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John Ball

[Sydney Carter]

John Kirkpatrick and Sydney Carter sang the latter’s song John Ball in 1981 on the Plant Life LP Lovely in the Dances: Songs of Sydney Carter.

Dave Webber sang John Ball in 1993 on his and Anni Fentiman’s album Together Solo. They noted:

This character from English History was a radical Priest and was imprisoned for his incitement of the people leading up to the Peasants Revolt in 1381.

The “Waterdaughters” (Lal Waterson and her daughter Maria, and Norma Waterson and her daughter Eliza Carthy) recorded Sydney Carter’s carol John Ball in 1998. It was included as a bonus track on the CD re-release of A True Hearted Girl and in 2004 on the Watersons’ 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song. This may well be Lal Waterson’s last published recording.

Bob Hudson notes:

Sydney Carter, best known for having written the lyrics to Lord of the Dance, wrote John Ball in 1981 to commemorate the six hundredth anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt (1381; also called “Wat Tyler’s Rebellion”). John Ball himself was a priest who found in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English new hope for an egalitarian England. [Note. Both Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana and the Chronicon Angliae claim that John Ball, priest, taught the “perverted doctrine” (perversa dogmata) and the “false ravings” (insanias falsas) of John Wyclif, whom Walsingham elsewhere describes as “vetus hypocrita, angelus Sathanae, antichristi praeambulans” (an old hypocrite, Satan’s angel, a walking antichrist) as well as a heretic with “dampnatas opiniones.” See Chronicon Angliae, ed. E. M. Thompson (Rolls Series 64, 1874), p. 281; Historia Anglicana, ed. H. T. Riley (Rolls Series 28.1), 2:32. For another setting of this theme, see the moral lyric beginning “When adam delf & eue span, spir, if thou wil spede” from Cambridge Univ. MS Dd. 5. 64, III (fols. 35v-36r), as printed in Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century, ed. Carleton Brown and rev. G. V. Smithers, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957), pp. 96-97; Index § 3921. The theme is proverbial. See Whiting, Proverbs, § A38.] Some modern scholars claim that the few fragments of John Ball’s verse that survive are, in fact, the first flowering of political poetry and protest song in English. He is, in a sense, the direct literary ancestor of such modern figures as Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsberg, Ewan MacColl, and Bob Dylan. Ball’s most famous poetic assertion, referred to in Carter’s song, is:

Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span,
Wo was thanne a gentilman?

[When Adam dug, and Eve spun,
Who was then the gentleman?]

[Note: Walsingham and especially Froissart describe how Ball preached egalitarian doctrine.]

The implication here, of course, is that the existence of a landed gentry and a noble class have no justification in Scripture and should be overthrown. Ball was executed in 1381 for his efforts in behalf of English working people, and he has since become something of a folk hero. Victorian poet and artist William Morris wrote a story called “The Dream of John Ball” that used Ball as a focal point for Morris’s own intense socialism.

Mark Olson sang John Ball in 2007 on Migrating Bird: The Songs of Lal Waterson.

Grace Notes (Maggie Boyle, Lynda Hardcastle, and Helen Hockenhull) sang John Ball in 2001 on their Fellside CD Anchored to the Time. Lynda Hardcastle noted:

I found this Sydney Carter song in a children’s music book (Tinderbox, A&C Black) during a concerted effort to find something more up-tempo. John Ball was a priest and one of the leaders in the Peasant’s Revolt in the 14th century. He preached common property, equality and the extermination of the nobility(!). All men, he said, originated from Adam and Eve. He is quoted as saying “When Adam delf and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” John Ball was imprisoned, excommunicated and finally hanged in 1381. Sydney Carter has written a number of rousing songs and when we tested this at our local folk club (The Famous Bacca Pipes in Keighley) the great chorus singers there certainly raised the rafters.

This video show Grace Notes singing John Ball at the Ram Club, Thames Ditton, Surrey in February 2011:

Danny Spooner sang John Ball on his 2008 CD Brave Bold Boys. He noted:

John Ball was written in 1981 by Sydney Carter to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381. John Ball was a priest and follower of Wycliffe, in whom he saw the hope of an egalitarian England. Ball was accused of “perversa dogmata and insanias falsas” (perverse doctrine and false ravings). His studies of Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible had led him to believe that nowhere did it advocate monarchy or aristocracy. He was imprisoned for preaching these ideas but was released by the peasants as they marched on London. Unfortunately, the rebellion was defeated and John Ball died for his beliefs. His attitude towards a hierarchical nobility was summed up in a beautiful couplet which he wrote:

When Adam dalf, and Eve span,
Wo was thann a gentleman?

Chris Wood and Karine Polwart sang John Ball in 2008 on Wood’s CD Trespasser and on his anthology Albion.

Jon Boden sang John Ball as the 22 January 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

The Melrose Quartet (Nancy Kerr, James Fagan, and Jess and Rich Arrowsmith) sang John Ball live at the Cheltenham Folk Festival in February 2011. this recording was included in November 2011 on their EP Live at Cheltenham. This video shows another live performance, at the Met Main Stage at the Homegrown Festival in Bury in November 2014:

The choir Freshly Ground sang John Ball in 2013 on their WildGoose CD The Good Red Earth. Issy Emeney noted:

Written in 1981 by Sydney Carter to commemorate 600 years since the Peasant’s Revolt. John Ball was a priest and leader in the rebellion, and suffered the standard fate—he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Sound Tradition sang John Ball in 2014 on their CD Blackbird. They commented in their liner notes:

John Ball was a 14th century hedge priest (a roving preacher). Seen as a major threat to the establishment, Ball’s striving for social equality and reforms in Western Christianity was rewarded by his execution in 1381. This song, written in 1981 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, is taken from his most well-known text, John Ball’s Sermon Theme: “When Adam dalf and Eve span, Who was thane a gentilman?”

And this video shows Ange Hardy and Steve Pledger singing John Ball at Upton Village Hall in November 2014 with a very cheeky last verse:


Sorry, I can't show the lyrics here as I don't have the copyright owners' permission to publish them. But please feel free and ask me to send you the song's lyrics.


Thanks to Bob Hudson for the extensive notes.