‘Poverty Knock’ is nothing short of a classic. I first heard it while painstakingly trying to pick it out on a piano, struggling to read the music in Roy Palmer’s book of the same title (not that Palmer scored it badly – my sight-reading is woeful).

It’s one of those “folk songs” that makes the newcomer sit up and wonder, “why have I never heard this before?” Regardless of genre, it’s a thing of beauty, tragedy, vivid reportage and almost-silent rage. That more people don’t know it is bewildering, especially given the sheer volume of wonderful recordings. 

In this blog post, I’ll attempt to detail some of its background, chat to some of the people who have recorded it, as well as explaining how, just as Withnail once went on holiday by mistake, I ended up recording ‘Poverty Knock’ by accident. 

See more songs in this series…
1. Oh, It Was My Cruel Parents Who Did Me First Trepan [Roud 2897]
2. Who Hung The Monkey?
3. Poverty Knock

Poverty Knock: some background

A couple of paragraphs above, you might’ve noticed that I put the words “folk song” in inverted commas. People coming to traditional songs for the first time will commonly make the assumption that songs such as ‘Poverty Knock’, sung by countless folk singers from an apparently ancient text, have appeared in the ether and belong only to the ages.

We could reopen the age-old “how do you define folk music” debate here, but let’s get even more meta and ask what classes as a “traditional folk song”. The answer, I suspect, will include the words “rural music” perhaps pitted against “industrial songs”, “broadsides”, “music hall” and many, many more. It’s a thorny nest, to say the least.

‘Poverty Knock’ is one of those odd ones that falls between the cracks. At first glance, you might think you’ve got yourself a good old industrial song. It could even be a protest song of some sort, given that it deals exclusively with the plight of the cotton mill workers. When Chumbawumba recorded their version, they wrote that the song reminds us, “Threat of unemployment keeps wages low, keeps workers in fear of a willing workforce waiting to take any available job, keeps the boss’s profits high.” It doesn’t get much more protesty than that.

It’s pretty obvious that we can rule out its “rural song” credentials (it doesn’t have any), and it hardly feels as though it’d make a great “music hall” singalong. What kind of folk song is it, then? And, indeed, is it a traditional “folk song” at all, given that we think we may know who wrote it?

Tom Daniel, the Batley weaver

When not being assigned the trad tag, ‘Poverty Knock’ is most commonly attributed to a weaver from Batley, West Yorkshire, called Tom Daniel. It was collected by A. E. (Tony) Green in 1965. Some claim he merely recalled the song. Others suspect he actually wrote it.

There’s disagreement over Tom’s birthdate, with some putting him at 76 years of age when he died [Jon Raven], and others assuming he was 10 years older than that [Pete Coe]. In an interview with Mike Harding for the BBC in 1989, Pete Coe recalled meeting Tom Daniel and being told that he started working in the mills around 1900, having left school at the age of around 11. Meanwhile, Raven stated that Daniel began weaving five years after that.

What’s five years between friends, eh? Well, apparently quite a lot, because the lack of clarity on dates and times throws other discrepancies into question, not least the authorship of the song. Jon Raven wrote that, “Tom Daniel had learned the song at the first mill he was employed at some sixty years earlier, and no doubt it had passed through many other hands before that,” whereas Pete Coe recalled that, “he’d remembered bits of [Poverty Knock] from his early years. However, the song bears striking resemblance to many of the poems that he did write. The collector of the song, Tony Green, reckons he wrote it too.”

The fact that Tom Daniel could not properly recall when or where he heard the song, let alone if he’d even written it himself, could possibly put a question mark over the quality of Daniel’s memory at the time Tony Green collected the song. Without having met any of the protagonists in this research tale (two of whom are now dead), it seems to me that the assumption that Tom Daniel wrote ‘Poverty Knock’ is rather a large one. (I’d love to hear from anyone who has any further information on this and can correct me – that’s the joy of blogging, after all.)

One interesting additional point to note here: when Pete Coe recorded the song, he made enquiries into the whereabouts of Tom Daniels’ relatives so that he could pay royalties. “I’m told,” he wrote at the time, “that there’s no surviving relatives to claim royalties, so, as it’s been designated a ‘traditional’ song for so long, that’s how it’s usually referred to.” A fascinating glimpse into how a traditional folk song becomes a traditional folk song in the eyes of copyright laws. The suggestion seems to be that if nobody can claim it, then it’s a trad folk song.

