Australian Folk Songs

songs | books | records | articles | glossary | links | search | responses | home

New Source of History--The Poor Cotton Weavers (1964)

Edgar Waters

At the first seminar arranged by the newly-formed A.N.U. Historical Society, Dr. Edgar Waters
discussed the place folk songs have in historical studies. Dr. Waters's main point was that
folk songs, being an oral form of literature, have the same sort of value as written literature
in cultural and social history. Folk songs cannot only give a picture of contemporary life, but
they can also give insight into all thought, feelings and behaviour of the people who sing them.

Historically-speaking, folksongs are important not for their aesthetic qualities, but for what
they have to tell of the ordinary life of the singers themselves. History has no use for formal
definitions of "folk-songs." Its main concern is the song itself--who sang it? When did they sing?
Why did they, sing it ? How long was it sung for? What changes; did it undergo? Answers to the
questions are often very, difficult, although illuminating at the same time, The example Dr. Waters
chose to illustrate, his talk was from a collection of industrial songs of England. The song,
"The Poor Cotton Weavers" dates from about 1815, i.e., the period of all post-Napoleonic Wars
depression, and was sung in the cotton manufacturing areas of Lancashire. Fifty years later the song
was still circulating in broadsheet form and even today variations are still sung in Lancashire.
The theme of the song is the life of the cotton weavers working under the pre-factory age system of
"putting out." The song describes a weaver's clothes, food, attitudes to religion and the Anglican
Church and the effect of industrial changes upon his earnings. No amount of prose can capture the
intimate expression of working class life contained in the song. One very interesting point illustrated
by the song is the absence of Marxian revolutionary feelings in all cotton weavers even though they are
fully aware they are being exploited by the capitalists.

"For to think au mun work-o keep him an' his seco,
All the days o' me life, an' when to die in their debto.
But au'll give over this trade and work wi' a spade.
Or go' an' break stone on the road."

When interviewed later, the President of the new society, Mr, Scott Bennett, said the Historical Society
had two main aims. The first was to publish a regular historical journal of high quality to which
undergraduate students will be encouraged to submit their best work. The inaugural issue is planned for
publication in third term. The Society is holding seminars at which students and others will be invited
to present, and discuss papers. "Undergraduates will benefit considerably from having to defend their work
before critical audiences," Mr. Bennett said. Two such seminars have already been held and it is hoped to
have a third one this term.

--M.B.G.

Notes

From the ANU student newspaper the Woroni 23 Jul 1964 p. 4.

It seems that a mis-hearing or typo crept into this article, and the word "seco" should read as "sect" and "depto" as "dept"

Top

australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory