Michael Considine & Robbie McMahon, “Spancilhill”

Putting a poem to music is an old folk tradition, one that I have written about elsewhere (see the posts about  Victor Jara and Joe Hill). The poem “Spancilhill” was written by an ordinary Irish worker who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th century. It was Michael Considine’s intention to save enough money to bring his sweetheart to the new world so they could get married and start a family.

Considine’s biographic details are sketchy, which is common amongst people of his class and era. The only reason he is known to history at all is this poem. He was in his early 20s when he left his home in County Clare and travelled across the sea, and he became very ill after a few years. When he realised he was dying, he wrote “Spancillhill” and sent it home.
The poem was kept safe by his family, and the authentic version came to the County Clare-born Irish singer Robbie McMahon several decades later.

Jim Carroll tells it this way:

“The story goes that, in the late 1930s or early ’40s, Robbie McMahon announced he was going to sing ‘Spancilhill’, when the woman of the house, Moira Keane, a relative of Michael Considine, handed Robbie McMahon the original text of the song saying “If ye are going to sing that song ye might as well sing it right.” This text was confirmed some time later, around 1953, at another session, when Robbie was asked to sing it and a local man first resisted him, saying: ‘Don’t sing that song’. When asked why not, the old man replied, ‘because ye don’t know it’. Robbie sang the song anyway using the version given to him by Moira Keane.
As he got into the song, he noticed the old man paying more attention, fiddling with his cap and looking a little flustered. When the song was finished the old man asked: ‘Where did you get that song?’ McMahon told him and the old man seemed both perturbed and pleased at the same time. The old man was John Considine, the nephew of the songs’ composer. John was seventy-six at that time and had kept his uncle’s song safe for seventy years. He gave his approval to Robbie’s performance after hearing that he had sung the original version.”

If you like your stories musically told, I recommend track 7 on this playlist– Robbie McMahon’s “Myself and Spancil Hill.” (You can also listen to his version of “Spancillhill” itself). Robbie McMahon’s lyrics are the ones reprinted below.

by Michael Considine

Last night as I lay dreaming, of the pleasant days gone by,
My mind being bent on rambling and to Erin’s Isle I did fly.
I stepped on board a vision and sailed out with a will,
‘Till I gladly came to anchor at the Cross of Spancilhill.

Enchanted by the novelty, delighted with the scenes,
Where in my early childhood, I often times have been.
I thought I heard a murmur, I think I hear it still,
‘Tis that little stream of water at the Cross of Spancilhill.

And to amuse my fancy, I lay upon the ground,
Where all my school companions, in crowds assembled ’round.
Some have grown to manhood, while more their graves did fill,
Oh I thought we were all young again, at the Cross of Spancilhill.

It being on a Sabbath morning, I thought I heard a bell,
O’er hills and vallies sounded, in notes that seemed to tell,
That Father Dan was coming, his duty to fulfill,
At the parish church of Clooney, just one mile from Spancilhill.

And when our duty did commence, we all knelt down in prayer,
In hopes for to be ready, to climb the Golden Stair.
And when back home returning, we danced with right good will,
To Martin Moylan’s music, at the Cross of Spancilhill.

It being on the twenty third of June, the day before the fair,
Sure Erin’s sons and daughters, they all assembled there.
The young, the old, the stout and the bold, they came to sport and kill,
What a curious combination, at the Fair of Spancilhill.

I went into my old home, as every stone can tell,
The old boreen was just the same, and the apple tree over the well,
I miss my sister Ellen, my brothers Pat and Bill,
Sure I only met my strange faces at my home in Spancilhill.

I called to see my neighbors, to hear what they might say,
The old were getting feeble, and the young ones turning grey.
I met with tailor Quigley, he’s as brave as ever still,
Sure he always made my breeches when I lived in Spancilhill.

I paid a flying visit, to my first and only love,
She’s as pure as any lilly, and as gentle as a dove.
She threw her arms around me, saying Mike I love you still,
She is Mack the Rangers daughter, the Pride of Spancilhill.

I thought I stooped to kiss her, as I did in days of yore,
Says she Mike you’re only joking, as you often were before,
The cock crew on the roost again, he crew both loud and shrill,
And I awoke in California, far far from Spancilhill.

But when my vision faded, the tears came in my eyes,
In hope to see that dear old spot, some day before I die.
May the Joyous King of Angels, His Choicest Blessings spill,
On that Glorious spot of Nature, the Cross of Spancilhill.