It seems the singers in a local community would’ve thought so, too. In the recently-published study, Language, the Singer and the Song: The Sociolinguistics of Folk Performanceauthors Richard J. Watts and Franz Andres Morrissey note that, “There is a tendency… to classify a song as ‘trad’ even though there is an assumed or identifiable creator.” They go on to give reasons for this, including, “that on the adoption of a song, singers are free to adapt it as they wish. They may omit stanzas, change the wording of the lyrics, change the tune… which is a time-honoured way of representing a song and shifting it into the wider process of transmission and diffusion. Secondly, if singers sense that there must have been an original songwriter but cannot definitively identify that person, they will often make this point in representational performance settings or in recordings, by labelling the song ‘unknown’, ie, the songwriter is unknown to the singer.”

It seems perfectly possible that the authorship of ‘Poverty Knock’ mattered so little to Tom Daniel and those around him, either because they couldn’t rightly remember or because it was pulled together as an amalgamation of other mill songs (about which, more in a moment), that they labelled it ‘trad’ or ‘unknown’ simply because that was what they did with most of their old songs.

A brief note on Cotton Mill Songs

One of the reasons that Pete Coe thought that Tom Daniel may have written this song was because the weaver had apparently written several other poems that bore similarities. At this point, I turn back to the Poverty Knock book, assembled by Roy Palmer.

Songs like ‘Poverty Knock’, depicting the conditions in the mills from a firsthand perspective, are not exactly rare. As I mentioned above, it’s worth entertaining the possibility that Tom Daniel knew many of these, too, and that verses and lines floated freely between the various pieces.

Certainly, the themes are often strikingly similar. Take, for example, ‘The Factory Bell’ [Roud V15487], in which:

Some wheedling foreman every hour
Makes big himself with stolen power

or ‘The Morn is Black’…

The morn is black as a raven
The streets are wet and cold
The mill is mournfully telling
It’s time that I should go
Another day at the loom, my lass,
Where shuttles they do fly
The noise is like to screaming
When some they come to die

or ‘The Knocker Up’…

A pal of mine once said to me
‘Will you knock me up at half-past three?’
And so, promptly at half-past one,
I knocked him up and said, “Oh John”
I’ve just come round to tell you
I’ve just come round to tell you
I’ve just come round to tell you
You’ve got two more hours to sleep

That’s not to say that Tom Daniel didn’t write ‘Poverty Knock’ himself, of course. Neither is it to say that he lifted verses wholesale – there’s nothing here to suggest that he did any of that. But you can certainly see why a mind befuddled by age and time might wonder what was his and what wasn’t, if he indeed cared in the slightest.

Up every morning at five…

One thing that is commonly agreed on when it comes to ‘Poverty Knock’ is that it probably developed as an accompaniment to the relentless sound of the Dobby Loom. This piece of industrial kit is often cited as the weavers’ downfall, as its introduction in the early 1840s forced wages down and made workers increasingly expendable.

As if enough insult hadn’t been added to enough injury, those hearing it at ear-shattering volume, unendingly from the early hours until late at night, began to imagine that the machine muttered words. Just as you begin to hear something like “clackety clack” if you listen to the repetitive time signature of a railway carriage, the starved and torn-down weavers began to believe that they could hear two merciless words coming from this instrument of torture and humiliation:

“Poverty knock, poverty knock, poverty knock…” 

Repetitive parcels of time, of course, is another common theme amongst mill songs. Many of them make reference to the early starting hours, not because the weavers were simply desperate for an extra hour in bed (although it’s unlikely any of them would’ve turned the offer down), but because factory whistles and time meant money. Wages could very easily and unfairly be “dockit”, as the song says, for the slightest slip in concentration or punctuality.

‘Poverty Knock’ may contain one of the most depressing verses ever set to music, but it’s easy to miss the significance. “Sometimes,” we’re told in a piece of reportage that leaves the listener cold, “a shuttle flies out and gives some poor woman a clout. There she lies bleeding, but nobody’s heeding, oh who’s going to carry her out?” Why the question mark over who’ll go to her aid? It’s not that they don’t want to touch her. It’s more that they’re aware that leaving their looms, even to help a dying colleague, will result in a loss of earnings.

