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Songs Of Trades, Or Songs For The People
by [?]

Men of genius have devoted some of their hours, and even governments have occasionally assisted, to render the people happier by song and dance. The Grecians had songs appropriated to the various trades. Songs of this nature would shorten the manufacturer’s tedious task-work, and solace the artisan at his solitary occupation. A beam of gay fancy kindling his mind, a playful change of measures delighting his ear, even a moralising verse to cherish his better feelings–these ingeniously adapted to each profession, and some to the display of patriotic characters, and national events, would contribute something to public happiness. Such themes are worthy of a patriotic bard, of the Southeys for their hearts, and the Moores for their verse.

Fletcher of Saltoun said, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make all the laws of a nation.” The character of a people is preserved in their national songs. “God save the King” and “Rule Britannia” were long our English national airs.

“The story of Amphion building Thebes with his lyre was not a fable,” says Dr. Clarke, “At Thebes, in the harmonious adjustment of those masses which remain belonging to the ancient walls, we saw enough to convince us that this story was no fable; for it was a very ancient custom to carry on immense labour by an accompaniment of music and singing. The custom still exists both in Egypt and Greece. It might, therefore, be said that the Walls of Thebes were built at the sound of the only musical instrument then in use; because, according to the custom of the country, the lyre was necessary for the accomplishment of the work.”[1] The same custom appears to exist in Africa. Lander notices at Yaoorie that the “labourers in their plantations were attended by a drummer, that they might be excited by the sound of his instrument to work well and briskly.”[2]

Athenaeus[3] has preserved the Greek names of different songs as sung by various trades, but unfortunately none of the songs themselves. There was a song for the corn-grinders; another for the workers in wool; another for the weavers. The reapers had their carol; the herdsmen had a song which an ox-driver of Sicily had composed; the kneaders, and the bathers, and the galley-rowers, were not without their chant. We have ourselves a song of the weavers, which Ritson has preserved in his “Ancient Songs;” and it may be found in the popular chap-book of “The Life of Jack of Newbury;” and the songs of anglers, of old Izaak Walton, and Charles Cotton, still retain their freshness.

Among the Greeks, observed Bishop Heber, the hymn which placed Harmodius in the green and flowery island of the Blessed, was chanted by the potter to his wheel, and enlivened the labours of the Piraean mariner.

Dr. Johnson is the only writer I recollect who has noticed something of this nature which he observed in the Highlands. “The strokes of the sickle were timed by the modulation of the harvest song, in which all their voices were united. They accompany every action which can be done in equal time with an appropriate strain, which has, they say, not much meaning, but its effects are regularity and cheerfulness. There is an oar song used by the Hebrideans.”

But if these chants “have not much meaning,” they will not produce the desired effect of touching the heart, as well as giving vigour to the arm of the labourer. The gondoliers of Venice while away their long midnight hours on the water with the stanzas of Tasso. Fragments of Homer are sung by the Greek sailors of the Archipelago; the severe labour of the trackers, in China, is accompanied with a song which encourages their exertions, and renders these simultaneous. Mr. Ellis mentions that the sight of the lofty pagoda of Tong-chow served as a great topic of incitement in the song of the trackers, toiling against the stream, to their place of rest. The canoemen, on the Gold Coast, in a very dangerous passage, “on the back of a high curling wave, paddling with all their might, singing or rather shouting their wild song, follow it up,” says M’Leod, who was a lively witness of this happy combination of song, of labour, and of peril, which he acknowledged was “a very terrific process.” Our sailors at Newcastle, in heaving their anchors, have their “Heave and ho! rum-below!” but the Sicilian mariners must be more deeply affected by their beautiful hymn to the Virgin. A society, instituted in Holland for general good, do not consider among their least useful projects that of having printed at a low price a collection of songs for sailors.