E.P. Thompson’s Desert Island Discs

Brodie Waddell

E.P. Thompson had, with one or two notable exceptions, rather boring taste in music.

Thompson has always been one of my favourite historians and I’ve been learning more about him recently as 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his Making of the English Working Class. We celebrated earlier with ‘The Future of History From Below’ event and I’ll be giving talks at Oxford (Nov. 29th) and at Birkbeck (Jan. 24th) on EPT’s legacy over the next few months.

William Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' (1789): Thompson's choice of reading material

William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1789): Thompson’s choice of reading material

So imagine my delight when I heard – via Jonathan Healey – that Thompson had been a guest on the famed BBC programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ and that the episode was freely available online. It was broadcast in 1991, just two years before his death at the age of 69, and his health was clearly not great, but he was still very intellectually sharp and irrepressibly politically engaged.

Thompson made a couple of inspired musical choices. For instance, I was struck by the raw power of Paul Robeson, the African-American communist actor and entertainer, belting out ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’, a song composed in the Börgermoor concentration camp in 1933. Even more interesting is Thompson’s second choice. He offers a beautiful recording of Rabindranath Tragore, the Bengali poet, singing a totally transformed version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It’s a wonderful piece of music and a wonderful encapsulation of Thompson’s close links to India. As he says in the interview, his father was a Research Fellow in Indian history at Oxford and former Methodist missionary, with close links to the Indian National Congress. Thompson recounts a childhood memory of Gandhi visiting his family home in the late 1920s or early 1930s:

‘I was just about the height of the sideboard. My main memory of Gandhi coming was the sideboard piled with all these fruits that we didn’t usually get. But there he was, and he was doing his daily stint of charkha – spinning – in the corner of our house, and it’s a very pleasant memory.’

In light of this, it is quite easy to see how Thompson’s ideas about poverty and protest emerge not only from his extra-mural teaching in the West Riding but also from his long and deep connections to South Asia.

However, almost as notable as these two striking choices of records is – to my mind – the ‘conservative’ nature of the rest of his choices. Despite being a political radical and an incredibly innovative historian, his other six records seem distinctly nostalgic and a bit earnest. There’s some eighteenth-century Irish harp music, an unbearably miserable rendition of a Yeats poem, two well-known classical pieces and an early English Baroque song. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about any of them – with the possible exception of Warlock’s composition – but they’re hardly the inspiring music one would hope for from a man like Thompson.

Where are the radical musicians of his own age, who often combined musical invention with a hard political edge?  Where are the Sex Pistols or the Specials or even the Rolling Stones? Was it really possible to be an activist in the 1960s and 70s without liking rock and roll?

The Specials (1979)

Sorely lacking from Thompson’s playlist.

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The Immersive Turn: Or, what did a seventeenth-century drinking song sound like?

Mark Hailwood

I know what you are thinking: isn’t it about time for yet another historical ‘turn’? Well, you’re in luck! I think there is a really interesting one already underway in early modern studies, quietly coming together from a number of different approaches and without, as yet, a clear sense of itself. I want to give it an identity, and I’m going to start by giving it a name: the ‘immersive turn’. But I’m open to suggestions.

What I mean by this is a growing desire on the part of early modern historians to try to recover a more multi-dimensional, multi-sensory feel for the period than we conventionally derive from an analytical reading of written sources: a search for the texture of the past, not just its texts. What prompted me to pull together this line of thought into a blog post was the recent attempt by students at De Montford to create a virtual version of seventeenth-century London before the Great Fire of 1666. It is worth a look, if you haven’t seen it already.

Pudding Lane Productions (http://puddinglanedmuga.blogspot.co.uk/century) have created a virtual 17th century London.

It seems to me that the interest generated by this project is a symptom of the fact that early modern historians are increasingly attracted to the idea of ‘immersing’ ourselves more fully in the physical and sensory aspects of the world that we study: the emergence of the study of material culture, increased attention to visual sources, to ‘space’, and to the history of the senses, might all be seen as part of this same process.

Pre-Reformation worship recreated (http://reformation.modhist.ox.ac.uk/index.html)

Pre-Reformation recreated

There have been recent attempts to recreate pre-and post-Reformation church interiors, and experiences of worship, for instance, and popular history books and TV shows taking the form of ‘Time Travellers’ Guides’ invite their readers and viewers to imagine the sights and smells one would encounter on entering a medieval or early modern city. All of these approaches invite us to imaginatively transport ourselves into the shoes of our early modern ancestors, and to concentrate on the immediate experience of sights, sounds and material surroundings.

These ‘immersive’ approaches have influenced my own work, especially in relation to the seventeenth-century drinking songs that I use to examine alehouse culture in the period. I don’t just mean that I get drunk and try singing them in the pub—although, we’ll come back to that—but rather that to understand the meanings of such songs it is important to think about the ways in which they were performed. It might be easy for a historian, sat alone at their desk quietly reading such a song, to misjudge the tone of its meaning, a tone that was informed by its tune, and also the manner and context in which it was actually sung, aloud, communally.

Singers in an alehouse window - hardly the same environment as sitting at my desk.

Singers in an alehouse window – hardly the same environment as sitting at my desk.

I developed a few thoughts on this in a short article for The Appendix, a new journal that embraces these new types of immersive and experimental history. You can read it for free here, and it would make sense to do so before reading on…. but, if you don’t have the time or inclination, here is the nub of it: I argue that it is important to think about how performance might influence the meaning of a seventeenth-century drinking ballad, and I applaud some recent attempts to recreate ballad performances. But I think they can misrepresent the tone in which such songs would have been sung.

For instance, take a moment to listen to EBBA’s recording of the drinking ballad, A Messe of Good Fellows, by clicking here.

A Messe of Good Fellows (© British Library)

A Messe of Good Fellows (© British Library)

It’s helpful to hear it put to a tune, but surely the tone would be a little more raucous if performed by a company of intoxicated good fellows bellowing it out from the alebench?

A bit more raucous - a bit more like it...

A bit more raucous. A bit more like it?

Indeed, I suggest in the article that a modern-day football song – with a well-known tune, repetitive chorus, and an inebriated collective of (mostly) men – might actually come closer to capturing how such drinking songs would have been experienced in the alehouse. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing terrace tunefulness first hand, click here. I’ve tried to pick a relatively inoffensive one, but apologies to residents of Cardiff.

In response to the article I also received a suggestion from Phil Edwards, a Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Met and an enthusiastic folk musician, that present day folk singing – often pub-based and communal – might be a closer descendent of the seventeenth-century alehouse song. I expect many historians would probably agree, but it is still a bit too sanitised and orderly for what I imagine performance would have actually sounded like. See what you think by listening to this ballad singaround recorded by Phil.

Are folk singarounds the key?

Are folk singarounds the key?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on which style of performance you think is most effective at ‘transporting’ us into the experiential world of our early modern forebears, but more importantly, I suppose, I’d like to know whether you think this little experiment in ‘immersion’ is a worthwhile exercise at all. Is attempting to recreate the sounds, or the smells, or the sights/sites, of the early modern past allowing just a little too much imagination into the historical process? It is undoubtedly an imprecise science, and we will never be able to capture with any certainty the tone of ballad performances – which no doubt varied immensely anyway. Is it therefore likely to be as often misleading as illuminating? A bit of fun perhaps – a harmless thought experiment to fill a coffee break – but not to be taken as a serious part of the historian’s craft? Or is the ‘immersive turn’ the next big thing, a way of bringing history to life that can enhance the understanding of both academic historians and non-academics alike?