In Haunt

From performing 19th century broadside ballads across the country, to speaking at a ethnomusicography conference in Bangladesh about her research into South Asian and Mancunian weaving songs, Jennifer Reid explores local history in a high-impact way. ‘Peterloo, mills, collieries, factories, canals, clogging and more recently, the links between these to South Asia’, this broad-stretching summary shows an artist uncovering fascinating linkages and lineage alike.

Jennifer Reid‘Factory Workers Song’, ‘Come Whoam To The Childer An’ Me’, ‘I means to get jolly well drunk I do’ – just some examples of wide-ranging songs Jennifer has not only studied, but sung herself. These are texts and tunes from real-life communities – incorporating everything from the words of the wandering dialect poets to factory workers facing the daily grind.

Jennifer’s work with these songs of the past also shows the fascinating effects of industrial culture. Whilst dialect songs were typically a feature of smaller town-based life and cottage (self-powered) ways of work such as weaving, Broadside Ballads became a feature of rapidly industrialising areas; cheap print-outs usually written in Standard English to make them more accessible to a varied workforce. These would have been ballads belted out in pubs, practiced on streets, sung on the way to work: people putting down their experiences of industrialising society where they perhaps had no other place to. Jennifer considers:

“I was drawn to broadside ballads and the street hawkers who sold them, as I imagine I would have occupied this rung of nineteenth century society, would I have lived then.”

A number of ballads can be found in the Manchester Central Library and Chetham’s Library Broadside Collections for example, which Jennifer has sung from on a range of occasions. Finding out more about the way of life behind the words themselves, she also was a volunteer at Chetham's Library and the Working Class Movement Library, before completing an Advanced Diploma in Local History at Oxford University. She was also recently appointed to sit on the executive committee of the Society for the Study of Labour History.

Work songs and ballads of the area are after all a crucial way of engaging with personal accounts of the past. According to Jennifer:

“Ballads were written by those down on their luck or maybe not the ‘most polished’ working class and middle class people, so the ballads were often written for working class audiences, but not necessarily by the working class.”

But what exactly is broadside ballad, and why does it matter? Popularised by the rise of printing press use from the sixteenth century onwards, broadsides took the form of a single cheap sheet of paper typically containing a ballad (long-form verse) as well as items of news and even woodcut illustrations. The single-sheet nature meant these were straightforward to produce and distribute in busy urban areas, becoming especially popular in 19th century industrial society: with broadsides sold in the streets as well as shared round factories, even pasted on pub walls! Broadsides would have, in effect, been kind of ‘news bulletins’ of their time – the way that many people  would have found out about local events. One such example is ‘The Story of Manchester’s Great Flood of 1872’, which Jennifer sung on BBC Inside Out North West. Broadsides often told stories inspired by lived experience – a valuable form of community engagement as well as entertainment – and something Jennifer continues to uphold, putting on performances and running workshops to reconnect the public with this fascinating tradition.

According to Jennifer:  

“The best way to teach history is to use archival material and performance. Broadside ballads are very useful because they look very different to how they sound.”

Having grown up herself in Middleton, Jennifer has held a long-standing interest in labour history and the connectedness of creativity to place. And what better way to engage with personal pasts of city life than through the songs and stories themselves? For example, in her CD ‘Gradley Manchester’ along with the persuasive subtitle ‘clog storming belters from Jennifer Reid’, Jennifer has recreated 11 rarely-heard songs from the 19th century: tunes of everyday life, love and toil in the area. These are tunes taking in everything from ‘The New Poor Law Bill’ to ‘Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night’ - a reflection on the hustle and bustle perhaps not too far removed from how people now comment on the busyness of Deansgate the weekend!  The cover of the CD itself is letter-press printed by Incline Press in Oldham, highlighting Jennifer’s approach to collaborating with local organisations and independents where possible.

Performances of her work have seen her visit venues, pubs and community hubs in the North and beyond, with featured appearances at Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester International Festival, Glastonbury Festival and at BFI Southbank too. She has delivered workshops with Brighter Sound, working with young people to create folk songs for the modern day, using traditional ballad methods as a vehicle for their views.

Another local area that Jennifer has explored in her work is Rochdale, with her latest LP release The Langley Linnet recorded by Folklore Tapes at various mill sites in the borough. Various old and ‘new’ Victorian-age songs make up this fascinating LP, under the theme of ‘Here’ on one side and ‘There’ on the other. An interesting difference can be heard here, compared to the broadside ballads of the big city, as much of this record involves 19th century work songs of one of the key local industries threatened by rapid industrialisation: weaving.  In many of Manchester’s outlining towns and villages, people would have made a living through weaving themselves at home.

The Langley Linnet

In turn, on The Langley Linnet, Tracks encounter aspects of the industrial process - ‘You Weaver As Works Beam To Me’ and ‘Mill Girls Lullaby’ being two examples - yet there also is a theme of threat from new technologies and change the workers faced: consider ‘Monster Science’, for example. An ongoing feature through the record is an account of the weaver, a figure of early industry often misrepresented as quiet and miserly – here celebrated and considered. The LP contains old favourites too, including tracks such as ‘The Lancashire Witches’, all brought together with an explanatory booklet written by Jennifer and hand-stitched into the sleeve by Incline Press (visit the 'Merchandise' section of Jennifer's site to buy all recorded material, plus her debut publication 'A Selection of Nineteenth Century Broadside Ballads book'). 

