Thursday, 21 June 2012

Melodeons and the British labour movement

My interest in the relationship between folklore and folkloristics and politics takes a number of forms. At a theoretical level there is the question of how folklore embodies and expresses broader social conditions, and what conclusions can be drawn from that. Antonio Gramsci (who died 75 years ago this April) saw folklore as 'a conception of the world' of various social strata. Folklore, he argued 'can be understood only as a reflection of the conditions of life of the people, although folklore frequently persists even after those conditions have been modified in bizarre combinations' (1).

This is useful, because it allows the complex relationship between society and cultural expression to be appreciated without falling into either of the traps of a reductive 'radical' scholarship. One version of this is strip out the social context from folklore, seeing it only as an obstacle to consciousness and emancipation that simply needs to be overcome. The other version (particularly found in song scholarship) has tended to treat Marx's point that 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' (2) as suggesting that all cultural expressions are therefore conscious expressions of class struggle. This seems a reductive disservice to Marx. The place of the individual within society is rather more complicated than that, particularly in relation to the transmitted fabric of folklore.

Of course, some folkloric expression can be applied directly in political questions, as we've seen in the recent resurgence of Rough Music in protests. There can be a political element to the material that we document and record.

And, of course, there is also the place of folklore in the private lives of political figures. Although it seems unlikely today that a senior politician might engage in intellectual debate and scholarly pursuits, previous parliamentarians have been directly involved in discussions of folklore. Gladstone, for example, wrote  on mythology, which he saw as a remnant of revelation: he very publicly resigned from the Folklore Society after Edward Clodd's identification of 'savage' and 'barbaric ideas' with elements of Christianity.

Aside from such intellectual engagement with folklore as a subject, there is also the elements of folklore practised by politicians as individuals. I was delighted recently to come across an 1897 book on musical instruments (3). Inside the covers are numerous advertisements for instrument manufacturers and supplier, including two pages for Campbell & Co of 116 Trongate, Glasgow.

One advertises their 'Peerless' hand-made violins, while the other details their 'Grand New Models' of melodeons. The melodeons page is predominantly testimonials, including one from 'Prof. Brown, the Champion Melodeon Player of Great Britain, Ireland and Wales'. (I haven't done any research into this player yet, so I'd be grateful for any information). The other testimonials are from 'three great Temperance Reformers', suggesting the melodeon was being marketed as an improving parlour instrument rather than for rowdier pub playing. Two were religious men: the Rev. R.W. Dobbie, Grand Chaplain of Scotland (1892) and member of the temperance organisation the International Order of Good Templars, and the Rev. H. Powers of Hull, who is described as a 'Poet-Evangelist'. Dobbie wrote of singing and playing 'the Auld Scotch Songs' on the melodeon, while Powers had 'for several years ... accompanied his own singing and the solos of Mrs Powers' with the instrument.

The third testimonial was the really intriguing one. J. Keir Hardie, MP, is quoted as saying that the instrument was 'a most marvellous musical production at the money'. Keir Hardie had been the Independent Labour MP for West Ham South between 1892 and 1895. A later issue of The Celtic Monthly: A Magazine for Highlanders (5.viii, February 1900) features the same testimonial in slightly expanded form. Hardie went on to comment that the instrument 'is got up in excellent style, the finish being superior. The tone is sweet, yet strong'. He also praised its various reed effects (organ and celestial).

Involved throughout his life with various church and temperance bodies (including the Good Templars), it seems likely that Hardie, too, saw the melodeon as an instrument available for moral improvement. Campbells were obviously addressing this market specifically, as the order of material in the Celtic Monthly advertisement makes clear. The piece pledges that 'The Solemn Psalm, the Soul-stirring Hymn, the Cheerful Song and the Merry Dance, can all be played on these charming instruments'. (The company clearly targeted specific audiences carefully: in that advert they also extol their Great Highland Bagpipes).

All of this opens a sudden new insight into the life of a specific, well-known, individual, and it also gives us a better insight into domestic music-making more generally. As Campbell's delightful slogan has it, 'Music in the house makes cheerful, happy homes'.

* * * * *

1: 'Observations on Folklore', in International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp. 131-136
2: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 79
3: William Lynd, A Popular Account of Ancient Musical Instruments and Their Development, as Illustrated by Typical Examples in the Galpin Collection (London: James Clarke, 1897)


  1. In eastern Europe, folklore and politics are closely related. Politics here ethnicity.
    In my county Belarus in Soviet times Christmas carols was banned.
    Belarusian holiday Midsummer and Christmas Carols (Koledy) that conduct non-governmental organizations are traditions of the Belarusian
    resistance (

  2. Stephen Chambers3 January 2014 at 17:38

    I'd suggest that "Prof. Brown" is most likely the Scottish Champion Melodeon Player James Brown (1879-1919) from Leith. He's to be heard on the old Topic "Melodeon Greats" album, and I wrote a short piece about him (with photos from his family) in a post on