logo Enthusiasms No 72
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The Song of the Plough

Ralph Bates (1899 - 2000)

For the past two or three years I have been reading the works of the Swindon-born writer Ralph Bates.  I have been researching his life and, in the process, have completed a short book about this remarkable, but relatively unknown, man.1

Ralph Bates spent the first thirty years of his life working in the Great Western Railway factory in Swindon, the same factory where the song collector Alfred Williams had also worked.  I am sure that Ralph must have read Williams's book Life in a Railway Factory, which is a highly critical account of early 20th century factory life.  In the 1920s Ralph began associating with members of the Communist Party and became a close friend of Harry Pollitt, who was to become the Party's Secretary General.

In 1930 Ralph Bates left England and went to live in Spain.  He wanted to become a writer but had to first earn a living doing whatever jobs he could find.  He was variously an electrician, an organ repairer (he had learnt to play the church organ while at school in Swindon), a Pyrenean guide, a fisherman and a union organiser in the Barcelona docks.  His first book, Sierra, a collection of short stories about rural life in Spain appeared in 1933.  Two other books followed in 1934.  These were Lean Men: An Episode in a Life, a semi-autobiographical novel which tells of a Comintern official working in the docks of Catalonia, and a biography of Franz Schubert.  Ralph Bates's best-known book, The Olive Field, appeared in 1936, just prior to the start of the Spanish Civil War.  Ralph fought in the Republican International Brigade, before becoming a Political Commissar who was sent to America, Canada and Mexico on fund-raising missions.  At the end of the war he travelled to Mexico, before settling in New York.  In 1946 Ralph Bates became a Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at New York University, a post which he held until he retired twenty years later.  In the early 1950s he was called in front of the now-infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Like Pete Seeger, and many others, he refused to testify or 'name names'.  Ralph continued to write and, in all, produced ten books and almost three hundred articles, reviews and polemics.  He died in New York in 2000, aged 101 years.

Why should I be mentioning this in a magazine that is devoted to traditional music?  Well, sometime around 1930 - 31 Ralph encountered a Spanish ploughman who sang a piece which Ralph described as coming from "the Middle Ages".  This was The Song of the Plough.  The song may be related to a group of Spanish songs known as saetas, songs that lament the death of Christ.  They are often sung at Easter time when statues of Christ and his mother are carried through the streets of Spain.  One outstanding saeta performance was captured in Seville by Radio Nacional, of Madrid, and can be heard on the Rounder CD The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler (CD 1700).

In the introduction to Claude Cockburn's book Reporter in Spain (Cockburn uses the pseudonym "Frank Pitcairn"), published in October, 1936, Ralph Bates writes:

Ralph used this song to form the basis of Chapter 2 in his novel The Olive Field, published in March, 1936.  In the novel the song, which is being sung in the fields by a ploughman, can be heard by people attending a nearby indoor meeting.  Here is a short extract: Ralph Bates compares the song, which deals with Christ's passion, with that of the suffering of the ploughman and his people.  The song becomes a symbol for the people's suffering and not just for the suffering of Christ.  Bates's use of the olive tree in the book's title, The Olive Field, is also symbolic: In August, 1936, Ralph Bates received a letter from Rolfe Arnold Scott-James (1878 - 1959), a close friend of Wyndham Lewis, who, in 1934 became the editor of the London Mercury magazine.  The letter asked if Ralph could write an article for the London Mercury and his piece, 'Spanish Improvisation', was published in the November, 1936, issue (London Mercury XXXV, 205, 23 - 29).  The article includes a lengthy passage outlining the exact circumstances in which Ralph came to hear The Song of the Plough, and just what the song meant to him and to the singer.  I think that this passage contains one of the best descriptions ever made of just what it is to be a traditional singer.  Here is a man who does not simply sing his songs; but, rather, here is a man who has lived and experienced his songs throughout his life.  The songs are not external appendages to the singer, but are truly an integral part of the man: Ralph Bates was not a folklorist, although he was a classically-trained musician.  And he did have some knowledge of English folk tunes.  In another semi-autobiographical novel, The Dolphin in the Wood which is set in north Wiltshire, he mentions playing such tunes as Sir Roger de Coverley, Black Jack, Sellinger's Round, Rufty-Tufty and Goddesses, as well as the moralistic piece Man's Life's a Vapour, Full of Woes.5  Ralph Bates was a man who set out to consciously know Spain and its people.  He was not interested in the 'idealised' picture that Spain's rulers were then trying to promote.  As he said: What a pity that Ralph Bates was not also a trained folklorist.  Had he been so then one can only guess what other gems he might have unearthed from amongst those vast cordilleras or red choking plains.

Mike Yates - 14.7.14



Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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