The Recruited Collier – or is it the recruited ploughman?

When I started playing traditional folk music about six years ago, one of the first songs I learned was ‘The Recruited Collier’. I learned it from Kate Rusby’s version as found on her compilation album ‘Ten‘; an earlier (and rather different) version can be found on Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts’ album from 1995. However, plenty of other folk singers have done this song; a perfunctory glance at the Internet yields versions by Anne Briggs, Dick Gaughan, Heidi Talbot – not to mention Tim Chesterton! A YouTube video of Kate playing the second part of the song can be found here.

The lyrics as Kate Rusby sings it are as follows:

What’s the matter with you my lass
And where’s your dashing Jimmy
Them soldier boys have picked him up
And taken him far from me
Last payday he went into town
And them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk
An he’d better gone to the gallows.
The very sight of his cockade
It sets us all a-crying
And me I nearly fainted twice
I thought that I was dying
My father would have paid the smart
And he ran for the golden guinea
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book
So now they’ve got young Jimmy.
When Jimmy talks about the wars
It’s worse than death to hear him
I must go out and hide my tears
Because I cannot bear him
A brigadier or grenadier
He says they’re sure to make him
And still he jibes and cracks his jokes
And bids me not forsake him.
As I walked o’er yon stubble field
Below where runs the seam
I think on Jimmy hewing there
But it was all a dream
He hewed the very coals we burn
And when the fire I’m lighting
To think the lumps were in his hands
It sets my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er
Oh break my heart my dearie
And I lie in this cold, cold bed
For of single life I’m weary

The beautiful tune and the poignant lyric have made this a well-loved song, but it must be admitted that some of it seems rather obscure and confusing. Quite apart from the archaic references (‘paying the smart’ and ‘the golden guinea’ refer to money which could be paid to buy a man out of military service, and ‘kissing the book’ refers to taking an oath on the Bible, which apparently made it impossible for a person to be ‘bought out’), some of the narrative seems more than a little contradictory. If the soldiers have taken Jimmy far from his wife, then how can he be telling stories about the wars that alarm her, or jibing and cracking jokes in her presence? And if he is home telling these stories and jokes, how can she be tired of the single life?

Kate Rusby learned this song from her mother, who learned it from a friend in university. This sounds like the classic way in which traditional folk songs are passed on, so I have always assumed that this is an old song from the north of England. Indeed, on the TV presentation ‘My Music‘ Kate Rusby’s mother says as much; she refers to it as a song about a Yorkshire coal miner.

Maybe so, and maybe not. I like to dig and do research about the traditional songs I sing, and recently I’ve been excavating the history of ‘The Recruited Collier’. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

The ‘received text’ of ‘The Recruited Collier’ comes to us from one of the most revered figures in English folklore, A.L. ‘Bert’ Lloyd (1908-1982). To call Lloyd ‘iconic’ would be an understatement. He was born in London but worked on a sheep farm in Australia as a young man, and later went to sea on a factory whaling ship. He joined the Communist party in the 1930s, and later worked as a singer and a journalist. He had developed an interest in folklore and folk music while living in Australia, and by the early 1950s he had established himself as one of the leading folklorists in England. He produced many recordings of traditional folk songs and wrote highly respected books, both collections of folk songs and studies of folk music and the folk tradition. One of his best-known books was a collaboration with the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, the famous Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959), which has recently been reprinted and remains one of the best introductory collections of folk songs in the English tradition. This album gives a good example of his simple and powerful unaccompanied singing style.

In 1951, as part of the celebration of the Festival of Britain, it was decided to try to collect some of the songs of the coalfields. Bert Lloyd was asked to arrange for a competition, and miners were invited to submit songs they knew to be considered for publication. The result was a book called ‘Come All Ye Bold Miners: Ballads and Songs of the Coalfields‘, which Lloyd compiled. It is from this book that the text of ‘The Recruited Collier’, as we now know it, is taken.

But where did Bert Lloyd get it from?

In a note to the text, he claims that the song was sent to him by one J.H. Huxtable, of Workington in what was then the county of Cumberland in the extreme northwest of England. But he also adds another intriguing piece of information: ”A version of this ballad appears in R. Anderson’s Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect (1808).’