There are of course many versions of this song by many (mostly Irish) singers (mostly, according to McMahon, wrong). I have picked this one because it is a wonderful duet, featuring two of my very favourites. You wouldn’t think Christy Moore and Shane McGowan would mesh, but they do.

Phil Ochs,”I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More”

In August of 1968, the Yippies and other assorted counter-culture groups held a “Festival of Life” protest in Lincoln Park, Chicago, a counterpoint to “the Convention of Death” (otherwise known as the Democratic Party National Convention). Phil Ochs was a Yippie, and centrally involved in organising the protest. The massive police security around the Convention had intimidated a great many political artists into staying away, so besides Ochs, only the Motor City 5 and Country Joe and the Fish turned up to perform.

Phil Ochs played this song for the crowd, and as his fellow Yippie Tom Hayden wrote later, the performance inspired a “pandemonium of emotion, of collective power.” Hundreds of young men in the crowd were inspired to burn their draft cards. Ochs later referred to this performance as the highlight of his career.

“I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” became a Phil Ochs signature song, one he performed repeatedly, sometimes for the mainstream media. When he sang it on the courthouse steps outside the trial of the Chicago Seven (the court prevented him from singing it to the jury), Walter Cronkite broadcast it on CBS, much to his amusement.

This is not a topical song, in the sense that it reports a particular event or presents a biography. The narrator is an archetype rather than an individual, a war weary American soldier who has “been” at every US war since 1812. The lyrics testify to a collective historical experience of American imperial adventures, and reject further collaboration in the war machine. It is a fine example of a narrative technique used by political songwriters to this day.*

About Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs was born into a nice apolitical middle class family in Texas. It was at college that he discovered the nature of the American beast, and devoted his classically trained musical talent, sardonic wit, and poetic sense to changing it.

He learned to play guitar, dropped out, and joined the New York folk scene, devoting himself to ending the Vietnam War and opposing the draft. He joined the Yippies and helped to organize the Festival of Life outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Tasks included several hours of searching the outer suburbs of Chicago with Jerry Rubin for a pig to run as a presidential candidate).

1968 was a bad year for radicals in the United States. The politically optimistic anti-war/civil rights movement was dealt several shattering blows, and Phil Ochs felt them all deeply. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon left Ochs feeling disillusioned and depressed. In particular, the vicious state reaction to the Lincoln Park protests, and the utter venality of the convention itself, broke his heart.

“I’m really beginning to question the basic sanity of the American public,” he remarked in an interview later that year.

I think more and more politicians are really becoming pathological liars… I think the Daily News, Tribune poisoning that comes out is literally creating – and television, all the media are creating a really mentally ill, unbalanced public…. I’ve always felt a contact with political reality from 1960 to 1968. But after Chicago I’m totally disoriented. I’m disoriented because the time has come for guns, and I’m not personally ready for guns. America’s such a violent country. The American revolution is going to be ridiculously bloody.”

Ochs’ 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement has a tombstone on the cover, inscribed with the words “Phil Ochs… Died Chicago Illinois 1968.”
Despite several more albums and an active touring career, Ochs continued to decline over the late 60s and early 70s.

One biographer puts it this way:

By Phil’s thinking, he had died a long time ago: he had died politically in Chicago in 1968 in the violence of the Democratic National Convention; he had died professionally in Africa a few years later, when he had been strangled and felt that he could no longer sing; he had died spiritually when Chile had been overthrown and his friend Victor Jara had been brutally murdered; and, finally, he had died psychologically at the hands of John Train.

[Note: John Butler Train was an alternative personality that subsumed Ochs identity for several months in 1975, one of the manifestations of an increasingly severe bipolar disorder].

On April 9th, 1976, Phil Ochs took his own life. He was 35 years of age.


*David Rovics, “Glory and Fame” uses this same technique to narrate the history of the industrial worker, and Cosmo, “The Butcher’s Apron“, for the sailors and soldiers of the British Empire.

James Oppenheim, “Bread and Roses”

“Bread and Roses” is about the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile mill strike of 1912, right? Everybody knows that.
Well, as it turns out, the association is a bit more complicated. Don’t you just love history?

The “Bread and Roses” Strike

The 1912 “Bread and Roses Strike” in Lawrence, Massachusetts united mostly women textile workers from more than 40 different nationalities. Led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), it spread rapidly through the town, growing to include more than twenty thousand workers and nearly every mill in Lawrence. The strike lasted more than two months, through a brutal winter.

In late January, when a bystander was killed during a protest, IWW organizers Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were arrested on charges of being accessories to the murder.
So IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came to Lawrence to lead the strike. Together they organized a unique type of strike relief, evacuating hundreds of the strikers’ hungry children to sympathetic families in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. The move drew widespread sympathy, especially after police stopped a further exodus, leading to violence at the Lawrence train station.

