Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

Loving the Common People

A lot of folk song, due to its origin, speaks about poverty. Some songs that immediately come to mind are Poverty Knock, A Begging I will Go, Four Pence a Day and some that have been recycled several decades apart like Four Loom Weaver (from the Poor Cotton Weaver). No accident that these are all songs I found in Colin Dryden’s repertoire during my recent research work on his career. Colin was clearly a man with a social conscience.

Where I grew to be a Man, by Dorothy Hewett is a good Australian example, often sung under the title Weevils in the Flour. Many of the songs and poems recited by Max Cullen and Warren Fahey in their brilliant adaptation of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson’s work, Dead Men Talking, deal directly with poverty and its consequences, sometimes from personal experience of the author, and other times as a compassionate observer.

Songs (and poems) like this have been sung by those with lived experience to draw attention to their plight, to seek solace in a shared expression of their circumstance or simply to ensure that their misery is not lost to history. I don’t think there can be any argument against the value of this, except maybe from those who are the cause of their poverty or profit from them remaining in that state.

There is another side to songs about poverty. I remember listening to the Paul Young version of Love of the Common People on the radio when I was in school. I doubt anyone performing or in the audience of this recording would recognize a ‘common’ person in the street or have any personal lived experience of living on starvation wages or dealing with the prejudice, violence and disenfranchisement which so often comes hand in hand with poverty.

I can believe that John Hurley, one of the writers of the song back in the 1960s, probably did have enough experience, if not personal, then at least from direct contact with people living in poverty. John’s family put this video together of family photos over John’s own recording. You would have to grow up quickly as a child performer in Pittsburgh bar-rooms in the 1950s.

Some of the names that covered John and Ronald Wilkins song include Waylon Jennings, John Denver, Elton John and Leonard Nimoy (yes that one). It is probably safe to say that at the time of recording, none of these people were short of a penny.

Here is where the sticky line of morality arises. Just like Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes singing about hard drugs, womanizing and the challenges of life from their white middle-class bedrooms at the age of twelve can hardly be convincing, what does it mean when wealthy, or ludicrously wealthy, people sing about being terribly poor?

There are some famous musicians and singers that have made tangible efforts, often at personal risk or expense to make the world a better place. Joan Baez immediately comes to mind with her efforts to end the Vietnam War and establishment of the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence. A cynic would equate this to the study of non-wet water, but at least there was a genuine and tangible action taken seeking a change.

What about those who sing songs about poverty purely to make a few dollars from a bit of virtue signalling and convenient alignment with a topical social issue? An episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s series Who is America? captures this so beautifully when he gets a Bachelor in Paradise contestant to agree to be photo-shopped into a picture showing her helping African people suffering from Ebola.

Maybe when Elvis sang In the Ghetto, his intent was to trigger social change and not just about needing a top 10 hit after a four year drought. The detail here on Elvis’ charity efforts seems light-on for someone with the lifestyle Elvis was leading. The discussion here during the recording is also enlightening.

And why does it sell? It certainly isn’t people living below the poverty line forking out $20 to buy an album or $200 for a ticket to hear songs about being poor. To use one of the things I hate, made-up academic terms, Poverty Fetishism is what I think is at play here; people who like the idea of being poor, or are thrilled by imagining themselves in a romanticised vision of poverty for a few minutes before purchasing their next Latte or Louis Vuitton handbag.

Love of the Common People was one of the songs in our choir concert this season, which is what got me thinking about this topic. I’ve done a cover here based on the version done by one of my favourite bands, Indigo Girls. I don’t think you can get much more earnest or authentic than the Indigo Girls when it comes to singing about social issues. I know that when they sing this song, it is to share the story of those who are poor with those who might not be so poor, with respect and out of a shared humanity. I hope this is what comes across in my own music.

6 thoughts on “Loving the Common People

  1. Hi Daniel, I’ve only just started having a firkle into what you have here and have listened to a couple of your YouTube tracks – “the Knocker Up Song”,”the Blantyre Explosion”, “the 4 Loom Weaver”.
    These songs fall into the wonderful expression used by the American Utah Phillips – they are songs of the people’s long memories which are their histories. In Australia it seems that such long memories or the histories that the governments, the invaders and the damaged egos do not want remembering – the brutality to the First Nations People, the convicted, the pioneers, the senseless wars fought at the command of a distant queen and colonial government, the injustice of religious persecution whether by, against or within specific religions – think Church of England vs the Church of Rome, think both Churches against the helpless children molested and raped, suicides, illegitimate children, circumcision & fgm, lack of genuine human rights – have you ever when voting been allowed to state that none of the candidates on the ballot paper are fit to represent you or satisfactorily have them represent you according to the promise that they were elected on?
    So ina time when people did not have alarm clocks but had to be at work on time, the Knocker Up Man with his pole was a very important member of society. I have heard dickhead cretins of folk singers introduce the song scoffing at the (in there opinion) ridiculous notion of someone going round tapping on bedroom windows with a long pole to wake people up to go to work. Think of the chaos, the poverty, the shame of not being at t’factory on time and holding up the day’s production or resulting in the injury of another worker because the Knocked Up Man didn’t do his job.

    Poverty Knock – the exploitation of workers by employers and the consequence of war on people who are what is now known as collateral damage. A four loom weaver was a respected man in the factory. That he was striking in order to obtain just reward for his labour was no small matter. Are you aware that the first Co-operative started in Blackburn Lancashire when several men walked to Manchester with a wheelbarrow to return with it laden with household necessities to break the monopoly of mill owners unfairly charging their employees for goods sold through the mill shop – no Coles, Woolworths, IGA or Aldis in those days.

    It is a long memory of extortionate costs of necessities, housing, poor working conditions, poor wages, lack of education, lack of health care, lack of pension, lack of representation, lack of equality that many of these songs are about. I suggest that this is why probably more than at any previous time people are being driven to meaningless distractions in entertainment, virtual relationships, politics, government, value for money, virtual reality, questionable lifestyles, food and religions.

    An acquaintance shared his Melbourne S.O. player father’s wisdom of classical music & singing performances “Son” he said “It does not matter how perfectly you play or sing each note, what the audience will stand up applauding you and remember you for is your passion, your empathy, your clarity of note & word of the lyrics & music enabling and empowering their understanding, their empathy and their passion – not your perfect technical ability”.

    1. Hi Jack,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I fixed up the typo in your post. I first learnt about ‘Knocker Uppers’ when I heard the Wheeze and Suck band play, probably at the National Folk Festival in Australia 10-15 years ago. The term features in their ‘Coal Hole Cavalry’ song.

      With most of my song choices coming from artists that inspire me, Pete Seeger, Alistair Hulett, Christy Moore, Phil Ochs, John Warner there is a strong thread of singing the ‘people’s music’ in my blog posts and YouTube covers.

      Pop music is all very nice, but I like songs to mean something.



  2. Thanks Daniel. Have a read through some of the radio program song listings on my blog that I broadcast for some names I recommend for you to listen to if you can get hold of them. – performers like Ewan McColl, Alex Hood, High Level Ranters, The Spinners, Steeleye Span, June Tabor (she made Eric Bogle well known), the Corries. . .

    The Pump and all the Wheezers brought some very valuable songs to light , their inimitable style bringing the genre to the attention of many. I look forward to listening to the latest incarnation “Traditional Graffiti” and their first recording “Graffiti 1”.

    1. Thanks for the artist suggestions Jack, they were all familiar to me except Alex Hood, Ranters and Spinners. I will look them up (also fixed the names and assume you meant The Corries?).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *