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Bonzer Words!: Dobby Loom To Zimmer Frame

"Power Loom weaving started in Northern England in the 1830s. The workers, predominantly woman and boys, slaved long hours and gained little pay for their piecework. The equipment was dangerous, serious injury common. The spectre of no work, no pay, food or shelter haunted workers lives,'' writes Dermott Ryder, introducing the song “Poverty, Poverty Knock”.

It is reasonable to conjecture that the song “Poverty, Poverty Knock” gained currency in the middle to late nineteenth century. First collected in the early twentieth century, it is a forceful criticism of a period of exploitation – and of the ruling classes.

Eventually, after coming to the attention of folksong collectors and afterwards finding favour in the folk revival repertory of the 1960s, it became a song of social awareness – as a song of struggle and protest. This was an attribute greatly valued by the duffel-coated undergrads, and others, of the period. They all loved to sing about poverty and hardship as long as it didn’t trouble them directly. Both song and poverty have survived into the twenty-first century.

The song, possibly carried by a ten-pound tourist, came to Australia. The patriarchal, and occasionally irascible, Mike Eves of the Friday and Saturday night Sydney Folk Song Club, at the Hotel Elizabeth, near Hyde Park in Sydney, in the early nineteen seventies, had this power loom weavers lament in his repertoire. He sang it often and if for some reason he didn’t sing it for a while someone always requested it.

The working sound of the Dobby Loom provides the “Poverty, Poverty Knock” verse to start and end the song – or be inserted, at will, as chorus.

Poverty, poverty knock,
me loom it is saying all day.
Poverty, poverty knock,
gaffer’s too skinny to pay.
Poverty, poverty knock,
keeping an eye on the clock,
well I know I can guttle,
when I hears me shuttle
go poverty, poverty knock.
Up every morning at five
it’s a wonder we keep alive,
tired and yawning in the cold morning,
it’s back to that dreary old drive.
Oh dear, we’re going to be late
and the Gaffer is stood at the gate,
we’re out of pocket, our wages he’ll dock it,
We’ll have to buy grub on the slate.
Then when our wages they bring,
we’re often short of a string,
and while we’re fratchin’
with gaffer for snatchin’,
we know to his brass he will cling.
We have to wet our own yarn
by dipping it into the tarn,
it’s wet and soggy and makes us feel groggy,
there’s mice in that dirty old barn.
Oh dear, me poor head it sings,
I should have woven three strings.
Threads they are breaking
and my back is aching,
oh, how I wish I had wings.
Sometimes a shuttle flies out
And gives some poor woman a clout.
Oh, there she lies bleeding
but no bugger’s heeding,
who’s going to carry her out?
Tuner should tackle me loom,
But he’d rather sit on his bum,
he is far too busy a’ courting our Lizzie
and I cannot get him to come.
Our Lizzie is easy led.
I think that he takes her to bed.
For once she was skinny,
now look at her pinny,
it’s just about the time they were wed.

This old song still has something to say about the exploitation of the working poor. Little, it seems, has changed in the intervening years between the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century and the High Tech Revolution of the early twenty-first century.

Take the exploitation of garment industry outworkers – or of overseas students – as working examples. Is there a parallel here between the abuses of nineteenth century Northern England and the home-based piecework sweatshops and shonky colleges of twenty-first century Australia? There could be. Now as then, some captains of industry are exploitative and greedy and we the punters at the superstore sales are masters of the expedient truth as we search diligently for bargains.

This 180-year-old chronicle of the working poor is a good song for singing, unaccompanied or with an instrument. It is a survivor because it is as relevant today as it was at the event horizon that created it. And – dare I say it – a few surviving folk revivalists of the mid twentieth century, some of them still duffel-coated undergrads, even now sing “Poverty, Poverty Knock” at sing-a-rounds, song swaps, folk clubs and festivals, accompanied, of course, by a vigorous rattling of Zimmer Frames.

© Dermott Ryder


Dermott writes for Bonzer magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au


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