John Ball in Music

Music and songs about John Ball or the 1381 revolt thrived in the twentieth century. Folk music (in its varied guises) was especially significant. Folk music forms an ongoing backdrop to Halcott Glover’s popular play, Wat Tyler: A Play in Three Acts (1921), while folk music and morris dancing was an important backdrop for Conrad Noel and Chapel of Blessed John Ball Priest and Martyr and the famous church at Thaxted, Essex (morris footage from Thaxted in 1958 is available here).

Music concerts and historical or civic pageants were an important and popular part of the propaganda of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the late 1930s. For example, Music and the People was performed at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Festival of Music in April 1939. The intention was to set classical and folk music against high cultural and jingoist versions and show how music was in fact part of long tradition of struggle against oppression. The section dedicated to the Peasants’ Revolt, and effectively marking the beginning of popular radicalism, was headed by Ball and Tyler and accompanied by the song, ‘Cutty Wren’ (a song performed many times by various artists, e.g., here).

The famed composer and Communist, Alan Bush, was a driving force behind Music and the People and himself produced an opera, Wat Tyler, with the libretto written by his wife Nancy Bush. Throughout the opera, folk song (including ‘Cutty Wren’) plays an important role in the background and part of the Bushes’ understanding of Ball as a key figure in the development of a homegrown socialism. Wat Tyler was one of the winners of a competition for new operas as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain but the first performances of the opera were in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Wat Tyler was broadcast on Berlin Radio in 1952 and first on stage in Leipzig (1953), Rostock (1955), and Magdeburg (1959). The full script and details from the Berlin and Leipzig performances are available here. Wat Tyler went relatively ignored in Britain and while a version was broadcast on BBC in December 1956, it was not performed on stage in the UK until 1974 by the Workers’ Music Association. Photographs of the 1974 performance are available at the Alan Bush Music Trust website. A documentary on Alan Bush’s life is available here.

Courtesy of Ben Lunn

The 600th anniversary of the uprising in 1381 saw music and musical plays featuring Ball in some way. But the most influential was the folk hymn ‘Sing John Ball’ (or variously, e.g., ‘Sing, John Ball’, ‘John Ball’) written by Sydney Carter of several school assembly hymns fame. It was sung the same year by John Kirkpatrick and Carter on the album Lovely in the Dances: Songs of Sydney Carter (1981), the full details of which are available here.

‘Sing John Ball’ has been covered many times and is popular among people who like folk music.

While we cannot always pin down how songs are received, ‘Sing John Ball’ regularly turns up (like much contemporary folk music) in settings where inclusive, pluralistic, multicultural, and multi-ethnic English cultural identities are stressed against right or far-right claims about Englishness and Britishness.

Tony Benn—a long-time promoter of the significance of Ball and the 1381 revolt for an English or British radical tradition which justified opposition to power and support for public ownership of industry— teamed up with the folksinger Roy Bailey to provide a mixture of talk and song, including on the ‘Peasants’ Revolt.’ Here is one example from the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2000:

Bailey is also known for the ‘Song of the Leaders’ which includes reference to Ball:

Two of the most famous names in modern folk music, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, also performed ‘Bring the Summer Home,’ written in 1989 response to the Poll Tax shortly before MacColl’s death. Unlike some folk retellings of Ball, this song does not shy away from the violence of 1381.

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