 2s 6d to 5s a day (Source: To be a soldier, or at least a raw recruit, is perhaps not an elevation from poverty, butan affirmation of it. And as we hear

...forty new recruits 
came marching back through Rochester
Off to the wars in the North country...

How cheap a commodity, desperation.
As all scholars of the oral tradition will tell you, auditory experience is unique in that it leaves no mark. A ballad exists only in its performance, in the mind. But, from an emotive perspective, the mark that it leaves is deep, enduring. For all I hear it cried out with the full force of jollity and optimism at Rochester's Dickens festival (every time I can be bothered to attend) that will always seem an irony, a piece of false history, a failure to eulogise that sadness, the jingoism that masks the complete absence of hope.
But my conception of Who'll be a Soldier is a piece of false history, too. Although the first stanza is traditional, being the remaining fragment of a ballad called The Bold Fusilier, the song as we recognise it was written in the '70s by Peter Coe of Strawhead - who asksto be credited when it is sung. It is actually called The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant and, For those of you unfamiliar with it, the tune is Waltzing Matilda.

Given closer scrutiny, even the structure of the song suggests that it is not the creation of an oral culture. For example, each stanza takes on its own refrain (come be a soldier, wages for soldiers, take the King's shilling) - although this technique is not unknown in oral culture, what Ong calls the 'redundant' or 'copious' feature of oral tradition would lead me expect the refrain to be uniform - with the possible exception of a single verse.

The song, then, is modern. My interpretation of it, based upon Billy Childish's performance, and my lack of attention as he credited it to Coe, is a modern construct. Is this, then, as inauthentic, as much a indulgence of sentiment as the tendency to wear a crinoline and simper over Mr Darcy?

No. No, I would argue it isn't. For a start, Coe is clearly a talented and versatile folk writer. The song sings well, it marches well, as I'm sure the red-coats at the Dickens festival would attest. Like a good piece of historical fiction, while not 'authentic' it is, perhaps, an authentic reconstruction. It is a common feature of the broadside ballad to say, "sung to the tune of...". What is more, there is suggestion of scepticism towards the armed forces in Ratcliffe Highway (also known as The Deserter), which shows the reluctant soldier. Other ballads speak of press-gangs. Perhaps the only note that rings false about The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant is that young men, the forty new recruits, are willing volunteers.

But this is not my main objection to a consideration of the song as 'inauthentic'. To use that word implies the existence of folk tradition that is not real, one that can be stood next to a 'pure' oral culture. The fact is, my 'authentic' example of Ratcliffe Highway is a broadside ballad - is, essentially, a text, a literate creation. Of course, it is possible to postulate and oral 'original' to these texts, one captured by the culture of print which, even as it destroyed our English oral heritage, was kind enough to fossilize some of its remains. This Romantic conception of folk music is incredibly attractive, but is founded upon the fallacy that English culture has - at any point in the last 800 years - been anything other than literate.

Studies by historians, such as M.T Clanchy and Adam Fox show that the gradual encroachment of literacy and literate forms into every aspect of legal life made text accessible, even to those who could not read. Instead of the idyllic image of a pristine, peasant orality only gradually being 'preserved' by text, more historically likely is a vibrant symbiotic relationship between the two, of which surviving textual sources provide us with snapshots. Those texts - cheaply produced, cheaply sold, printed, reprinted, collected and shared - were equally sites of performance as the folksinger's memory. If, as Fox claims, "By 1700 it may reasonably be assumed that England was a society in which half of the adult population could read print," then it follows that half of the adult population could not. In this context, a broadside ballad becomes a social site, one that has a performative value beyond the words upon the page. There is some evidence that people bought them, put them up in their cottages and shops, even if they themselves could not read. Rather than dead text, a private indulgence, the context of literacy frames the broadside as a social site. The value of the text is known, even if its mysteries remain inaccessible without help. Having just one person in the village who could read it would have created the opportunity for everyone in that community to experience - and learn - the song.

So, it is conceivable that this written song would pass into the oral tradition, perhaps to be recorded again some some ten, some fifty years later by another broadside ballad printer - or perhaps a clergyman out 'collecting' Britain's oral heritage. In the context of literacy, the relationship between oral and textual ceases to be fixed and hierarchical, to be symbiotic, to become ongoing.

"In oral tradition, there will be as many minor variants of a myth as there are repetitions of it", Ong writes in Orality and Literacy. Speaking specifically of orally composed songs, he states, "though metrically regular, they were never sung the same way twice."

The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant can be found by searching, The Bold Fusilier, Who'll be a Soldier, The Recruiting Sergeant. Researching this post, I found locating a text of Coe's original words  nigh on impossible. Rochester's streets are either 'cobbled' or 'crowded' - although the 'kettle drum' of the original is barely mentioned.  The agonist is variously described as a fuslilier, a grenadier, or simply a recruiting sergeant. Approximately half of the versions I discovered referred to 'The King's shilling', despite the fact "the Queen" is the one recruiting troops. This smoothing of language - to fit the modern idiom rather than the historical accuracy of describing the shilling as 'The Queen's' - displays another aspect of oral tradition, that of close adherence to the human lifeworld. Similarly, there was a general tendency to homogenise the refrain lines. Each individual site of the text is informed by the performances of the song the transcriber has heard, informed by their politics, their sentiments, their understanding of the past.
As I sing the song - remembering the Dickens festival and the Command House - I don't sing the 'right' words. I rhapsodise upon the theme, the general idea, the memory. I don't sing the same words route marching my children home from the shops, trying to prevent them from dawdling, as I do when drinking with friends and feeling maudlin. Like the oral tradition, my engagement with this is empathetic, and participatory. Coe's song offers a critique of current conditions of army recruitment, just as broadside ballads offered one of the press gangs. Like many subversive forms, this critique is concealed beneath the veneer of historicity - the King's shilling, the parish queue, the objections of masons or butchers and bakers - what remains is the fact that a entry level pay in the army is around £15k, entry level pay for a teacher is almost £22k. Yet still, forty new recruits go marching.

Who'll be a soldier, indeed?

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