Enthusiasms No 72
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
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:
His wavering voice declared:
And I shall tell forth
The mysteries of Christ's Passion.
"We are poor farmers and we work no more than the lands you can see around the house. My father, when he was a young man, was forced to leave home because there were too many for one holding to support. Then, upon his return, he took over the land and married, hoping, as all fools hope, to live in peace with his wife and children, to gain their bread." He coughed once or twice, and paused to compose himself. Upon the field of the Well the father was heard glozing his song to the same beautiful melody:
And in the night before he was betrayed
Jesus took bread and broke it in pieces
The father broke off his song to urge on the donkey. "Burra, step out, step out, burra. Ay!" Down the length of the field came Pascual's voice:
I shall sing the plow
And all its parts.
And again the urging cry, this time to the mule. And as the son went on they heard to the melody of the ploughing song the words:
And an angel came to him, with the chalice
Of his passion, in Gethsemane, in that garden.
"A little more plough and a lot less passion would suit me better," exclaimed Pascual's son Mudarra.3
It was that man who sang "I shall sing the plough and all its parts," and he went on "and I shall tell forth the mysteries of Christ's passion". I have never attempted to translate that song with care, because the very coupling of those two symbols of pain, the riving plough and the Passion, is too profound in itself to need the dressing of ordered words. But there is a blackness in the song that often I shrink from; I felt it as the song was thrust out of the thin-lipped hole in that sun-cracked skull. The plough that should have been fruitful, that tears the earth as birth tears the flesh of woman, had brought him nothing but starvation. He will sing the plough and the parts of it, which are also mysteries and which can be named beside the Passion of Christ. He lived in despair of his plough, and he coupled it with the Passion. Can any night of the soul be so black to a Christian man as that singing disclosed? Defeated things, useless things, the plough that does not yield and the Passion that has no salvation.
Do not talk to me of his piety, nor of his faith. I know the significance of the song; is there any other land in the world where the life of the tiller could be compared with Gethsemane? Perhaps only where the ruinous blight of this 'Spanish tradition' has touched.
The ploughman at Navalonguilla, I happen to know, was a revolutionary. That night he took hold of the shotgun and swore he would give his life to exterminate - he used that verb - the men who owned those lands. Navalonguilla is on the other side of these defence lines, across a white crest of the Gredos hills. I suppose he is dead now, because he would certainly have tried to defend the Republic with a shotgun against these Capronis and Yunkers which nightly raid us.
Mike Yates - 14.7.14
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