Five Questions: Kate Horgan on the Politics of Songs

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Kate Horgan - Politics of Songs

Kate Horgan currently works as a Hansard editor at the Parliament of Australia in Canberra.  In 2012, she completed her PhD at the Australian National University, submitting a thesis on the politics and song in the eighteenth century.  Her doctoral work forms the basis for her first monograph, The Politics of Songs in Eighteenth-Century Britain, 1723–1795, which was published in May by Pickering & Chatto and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first encounter eighteenth-century songs?

It occurred to me that my first encounter with eighteenth-century songs probably began without me realising it.  Like most Australian children, in addition to the Australian national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair’, our continued connection with Britain and the monarchy has meant that ‘God Save the Queen’ has also a been part of my song consciousness; a song with a long history, but which really originated as we know it in the mid-eighteenth century.  I lined up on the street of my home town of Ballarat, Victoria with thousands of other primary school children when Charles and Diana visited Australia in 1983, and no doubt it featured heavily at this time, so this may well have been my first encounter!

When I began my PhD studies at the Australian National University, I was very fortunate to have Professor Gillian Russell as my supervisor (who is now at the University of Melbourne).  Gillian introduced me to the world of the ephemeral press and the popular songs and balladry in the theatre and politics of the 1790s, when the playing of ‘God Save the King’ at the end of a performance, or its conspicuous absence, was a deeply political act.  I also encountered the amazing Dibdin family early in my research and remember feeling quite overwhelmed by their incredible output of songs and music.  A political song from the 1790s that I examine in detail in the final case study of the book was set to a tune written by Charles Dibdin the elder, which is testament to his ubiquity in the culture and music of this time.

2) Why did you choose the period between 1723 and 1795 as the focus for your study?

These years are the bookends of my study, with 1723 being the year in which volumes one and two of A Collection of Old Ballads was published, a very significant text in eighteenth-century song history.  Volume three of the Collection was published in 1725.  This expensive, calf-bound text was seminal in bringing together popular songs and ballads—material usually found in ephemeral collections of garlands and miscellanies, and distributed as broadsheets—and framing them for an imagined audience of gentlemen collectors.  Its publication marks an important moment in the conception of ‘old ballads’ as the objects of literary contemplation.  The identity of the anonymous compiler of the collection is still a subject of scholarly conjecture.  Thomas Percy would later draw heavily from the Collection in his 1765 anthology of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, a text which had a major influence upon the Romantic poets and the development of English Literature.

I examine the transmission of a particular song, ‘The Princely Song of Richard Coeur De Lion’ into the Collection, and beyond.  The related legend of Richard the Lionheart and the singing of his faithful minstrel Blondel, which eventually led to the King’s identification and freedom from imprisonment, also becomes significant as a royalist anthem in the context of the French Revolution and it grabbed my imagination as a way of understanding the power of songs at this time.

The study concludes by examining political songs in the revolutionary context in Britain, with a particular focus on Sheffield.  In 1795, James Montgomery, printer of the Sheffield newspaper the Iris and an aspiring poet, was imprisoned for printing a political song that originated in Ireland and expressed support for the French revolution.  Leading up to this, were the trials of the ‘Scottish martyrs’ and the 1794 London treason trials, which were part of a crackdown by the government against those groups advocating for the reform of the political system through universal male enfranchisement and annual parliaments—groups such as the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information and the London Corresponding Society.  My study looks at the role of songs as evidence in these trials as a precursor to Montgomery’s fate.

3) In what ways did politicised ballads and hymns help to shape British culture during this period?

