Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – Bring The Summer Home (two weeks with Ewan MacColl, day fourteen)

• “Bring The Summer Home” set to a picture of the housing album cover.

8.7 “Excellent Folk from England”

From their LP “Naming Of Names” (Cooking Vinyl COOK-CD-036) released in 1990.

Despite suffering periods of chronic illness in his final years, Ewan MacColl carried on determinedly with his work; he completed his autobiography in mid-1988 and continued to write and record songs as he entered his seventy-fifth and final year during 1989.

The imposition of the hated poll tax in Scotland from April 1st 1989, was the beginning of the end for Thatcherism; it was a prank too far in her class-war, and would soon lead to her downfall. Where the local services tax had been based on one’s property rental valuation, this new poll tax sought to collect a flat rate per person. This was widely criticised as being unjust; some social groups that had not been expected to pay rates were suddenly faced with large poll tax bills which they simply could not afford.

An incensed MacColl responded in the way that he knew best – via the typewriter! Britain had been here before, and he was damned well going to remind us all about it in verse. Writing in her introduction to The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook (2001) Peggy Seeger shared some insight into the duo’s writing process:

If one of us had a song on the way and there were birth difficulties, we’d talk, criticise, discuss and wrestle it into existence. He wrote the words for “Bring the Summer Home” and brought them downstairs one day, saying “These songs need tunes.” I wrote them. He wrote odd verses and lines in ‘my’ songs and I did the same with ‘his’, we altered each other’s tunes – and neither of us ever bothered to claim our ‘share’ of authorship. Nor ever will.

With this song, Peggy had been presented with writing typical of Ewan’s oeuvre; he wouldn’t think twice about delving back down throughout the centuries to make a contemporary connection, nor would he shirk away from uncomfortable content or compromise for the sake of perceived conventions of duration. As any student of his catalogue would undoubtedly note, he’d be just as likely to deliver a sixty seconds a capella piece as a progressive suite twenty times that length. This poll tax business had been brewing for quite some time, and it seems to have inspired a bit of a war and peace effort, the final recording clocking in at just over 10 minutes.

The first part of the song is set in the 1340s, during the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War between France and Edward III’s England, with the black plague imminent. By decades end, if the killing fields haven’t got you, the deadly disease will have a second go. These were miserable times for the working man; serfdom was the order of the day whereby you’d be tied to the lord of the manor in return for a plot of land that you’d have to work hard just to sustain yourself minimally, the yield being weighted heavily in favour of the landowner. It was barely a step up from slavery…

Our king went forth to Normandy,
With grace and might and chivalry,
The God for him wrought marvellously,
Wherefore England may call and cry: “Deo Gratias”.

The king went forth to Normandy,
Pride of might and chivalry,
Welsh and English longbowmen,
Bondmen, serfs were in the band,
While at home men and women laboured in the fields,
That the masters might enjoy their yield,
Live and die in the eye and bonds of Edward’s laws,
Caught up in the toils of Edward’s wars.

In the 13th year of the war,
Came the pestilence to our shore,
Sergeant Death stalked through the land,
Murder walked at his right hand,
Kings and their conscript armies play their bloody games,
In the fertile fields of Aquitaine,
Children die caught up on the point of hunger’s lance,
While their fathers die in the fields of France.

By 1377 the expensive Anglo-French war was still raging and the regents of the newly crowned Richard II seen fit to impose a poll tax on the population…

In the 40th year of the war,
Richard flogged us with the law,
Beat us with the new poll tax,
Flayed the skin from off our backs,
Our lives are forfeit, caught between the granite millstones,
Of the church and state and king’s throne,
They grind our bodies down, our very souls they plunder,
While our children die of hunger.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was another poll tax whip-round imposed in 1379, then another in 1381, each more inequitable than the last. Evasion was rife, and an anger spread throughout towns and villages, fuelled by passionate orators such as the radical cleric, John Ball (who was jailed for his troubles). Even middle classes were being won over, as the notion of a great popular rebellion took hold…

The axe was sharp, the stalk was hard,
In the fourteenth year of King Richard,
Clean the blade of the next poll tax,
Honed till sharper than the axe,
The sweating reaper sees the hated tax collector pass,
Time he fits to put the scythe to the grass,
The time has come to put the wheat away, “uproot them all”,
Says the former priest of York, John Ball.

