London organ-grinding tweets for October 2017

Lukewarm barrel organ-ish ephemera from Hackney, London and thereabouts.

Organ-grinding tweets for August 2017

The latest barrel organ news from Hackney, London.

Sister Mary and the Bird

Translations from Welsh and Yiddish revealing ornithomancy amongst the 19th century north Welsh and Jewish Lithuanians.

I first heard the story of St. Kenneth and the gulls while imbibing algal slime on Gower last week:

One day about A. D. 550 the blackheaded gulls, flying as usual along the coast of Wales, and scanning the sea sharply for food or any- thing else interesting to a gull, found floating in a coracle — a round, wicker work canoe — a human baby a day or two old, contentedly asleep on a pallet made of a folded purple cloth. Several gulls seized the corners of this cloth and so carried the child to the ledge of the Welsh cliff where they nested, plucked feathers from their breasts to make a soft bed, laid the baby on it, then hastened to fly inland and bring a doe to provide it with milk, for which an angel offered a brazen bell as a cup. There the blessed waif lived for several months; but one day, in the absence of all the gulls, a shepherd discovered the infant and took him down to his hut and his kind wife. The gulls, returning from the sea, heard of this act from the doe. They at once rushed to the shepherd’s cottage, again lifted the babe by the corners of its purple blanket, and bore him back to the ledge of their sea-fronting crag. There he stayed until he had grown to manhood — a man full of laughter and singing and kind words; and the Welsh peasants of the Gower Peninsula revered him and called him Saint Kenneth. 1

Tradition has it that the only Welsh understood by living members of my family is “Here is the news in Welsh,” but here’s a bash at the last of several amusing anecdotes told by David Evans of Carmarthen about a mid-19th century north Welsh patrilineal forebear:

Simon Jones used to get awfully angry with superstitious folk who believed in ghosts, corpse candles and birds etc., but once something happened that shook his faith too. His sister Mary was languishing with tuberculosis and he was called home from Sheffield. On reaching Bala it was already late and he had to walk home to Llanuwchlyn through the dense trees on the Llanycil side of the lake. He was into the trees when suddenly, with uncanny accuracy, a big bird flew past and smote the hat from his head. As if this wasn’t unnerving enough, the bird came past again, wailing terribly, and struck off his hat once more. Now he knew this to be a portent of the certain death of his sister. He crept in terror to Lon, where he found his parents praying, and Ap Vychan watching over Mary. He could not refrain from telling Robert Thomas what he had seen and heard on the road, but to avoid hurting his sister Mary he told his tale in English. Mary understood the word “bird”, and she read in the face of her brother an impression of terror in his telling, so she asked Robert Thomas, after Simon Jones had gone out, “What was Simon, my brother, saying to you, Robert, about a ‘bird’?” He judged it better simply to reveal the story to her, but she, like the common people, who thrust disagreeable things, and death in particular, far from them, said, “Oh, ‘right’ sure I am that we’ll hear in the next few days of the death of our sister-in-law in Sheffield.” That woman was indeed quite poorly at the time, but Mary got the first call after all. 2

It is often the case in many parts of the world that birds singing in the dead of night are more explicit in their forecasts than Paul McCartney’s blackbird. From a Hebrew verse by Nathan Zach:

I saw a white bird up in the black night
And knew that time would soon put out the light
Of my eyes in the black night. 3

You will know about the serinette and otherwise named mechanical musical instruments which were used to teach melodies to finches. But you may not be aware of the small birds which, working from on top of larger organs, created an extra revenue stream by selecting fortune cards, which were sometimes accompanied by little prizes in unregulated lotteries. Uriah Katzenelenbogen 4 on Russian imperial Lithuania at the beginning of the 20th century:

Birzh was a center of Jewish organ-grinders, in Birzh referred to as loyerleit, certainly originating from the German word Leierkastnman [barrel organ man]. However, in Birzh the word leierman was not connected to the German word leiern [to crank] (play on a barrel organ), but with loyern [to lie in wait for]–to ransack, to wander.

Near Chanukah, scores and scores of Jews with their organs and with small animals and birds–squirrels, white mice and parrots that would draw slips of paper with fortunes from a box–would set out from Birzh through the villages and cities. Rich organ-grinders even had monkeys, a small bear. They would lay aside their barrel organs, animals and little birds and be middle class like everyone else. They would come home at the time of the Days of Awe when, incidentally, the substantial mud started and it was not easy to wander. On simkhas torah, they would carry the old rabbi to the synagogue and celebrate with the Torah.