Congressional hearings followed, resulting in exposure of shocking conditions in the Lawrence mills and calls for investigation of the “wool trust.” Mill owners soon decided to settle the strike, giving workers in Lawrence and throughout New England raises of up to 20 percent.

Rose Schneiderman (a brief digression)

The phrase “bread and roses” itself originated from a line in a speech given by the labor organizer, socialist and suffragette Rose Schneiderman (who already knew way too much of shocking working conditions in the textile industry); “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” It’s part of a good speech, but personally I like this story:

A state legislator warned in 1912: “Get women into the arena of politics with its alliances and distressing contests – the delicacy is gone, the charm is gone, and you emasculize women.” Schneiderman replied:

“We have women working in the foundries, stripped to the waist, if you please, because of the heat. Yet the Senator says nothing about these women losing their charm. They have got to retain their charm and delicacy and work in foundries. Of course, you know the reason they are employed in foundries is that they are cheaper and work longer hours than men. Women in the laundries, for instance, stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch. Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round. There is no harder contest than the contest for bread, let me tell you that.”

Back to the Story

To return to the subject at hand, the “bread and roses” line inspired James Oppenheim to write the poem “Bread and Roses”, published circa 1912 with the attribution line “‘Bread for all, and Roses, too’—a slogan of the women in the West,” The poem has been translated into several languages and has been set to music by at least three different composers. The most widely used tune was composed in 1974 by Mimi Farina, Joan Baez’s younger sister. [fn- Bread & Roses foundation] Farina wrote a tune designed for solidarity singing, and trade union choirs the world over love it. The video below, a clip from the movie “Pride”, shows this beautifully:

The poem is commonly associated with the successful textile strike in Lawrence because Upton Sinclair attributed the origins of the phrase to it in a 1916 book, and the association stuck. Writers do that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, the theme of the slogan/poem/song, the workers right to “sun and life and art”, as Schneiderman put it, is one that recurs throughout labour history, and it does originate with the worker protagonists of Lawrence, who carried banners and placards with the slogan. To my mind, it will always beautifully express why we need a revolution. Judge for yourself.

Bread and Roses, by James Oppenheim

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

For a French translation and some other cool information, see this link: http://unionsong.com/u159.html, or this one: http://www.iww.org/content/bread-and-roses-hundred-years

Peter LaFarge, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

In 1964, Johnny Cash recorded one of his best and most under-rated works, called Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It was a concept album, focusing entirely on the history and civil rights abuses of the indigenous population in the United States. The songs that that Cash did not write himself were all written by the New York-based singer-songwriter Peter LaFarge, including the only song released as a single, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes“.
Cash dedicated a great deal of his time in the 1960s and 70s to the cause of Native American civil rights, including a visit to and a concert for the people of the Lakota reservation in 1968, the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.

Richard Elfstrom’s documentary, released in 1969, features Cash’s tour of the historic site, conducted by descendants of the victims. Elfstrom basically followed Cash around, with a camera, during 1968, when Cash was at a creative peak. He captured some wonderful behind the scenes footage as well as some significant concerts. In this clip, Cash is performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for his Lakota audience:

Cash’s “leftie credentials” are a subject of much debate, and rightly so.* My own feeling, on admittedly fairly superficial research, is that Cash’s dedication to particular issues of social reform were, as with many artists, spurred by his direct experience. In this case, Peter LaFarge himself was a personal inspiration.

LaFarge was associated with the Greenwich Village 1960s heyday of folk music, and was what might be called a single issue songwriter, devoting his musical career to the cause of Native American civil rights.

On May 10 1962, Cash’s long sought-after concert at Carnegie Hall flopped, badly. Deeply depressed, he sought escape in music, and went downtown to Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe, where LaFarge happened to be performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. It changed his life. In a style that seems typical, he threw himself into the social issue that was the central preoccupation of LaFarge’s life. Cash debuted Bitter Tears at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964; he went down a treat and gained an audience in the protest folk scene, a rare crossover for a country music star.+

In the way that good folk music does, the Ballad keeps returning. In 2011, the Mohican singer and flute player Bill Miller was invited to join the inaugural Johnny Cash Festival in Arkansas. He decided to play “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”.

