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Country Hirings

[ Roud 12510 ; Ballad Index JRUI033 ; Bodleian Roud 12510 ; trad.]

Paul and Linda Adams sang Country Hirings in 1976 as the title track of their Sweet Folk and Country album of songs of Cumbria and the Border, Country Hirings. They noted:

Hiring fairs were held in most rural towns. Twice a year (usually Whitsuntide and Martinmas) farm workers would go to a fair and hire themselves out (known as feeing in Scotland) for the coming months. The actual day might vary, Carlisle’s, for example, was Whit Saturday whilst Penrith’s was the following Tuesday. After bargaining over wages the farmer would give his new employee some token money, a Godspenny (called Yarl shilling in the north) to bind the agreement. In 1829 a worker in Cumberland or Westmorland averaged 12/6d per week against 6/9d in Dorset or Wiltshire. The fairs were an excuse for a good time and in 1834 at Kendal such activities as racing, wrestling, cockfighting, dancing, fiddling and fighting were reported. As a means of securing employment the Hiring Fair declined rapidly in the 20th Century and when a Hiring was held at Carlisle in 1949 very few men offered themselves. Many fairs still exist today, but they are purely pleasure fairs. Cockermouth Fair is the subject of a local song and also the basis for Cumbrian author Melvyn Bragg’s novel The Hired Man.

This song came to us from Roy Palmer who obtained it from a collection of Harkness Broadsheets.

Granny’s Attic sang Country Hirings in 2016 on their WildGoose album Off the Land. They noted:

We learnt this one from Roy Palmer’s collection, The Painful Plough. The words are from a broadside printed by Harkness of Preston, and the tune is The Painful Plough from Sabine Baring-Gould’s Songs of the West. Up until the early twentieth century, labourers went to hiring fairs to find employment. As a result of the ongoing enclosures, farmers became more managers and employers rather than sharing the work of their men, often resulting in the labourers shouldering a disproportionate share of any burdens as described in this song. Whilst there may be fewer people earning their living off the land today, this is by no means an unfamiliar situation.


Granny’s Attic sing Country Hirings

Come all you bold young country lads and listen unto me,
And if I do but tell the truth, I know you will agree.
And it’s of the jolly farmers who servants want to have,
For to maintain them in their pride and be to them a slave.

Chorus (after each verse):
Stand up for wages, servant men, to the hirings when you go,
For we must work all sorts of weather, in cold and wet and snow.

Oh, the farmer and his wife in bed so snug and warm can lie,
While we must face the weather, both cold and wet and dry.
For the rents they are so heavy and the taxes they are high
We must pull down the wages, oh the farmer he does cry.

Oh, the farmers, twenty years ago, could rents and taxes pay,
But now their pride is very high, and increases every day,
Which makes the landlords raise the rent and the farmers for to scold
All on the poor young servant lad and rob him of his gold.

Oh, the farmer and the servants they together used to dine,
But now they’re in the parlour with their pudding, beef and wine,
The master and the mistress, boys, their family all alone,
And they will eat the beef, my boys, while we may pick the bone.

The farmers’ daughters used to dress both neat and plain and brown,
But now with bustles, furbelows and flounces to their gowns
They do get dressed like dandy Bess, more fitter for the stage,
Which makes the landlords raise the rents and put them in a rage.

The description of our living, boys, I’m sure it is the worst,
We have coarse brown bread, rye pudding, oh, and a mouldy old pie crust,
While all the masters they do live as you shall understand
On butter and eggs, good cheese, my lads, and the fat from off the land.