Still busy and semi-obsessed with the Protest Song workshops we’re running at Brompton Cemetery, I’ve been mulling over in my mind whether it makes any sense at all to look to music-hall for protest songs. The Music Hall was of course first and foremost a place of pure entertainment, “a holiday, a place mainly for joy and laughter” (Walter MacQueen-Pope, Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music Halls), as much an escape in its time from life’s trials and tribulations as has been television, for example, since the 1950s, and therefore the least likely source of politicised song.
And yet its stars nonetheless “sang to the audience about their everyday life, about mother-in-law, the lodger, the woman next door, beer, the public house, the seaside holiday, the landlord, the unpaid rent and the brokers’ men” (Walter MacQueen-Pope, ibid), and even if the harshness of working-class life might be sublimated through humour there was nonetheless pathos. When introducing the song, Chevalier would enter the stage dressed as an elderly Cockney man with his elderly partner. They would head towards a workhouse, whereupon the porter would separate them under the sexual segregation rules. Chevalier’s character would cry out in refusal, “you can’t do this to us; we’ve been together for forty years!” The porter and woman then exited the stage, and Chevalier would begin the song.
The text to one of the Youtube postings of the song sums up the sentiment well:
First sung in 1892, this sentimental ballad would appear to be a celebration of happy marriage. However, the words: “When we’ve to part” refer to the scandalous practices of the workhouses of Victorian times. These establishments were deliberately made unpleasant do deter self imposed poverty & idleness. The culture of the day even blamed the poor & sick old folks for not providing for their retirement, despite the lack of a state pension! Frail old couples would be separated when the workhouse became their only option. Albert Chevallier would sing this on stage, with a backdrop of the workhouse gates, where he had to part from his dear wife. ‘My Old Dutch’ is probably cockney rhyming slang: ‘Duchess of Fyfe’ = Wife
So … is it a protest song? Yep, it’s going to be there in our forthcoming Radio Days book.