This desperate fear of angering the foreman and losing money is underlined in Palmer’s book, which features a printed recollection from a worker dating back to 1730. It could be straight out of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, were it not for the fact that it predates that novella by over 100 years.

“At the age of seven, William Hutton started his apprenticeship at a Derby silk mill. ‘I had now to rise at five every morning during seven years’, he wrote, ‘submit to the cane whenever convenient for the master, be the constant companion of the most rude and vulgar of the human race.’ An incident in the following year underlines his anxiety over arriving on time: the Christmas holidays were attended with snow, followed by a sharp frost. A thaw came on, in the afternoon of the 27th, but in the night the ground was again caught by a frost, which glazed the streets. ‘I did not awake the next morning, till daylight seemed to appear. I rose in tears, for fear of punishment, and went to my father’s bedside, to ask what was o’clock? He believed six. I darted out in agonies, and, from the bottom of Full Street to the top of Silk Mill Lane, not 200 yards, I fell nine times! Observing no lights in the mill, I knew it was an early hour, and that the reflection of the snow had deceived me. Returning, it struck two. As I now went with care, I fell only twice.'”

Recordings of Poverty Knock

We’ve already mentioned Pete Coe’s recording, released in 1989 on his album A Right Song and Dance, and it is of course significant due to the fact that Coe met Tom Daniel and presumably heard him sing it first hand. It’s probably the most influential version out there. As we’ll see, several other interpreters cite it as the version to hear.

Other influential versions include the one on Roy Bailey’s eponymous album (which, according to notes on the Mainly Norfolk website, features the once-in-a-lifetime super-group of Martin Carthy on dulcimer, John Kirkpatrick on jew’s harp, Peter Knight on fiddle and Leon Rosselson on guitar), Roy Harris’s 1972 version and Jon Raven’s 1973 version. Other recordings continue sporadically up until Chumbawumba’s interpretation in 1988.

Perhaps for the latest generation of folk performers, the most important version has been Jim Moray’s recording, released on his first EP in 2001. I dropped him a line to find out what kind of relationship he has with the song.

“I already knew the song in its ‘jolly folk club singalong’ incarnation,” he tells me. “In fact, I think it was on my GCSE music syllabus as the Example of British Folk Music. But the version which got me to reappraise it is Pete Coe’s. Pretty much any slow/sad ‘Poverty Knock’ is down to him, I’d say. In particular, I worked on the stage crew at Sidmouth for several years as a teenager. I was mainly learning how to coil cables and position microphones correctly, but for the last few years I did it I did the lights in The Ham. Pete played one year and did several songs that I went away and learned, including ‘Poverty Knock’, which really lodged itself in my brain.”

It’s clearly an important song to him, as he adds: “I probably played the song at every gig from 2001 to about 2012, but I stopped taking a piano to gigs after that, so I haven’t sung it for ages.” (May I suggest rearranging it for guitar, Jim? I believe you know how to play one of those, and it’s lighter than a Steinway.)

Anyone who has seen a Thom Ashworth performance in recent months will know that ‘Poverty Knock’ is now an important part of his set, and you’ll find evidence of the quality of his version on his Bandcamp page, where he’s using the song to trail the release of his forthcoming album, Head Canon. 

“The first time I heard Poverty Knock was at a session on holiday in Dorset in I guess about 1994,” says Thom, “but I didn’t hear it again for some time after that, with Jim Moray’s version on I Am Jim Moray (a collection I still love, but not as much as Low Culture, if only for the XTC cover). The chorus was really familiar, but it took me ages to twig where I’d heard it before. My arrangement of it is so simple it almost feels like cheating, but it just didn’t need anything more. It’s such a world-weary song, but it’s still got joy in it, as you find in so many songs by and about working people.”

In short, regardless of its origin, it’s one of those songs that seems to be picked up by each generation. There can be no other reason other than it’s an incredibly poignant piece, almost weighed down by emotion, with a set of lyrics that speak to the greed-fulled injustices that never dissipate. File alongside ‘Hard Times of Old England‘. These songs are eternal. More’s the pity.