“It came about because John Carter Cash and I are working on a project with [Roy’s son] Wesley Orbison,” said Miller [in 2011]. “John Carter told me about the festival and asked if I wanted to do it. I’ve been singing [Cash’s 1958 classic] ‘I Still Miss Someone’ since I was 10-years-old, but Rosanne [Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter] was singing it in the show. So he asked me if I’d do ‘Ira Hayes’- which I’d never done, but always wanted to do.”But the lengthy ballad had so many lyrics that Miller had shied away from it.

“Then its impact on me hit me just the other day when I was getting ready to perform it,” he said. “It’s such a sad story and powerful image. I remember asking my mom, ‘Who’s hand is reaching for the flag on top of the hill?’ And she said it was a native man. And what happened to Ira Hayes in his life related to me: My dad [like LaFarge himself] was a Korean war veteran, and he died a drunk. And here’s a song about the same thing, and it’s tragic.”

50 years after Bitter Tears was recorded, a collective of artists came together to reimagine the album. Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, was produced by Joe Henry and features Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Norman and Nancy Blake, as well as up-and-comers The Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens, interpreting the music of Bitter Tears for a new generation.

“Prior to Bitter Tears, the conversation about Native American rights had not really been had,” says Henry, “and at a very significant moment in his trajectory, Johnny Cash was willing to draw a line and insist that this be considered a human rights issue, alongside the civil rights issue that was coming to fruition in 1964. But he also felt that the record had never been heard, so there’s a real sense that we’re being asked to carry it forward.”

About Ira Hayes

Ira Hamilton Hayes was a member of the Pima tribe, based at the Gila reservation in Phoenix, Arizona, and a United States Marine. A veteran of the Pacific campaign, Hayes was one of the soldiers made famous by the classic John Rosenthal photograph of the American flag being raised on top of the hill at Iwo Jima. Despite his own efforts to remain incognito, he was thrust into the War Department media circus known as a “war bonds drive”, which did not work out well. He was eventually returned to his combat unit, but by then he had already learned to cope by drinking and was a confirmed alcoholic. In January 1955 he was found dead of exposure and alcohol poisoning on his Arizona lands.


*Cash’s children, particularly his daughter Roseanne, have done an admirable job of preserving the story of Cash’s iconoclasm and complexity, and arguing against his being claimed by either the left or the right.

+There is a story that Cash Played “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for Nixon at a meeting on prison reform in 1972, but I have found some evidence that this is one of conflations of half-truth and myth. Further investigation requires listening to the Nixon tapes, and I really don’t have time for that right now. The article that argues this point of view is here.

Leon Rosselson, “Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party”

When I was a child, I used to wonder idly, every December, why the shopping centres kept playing the tune to “The Red Flag”. It took me years to realise that the tune was actually “O, Tannenbaum” to most people.

It was in the liner notes to Billy Bragg’s The Internationale, released in 1990, that I discovered that “The Red Flag” was originally written to the much less dirge-like tune of “The White Cockade”.

Given all that history, I got a great laugh from this song, based on the wrong tune, lampooning the “socialism” of the British Labor Party. It’s probably the Wob influence, but I’m particularly fond of satire that derides the hypocrisy of those who claim to represent the working-class while exploiting them. This song is now on my list of favourites, along with “Love Me I’m a Liberal”, and “Bump Me Into Parliament”. Many thanks to Alex Bainbridge for directing my attention to this musician.

Hamell on Trial

Hamell on Trial is my latest musical enthusiasm. Recently, Ed Hamell offered 8 of his albums for free download: “First they’re free, then you have to pay a small fee, now they’re free again. WHAT A Yo-Yo!!! Rich? Send me a million!! Poor, pay what you can!! BUT: Spread the word to the uninitiated!!! That’s only fair!!!”

I believe it is, and it’s certainly not a hardship for me to go on about music. So here goes.

The main problem I had writing this was deciding how to describe his style. My temptation is to say, “just listen”, but you know, I’m supposed to a writer here. There should be a way to write halfway decent words, even about an artist who has a mad genius with them. “I like words. I’m a big word guy.” he told a BBC presenter last year. I laughed when I heard the podcast, of course, but after listening to several albums, my reaction to this statement is “well, duh.” The albums I have downloaded – for free, I admit- have given me an enormous amount of entertainment, and so the least I can do is wax lyrical in the appropriate place, as requested.

So I pondered that for a while, with some (excellently worded) input from Cosmo (a songwriter currently living in Wales, and an enthusiastic fan). Like the Australian comedian Tim Minchin, Hamell on Trial (that’s his name for his solo act) merges music and shaggy dog stories, narrating from a perspective of personal experience and compassionate intolerance. Really. It’s hilarious and tender all at once, with no sentimentality.

