Jon says, “I’m told this is a quite well known song but I only came across it last year as the first track on Sam Sweeney and Hannah James’s brilliant first duo album. I’m not aware of any other English folk songs that describe life inside, although writing this I am reminded of The Auld Triangle, which I should probaby record at some point.”
Bert Lloyd and Martin Carthy also make the point about the comparative scarcity of prison songs in the English tradition too as you’ll see here at Mainly Norfolk. I’ll add the bleakly humorous Durham Gaol (Dorham Jail) from the pen of the pitman-poet, Tommy Armstrong to be found on Megson’s excellent Smoke Of Home. Martin has recorded this several times over and there’s next to no difference between his and Bert’s versions, although both would have taken it from The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs, being collected by Henry Hammond in Dorset. This seems to have a first-hand knowledge about it, although I have read that prisoners on the treadmill were frequently observed and jeered at by crowds of onlookers, so others would have known what the prisoners’ lives were like. The appearance of the word ‘skilly,’ however, (also found in Durham Gaol), a sort of porridge and meat concoction, which is described as “sometimes thick and sometimes thin” is possibly telling in its detail. Just while we are at it, the treadmill was used right into the early C20th, having been introduced in Britain in 1817, designed by Sir William Cubitt, in response to the inactivity of prisoners. I’ve also read somewhere that the time spent on one would equate to an 11,000ft climb every day. Hard labour indeed. In some cases, as with the similar but flat treadwheel and the hand crank, the effort was entirely unproductive, as prevailing labour trends simply couldn’t accommodate prisoners working at the expense of others. Anyway, here’s hoping our man has learnt his lesson!! And thanks to Hannah and Sam, there’s a nice bonus for you too.
Hannah James & Sam Sweeney Bonus track