Brass Band Poems: Rhymes About Working-Class Culture


Irwell

Postcard of Irwell Springs Brass Band, Bacup, 1905. (Author’s own collection)

In the course of my research I encountered a number of poems that highlighted several aspects of working-class culture. The poems fell into three broad areas: civic pride and rational recreation, working-class behaviour and class identity-either good or bad – and contest success. The authors of these poems were often unknown, but it is reasonable to say they would mostly be local people. From park concerts, through drinking bandsmen, to contest success the attraction of these poems is that they highlight the working-class nature of bandsmen and their followers.

 

Parklife: the Public Nature of Brass Bands

Summer was when brass bands gained most public exposure. From May to the end of September local bands played in the public parks.[1] They played an eclectic mix of summer events: balls, flower shows, Grammar School and police sports days and charity events. Park concerts were the most regulated.

The Public Park Movement started in the 1830s, developing from a desire to improve the health of the Victorian towns and cities’ populations. Parks became symbols of civic pride, providing locals with fresh air and attractive surroundings. Parks were places to encourage rational recreation and attractions included music, sports facilities and horticultural displays. Often the park was linked with a museum or art gallery.[2] Parks, together with the town hall, library, museum and art gallery, articulated a particular sense of identity and civic pride. They were important places for the bands to play, resulting in a top down control from the Town Clerk’s Office.

The Yorkshireman  journal was gushing about bands when they were in a formal setting. The journal highlighted how good music was for working people and the good of the community:

The time will soon come when Bowling [Park, Bradford] will claim as well part in the musical moments, when big foundry-men will join in the game as well, and study crescendo and cadence and shake: when neath Bolling Hall the people will gad about, and hear the sweet music that Bradford goes mad about, when o’er the hillside in joy they will go, and bound like the deer, the gazelle, or the doe.[1]

This poem, about the Bradford Peel Park Contest, on 6 August 1881 further expresses the importance of the contest in asserting musical prowess, the elements of hard work and effort are shown. Any bad behaviour is ignored:

The bandsmen are all gathering on this Augustian Saturday,

To strain cheeks and eyes, in playing for prize,

For brass wins brass this latter day.

Yes, brass, brass, brass, my players for brass with brass contesting,

An example show in each puff and blow,

All other thoughts divesting […].

This contest that’s so playful,

So brassy and pleasant,

Cannot fail to attract the crowd, how’er packed,

So mind you are present.[2]

As such these verses about Bowling Park and Peel Park – both in Bradford – reflect the belief held by many middle-class Victorians that music was a pastime that could improve the morals and the soul.  They also infer a certainty that people in positions of authority had social control over the working-class at play at what could be a rough arena, the brass band contest.

The Bandman as the Worker

The next type of poem featured in newspapers, periodicals and journals. What emerged from musical writing in this period were observations of the brass band movement from a middle-class position; the writing was quasi-anthropological in nature, resulting in studies of working-class music-making that engaged with, and complemented, observations of the changing nature of working-class leisure in this period.For the press it was the brass band contest that became the central event in the representation of the emergence of working-class cultural identity.

By 1877, for example, the Musical World wrote a long poem about an upcoming brass band contest featuring the efforts of the fictitious northern Cleaster Brass Band to enter a regional contest. The ease with which bandsmen were perceived by this journal as being familiar with the standard canon of composers indicated that real bandsmen were more than familiar with celebrated composers. The Musical World wrote:

So soon as the factory bell told us to cease,

And we’d washed ourselves clear from the slubber and grease,

We’d meet again at the sign of “The Fox and The Geese”,

And sat in a ring around the table.

When Bumbly-foot Harry gave word from the start, we blew hard at Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart,

Until ev’ry man knew the lot off by heart,

And to play without music was able.[1]

 

Inherent in this verse is the working-class nature of the bandsmen and their involvement in skilled or manual labour. The word slubber, for example, comes from the word to describe the preparation of wool or cotton for spinning and included three working-class roles, from the labouring to the skilled, the Slubber Doffer, who removed the empty bobbins from the loom spindles, the Slubbing Frame Fitter, who installed and maintained the frame used in the preparation of the cloth, together with the Drawing Frame Slubber Hand who operated the machine used to prepare the cloth.[2] Music as a rational recreation was slowly becoming a way the working class could define their own cultural identity. To be in a brass band was to be of the working class.

Drinking and Rough Behaviour 

One of the first accounts of bandsmen drinking to excess comes from the Accrington Times in 1875. The paper featured a poem about the behaviour of bandsmen from Church Brass Band, near Accrington, after losing a contest at Rishton. Its tale of the whole band falling in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal because of drunkenness is probably an exaggeration but what the poem shows is that local contests were places where excess and working-class ‘roughness’ existed. Moreover, locally, these habits were a source of gentle humour and not condemnation, the poet wrote:

Church Band, nowt, Oh! What a fall! For men at top o’th’ tree, un when they roll’d daon on to th’ floor, my word there were a spree, they hardly knew, mon, wheer they were. Aw, yeard a fellow tell […] as they were going home that neet, they tumbled in t’canal.[1]

 

It is unknown if the contest at Rishton had alcohol on sale at the contest site, but by 1886 the sale of alcohol was allowed on the contest field. On 14 April that year Rawtenstall Police Court granted J. W. Brown, of the Rams Head Hotel, a temporary license to sell alcohol at the football field where the Rawtenstall Brass Band Contest was being held on the 24 April.[2] As Peter Bailey has argued by the late nineteenth century, ‘apart from certain gross exceptions, drink was becoming more of an incidental social lubricant and less of a total experience.’[3] For the working-class bandsman the contest represented a space where they could not only carry out their hobby, but also take part in perceived rougher working-class behaviour if they wished. Indeed, as became clear in the press in the early years of the twentieth century, for bandsmen this was behaviour that they did not consider rough, but behaviour that was an accepted commonality amongst the majority of bandsmen on a day out. The sociability of drinking became a marker that defined the working-class nature of the contest day.

Published in the press, poems became a highly effective literary tool to praise, identify and admonish the working-class members of a brass band.The local press was complicit in creating local heroes. The press would often lionise a local sporting team or sports person who had been successful. Hence, when a local brass band was successful in a contest, the writing mirrored this lionisation of sporting success. The choice of stories, the position taken and the language used, created legends about people and places. When poems are approached from this perspective an array of ideas about space, place and region emerge. As Jeff Hill has argued, ‘the press is not just a passive reflector of local life and thought, but an active source in creating local feeling.’[1] Local poets, then, created local heroes.

[1] Jeff Hill, ‘‘Rite of Spring’: Cup Finals and Community in the North of England’, in, Jeff Hill and Jack Williams (Eds.) Sport and Identity in the North of England (Keele, 1996), p. 86.

 

[1] Accrington Times (5 June, 1875)

[2] Rossendale Free Press,(17 April, 1886)

[3] Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England, Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1855 (Toronto, 1978), p. 174.

[1] Musical World (7 April, 1877), p. 243.

[2] Hall Genealogy Website: Old Occupation Names <www.rmhh.co.uk/occup/s.html>, accessed, 1 January, 2014.

 

1] Yorkshireman, 6/108 (6 July, 1878), p. 1.

[2] Yorkshireman, 112/264 (6 August, 1881), p. 1.

[1] See the Music in Greenhead Park Concert Programmes (1903 -1920), Huddersfield Local Studies Library.

[2] Harriet Jordan, ‘Public Parks, 1885-1914’, Garden History, 22/1 (Summer, 1994), p. 1.

 

 

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