From Joe Hill to the Man Who Waters the Workers’ Beer: a Labour Party song book

Out of the century’s darkness and cheating,
Born in repression and nourish’d on strife,
Brotherly courage, the harsh laws defeating
Hasten’d our Union’s militant lfe.
Song of the AEU

Front cover: Labour Party Song Book: Labour Anthems, Traditional Songs and Community Favourites

‘A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!’ It was 1955, and as Little Richard tore up the norms of popular music with the opening line ofTutti Frutti, the Labour Party decided to reissue its song book.

Eschewing the musical revolution then making its way across the Atlantic thanks to the likes of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, the party instead drew on the ‘old favourites’ that had made Everyday Songs for Labour Festivals such a success in 1933, adding ‘in response to many requests, additional songs from the trade unions at home and overseas and from the Co-operative Movement’.

Featuring both lyrics and piano arrangements – many of them written specifically for the new publication, and copyright of the Labour Party – the songbook gave party activists planning a community sing-song 56 tunes to choose from. And all for just 2s 2d including postage when ordered from the party’s publications department at Transport House. Songsheets featuring just the words were 2d each, or an ambitious £4 10s for anyone ordering a thousand copies.

‘Joe Hill ain’t dead,’ he says to me,
‘Joe Hill ain’t never died.
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side.’
Joe Hill

The song book includes much that is overtly political: Joe Hill commemorated and drew inspiration from the American labour activist and International Workers of the World (‘wobblies’) organiser of that name who was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1914. More conventionally, the song book opens with The Red Flag and The International, and includes the utopian socialist Edward Carpenter’s marching song England, Arise!, the Co-operative Women’s Guild song The Rainbow Flag, and Jerusalem.

Song of the AEU. Click for larger image

Specifically attributed to trade unionism, there is the Song of the AEU, which opens this post above, the chorus of which runs:

Strong as the steel which we shape with precision,
Strong as our class which creates all Man’s needs:
Brothers and sisters, together in unity
Strengthen our might by your vigilant deeds

And then there is Poor Paddy Works on the Railway – included here as the ‘British railway workers’ song’, though in truth it is more a celebration of the many Irish navvies who came to England in the 1840s ‘When Daniel O’Connell he was alive’, at least in this version. Others in the song book variously celebrate or tell of the hardships endured by workers in different industries, among them the Lancashire cotton-worker’s song:

The Four Loom Weaver. Click for larger image

I’m a four loom weaver as many a one knows,
I’ve nowt to eat and I’ve worn out me clothes.
Me clogs are boath broken and stockings I’ve none,
Tha’d scarce gie me tuppence for a’ I’ve gott’n on
The Four Loom Weaver

Similar traditional songs include: Fourpence a Day, a Yorkshire lead miner’s song; Hot Asphalt, a Glasgow-Irish street song; and the American labour song The Commonwealth of Toil.

There is a strong American influence in the selection of tunes – albeit one that pre-dates the musical revolution of the 1950s. Some, including John Brown’s Body, the marching song of the American Civil War, and Dump the Bosses off Your Back, are not out of place in a booklet such as this. In stark contrast, Camptown Races is a more problematic inclusion and would have been highly unlikely to have been included without challenge in a similar song book even a decade later.

There are also additions from Europe, mostly translated into English, although La Espero is permitted to appear in the original Esperanto, that language of a future that never was. Alongside The Marseillaise is the stirring Spanish Republican anthem Himno de Riego, and a rather lacklustre version of the usually rousing Italian labour movement song Bandiera Rossa.

The Man that Waters the Workers’ Beer. Click for larger image

Many of the other songs included in the book are clearly chosen for their merits in singalongs rather than for any social commentary they may offer – Uncle Tom Cobley, Alouette and Jingle Bells defying political classification. However, there is at least one tune here which succeeds in offering both.

Norman Willis, who served as general secretary of the TUC from 1984 to 1993 was renowned for many years for his musical contributions to social gatherings at trade union and Labour Party events – and the party piece for which he is best remembered is his rendition of The Man That Waters the Workers’ Beer. Maybe he learned it from the Labour Party Song Book. Its opening verse goes:

I am the man, the very fat man, that waters the workers’ beer,
And I’m the man, the very fat man, that waters the workers’ beer.
And what do I care if it  makes them ill, if it makes them terribly queer?
I’ve a car and a yacht and an aeroplane and I waters the workers’ beer!

Below: an early version of The Man That Waters the Workers’ Beer, written and sung by Paddy Ryan of Unity Theatre, and originally released in 1939 by Topic Records.