Today I'm looking at folk songs about work and working people -- starting with the video above in which Seth Lakeman discusses one of my favorite albums: Tales from the Barrel House (2012). Seth grew up here on Dartmoor, lives by Tavistock, and writes songs rooted in the history and folklore of the West Country. This album, about lost country skills and professions, was recorded in a disused barrel house at Morwhellam Quay mining port.
Above: "Blacksmith's Prayer," from Tales from the Barrel House.
Below: "More than Money," a song about the mining life from the same album.
Above: "The Handweaver and the Factory Maid," a broadside ballad performed by Pilgrims' Way, from the north-west of England. The song appeared on their first album, Wayside Courtesies (2011).
Below: "The Four Loom Weaver," a broadside performed by Irish singer Karan Casey at Celtic Connections in 2010. She recorded the song on her 4th solo album, Distant Shore (2003).
These ballads rise from spreading industrialization in the early 19th century, when handloom weaving was replaced by steam weaving machines, throwing whole communities out of work.
Above: "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," a Johnny Cash classic performed by England's Billy Bragg and America's Joe Henry. All three musicians are known for folk/roots/country songs chronicling the stories of working men and women past and present. You'll find this one on the Bragg/Henry album Shine a Light, which I highly recommend.
Below: "Burn Away," by Megson (folk duo Stu & Debbie Hanna), from north-east England. "It's a song about steel, iron, and the blast furnaces," they write, "which, being from Teesside, is in our blood. The industrial language of steel-making is in danger of being forgotten, but it is full of colour, energy, and easily sparks the imagination." The video contains footage from a 1945 documentary on the British steel industry.
Megson's song takes me back to my own childhood years in eastern Pennsylvania, where the steel mills that employed so many relatives and neighbors were closing down, one by one....
Above: "Honest Work" (audio only), a song that could have been the anthem of my out-of-work step-father and his drinking buddies. Written by rocker Todd Rundgren (also from Pennsylvania), it's sung here acapella by the great English folk singer Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span. Although I'm a strong believer in unions, I love Rundgren's poignant and timeless lyrics.
To end on a lighter note, here's "Handyman Blues" by Billy Bragg (below). My step-father was a troubled, difficult man, but the one thing I remember with admiration is how he could do damn near anything with his hands: carpentry, plumbing, wiring, auto mechanics ... whatever needed fixing got fixed. He passed those skills to his sons, but not to me -- and they're ones that I often wish I had now. I am bookish, artsy, and not very handy -- so the song below makes me laugh.