Ray kindly took the time to write a few words for Proletics about how he came across Owd Mather, what he found so inspirational about the radical balladeer and how his songs spring from – and add to – the ‘people’s tradition’.
I came back from Essex University in 1981 with a head full of Shakespeare, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Pablo Neruda. I thought I knew a bit about literature and poetry.
I’d got myself a job as ‘Tutor Organiser’ for Rotherham, my home-town, for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) with the ambition of ‘liberating’ literature and poetry from the vaults of the rich and distributing it promiscuously around the borough. Ray Fisher was the WEA’s District Secretary and he had a passion for what he called ‘local literature.’ Ray had a copy of The Songs of Joseph Mather and he used to let me borrow it.
It seared across my mindscape like a lightning flash, or maybe it just meandered like a murmuration of starlings and installed itself into chemical permanence in my bonce. I was supposed to know something about English literature and here were people who spoke and thought a bit like me, yet nobody mentioned them. That’s where my next literary education began.
Mather inspired me. I came from an Irish house and a childhood filled with hymns and ballads. Here was a bloke, uneducated except that he seemed to know the bible back’ards, making up his own songs and ballads about his own experiences and his own community: dark, dogged, highly charged with political insights, telling the stories of his own people in crafted versions of their own language and idioms, and performing them in the hope of earning a few bob at fairs, markets, race meetings and public gatherings generally.
Nobody knows anything about the music he employed. He might have sung everything unaccompanied; he might have worked ad hoc with musicians, a fiddler perhaps; he might have composed his own melodies. Far more likely it has always seemed to me, he was one of the few bobbydazzler South Yorkshire embodiers of the ‘people’s tradition’.
By that I mean he heard, adapted, borrowed, chopped, changed and tailored the tunes and melodies that he heard from other singers, either local or passers through. That for me is how the people’s tradition has always worked. It’s mucky, grubby from pawing by innumerable gentle and powerful dirty hands; a vibrant, dynamic and exquisite vehicle capable of transmitting as great an artistic experience as any other art form Radio Three might mention. Its most marvellous exponents include Shakespeare, Robert Burns and the yet-to-be equalled Ann On.
Mather’s flat-vowelled, late-eighteenth-century Sheffield demotic, with its overtones of biblical rhetoric and phrasing, filtered through an ancient stand-in-the-street-and-sing-it ballad tradition, confirming some of my deepest intuitions about human songs and their roots.
The very first time I read ‘The File-Hewer’s Lamentation’ [listen to Ray’s version below] it seemed to arrange itself to the tune of ‘The boys of Mullaghbawn’ on an old cassette-tape I’d somewhere acquired of songs by Paddy Tunney. No one knows the source of the original tune, though the words we have seem to pertain to the United Irishmen’s 1798 rising. I like to think either that Joe picked up a variant of that very tune listening to some itinerant Irish labourer looking for work in the alleys of early industrial Sheffield, or even more pleasing is the idea that the same Irish singer heard Joe’s song and took the tune back to Ireland where it became ‘The boys of Mullaghbawn.’
I was also struck by the staggering courage involved in composing and singing publicly, ‘God Save Great Thomas Paine.’ To sing such a piece, just after the French Revolution and during what some historians have called ‘the English reign of terror,’ calling for the overthrow of kings and aristocracy and championing democracy, is an act of such breath-taking bravery as to be barely believable. That he was singing this song and others with similar sentiments to fellow Sheffielders in the streets gives us insights into the local culture. Sheffield was considered ‘disloyal’: ‘barracks and bastilles’ were built and militias were recruited. The ideological battle for the next fifty years was made articulate between the plain English, common-sense, Republican ideas of Paine – ‘The People and Reform’ – against the flowery, murderously oppressive polysyllables of the turncoat Burke and his ‘Church and King,’ to whom the common people were a mere ‘Swinish Multitude.’
All that and more, emblematised in the words and defiant singing of a bloke from Cack Alley, just off West Bar, known to locals as ‘Shitten Entry.’
So when I was offered an opportunity to set some of Joe’s pieces for the Festival of the Mind I was delighted. It nudged me towards doing what I should have done years before. I was able to bend tunes to fit six more pieces in addition to the two above, most of them emerging from my small but well-mellowed crock-full of Irish airs and melodies. Though my attitude to the provenance of each of the tunes remains open and flexible, sceptical and even mischievous, if you like. Who is to say that the above wandering Irish man was not a woman? Ann On herself even? Gathering sheaves of tunes during her dalliance with Joe before making her way back over the water to share them with all and sundry. I could swear that when I hear such as ‘Biddy Mulligan’, ’Patrick was a Gentleman,’ ‘Rosin the Bow,’ ‘The Dean’s Chapter,’ and ‘Kevin Barry,’ I can detect clearly beneath them, as sure as I’m plinking on this banjo, Mather’s own tunes donkeying their beneficent ways through the beaming and appreciative crowd.
Listen to Ray’s version of ‘The File-Hewer’s Lamentation’ here:
If you like what you hear you can get the CD for six quid – find out more here.