Mudcat Café message #2587810 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #118593   Message #2587810
Posted By: Jim Carroll
13-Mar-09 - 04:45 AM
Thread Name: Folklore: Gallows Humour-laughing at death/disease
Subject: RE: Folklore: Gallows Humor-laughing at death/disease
I'm with Joe on re-opening this fascinating subject.
Our song repertoire is full of songs which cock a snook at death; there is a whole genre of them, sometimes referred to as goodnight ballads; true confessions sold at the foot of the gallows at public hangings.
It was once claimed by Bert Lloyd that the name appeared in one of Daniel Defoe's works; 'A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain (??? - I've never been able to find the reference) and referred to the practice of the crowd watching a hanging shouting 'Goodnight' as the noose tightened round the subject's neck.

MacColl and Charles Parker, when they were recording actuality for The Radio Ballad (just typed 'radion ballad' - Freudan slip?), The Big Hewer' commented on the number of stories and jokes referring to death in what was the extremely dangerous mining industry.
Some examples; the first from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library cassette of traditional storytelling '.....and That's My Story'

Dick Beamish, Pontypridd (?), Glamorgan, Wales

Well, you see the miner's life is a mixture, like it is in every other phase of life, a mixture of tragedy and humour; and I don't think you'll find anywhere where humour is richer in character than it is in our industry. Here's a story of the three old miners who had retired. One was well over seventy, the other one was eighty some odd and the oldest was ninety-six. And they were in the eventide of their life; summertime, sitting on the council seat enjoying the sunshine, watching the traffic going back and fore, and they suddenly discussed how they'd like to die.
The youngest, now, of the trio was well over seventy. He said, "Well boys bach," he said, "I've been watching these red sport cars," he said, "that these youngsters have got, travelling back and fore," he said. "I don't know nothing about cars," he said, "but I'd like to get into one of those," he said, "rev up," he said, "that's what I think they call it; sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour, bang into a lamp post, everything at an end," he said. "That's the way I'd like to die."
"What about you, John?" he said, now, the one who was over eighty, now, the second oldest of the trio.
"Well, boys," he said, "I'm a bit more modern than you are," he said. "I've been reading about these sputniks. I would like to volunteer to go into one of those sputniks," he said. "They tell me they go up into the sky, thousands of miles," he said. "I'd like to be up there," he said, "ten thousand miles up, something go wrong with the works, explosion, everything finished; that's the way I would like to go out," he said.
Now the oldest of the trio of these old miners, he was ninety-six. So they said to him, "You're silent, Robert; haven't you got some suggestion how you would like to die?"
"Ha, boys," he said, "I've been listening to you two here. Do you know the way I'd like to go out?" he said.
"No, Robert, which way would you like to die?"
"Well, boys, bach, to tell you the truth," he said, "I'd like to be shot by a jealous husband!"

Recorded by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, 1961

The second, from memory, also recorded in 1961, probably from a member of the Elliot Family of Birtly, Co Durham.

A miner called at his mate's house one Sunday morning to see if he would go down to the pub.
His mate's wife answered the door and he said; "Is Fred coming for a pint".
The lady replied, "I'm afraid Fred died suddenly last night".
Stunned, he said, "What happened missus?"
"Well, he was in the garden pulling a head of cabbage for the dinner when he had a heart attack and died".
"That's terrible hinny, what did you do?"
"What could I do; I had to open a tin of peas".

There were several stories of Bevan Boys (unemployed youths assigned to the mines by the Labour Exchange, therefore extremely inexperienced at and uncommitted to the work).
It was the practice following a death in the mine, that the whole pit should be closed down for a day as a mark of respect. Following a pit fall, two Bevan boys were sent into the mine to search for bodies.
On finding two corpses, one said to the other; "Let's take one up to the surface and save the other one for another day".

Ewan and Charles said they recorded dozens of stories like this, mostly about either death or 'black lung' (pneumoconiosis)
Jim Carroll