Yet these aren’t just songs to listen to, but accounts to actively engage with. Community involvement is a key part of Jennifer’s work, which has involved leading a range of workshops for adults and young people alike – in England as well as America – often bringing the ballad alive. People can come together and create their own, and Jennifer’s teaching of and engagement with 19th century industrial history has seen her work with organisations including Mid Pennine Arts, Rochdale Town Hall, the University of Manchester and the National Trust.  Folk art workshops have also been a feature, meaning that participants can create visual representations on the theme of industrial heritage, using amateurish techniques to reclaim non-sophisticated art forms which eventually lead to confident and sustained creativity.

But the impact doesn’t end there – with Jennifer’s work crucially highlighting that ballads and dialect songs go beyond local relevance, to have wider, international resonance. This was underlined in a fascinating example of industrial heritage meeting Italian culture, when Jennifer trained Italian singers in Lancashire dialect songs and broadside ballads, as part of the Venice Biennale in 2015! Not only did Jennifer then go onto perform herself in the main arena for the opening days of the Biennale, but this was also in conjunction with her involvement in Jeremy Deller's exhibitions All that is solid melts into air and Factory Songs, with her going on to deliver an acapella vocal performance Broadsides and Ballads of the Industrial Revolution (2015), as part of Deller’s presentation. (Pictured below: an example of some of the Lancashire texts studied by Jennifer)

Lancashire Books

No stranger to the airwaves either, Jennifer’s work has been featured on BBC1 with Mark Radcliffe, BBC2 with the Hairy Bikers, Radio 4 with Eliza Carthy and on Radio 6 here. 2016 marked a particularly busy year for Jennifer, as she also made multiple appearances as solo vocalist with the band Edward II, at festivals across the country.

Then, the following year, her industrial and folk song interest took her as far as the Indian subcontinent. Why?

“I first started thinking about it around four years ago; wondering about the connections between industrial work songs in different countries. The Industrial Revolution never stopped; instead it carried on South Asia, areas like Bangladesh. Considering this idea, I was encouraged to put a bid into The Arts Council for an International Development Fund – and I got it.

“The project – which I am currently writing a book about – has three different parts; village to town, hand loom to power loom and oral tradition to print tradition. It involves considering the poetry and song of industrialising South Asia alongside the songs of industrial Lancashire… within the Victorian era where possible.

“It’s not the same trajectory exactly – but there really are some interesting similarities, especially between Indian street literature and industrial Lancashire songs. For example, there’s a street song best translated as ‘The Fun of Calcutta on a Saturday Night’ which just struck me as so similar to the Manchester-based ‘Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night’. People then were writing about similar cultural things. Another interesting point is that there are a number of songs from both cultures that end sneakily… with advertisements! Like in Lancashire, during the Cotton Famine, there were songs written reflecting on how terrible it was… only to end with an endorsement to buy a particular thing! Like a suit!”

“For this project I’ve had to do a lot of learning – lots of books, maps. It involves being conscious of language too, as when I’m writing about Dhaka for example, the spelling of its name changes dependent on the time period (also Dacca). Different cities have also been capitals. Things like that. It has been challenging at times – especially travelling there, as I’m not a natural traveller – but worth it. Every time I think there are no similarities between the literature, I find another crossover or something really interesting which shows it really is worth doing.

“For example, another shared aspect between the cultures is working people having to switch professions as industrialisation shifted.  In Victorian Bangladesh, a lot of weavers became printers…  and some weavers still continued at home, keen to keep the tradition alive, taking the means of production into their own hands.”

Jennifer Reid

Sharing her findings with others matters to Jennifer, and as part of the project she has gone onto deliver a range of talks and workshops – including working with Professor Anindita Ghosh (The University of Manchester) to deliver a session to schoolchildren in Heaton Moor. This involved an exploration of the ‘Baul’ tradition – still popular in Bangladesh – a style of song delivered by mystical minstrels. 2018 then saw Jennifer speak at the first ethnomusicography conference at Bangla Academy, Dhaka, discussing her research into Bangladeshi and Mancunian weaving songs. She reflects:

“I am really pleased I went to Bangladesh, I’m now ready to edit down my book and get it out there. I’m not a writer, so I’ve written it as best I could – recording on my dictaphone what I am trying to communicate and writing down what I have said. “

And as well as fascinating shared features within the literature, Jennifer has also discovered some notable contrasts – especially in terms of gender representation.

“Whilst in South Asian working literature, men and women are often depicted as fighting each other but bound by fate – in Lancashire working song there tends to be more of a sense of unity between couples. For example, if a husband and wife are down on their luck, they are down on their luck together. Then again, perhaps that’s just my own cultural take on it – an interesting one to figure.

“The type of ballads in South Asian literature are completely different too. These can be hundreds of pages long, epic tales. There tend to be lots of women within them, often living out heroic qualities – such as rejecting child marriage. There can be a real sense of unity within the street literature too, examples of Hindus and Muslims reading each other’s work.

“I have been working on the project now for four years, and have just finished the first draft of the book.”

Stay updated with Jennifer’s progress via her website and Twitter. As of 2020, she is also hosting a Lancashire dialect reading group, which she has been in the process of setting up for a number of months. The first event is an Introductory Talk on the 11 February at Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford at 2.30pm (£2 entry, refreshments included). And that is not all! Jennifer is also a member of the garage punk band JEUCE – gigging throughout the North, with Haunt’s previously featured venue The Peer Hat in Manchester, being a regular venue.

By Emily Oldfield 

Images used from Jennifer Reid's website and social media 

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