This note is slightly misleading. There is indeed a song resembling ‘The Recruited Collier’ in Robert Anderson’s 1808 book, but the song is nothing to do with coal miners. It is called simply ‘Jenny’s Complaint’, and tells the story, not of a miner, but of a ploughman, who is recruited by soldiers and taken away from Jenny, his wife or sweetheart, to go to the wars. Here is the text as it appears in Anderson’s book (note that it is intentionally written in Cumberland dialect, but a little thought will easily yield the meaning, especially when it is compared with the ‘received text’ from Lloyd):

O, Lass! I’ve fearfu’ news to tell!
What thinks te’s come owre Jemmy?
The sowdgers hev e’en pick’d him up
And sent him far, far frae me:
To Carel he set off wi’ wheat;
Them ill reed-cwoated fellows
Suin wil’d him in, then meade him drunk–
He’d better geane to th’gallows

The varra seet o’ his cockade
It set us a’ a-cryin;
for me I fairly fainted tweyce,
Tou may think that was tryin:
My fadder wad ha’e paid the smart
And shew’d a gowden guinea
But lack-a-day! He’d kiss’d the buik,
and that’ll e’en kill Jenny

When Nichol talks about the wars,
It’s war than deeth to hear him;
I oft steal out, to hide my tears,
And cannot, cannot bear him;
For aye he jeybes, and cracks his jwokes,
and bids me nit forsake him;
A brigadier, or grandidier,
He says, they’re sure to meake him.

If owre the stibble fields I gang
I think I see him ploughin,
And ev’ry bit o’ bread I eat,
It seems o’ Jemmy’s sowin’;
He led the varra cwoals we burn,
And when the fire I’s leetin,
To think the peats were in his hands,
It sets my heart a beatin.

What can I de? I nought can de,
But whinge, and think about him;
For three lang years, he follow’d me
Now I mun live widout him!
Brek, heart, at yence, and then it’s owre!
Life’s nought widout yen’s dearie!
I’ll suin lig in my cauld, cauld grave,
For oh! Of life I’m weary!

A facsimile of the original can be seen here.

Things now begin to get a little more clear. We have three separate characters named in this song: Jemmy (‘Jimmy’), the ploughman, his wife or sweetheart Jenny, and a third person – perhaps a brother, or friend or fellow-soldier of Jemmy’s, called Nichol. Jimmy goes to Carlyle to sell some wheat, but once there he is recruited by some red-coated soldiers. When his wife, his father and other family members hear of it, they rush to town to try to stop him, where the sight of the cockade on his uniform hat causes them to cry out in alarm, and his wife almost faints. His father offers to buy him out, but it turns out that he has already sworn the oath and so is bound to the army.

So Jimmy goes away to the wars, but Nichol stays behind. He tells Jenny stories of military life which scare her so much that she has to leave the room to hide her tears. Nichol perhaps realises that he has gone to far, so when Jenny returns he makes light of it, cracking jokes, assuring her that Jimmy will soon be promoted, and encouraging her not to forsake her husband. Far from forsaking him, Jenny cannot stop herself from thinking about her loved one; a walk through the ploughed fields reminds her of him at work, and the bread and coal and peat also bring him to mind daily. The song ends with her lamenting that the only thing she can do is mourn and think of him; she is weary of living a single life, and would rather die of a broken heart.

So this is the text as Robert Anderson gives it in his book. Bert Lloyd, you will remember, had said of ‘The Recruited Collier’, ‘A version of this ballad appears in R. Anderson’s Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect (1808)’. But what this note does not make clear is that Anderson’s text was not, in fact, just ‘a version’; it was the original text of the song. Anderson did occasionally collect Cumberland folk songs, and some editions of his book include a selection of them in an appendix, but the main body of the book was made up of songs he had himself composed; he makes it quite clear in the preface that the ballads are his, many of them composed to refer to people or places he knew.

So ‘Jenny’s Complaint’ was not, in fact, a traditional song at all, and as far as we know it was never sung as such, although Anderson did suggest a tune for it. It is not the tune that we now sing to ‘The Recruited Collier’, but a completely different melody entitled ‘Nancy is to the Green-wod Gane’. For those who can read music, here it is:

So where did the tune we now sing to ‘The Recruited Collier’ come from? Bert Lloyd comments on this in a letter: “I fitted the tune; but whether I made up the melody or took it from tradition I no longer remember. I think the latter; but if so, what was it the tune of?” (Roy Palmer, A. L. Lloyd and Industrial Song, in Ian Russell, ed., Singer, Song and Scholar, Sheffield Academic Press, 1986, pp.135-7). So the tune comes from Lloyd himself, whether an original composition or a version of an old folk tune that he used.

