New Book by Dick Holdstock

Dick Holdstock, Again With One Voice: British Songs of Political Reform, 1768 to 1868. Loomis House Press, Northfield, MN

“There is no more exciting way of bringing historical times to life than through the songs of the people living through them.” Thus speaks Frankie Armstrong in one of the epigraphs of Dick Holdstock’s new book. 

Holdstock had been working on this topic for decades, and the book is a triumph: 120 songs, made over the hundred years between 1768 to 1868, and a commentary to locate them in their historical milieu. I have not the room (nor indeed the expertise) to properly review the book, but I want, by briefly looking at his first song, to bring it to the attention of singers and historians to demonstrate what Holdstock has achieved.

Holdstock’s sources for these songs were the big broadside ballad collections at Cambridge University (the Madden Collection, with over 30,000 broadsides) and the Bodleian collection at Oxford University, also with in excess of 30,000 broadsides. To these he added material from several smaller collections, and then began the winnowing process of identifying the songs which might be characterized as songs of political reform.

Britain in 1768 was essentially an autocracy, parliament being run by a gang of supporters of the newly crowned George III. The seats in parliament had been set many years previously, and vast areas of newly populated land, including such cities such as Manchester, had no representation at all, while “rotten boroughs”, places where towns had once stood and were now all but empty, still elected members of Parliament.

It was John Wilkes and his struggle for more popular representation and against this autocracy which kicks off Holdstock’s collection. Wilkes was a publisher and editor of The North Briton, a satirical newspaper, and Issue No 45 of April 1763 caused his indictment for seditious libel. He escaped to France, but was tried in absentia, and declared an outlaw. He returned five years later to rapturous support, and “Wilkes and Liberty” became the watchword of the day. Holdstock’s first song, “Wilkes and Liberty: In Honour of No. 45” commemorates this historical moment:

In the year sixty-eight will ye Britons be wise
And throw off the clouds that darken your skies
O will you for freedom and Liberty join
To vote for our cause that in time you may shine.

  To save a dear country, O will you contrive,
  And think of the number of good forty-five.

He provides a photo of the first verse of the actual broadside, and the complete song, to be sung to the tune of “Balance a Straw”. 

The question of locating the tune specified (where it is specified: many broadsides did not so specify) is one of the harder jobs of the cultural historian, which requires a knowledge not just of the published song tune repertoire but also of the extant tunes of the period, and here Holdstock has succeeded in spades. He himself is a sensitive singer, and he brings to the task of marrying a text with an appropriate tune his many long years as a singer.

The struggle for democracy is of course never-ending: beyond Holdstock’s period we have the various Representation of the People Acts, which brought about the ever-enlarging scope of democratic reform – working men, women, and here in Canada votes for Chinese, Japanese, East Indians and First Nations people. Holdstock’s work is a model for cultural work in these succeeding chapters in the struggle for reform.

Jon Bartlett
Princeton, BC, Canada
June 2021