Tuesday, February 5, 2013

If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy: The Strawbs: "Part Of The Union"

There are few, if any, entries here that I sense you, dear readers, are more interested in than this one;  though now thoroughly in The Void, it most certainly is remembered and even cherished as a song with extraordinary meaning.

I do remember hearing this, sometime in the fall of '73 perhaps, sitting at my place at the dining table, which meant I was facing the stereo itself.  I imagine the CBC were playing it as part of a news report, maybe something about unions in the UK exercising their right to strike.  Though I was just six-and-a-half years old, I could sense something a bit odd about the song; I didn't like it.

Of course, had I known that the songwriters were Tories then my gut reaction would have been reinforced*.  Until now I had assumed (wrongly) that there were no Tories in the folk movement...but here we are, the once-named Strawberry Hill Boys who had worked with Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman were by 1972 a harder-edged band once Dave Lambert became their lead singer and guitarist.  He didn't write this song though: Richard Hudson and John Ford did, with the latter doing the lead singing in this case.

What to make of this song, which makes fun of the power in a union?  Why did I frown, if only to my girlhood self, when I heard it back then?  The whole 1973-1974 period was one of strike after strike, mining disaster after mining disaster, the effects of the oil crisis, inflation and so on.  I wasn't aware of any of this at the time; I think I just noticed the trace of smugness in the singer's voice, the ugly stompy-stompy nature of the melody, the assumption that the (wo)man with the union card was immune to anything and anyone, superior - almost like Superman! - to the interests of Scotland Yard, contemptuous of the factory bosses and factory laws, loyal only to the union, where s/he was always guaranteed higher pay and if something didn't suit the union, why, they'd strike.  That's what they'd do.  If I could tell this at six-and-a-half, I am pretty sure those old enough to buy this single could tell...that this was a pro-union sounding song that was in fact making fun of them.

Well now.

But a funny thing happened during this time leading up to and including three-day weeks and no tv after 10:30 at night; the unions themselves - the miners I'd guess, but others too - took this song as their own.  The miners worked to rule; an election was called and eventually (after a result leading to a hung parliament) the Tory government was replaced by a Labour one in 1974.  These were, as some of you readers know, a decisive and divisive times, when the nerve of the unions and their leaders was up against the government's brinkmanship; a literally dark time, and in dark times people need songs to give them energy and purpose.  This song - with the bitterest of ironies - became that song for the unions, by which time Hudson and Ford had left the Strawbs to form their own group, Hudson Ford (later they made fun of punks with their band The Monks - enough said).   These two thought they could put down a noble and necessary thing - union power - and get away with it; but they didn't.  Folk music is music that belongs to the people, after all; and here the people sang the song back to the group, effectively reversing its power and meaning.  I wonder if this sort of thing could ever happen again?

Next up: Honey, let's quit this town.    

*I am, as you might expect, a Democrat; my parents were, as were theirs...

1 comment:

MikeMCSG said...

If it weren#t for "Blockbuster" this would rival "Ghost Town" for most pertinent chart-topper and it's an interesting coincidence that both bands imploded just afterwards.

If you take a slightly longer view they certainly did get away with it. The weak Labour government post-74 which had to go crawling to the IMF because it met too many unrealistic wages demands was replaced by 18 years of Tory rule not under the decent centrist who'd tried for consensus but a certain Mrs Thatcher. One presumes that if Hudson and Ford indeed were Tories - some of their other output seems worthy enough - they'd be fairly satisfied with that.

I've always read it as an ironic observation from the sidelines rather than a pro-Tory statement.