So far so good; we know that ‘The Recruited Collier’ as we know it came from Bert Lloyd’s book, and we know that an ancestor of it was published by Robert Anderson in his 1808 book (he specifically dates the poem as having been written on April 19th 1803, which would certainly have given it a Napoleonic Wars context). But what were the steps that led from Anderson to Lloyd?

This is where the story gets murky. As we have seen, Lloyd says that the song was sent to him by one J.H. Huxtable of Workington. But although this was comparatively recent (1951), no one else has ever been able to track down Mr. Huxtable, even though one person who lived in the same town tried to find him. Also, the song has never appeared anywhere else in the form given by Lloyd; it has never been collected from oral tradition, nor does it exist on a broadside ballad sheet or in a chapbook. To use evolutionary language, there is a ‘missing link’, which makes it very difficult to know how the song evolved from ‘Jenny’s Complaint’ to ‘The Recruited Collier’.

The following seem to be the three possible explanations.

First, Bert Lloyd could have been the one who himself reworked the song from Anderson’s original. Perhaps J.H. Huxtable sent him the Anderson ballad, or perhaps Lloyd found it himself, liked the story, but needed a coalfield setting, so rewrote it and then ‘ascribed it’ to Huxtable to pass it off as a folk song. In either case, Lloyd would have been intentionally misleading the public about the origin of the song.

Second, J.H. Huxtable could have been the one who did the adaptation and then sent it to Lloyd. He would have had to have acknowledged Anderson as a source, since Lloyd references Anderson’s book as containing ‘a version’ of ‘The Recruited Collier’. But once again, Lloyd would have had to have intentionally concealed the instrumental role both Anderson and Huxtable had played in the writing and adapting of the song, passing it off as a traditional song which each of them had ‘collected’ (though in different forms), rather than written and rewritten themselves.

Thirdly, Lloyd could be telling the absolute truth, which would mean that somewhere in Cumberland Anderson’s original song had entered the folklore tradition and gradually morphed from its original setting into a coalfield ballad. Other songs by Anderson certainly entered the tradition; Ralph Vaughan Williams apparently collected a number of tunes to Anderson songs in Cumberland in 1906, and other folklorists have also recovered examples of them. It must be re-emphasised, however, that ‘The Recruited Collier’ in its current form appears nowhere else in the tradition and has never been collected by anyone other than Huxtable and Lloyd.

K. Gregson, in The Cumberland Bard: an Anniversary Reflection (The Folk Music Journal 4 (4) 1983, 333-365), says:

“Unfortunately, The Recruited Collier is a mystery. From correspondence with A. L. Lloyd it appears that somewhere in a west Cumbrian library there is a manuscript which holds the secret. If that manuscript is merely Anderson’s original song, the reworking is probably recent. If the manuscript contains the words of The Recruited Collier then the mystery deepens. This, of course, would be the text which Lloyd received from Jim Huxtable of Workington and which inspired him to compose one of the great tunes of the Folk Song Revival.”

The mystery remains! Whoever wrote The Recruited Collier (and I admit to being personally a little sceptical about Bert Lloyd’s story), it’s still a great song, as its popularity attests. But I think that ‘Jenny’s Complaint’ is also a great song and deserves a wider audience. Perhaps this will come as it is sung to the tune Anderson originally intended, or to Lloyd’s tune or some other. I know I intend to work on a plain English version of it so that I can introduce it into my own repertoire and share it with others.

By the way, the detective spade work for this article was not done by me. It was done by a group of folklore sleuths who hang out at a wonderful Internet folk music site called the Mudcat Café. The thread from which I got the information on which I based this article is found here.


2 thoughts on “The Recruited Collier – or is it the recruited ploughman?

  1. Pingback: The Recruited Collier | Faith, Folk and Charity

  2. Pingback: An early version of Kate Rusby’s take on ‘The Recruited Collier’ | Faith, Folk and Charity

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