Breaking Into Song

A big part of working on the UOSH project is listening to oral history interviews. All day, every day. Hundreds of them. Every tape is different – each speaker describes their own world and introduces the stories that make up who they are (or were). We never take them for granted, exactly, but after a while it’s easy to get into the rhythm of them. You know when you can skip a bit and when things are about to get really interesting.

But every now and again something jumps out of the conversation and breaks down that barrier between voice and ear, between active speaker and passive listener. For me some of the most affecting moments of audio have been the interviewees who launch into song. These songs mean something to them – they must do, because they are burned into their memories. I will never forget listening to these clips and I hope you enjoy them too.

Anon – I’m a poor old spinner (Oldham Oral Histories tape 244)

This clip is really random – it is on its own on the second side of some bloke’s unrelated oral history interview. It was probably recorded by Freda Millett in Oldham when she was researching her book on half-timers – the children who spent half of their week working in the mill and half in the classroom.

I find that halting bit in the middle where the singer loses the thread of the song fascinating. It’s awkward to listen to but it embodies the intimate, uncomfortable nature of oral history recordings. The ‘ginnygate’ in the song is the space between two spinning mules in the mill. This where the ‘little piecers’ would work, repairing and scavenging while the machines worked.

Martha Ackroyd – Hurrah for a life in the factory (Manchester Studies tape 666 download)

This song, sung by Martha Ackroyd in 1978 for the Manchester Studies Oral History Collection, seems to be a mill version of the rural folk song ‘The Old Cock Crows’:

I like to hear the old cock crow,
Early in the morning,
I like to stroll through the bright green fields,
Just as the day is dawning.
I like to hear the little birds
Sing their merry lay:
Hurrah for a life in the country
And a ramble in the new-mown hay.

Martha’s version is set in the factory, with the engine warming replacing the sun dawning:

I like to be there when the engine warms
Early in the morning
I like to sit me down at breakfast time
Just when the engine’s warming
I like to see the piecers
As on the floor they lay
Then hurrah for a life in the factory
And we’re waiting for the reck’ning day

Mrs Edge – There’s no room on Daubhill for me (Manchester Studies tape 641 download)

This clip is a much more specific work song. Mrs. Edge was a weaver who started half-time at the age of eleven. She was working at the Barnes mill in Daubhill, Bolton in 1906 when there was a strike on. This song dramatises the scene where the ‘knobsticks’ (strikebreakers) needed to be escorted home from the mill.

Mr and Mrs Fletcher – There’s no room on Daubhill for me (Manchester Studies tape 722 download)

Mr and Mrs Fletcher were teenagers in 1906. They also remember the same song. They explain that during the dispute they went to the tram shed to raise money for the strikers.

Elizabeth Harrison – Empire Day song (Bolton Oral History Project tape 27a download)

Elizabeth Harrison remembers the song children used to sing in school on Empire Day on 24 May. She was born in 1900 and is being recorded in 1981. The militaristic lyrics of the Empire Day song make her reflect on contemporary politics, and she explains to the interviewer why she is supporting a petition for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I just love the bit at the end where the interviewer asks, ‘Have you any more songs? It was good, that.’

Here are some more clips of impromptu singalongs – happy listening!

These clips come from four different collections:

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