A song recorded by accident

Regular readers of this blog will know that I recently released Midlife, an album of Midlands and Birmingham folk songs (and industrial songs, and music hall songs, but let’s not get into that again). ‘Poverty Knock’ was actually the first song I recorded as part of these sessions.

I got as far as arranging the song and laying the guitar, drums, bass and vocals down before I realised it wasn’t a Brummie folk song at all. Neither was it a Midlands folk song. Tom Daniel, whatever his relationship with the song, was from Batley, West Yorkshire, and that’s where it was collected.

Quite why it made it into Jon Raven’s very specifically-titled book, The Urban and Industrial Songs of The Black Country and Birmingham, is anyone’s guess, but there it is on page 88. That it also made it into Roy Palmer’s Poverty Knock was my undoing. While Palmer specialised in songs from the region, he by no means worked exclusively with them, and I clearly didn’t check the small print.

And so it was, having mistakenly assumed I was looking at a Brummie folk song, I had to abandon the recording halfway through and move my attentions to ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem‘. After that, I forgot all about it.

In mid-January, as I was moving files around on my computer, I found the half-recorded song and thought that it seemed a waste to throw it away (especially as I’m now doing this one-song-a-month-research-and-record project).

Not really knowing how to complete it, I sent it to my Grizzly Folk friend, Jon Nice. Now, let me just say that if there are any musicians out there who are in need of a bit of inspiration, a wonderful way to get yourself unstuck is to turn to Jon Nice. The man plays everything, has ideas coming out of his everywhere, and is a huge amount of fun to work with. Within a few days of sending him the half-forgotten files, he’d returned them with pump organ overdubs, piano overdubs, backing vocals, found-sound recordings of looms in action, and even a one-man male voice choir.

So here it is. Our version of ‘Poverty Knock’, performed as though we’d been hanging out a little too much with The Faces or Pink Floyd back in the early 70s. That’s me on acoustic guitar, bass, percussion, Hammond organ and vocals, while Jon Nice does absolutely everything else. As always. Big love for that man.

You can hear it/buy it by clicking on the Bandcamp link above. Alternatively, stream it via Spotify or any of the other usual outlets.

Poverty Knock: Lyrics

Up every morning at five
It’s a wonder that we stay alive
Tired and yawning
Another cold morning
It’s back to the dreary old drive

Oh, we’re going to be late
The gaffer is stood at the gate
And we’re out of pocket
Our wages they’ll dockit
We’ll have to buy grub on the slate

It’s poverty, poverty knock
My loom is saying all day
Poverty, poverty knock
The gaffer’s too skinny to pay
Poverty, poverty knock
Keeping one eye on the clock
And I know I can guttle
When I hear my shuttle go
Poverty, poverty knock

And when our wages they’ll bring
We’re often short of a string
And while we’re fratchin’
Wi’ gaffer fer snatchin’
We know to his purse he will cling

We’ve got to wet our own yarn
By dipping it into the tarn
It’s wet and soggy
It makes us feel groggy
There’s mice in that dirty old barn

It’s poverty, poverty knock
My loom is saying all day
Poverty, poverty knock
The gaffer’s too skinny to pay
Poverty, poverty knock
Keeping one eye on the clock
And I know I can guttle
When I hear my shuttle go
Poverty, poverty knock

Sometimes a shuttle flies out
And gives some woman a clout
And there she lies bleeding
But nobody’s heeding
Oh, who’s going to carry her out?

Oh dear, my poor head it sings
And I should’ve woven three strings
But the threads they are breaking
And my back is aching
Oh dear, how I wish I had wings

It’s poverty, poverty knock
My loom is saying all day
Poverty, poverty knock
The gaffer’s too skinny to pay
Poverty, poverty knock
Keeping one eye on the clock
And I know I can guttle
When I hear my shuttle go
Poverty, poverty knock

For other versions of ‘Poverty Knock’, included extended lyrics, see the ever-wonderful Mainly Norfolk website. You’ll find this song’s entry by clicking here.

Main image by Lewis Hine, 1909. Reproduced via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-108765]

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