The tax commissioner John Bampton rode into Brentwood, Essex, on the 30th May 1381 with a remit to collect unpaid poll taxes and was taken aback when his aggressive approach, usually met with almost no resistance, was overturned by an organised and violent mob. He escaped, but his co-riders were beheaded. No longer a whispered secret, the revolt had begun…

Thirteen hundred eighty-one,
Now the sheep shearing time has come,
With King Richard’s third poll tax,
Hear the cry, “Get off our backs!”
Now soon the sheep will shear the wolf,
The lambs will show their teeth,
Soon the wrestlers will be on the heap,
And we will dance the true man’s Morris at the Whitsun games,
To the welcome sound of broken chains.

Thirteen hundred eighty-one,
Now the May games have begun,
Brentwood fall, begin the jig,
Dance the poll tax whirligig,
The tax collectors they are forced to join the rebel dance,
High up in the air they twitch and prance,
Across the Thames the army of the Essex bondmen went,
Joining forces with the men of Kent.

All across ordinary homes in the south east of England, swords came down from walls, axes were sharpened and bows re-strung. Many of them ex-soldiers, they knew what would be required. Men such as Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and Abel Ker were leading the violent crusade, although the emphasis was strictly on social justice – any opportunist looters would face death from within their own ranks. Even previously impenetrable castles couldn’t hold them back – with astonishing success in the early days of June 1381, they wreaked havoc, setting great manors ablaze, destroying legal documents by the thousands, and releasing prisoners from jail, notably John Ball. All of this with the ultimate aim of revoking the poll tax and ending serfdom…

We have brought the harvest home,
Yes we have brought the summer home,
And we have cut and stacked the corn,
Yes we have brought the summer home,
And sent the tax collector running,
We have brought the summer home,
Sent the tax commissioners running,
We have brought the summer home,
And helped the robber, he is hiding,
We have brought the harvest home,
And the noble knights are hiding,
And the noble squires are hiding,
And the noble lords are hiding,
And the stiff-necked priors are hiding,
And the abbots they are hiding,
And the bishops they are hiding,
We have brought the summer home,
Yes, we have brought the summer home.

We have made a good beginning,
Since that glorious day in Brentwood,
When we chased the tax collectors,
And the day we marched to Maidstone,
And we brought the summer home,
Since we freed John Ball from prison,
Since we burned Lancaster’s palace,
Since we stormed Rochester castle,
Took the head off our archbishop,
And the head off Robert Hales,
And the head off Sir John Fordham,
We have brought the summer home,
Yes we have brought the summer home.

When Abel Ker’s went into Dartford,
And when on to capture Gravesend,
And we brought the summer home,
And we sacked the marshalcy,
Yes as we brought the summer home,
Yes we brought the summer home.

How we reveled in the May Day,
With the chasing of the landlords,
And we celebrated Pentecost,
With John Ball and Wat Tyler,
And the feast of the sheep shearing,
With Jack Straw and William Grindcobbe,
And the feast of corpus cristi,
With the bleeding of the gluttons,
And the vigil of St. John the Baptist
Brought the summer home.

By June 10th, the rebellion was all set to march on London where they’d look to settle a few scores and negotiate with the King…

All the south has caught on fire,
Norfolk, Hampshire, Hertfordshire,
Johann Nameless, Thomas Scott,
Here’s the plowman Haume and Wat,
To Canterbury 50,000 men of Kent are sped,
England’s chancellor will lose his head,
And then Wat Tyler and his men are London bound,
Pull the nobles and their prelates down.

All the taxers got the priests,
Ring the necks of noble geese,
Loose all prisoners, set them free,
From Newgate and the Marshalcy,
Burn down the palace of the Duke of Lancaster,
Who’s the servant now, Sir, who’s the master?
Tear the tyrant Treasurer of England from his bed,
See how he can fare without his head!