Songs were an incredibly important media of the eighteenth century, shaping culture through their ability to spread information such as news, opinion, gossip, smut and political ideas.  During the 1790s, songs were a particularly potent form of political expression because through singing, ideas and slogans could be disseminated to all sections of society.  The ‘lower orders’ could be exposed to perceived dangerous ideas very easily through singing, which was not dependent upon literacy or a large amount of capital (necessary for the purchase of books).  The power of songs also lay in the malleability of tunes and the setting of political lyrics to well-known tunes.  This is evident through the political songs that emerged following Thomas Paine’s publication of The Rights of Man, some of which are highlighted in my book.  In Sheffield, for example, local songwriter Joseph Mather sang ‘God Save Great Thomas Paine’ to the tune of ‘God Save the King’, while in London, the printer Robert Hawes produced songs titled ‘Rights of Man’ to the tune of ‘Hearts of Oak’ from his Constitutional Liberty Press and sold ‘six a penny’.  My study also examines the politicised use of the hundredth psalm, known as the ‘old hundredth’, a song which had the status of a national anthem in the eighteenth-century alongside ‘God Save the King’.  James Montgomery wrote an anti-war song to the tune of the hundredth psalm in 1794, which was a deeply subversive act.  Songs and tunes such as these were put to constant use in defining and contesting the ideas of the nation during the eighteenth century.  This has been overshadowed, however, by romantic conceptions of balladry which emphasise their timeless and apolitical qualities.

4) How did you come to select the case studies you focus on in your four chapters?

In terms of the final and largest case study which deals with radical Sheffield and the trial of James Montgomery, at times I felt like it selected me.  That sounds romanticised, but it captures the feeling I had, at times, of being utterly immersed and captivated by the archival material.  Early on in my research I came across the manuscript ‘Reminiscences’ of Winifred Gales’, in which she gives an account of her family’s time in Sheffield before they were forced to flee to America to escape prosecution for their political views.  Her husband, Joseph Gales, was the proprietor and printer of the Sheffield Register, an innovative newspaper open in its support for the ideas of Thomas Paine.  Gales was also busy printing cheap copies of Paine’s Rights of Man and other politically inflammatory publications.  He came to employ a protégé in the young James Montgomery, who remained in Sheffield following the Gales’s departure and continued to run the newspaper which he renamed the Iris.  Montgomery was targeted by the authorities and punished for his political views and those of his predecessor.  His trial for printing a political song is discussed in the final case study.  It became a bit of an obsession to try and piece together the personal relationships and network around the Gales family in Sheffield and the political songs that enveloped them.  After laboriously transcribing Winifred Gales’s memoir, which was only available on microfilm at that time (it has subsequently been digitised), and spending hours in the Sheffield archives immersed in the correspondence of Gales and Montgomery, I began to feel close to these people.  It was a privilege, and a very humbling experience, to be privy to their courage, fears and suffering for the kinds of political rights which are taken for granted in democracies today.

The other case studies emerged gradually over time, but they were all born of a desire to create a narrative of interconnections that would flow through the study.  I was led to the examination of the old hundredth psalm, for example, through Montgomery’s use of its tune in his anti-war hymn.  I wanted to give a sense of the resonances and complex meanings of the songs across the different contexts in which I found them so that the study would cohere as a whole.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am working to develop a project that examines songs in mid-nineteenth century Australia, with a particular emphasis upon Irish songs.  In exploring the trial of James Montgomery, I traced the song for which he was imprisoned to the United Irishmen, so the transmission of Irish political songs has emerged as a focus of interest for me following publication of The Politics of Songs.  In the middle of this year I spent some time exploring the Irish Studies Collection at the St Mary’s College and Newman Academic Centre at the University of Melbourne.  I’m particularly interested in the figure of Charles Gavan Duffy who immigrated to Australia in 1855 after being heavily involved in the movement for repeal of the union.  Duffy was a songwriter and ballad editor who, like the United Irishmen before him, deliberately harnessed the power of songs to build cultural nationalism in the pages of the newspaper he edited and co-founded, The Nation.  In Australia he rose to become the Premier of the state of Victoria.

I also have an interest in the history of parliamentary reporting and Hansard.  During the research for the book I really enjoyed delving into the parliamentary debates and William Cobbett’s Political Register.  I am currently working as a Hansard editor at the Parliament of Australia and am looking forward to future academic research into the history and print culture of Hansard.