From the east coast of the United States (Syracuse, in fact), Ed Hamell has a style of performance that is very popular here in Australia (insofar as we have enough people for something to be “popular” of course). I think of it as “standup comedy with musical backing”. Hamell on Trial pushes this style into a sort of acoustic punk. Fast-paced, clean guitar riffs accentuate a frenetic and poetic torrent of words. My favourite is this one: “Ed’s Not Dead, Hamell Comes Alive“.

It’s a collection of live songs – chosen by Ed’s roadie- recorded on the tour where he opened for Ani DiFranco: “infinitely bigger crowds than I was used to, cutting my teeth in larger arenas“. It worked. You can tell how he went down with the crowd. Listen to it. Laugh. Then go find the rest. and you know, pay for some of them, or tell someone about them. Cosmo told me he has a “small but perfectly formed” audience when he is not borrowing Ani’s. I like that, but “large and perfectly formed” would be better.

The News from David Rovics

David Rovics really does bring you all the news that’s fit to sing. What’s more, he could be doing it in your town, on his next tour.
“…what’s striking about Rovics is his enduring and seemingly tireless commitment to the life of a radical grassroots troubadour, and his ability to bring first-hand reports of local struggles from around the world to each community that he visits.” Wally Brooker
Here’s some examples.You can probably find others, here. For the sake of proper music listeners (who need an album, thanks very much) I have constructed a soundcloud playlist. For the news-oriented types, the article is linked to the quote below.

Soundcloud: The News from David Rovics

Oil Train
America’s Exploding Oil Train Problem
Last July, a tanker train filled with North Dakota crude derailed in the middle of the night in Lac-Mégantic, a small Canadian town near the border with Maine; the resulting inferno killed 47 people. Since then, derailments in Casselton, North Dakota, and Lynchburg, Virginia, have led to evacuations. The Lac-Mégantic disaster spurred protests from fire chiefs and town officials who said that they were ill-equipped to deal with a possible derailment.

The Commons
Will Detroit’s Water Be Privatized or Recognized as Commons?”
Detroit: “The People’s Water Board is working to have water recognized as a Commons, an entity that serves and is managed by the public. In this world of privatization, the Commons is a powerful antidote to predatory capitalism.”

Has the Bombing Begun?
US Sending 200 Troops for Drills in Ukraine: Pentagon
“The presence of 200 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade will mark the first deployment of US ground troops to Ukraine since the Kiev government’s conflict with pro-Russia separatists erupted earlier this year.”

Syria, 2013
Syria is Not a Revolution Any More- This is a Civil War.”
Like many others, the three men are bewildered at what has become of their war. Their alliances – and their goals – are shifting. The regime is far away, the jihadis are near – and seem unstoppable. Their resources are dwindling; their families are shattered. Their villages and farm lands are lost to regime militias. Their allies are at best unreliable, and at worst actively conspiring against them.
They are a businessman, a smuggler and an army defector who became respectively the political officer, treasurer and military commander of a once-formidable battalion in northern Syria.

Good Kurds, Bad Kurds
Pentagon Warns That Isis has Global Aspirations as US Continue Iraq Strikes.”
America’s own effort to build an international coalition against Isis advanced on Tuesday as well, as Britain and six other nations agreed to provide the Kurdish peshmerga militia with small arms, ammunition and other supplies.

Banner Suspended Above Downtown Roanoke, Calls Out Coal Baron Billionaire
Roanoke, VA – “Early this morning members of Mountain Justice, Rising Tide North America and Radical Action for Mountain’s and Peoples’ Survival (RAMPS) hung a banner, suspended between two downtown buildings on Jefferson street in Roanoke. The groups are acting in support of community demands in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee that billionaire coal baron Jim Justice stop poisoning water, exposing communities to devastating mountaintop removal coal mining operations and leaving central Appalachia a public health disaster.”

His Hands Were in the Air
Ferguson and Global Struggle for Justice.”
“The Justice Department has formally announced a civil rights probe of the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, where the unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown was killed last month. The announcement follows weeks of protests sparked by Brown’s death that brought to light allegations of racial profiling and other police abuses against African-American residents.”

Minimum Wage Strike
Nearly 500 Striking Fast Food Workers Arrested, Fight for 15 Intensifies
“Nearly 500 fast-food workers—in uniforms from restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—were arrested Thursday during a 150-city strike, as the fight for $15 and union rights intensified across the country. Thousands of cooks and cashiers walked off their jobs from more than 1,000 stores, chanting “We Believe That We Will Win,” and vowing to do whatever it takes to secure higher wages and union rights.”