“Don’t be like me and ill-treat your servants…”
Harry Cox of Catfield, Norfolk, one of Britain’s foremost traditional singers, recorded “Come All You Men Throughout this Nation” for folk song enthusiast Mervyn Plunkett at the latter’s home in Cambridgeshire on October 10, 1959. I can find no evidence that the recording was released formally until the epic 1998 Voice of the People Series, so it would be a mistake to assume it had direct influence on recordings made during the Folk Revival. What it does give us, however, is a clear sense of one style in the traditional singing of this ballad in East Anglia, though it is of the older / longer stripe than what Williams collected. He’d been singing this one for awhile. Cox had indeed provided a version to E.J. Moeran in 1921, the tune for which he published without lyrics in the Journal of the Folk Song Society the following year. This is presumably a reasonable facsimile.
The other key performance to hear before we move on was certainly most first-generation folk revivalists’ introduction to this song, A.L. Lloyd’s 1956 recording first released on Topic Records’ The Singing Sailor and re-released many times since.
Lloyd, one of the co-founders of Topic Records, was no local traditional British singer, though he’d seen plenty of labor in his younger days, including a stint on a whaling ship. His passion was folk music. He was ardently left-wing, and certainly understood and nurtured the relationship between the music he loved and his politics; but his understanding of it all was nuanced, as we can see in this recorded interview. In short, though recording “The Cruel Ship’s Captain” in 1956 Britain could reasonably be seen as a post-war proletarian call to class consciousness, it’s not clear at all without more evidence that Lloyd and his collaborators were going strictly for that sort of understanding. Still, Lloyd made a choice for some reason to exclude the ‘gallows’ part of the confession, stopping with the murder itself and thus leaving the listener in utter disgust without any sort of moral resolution.
Dave Van Ronk’s politics were as well decidedly left-wing, in an anti-party line sort of way, but he rarely chose to sing songs with an overtly political message. As he wrote in The Mayor of MacDougal Street:
I was always ready to go to a rally or a demonstration or a benefit for this, that, or the other cause, and to sing my songs, but I did very little political material. It did not suit my style, and I never felt that I did it convincingly. I just did not have that kind of voice or that kind of presence. Also, although I am a singer and have always had strong political views, I felt that my politics were no more relevant to my music than they would have been to the work of any other craftsman. Just because you are a cabinetmaker and a leftist, are you supposed to make left-wing cabinets?
It turns out the reason for recording the old ballad for Inside Dave Van Ronk was part of what really was an economic act, not a political one. Having fulfilled his contract with Prestige records, Dave found himself in the position of needing their permission to record another song that he’d recently waxed for their label. The record company would only give the nod if Van Ronk recorded one more album for them under the old terms of his contract.
I had to agree to that, but I did not want to do another selection of things I was playing in my regular shows, because I was aware that the market was limited and I did not want to slice that pie too many ways. So I pulled together a bunch of old ballads and a couple of music hall songs I had learned from my grandmother, material that I sang for my own amusement or sitting around with friends but that I rarely performed publicly, and I walked into the studio with an autoharp, a dulcimer, a banjo, a twelve-string guitar— if I’d had marimbas, I would have played marimbas. They called the album Inside Dave Van Ronk, and I was actually pretty happy with it, though I was never tempted to take that show on the road— just the idea of carrying all those instruments around to gigs was ridiculous.