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Last updated:23 April 2015

Songs and Songbooks

Song and poetry has played an important role in the history of working class movements.  Over the years the Library has amassed a quantity of working class songs, poems and related writings.

It is interesting to find how much humour there is in songs of conflict and tension in addition to depth of feeling. The miners not only had conditions of work to write about, but the many pit disasters that happened.  Political song is a genre with a thread that can cover many causes:

  • protest songs such as 'Negro Songs of Protest';Extract from the cover of Songs for the Aldermaston March
  • campaign publications such as the 'Chinese Songs' for the China Campaign Committee;
  • songs providing a social commentary or supporting an historical narrative such as 'Songs for the Aldermaston March' in 1985.

Marchers were limited to these specially selected songs to keep the theme clear. The Labour Party has extensive publications of anthems and songs; and there are many traditional patriotic songs as are sung by choirs associated with the 'Raise your Banners' gatherings of choirs in past years.

The Unity Theatre developed from workers' drama groups in the 1930s and its productions addressed important issues that affect all humanity as they brought the theatre to the masses. They included parodies such as 'Red Fly the Banners O' in 1939 and 'Winkles and Champagne' in 1948. Such organisations are examples of how song is used to promote political awareness and activity.

Cover of a modern printing of Two songs of libertyOne of the oldest pieces of work that has been uncovered is 'Two Songs of Liberty', published in 1796 in issues of the 'Moral and Political Magazine of the London Corresponding Society' which formed in 1792.  In the wake of the French Revolution, Britain saw an emergence of a persistent call for political reform, and through cheap political literature the London Corresponding Society led the struggle of a great number of popular political societies of working class members.  Several members of the Society were tried for High Treason in 1794 but were later acquitted and these two songs were sung in celebration.  Unfortunately the author of both the words and the music is unknown. The copy in the Library collection has a picture on the front of Thomas Paine, who published 'Rights of Man' in 1792 in which he defended the French Revolution.

Working class songs have been the deliberation of the Workers' Musical Association, formed in 1936Cover of the programme for the Workers Music Association 2013 summer schoolby Alan Bush and others. Bush already had been involved for eleven years with the London Labour Choral Union and choirs from this and the Co-operative Musical Associations became the Workers' Musical Association. The Association's aims were to use the power of music to inspire people, provide recreation and entertainment for the armed forces, encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote the idea that music can motivate people to work for the betterment of society. A large percentage of the music identified in the collection at the Working Class Movement Library is published by the WMA.

Not all of the songs in our collection have music with them but of those that do, some are written for more than one voice in a choral format, some have just a voice part, some have full accompaniment, and a few have tonic sol-fa (opens ina new window) arrangements, a practice that was more generally used at one time.

For further information about songs and songbooks in our collection click on the links below:

Gerrard Winstanley and the English Diggers
Mining and mineworkers
William Morris
Jim Connell and The Red Flag
Edward Carpenter and England Arise!
Ernest Jones and The Song of the Low
Socialist Sunday Schools
Songs from other countries

From research by Jane Lewis

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