The organ-grinders’ wives showed off their large earrings and golden bracelets and colorful wide clothing. I remember these women–with open full faces, but with their sad eyes. Their wandering husbands left them in a more permanent loneliness than the wives whose husbands were in America or Africa. The “American women” and the “African women” hoped that they would soon join their husbands. I think that because of their association with monkeys and exotic birds, jaunty young organ-grinders would leave for [South] Africa and Australia in an easier frame of mind than the other young Birzher men. 5

I have found piglets and parrots performing this work for organ-grinders, but as yet no such anecdote with Simon Jones’ personal charm. Suggestions?

Update: I remember that Andreas Pum, the WWI veteran turned organ-grinder in Joseph Roth’s Die Rebellion, gets a parrot called Ignatz to help him in his last job as toilet attendant. It is precisely what he would have liked previously for his barrel organ—except that it doesn’t tell fortunes. He also has a moving relationship with small birds while imprisoned.


  1. Ernest Ingersoll, Birds in legend, fable and folklore (1923). I also saw my first pair of choughs, or King Arthur and friend pace Ingersoll.
  2. She died, presumably of tuberculosis, in 1837. Simon Jones, perhaps building on the Sheffield connection (cutlery!), later had a shop in Bala, but unfortunately George Borrow only had eyes for the Anglicans when in 1854 (Wild Wales) he stayed at the White Lion at Bala and went to church in Llanuwchllyn.

    Comparison of source and target will reveal that I have adopted common practice among (literary) translators of lonely languages and omitted a phrase that was beyond me—”elai o’i bwyll ar darawiad wrth wrando straeon gwrachïaidd felly, a dywedai, ‘O! yr heu gacen bwci baw.'” I also wonder whether the “religious fellowship” in “Ymlusgodd i’r Lon, a braw arno, a chafodd fod ei rieni yn y gyfeillach grefyddol, ac Ap Vychan yn gwarchod gyda Mary” isn’t more than a way of saying that the parents are praying. And then there are the unknown unknowns. Any assistance gratefully received.

  3. Translation by A.Z. Foreman.
  4. “Cat’s elbows”: perhaps the only way of explaining, in the light of the subsequent enthusiastic collaboration of Lithuanian nationalists with the Nazis, how a Jew could have ever identified with their cause to the extent Uriah did.
  5. JewishGen, in Gloria Berkenstat Freund’s translation.

Yiddish and the Italian Welsh

Daffy-down-dilly has been and fled / Her yellow-green gown all stained in red. Featuring Google Translate’s transliteration service for unfamiliar scripts.

Here’s the Yiddish original of an Abridger’s Confession quoted (and translated) by A.Z. Foreman:

דש דוזיג בוך אין וועלשן שפרוך
דש שרייבט גאר לאנג אין אלן עקן
איך וויל אים ניט מין שרייבן נוך
וויל אויביריגי ווארט לוש איך נוך שטעקן
זוישט וואורד מיר מיין בויכֿלן צו הוך
אונ׳ דיא צייט וואורד מיך דרצו ניט קלעקן
דרום ווער עז הוט גילייט בֿור אך אין וועלשן
מאיין ניט דש איך עש דעהרום וויל ועלשן

I was interested in the literal original and the translation process, but I can’t read Hebrew. here‘s the Google Translation:

Flap doozy book in which entitlement
Flap writing extremely long in aln ends
I wish him no kind writing nukh
Wants aoybirigi word Lush I nukh staff
Cleaner wards me my boykhln to hukh
And Dia times wards me moreover not suffice
South who EZ hat gileyt majority but in which
My not flap I Esche dehrum wants uelshn

A case of madness beating method. But anyone who knows a bit of German should be able to understand Google Translate’s transliteration:

dsh duzig bukh in velshn shfrukh
dsh shreybt gar lang in aln ekn
ikh vil im nit min shreybn nukh
vil aoybirigi vart lush ikh nukh shtekn
zoysht vaurd mir meyn boykhln tsu hukh
aun’ dya tseyt vaurd mikh drtsu nit klekn
drum ver ez hut gileyt vur akh in velshn
meyn nit dsh ikh esh dehrum vil uelshn

One curiosity: Foreman translates velshn/uelshen as “Italian” in line with historical linguistic theory:

*Walhaz … is a reconstructed Proto-Germanic word, meaning “foreigner”, “stranger”, “Roman”, “Romance-speaker”, or “Celtic-speaker”. The term was used by the ancient Germanic peoples to describe inhabitants of the former Western Roman Empire, who were largely romanised and spoke Latin or Celtic languages. The adjectival form is attested in Old Norse valskr, meaning “French”, Old High German walhiskbarrick, meaning “Romance”, Modern German welsch, used in Switzerland and South Tyrol for Romance-speakers, Dutch Waals “Walloon”, Old English welisċ, wælisċ, wilisċ, meaning “Romano-British”, and Modern English Welsh.

