Sing a song of citizenship

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
It was always the highlight of the primary school summer term. The May Day festival - generally, it must be said, delayed into June - included the usual dancing round poles and the presentation of the May Queen. It also generally involved the sly insertion of John Ball, a wonderful song by Sydney Carter, written in 1981 to commemorate the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt on its 600th anniversary.

"Who will be the lady Who will be the lord When we are ruled By the love of another?" we sang, and swung into the chorus: "Sing, John Ball!", in which the singer addresses the turbulent priest with the promise:

"I'll crow like a cock I'll carol like a lark For the light that is coming In the morning!"

Disgraceful. Dangerous socialist propaganda.

Who knows what John Ball's assertion: "When Adam delved and Eve span Who was then the gentleman?" planted in young minds? The school corridors reverberating to the sound of Carter's line "Labour and spin for the love of one another"? How dare they! These, may I remind you, were the Thatcher years; no time for a stroppy little rural school to be echoing Ball's pre-Marxian letter, recorded in Froissart's Chronicle: "Are we not all descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? And what can they show, or what reasons give, why they should be more the masters than ourselves? Except, perhaps, in making us labour and work, for them to spend." Dear oh dear. How could this have been allowed?

Well, it was wonderful. My children inform me that they never had the slightest idea of what was going on, and thought that it might have something to do with John Ball's Garage at Friston. Politics, capitalist or socialist, was a closed book, even though they knew all the song's words and enjoyed roaring out the sentiments.

But I reckon it was a citizenship curriculum by stealth, promoting co-operation, equality, "All shall be ruled By the love of one another", and a healthy scepticism about Lords and Ladies (believe me, in a rural area, this is still a useful service for education to perform).

John Ball is a wonderful song (available on CD, try Amazon) and very catchy. And humming it to myself again, I remember with surprise another village school in Suffolk, 30 years earlier, and the fact that my earliest political education did, in fact, come in songs.

We sang a lot, then: Mrs Brown could bang out a tune or two on the piano, and it was a cheap way of filling in the restless afternoons. And the songs we sang were, as often as not, about battle, rebellion, defiance, and general resistance to tyranny. In our piping voices we sang The Song of the Western Men ("And shall Trelawney die?"), Rule Britannia, and Bunyan's warlike invocation to be a pilgrim and brook no discouragement, even when beset around with dismal stories. On the religious side, we roared out Fight the Good Fight and When a Knight Won his Spurs and, in the secular corner, found various chronicles about Polly Oliver who dressed up to follow her sweetheart to the war, heroic maids defying barons to rescue their lovers, and the Farmer's Boy who won the hand of his master's daughter by diligent ploughing, sowing, reaping and mowing.

We liked the ones with a bit of defiance in them: the ballad of Mary Hamilton was my favourite, in which the Queen of Scotland's lady-in-waiting, made pregnant by "the highest Stuart of all", is taken to the scaffold for infanticide but when offered mercy by the King retorts:

"Och, haud your tongue, my sovereign Lord!

An ill death mat ye dee!

If ye had wished to save my life You'd never ha' shamed me!"

You see? We're barking up the wrong tree with this dreary "citizenship" curriculum and worksheets about local authority elections and disability rights panels. If you want children to get heated and passionate about all that stuff, first of all you've got to get the humanity and the fire into them.

Dig out the fierce old songs about right and wrong, bad barons, everyone being descended from Adam and Eve and chaps refusing to bow the head to tyrants and telling kings to hold their tongue. Revive the old forgotten songs, find the new ones to go with them (I am sure there are some red-hot rebel songs from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent). Bang the piano, make the windows rattle: citizenship through song.

They'll never forget it.

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