It’s known as the peasants revolt, but many of these men were above that rung of the ladder…

Adam Atwell – and John Bowlin
Nicholas Boatland – Simon Burley
And Jack Cave – master baker
And John Kent – a shoe maker
And George Donesby – of Lincoln
William Grindecobbe – of St. Albans
Thomas Harding – Maidstone mason
Also Hugh Harvey – of Chester
And there’s Abel Ker – of Brentwood
Richard Kendall – and John Kirby
Geoffrey Lister – dyer of Stafford
And Jack Milner – John de Molyns
There’s John Poter – master, Fuller
And Ray Frug – and Walter Sybyle
Thomas Simpson – basketmaker
And Jack Straw – and Alan Fretter
There’s Will Tonge – and Robert Westbrom
John de Wolde – and there’s Wat Tyler

By mid-June, with the backing of London’s poor, the rebels had all but secured victory and had been promised concessions and new rights by King Richard II. Everything turned on the 15th June when an overly confident Wat Tyler had an isolated meeting with the King and his counsel at Smithfield, where he sought further assurances. There, he was daggered and killed, despite having an army of 50,000 standing by, not too far in the distance. Seizing his chance, the trusted King rode up to the rebel army showing vulnerability and gave the speech of his life, imploring them to follow their king and that all would be well. Amazingly, they dispersed and the king soon showed his true colours. Within a few short weeks, the rebellion was duly crushed in an orderly fashion, having been conned into lowering its guard…

July, thirteen eighty-one,
Brave Wat Tyler’s come and gone,
Killed by creatures of the court,
Killing bondmen his royal sport,
John Ball was stretched upon the rack, then disemboweled and hung,
His broken body on a dunghill flung,
He said that when the great ones have been rooted up and cast away,
Only then will we learn to be free.

Fast forward 608 years – an old story was back to haunt the poor folk…

Nineteen hundred eighty-nine,
Against the new poll tax combine,
Join the men of eighty-one,
Finish what John Ball began,
Now we can stretch our hands across time’s ocean wide,
Marching onwards at Wat Tyler’s side,
All honour to the ragged bands who at Smithfield lay,
Those who braved the axe and led the way.

A brilliant work. As it did in 1381, the “can’t pay, won’t pay” mantra of 1989 gave the ruling order hell, and sent them reeling to think again! Sadly, Ewan died in October, 1989, aged 74, and didn’t live to enjoy the small victory, but play his part he did, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting parting gift than “Bring The Summer Home”.

Looking back at the fourteen songs from the blog, the words written by Peggy Seeger in the aforementioned songbook of 2001 ring absolutely true. No-one knows Ewan MacColl better than Peggy, so I’ll leave you today with Peggy’s astute observation:

Look at the variety of songs in this book: polemic, tender, lyrical, satirical, ironic, angry, straightforward, objective, subjective … the songs run through an extraordinary stylistic and emotional range. His theatrical training taught him that attention wanes if you don’t change the pace in time and he kept changing the pace, the meter, the mode, the approach, the length, the poetic style. He may have loved the Dorian mode but he used many of the others. He could write like the outraged Marxist that he was – but he could also write like Romeo. And if he hadn’t been such a snob as far as ‘commercial’ music was concerned, he probably could have written popular songs too, for he had been drawn to a great variety of music in his early years and was a good imitator. Even as he could quote classic poetry and pub monologues, he could also let loose with sections of “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, “Come Into the Garden, Maud” or a Schubert lieder in appalling German. When it came to songwriting, however, he kept, for the most part, to the straight-and-narrow: songs in the folk idiom of the British Isles, using the traditions in which the Scots and English working classes had for centuries expressed their laughter and tears.

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Ewan MacColl is known to most people as a songwriter and singer, but he was also of significant influence in the worlds of theatre and radio broadcasting. He was a committed socialist all his life and his political sensibilities underpinned all his creative activities. His art reached huge numbers through the folk clubs, greater numbers through his recordings and untold millions through the radio. Although The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Dirty Old Town remain his biggest ‘hits’, MacColl wrote songs for many different contexts: incidental songs for theatrical productions, commissioned pieces for labour unions or political causes, songs stitched together from vernacular speech recorded for the radio documentary series The Radio Ballads, songs for rallying, striking, marching… and, of course, songs for singing in folk clubs.

For sixty years he was at the cultural forefront of numerous political struggles, producing plays, songs and scripts on the subjects of apartheid, fascism, industrial strife and human rights. It has been said that he was an enormous fish in a small pond – but the ocean of traditional song and speech upon which he navigated and hunted owes him a great debt for the treasures that he returned to it.
ewanmaccoll.co.uk

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