However, it is common knowledge here in Bala, Gwynedd, Wales that all other incomprehensible tongues in fact spring from Welsh, in which tongue proto-Calvinistic Methodist dogma was being preached long before the Shemites shtarted shquabbling, and whose speakers have dominated European government for centuries by the subtle use of leeks. A fearsome language and a fearful people, of whose death-dealing daffy-down-dilly Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote:

When a daffodil I see,
Hanging down his head towards me,
Guess I may what I must be:
First, I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I shall be dead;
Lastly, safely burièd.

The Welsh appear in a notorious poem by Ernst Arndt (1769-1860), which on a particularly slow day Mr Foreman might translate as follows:

That is the German fatherland,
Where foreign junk is fiercely banned,
Where every Frenchman is condemned,
Where every German is your friend.
So shall it be! so shall it be!
So shall be all of Germany!

Das ist des Deutschen Vaterland,
Wo Zorn vertilgt den welschen Tand,
Wo jeder Franzmann heißet Feind,
Wo jeder Deutsche heißet Freund.
Das soll es sein! das soll es sein!
Das ganze Deutschland soll es sein!

But this, pace Bala, is actually about the Welsh, not foreigners in general. A precocious talent, Arndt is recalling his attendance, at the age of 18 months, at Cardiff City’s best ever showing in European competition: the second leg of its 3-4 aggregate loss against Hamburger SV in the semi-finals of the 1768 Cup Winners’ Cup:

Why not simply learn Hebrew script? Because I have discovered from overheard conversations in Yiddish that the Stamford Hill Haredim are less interested in world domination than in what’s for tea, so the chance of Hebrew script becoming more widely used and useful seems unacceptably small.

Transvestite barrel organ dancers in 1930s Whitechapel and the 1860s London West End

With acrobats, clowns, and Doris and Thisbe, goddesses of wind.

Dora Lee (1921-), who perhaps wasn’t a Holocaust survivor, 1 talking about life as a young girl in London’s East End:

And then we used to have these buskers. They used to come with a barrel organ. They must have been what we call today transvestites and they would play this barrel organ and dance and do acrobats and things like that, dressed up in the oldest and the shabbiest type of dresses and things like that. The man that played the organ was never dressed … he was dressed in trousers, but the others were all … well, we knew they were men by the look of them and if they saw the police coming they would scoot away, but you gave them a ha’penny and they made quite a collection.

Anyone got a photo of such a troupe? Perhaps more entertaining than Barcelona’s Moorish tumblers:

The police may still have cared about public morality when Dora Lee was young, but this was also the age of Douglas Byng, the great pantomime dame, who appeared on a trapeze singing “I’m Doris the goddess of wind,” and who here sings a little song of spring:

It was also an age before competition from television caused the infantilisation of circus audiences and of white clowns, whose white makeup and black melancholy had given them something of the air of the female impersonators. Here’s Fellini’s white clown saying goodbye to his augusto, accompanied by some rather splendid music and horsing around:

And such shows involving barrel organs were not new. Here’s a back-to-front example from the 1861 diary of Arthur Munby, establishment fetishist of working women:

Home to the Temple at 6 and to [Mudie’s Lending Library]. Coming thence along Oxford Street, I saw before me, striding along in company with an Italian organ-grinder, a tall young man in full Highland costume; wearing a Glengarry bonnet, a scarlet jacket, a sporran and a tartan kilt and stockings, his legs bare from the knee to the calf. It was not a man – it was Madeleine Sinclair the street dancer, whom I used to see in a similar dress a year ago. She and her companion turned into a quiet street, and she danced a Highland fling to his music, in the midst of a curious crowd.

For no one could make out whether she was a man or a woman. Her hair and the set of her hips indeed were feminine; but her hard weather-stained face, her large bony hands, and her tall strong figure, became her male dress so well that opinions about equally divided as to her sex. “It’s a man!” said one, confidently: “I believe that it’s a woman”, another doubtfully replied. One man boldly exclaimed “Of course it’s a man; anybody can see that!” I gave her a sixpence when she came round with her tambourine; and she told me she had been in Paris for five months for pleasure, and was now living on Saffron Hill [i.e. amidst Italian immigrants], and dancing in the streets every day, always wearing her male clothes.

The excerpt is from the most enjoyable A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters.

And then there’s Old Bess, who has probably been banned from Morris dancing along with blackface, and Thisbe aka Flute the Bellows-Mender – pretty close to an organ:

Not to mention the mock queens and virgins of older festivals.

