Over the past months, the trio have been gradually releasing online a collection of new songs from the Lancashire Cotton Famine Poetry project in partnership with the University of Exeter. Addressing events that occurred between 1861 and 1865 as a result of the American Civil War and a blockade on exporting cotton, five of these have now finally been gathered together for this EP, which comes with a booklet containing the lyrics and background to each of the songs.
Published in the Blackburn Times on July 2nd 1864 as part of an editorial comment on the sort of poems the paper wouldn’t publish, the title track was originally titled ‘Food or Work’, but has been renamed after its opening line, the song, which opens a capella and set to music by Paul Sartin, expresses the anger felt towards the industrialists who, when the work dried up, turned their backs on those who had made them rich, sounding a vocally stentorian cautionary note that, if not at the looms, women might turn to immoral work.
‘Lancashire Operatives (Starvation)’, a poem by William Eaton published in The Blackburn Standard in November 1862, when the famine was at its height, under the title ‘The Lancashire Operatives Appeal’, which pretty much sums up the thrust of the content (“God only knows the anguish/That in our hearts doth dwell”), set to a hymnal melody by Benji Kirkpatrick and featuring Saul Rose’s melodeon. Taken from the Preston Chronicle of November 29, 1862, the near six-minute, wheezing and slow waltzing ‘Lancashire Factory Girl’, again with music by Sartin, also has a hymnal, specifically chapel, feel, the titular girl detailing the death of her siblings and parents as a result of the poverty, having to sell her clothes and the relics of the dead to buy bread.
With a lively melodeon-led waltz stomp tune from Rose, ‘Wrong and Rights’ dates from the same year and the Burnley Free Press & General Advertiser, and again bristles with political invective about the oppression of the working class that “would snatch from his mouth the bread of his toil” and a call to rise up against such tyranny. It ends as it began with the Blackburn Times and, published in October 1863, a suitably portentous musical and vocal setting of William Billington’s ‘I Would, This War Were Ended’ (or ‘Aw Wod This War Wer Ended’, in the vernacular), an obvious wish for the cessation of hostilities and a lifting of the blockade, the dialect of the original mostly revised for clarity and the verses indicating how Lancashire sympathies were divided between the North and the South, but declaring “both of ‘em’s in the wrong!”.
There’s actually a bonus track, in the form of a video for ‘Slaves’, arranged by Kirkpatrick and taken from a poem by William S. Villiers Sankey that actually dates from 1841. A Chartist work, it’s not an abolitionist tract but rather a condemnation of how British workers were slaves to the ruling class and an indication of the emergence of a socially conscious voice in the nineteenth century.
The EP only scratches the surface of the material written about the Famine, so perhaps, in the fullness of time, an album on the topic and related political concerns, might hopefully also materialise.
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‘Slaves’ – official video: