Hard Times of Old England | Folk From the Attic

Something of a Greatest Hit, as far as folk songs go, “Hard Times of Old England” has been sung by everybody and anybody, from Martin Carthy to Stick in the Wheel. An 18th century song, it appears no fewer than 28 times in the folk archives at Cecil Sharp House, with many of those entries connected to the Copper Family, with whom the song is perhaps most closely associated. A recording of Ron Copper singing the song was made in 1955, and it first appeared in public as part of their 1963 collection, Traditional Songs from Rottingdean

Speaking as a performer myself, I’d say the obvious attraction to the song, and the main reason for recordings by Chumbawumba and updates by Billy Bragg and the Imagined Village, is the timelessness of the lyric. A simple, repetitive, tumbling but beguiling melody takes the listener on a trek around a town in ‘Old England’, where tradesmen are out of work, people have trouble feeding their families, and those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country are neglected. It’s one of those songs that never really lose their relevance, and, set against the current political backdrop, can take on an air of protest.

For the record, my favourite version was recorded (as “Hard Times”) by Stick in the Wheel for their brilliant 2015 album, From HereWhile Nicola Kearey’s gorgeous vocal certainly prettifies the Copper Family take on the song, there’s still something earthy and authentic about the performance. It’s weary, too – sounding as though the singer is tired of having to repeat the same old story; a kind of “when will we learn?” performance without ever hectoring in any way.

As with all good folk songs, while it speaks for the ages in and of itself, “Hard Times of Old England” has also undergone the occasional update. Naturally, Billy Bragg has had the most well-known crack at rewriting it for modern times, as seen in the Imagined Village performance above. I’m not sure it really needs it, and putting it all into Tesco terms feels ever so slightly patronising, but maybe stating the obvious is what songs like this need in order for them to find their way back into popular consciousness.

My own version is simply a recording of a song that has taken me hostage over the last month or so – one of those that I find myself waking up in the middle of the night already singing. Having spent the last half a year playing in open D tuning, I decided to work this up in DADGAD, and inevitably a few bluesy notes have crept in – I hope that while straying a bit from the original I’ve still managed to do it justice.

I’m looking forward to gigging it next year. As soon as you start singing it most people not only recognise what you’re saying, but they find they recognise the tune, too. Maybe it’s one of those we’re born aware of. Either way, I feel sure we’ll be singing it in old England for a few years yet to come – for better or for worse.

Hard Times of Old England lyrics

Come all you tradesmen that travel alone
Come and tell me where the trade has all gone
Long time I’ve travelled and cannot find none
And it’s O, the hard times of Old England
In Old England very hard times

Provisions you buy in the shop it is true
But if you’ve no money there’s none left for you
So what’s a poor man and his family to do?
And it’s O, the hard times of Old England
In Old England very hard times

If you go to a shop and you ask for a job
They’ll answer you there with a shake and a nod
Ain’t that enough to make a man rob
And it’s O, the hard times of Old England
In Old England very hard times

You’ll see the poor tradesmen a-walking the street
From morning till night for employment to seek
They’ve scarcely enough to buy shoes for their feet
And it’s O, the hard times of Old England
In Old England very hard times

Our soldiers and sailors have just come from war
Been fighting for Queen and for country once more
Come home to be starved, shoulda stayed where they were
And it’s O, the hard times of Old England
In Old England very hard times

So now to conclude and to finish my song
Let’s hope that these hard time will not last for long
And I’ll soon have chance for to alter my song
Singing, O the good times of Old England
In Old England very good times

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