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Welsh History Review


Vol. 15, nos. 1-4 1990-91

The sound of history : song and social comment. Book review.

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Nor do the captions to the plates supply the information that the reader would like and
that a more directly descriptive commentary could have provided.
University Press, 1988. Pp. xviii, 361. £ 25.00.
In this attractive and interesting book, Roy Palmer sets out to discuss popular songs
as a reflection of their times. Taking as his general themes the country, the town,
industry, crime, pastime, the sexes, politics, and war and peace, he is concerned to
show what folk-songs, ballads and songs in a popular idiom have to say about these
things at different periods in history. Many of the songs are printed in full and there
are generous quotations from the others. The book is also well illustrated.
Mr. Palmer deserves to be congratulated on attempting this survey of a broad field,
for which his earlier works, including A Touch on the Times (1974) and Everyman's
Book of British Ballads (1980), have admirably qualified him. The time-span of the
book is some four centuries, and though most of the examples come from England,
the author draws on other British, as well as American, sources. It is not perhaps
surprising that the reader feels at times a little bewildered, for jumping from place
to place and from period to period requires considerable mental agility. It is a measure
of the book's success that the author has organized his material so adeptly.
There are treasures to be found here. Among the most vivid are some of the songs
about industry and strikes, especially as the author is able to show the continuing
tradition of vehemence against a hated employer, be he Bryant in 1888 or Rupert
Murdoch in 1986-87 (p. 108-9). Problems of unemployment still find expression in
songs in traditional idiom, such as Peter Coe's 'It's a mean old scene', sung during
the miners' strike of 1984-85 (p. 119). The ballads which tell of famous crimes have
their distinctive qualities, and Palmer cites examples reaching back to the sixteenth
century. It is remarkable that a ballad celebrating the scandal of Burke and Hare in
1827-29 should have survived in oral tradition until 1970: and one of the strengths
of the book is the way in which the author stresses the continuity of this kind of
literature. The dream related in 'The Poore Man Payes for All' (1630) quoted on
p. 236, does not seem fantastic even in 1989:
Me thought I saw an usurer old
Walke in his fox-fur'd gowne,
Whose wealth and eminence controld
The most men in the towne;
His wealth he by extortion got,
And rose by others' fall;
He had what his hands earned not,
But poore men pay for all.
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