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Why We Sing The Songs We Sing

By Pete Usher

On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).

The theme for the 30th contest was All Ages.

Extract from Terrible Truths: Vile Victorians


People (well adults) will tell you that history, proper written history, is only found in books, like this one. But that’s not true. There are many other kinds of ways we know about history, even songs!

Songs? Really??

Yes, songs.

Even a song as well known as the National Anthem has history in it. A song English children sing every morning, that closes our televisual schedule every night, that bookends our very lives, is a historical artifact.

Did you know that the tune is the same as the original Royalist song? It’s true. The original words of God Bless Our Native Land! were God Save Our Gracious Queen. It’s hard to believe that two such divergent lyrics have a common root but it’s true! It’s where the phrase “two-worder”, meaning someone playing both sides of a dispute comes from – during the Establishment, singing the wrong anthem could get you in a lot of trouble, but a two-worder would pause slightly after the God to hear which version was being sung, and adapt as required.

But the National Anthem is just one example. Even something as simple as a nursery rhyme can tell us something of history.

A nursery rhyme?? Really???

Yes, a nursery rhyme.

Every small child knows Vicky Over The Water, about a young girl trying to cross a river to get to an island with help from various animals, before giving up and going home. Did you know that that song is about actually the various attempts by various Victorians and crypto-Victorians to overthrow the Establishment in the name of whoever was purporting to be the rightful heir to the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha line (and we could write a whole other book on that). It’s hard to count how many plots and schemes there were, as some were just three men in a pub, while others, like the Lowestoft Landing were serious threats to Establishment Britain (as it was at the time). The five animals in the traditional version of the tune (fox, frog, wolf, dolphin and eagle) all represented the supporters of different attempts. Of course, none of them were successful, and, at the last count, there are currently 17 active claimants to the defunct British Throne. We could probably write a song about them too.

And the Establishment and its immediate aftermath is not the only period in history we can find songs about.

More songs??? Really????

Yes, MORE songs. Well, one more for now. And perhaps fewer question marks?

The music halls of Glorious Neutrality, as the period before the European War is known, were chock full of songs about the ongoing turmoil in Europe, and the Britons who chose to involve themselves, as well as those who were more comfortable with the official position of non-involvement.

Of course, the titles of songs don’t always tell you what the song is about! Take the song We Don’t Want To Fight, a popular music hall song of the 1870s. Was that song about

A - British volunteers in the German Wars Of Succession

B - Lauding the Principled Neutrality of the British People

C - Castigating those who would not defend the Establishment

The answer is… A. As the words said

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,

We’ve got the guns, we’ve got the men, and got the bullets too!

We’ve fought the Crown before and while we’re Britons true,

The Prussians shall not have brave Hanover

Although the Hanovarian Establishment failed then, the tradition of British (or English) Volunteer Brigades was established, and still continues. Perhaps you know someone who has served in one, perhaps even your own grandfather, father or uncle. And whether it is from Hanover, Florence, Algiers, Montreal, Montevideo, Berwick or a score of other places, songs are still be written and sung about the Volunteers.

But enough songs for now.

Oh really?

Yes for now, but we shall have more as we find out more about the Great Men of the Establishment and beyond.

One more song! One more song!!

OK, I suppose we can lead into The Great Men by sharing a song about one of the. Do you know who this song is about?

The People’s Chamber, you mentioned, Mother,

I know where it is though I've never went,

There once sat there a great man, Mother,

Respected alike by all there present,

Good Bill Linton is the one I mean,

In the Chamber is there like him to be seen?

Not there! Not there! Not there, my child,

There are none like him there! not there my child.

No? This was one of the scores of songs written upon the death of someone you’ve probably never heard of - William Linton, one of the Great Men of the Establishment…




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