Sunday, June 22, 2008

Mixing Pop and Politics (10)

Quick one.

NM over at Castles in Space music blog has just posted 'Kingdom', the wonderful 1993 single by Ultramarine, which featured Robert Wyatt on lead vocals.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it stands up as one of my favourite political pop songs from the the last twenty years and, of course, it took pride of place on the 'The Secret Melody of the Class Struggle' mixed cd that we took down to Glastonbury in 2003 to sell on the SPGB stall that year.

NM already provides the background to the recording over at his blog, so I don't even get the opportunity to use the word 'plaintive' when describing Robert Wyatt's voice because he already beat me to the publishing button. However he's on safer ground with his mention of "folktronica". What the hell is that? Oh, that's "folktronica". OK, I'll have some Beta Band, Beth Orton, Goldfrapp and The High Llamas. The rest can kindly leave the post. The Dance Village is that way.

NM mentions in passing that the lyric was adapted by Wyatt from a "Nineteenth Century protest song", but the underreporting is perhaps doing the original a slight disservice. The lyric was adapted from Ernest Jones's poem, 'The Song of the Lower Classes', which dates from 1852.

Originally from a highly privileged background, Jones - who was on the left wing of the Chartist Movement at its height - was as well known as a poet and a writer as he was an orator and Chartist leader. The strange old days when radical politicians also provided their audiences with popular music and poetry, as opposed to nowadays when whoever's on the front cover of the current issue of the Rolling Stone tries to give us their half-baked politics tucked neatly inside their newly released box set.

If you want more background on Jones, this essay by (the late) Edmund and Ruth Frow of the Working Class Movement Library fills in a lot of the detail.

In the meantime, cut and posted below is Jones's original poem. Be sure to have a read of it whilst listening to Ultramarine and Robert Wyatt's late twentieth century re-interpretation:

Song of the Lower Classes

We plow and sow, we're so very, very low,
That we delve in the dirty clay;
Till we bless the plain with the golden grain,
And the vale with the fragrant hay.
Our place we know, we're so very, very low,
'Tis down at the landlord's feet;
We're not too low the grain to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.

Down, down we go, we're so very, very low,
To the hell of the deep-sunk mines;
But we gather the proudest gems that glow,
When the crown of the despot shines;
And when'er he lacks, upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We're far too low to vote the tax
But not too low to pay.

We're low, we're low -- we're very, very low --
And yet from our fingers glide
The silken floss and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride;
And what we get, and what we give,
We know, and we know our share;
We're not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear.

We're low, we're low, we're very, very low,
And yet when the trumpets ring,
The thrust of a poor man's arm will go
Through the heart of the proudest king.
We're low, we're low -- mere rabble, we know --
We're only the rank and the file;
We're not too low to kill the foe,
But too low to share the spoil.

Notes to the People,  1852

1 comment:

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