In gathering material about the world of the organ grinder, I’ve certainly been neglecting some non-simian sidekicks. More suggestions most welcome, as always.

I dread to think what would happen to you (m) nowadays if you dressed up as a woman and danced round a barrel organ in the back streets of Whitechapel.


  1. I’m afraid the British Library seems to have made a bit of a mess of the metadata for its sound collection. Another entry has an interesting abstract:

    Fanny Lander talks about her background and family; her father (bricklayer); the buildings he worked on; the school she went to; memories of Scan and Will Tester playing for dances; working in service for an Irish family; dancing at the Servants Ball in the Coach and Horses, Chelwood Gate; changes in the village (Chelwood Gate); farming; memories of organ-player and monkey; local gypsies; Linfield Fair; Brighton man who used to sing outside the post office; Maggie Ridley (school friend); East Grinstead band; Danehill bell ringers; Albert and Walter Lucas; hand bell ringers in Coach and Horses on Boxing Day; how she and her husband housed two evacuee children from Bermondsey during the war; East Grinstead at start of World War 1; more about being in service; closeness between servants and family; songs sung at home; dancing [at this point Reg Hall plays melodeon – see Item Notes]. Will Marten and his sister Mary then join conversation and they all discuss Scan Tester’s family; pub songs; poverty being reflected in the music; Ashdown Forest; changes in farming; comparisons of town and country; moving sheep from Romney Marsh; increase in local traffic; anecdotes about local policeman and cars, 1920s/1930s; anecdote about San Tester’s brother Trayton.

    But, as another part of the metadata indicates, the recording is actually of Bates, Charlie, 1909- (speaker, male), and Wood, Bert, 1890- (speaker, male) talking about something completely different, and Ms Lander is nowhere else to be found.

[:en]Unlucky organ-grinder-ballad-singers[:]

[:en]Kasper Lutz in German (occasionally), nameless in French and English?[:]

[:en]Abraham Moses Tendlau’s German-Jewish proverb collection, Sprichwörter und Redensarten deutsch-jüdischer Vorzeit (1860) evokes Kasper Lutz, a hurdy-gurdy man who, with his barrel organ, 1 visited the great Frankfurt fair with a repertoire of songs of woe:

1030. Nix als Kasper Lutz!
Nichts als Unglück, z. B. “Mer hört jetzt nix als Kasper Lutz! -” (Vergl. 749 [Nix als Schlimm-Massel!]) “Der waaß das ganze Jahr nix zu erzählen als K. L.”, hat seine Freude daran, Unannehmlichkeiten zu berichten. Kasper Lutz war nämlich ein Leyermann, der mit seiner Drehorgel die Frankfurter Messe besuchte und stets nur Unglücksgeschichten absang.

But in the proverbs our singer of schadenfreudes of beasts and beastliness is both messenger and message: like certain rugby referees, and like the anonymous organ-grinder in Madame Bovary, he brings and he also is bad news. Modern partial postmen, smirking black cats for the Inquisition’s flames: the smiling short-seller, the catastrophe communist, and yes, the sadistic postman (a genre you may not wish to google at work, or anywhere)…

Any proverbial candidates comprehensible to an English-speaking audience? I’m not sure that Cassandra works – she may not be much fun, but neither is she having fun – there is no profit motive in her misery:

Woe, woe, woe! O Apollo, O Apollo! … Apollo, Apollo! God of the Ways, my destroyer! Ah, what way is this that you have brought me! To what a house! … a god-hating house, a house that knows many a horrible butchery of kin, a slaughter-house of men and a floor swimming with blood… Behold those babies bewailing their own butchery and their roasted flesh eaten by their father!

And no one apart from you has heard of her anyway. And she hadn’t got a barrel organ.[:]


  1. Sic: form is similar, but function has changed, and cranked musical boxes are confused with one another across Europe.

[:es]¡Carlos Marx condena a los organilleros![:en]Karl Marx condemns organ-grinders![:]

[:es]”vagabundos, licenciados de tropa, licenciados de presidio, huidos de galeras, timadores, saltimbanquis, lazzaroni, carteristas y rateros, jugadores, alcahuetes, dueños de burdeles, mozos de cuerda, escritorzuelos, organilleros, traperos, afiladores, caldereros, mendigos”[:en]”vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars”[:]

[:es]A pesar de que se benefició de ellos, la posición de Trotsky con respecto a los organilleros no queda clara. Marx por otra parte no deja lugar a la duda. Se opuso al golpe populista de Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte de 1851, que restableció el sufragio universal masculino, por lo que reivindicó en El Dieciocho Brumario que el considerable apoyo popular para Bonaparte vino, no del proletariado, sino desde lo que llamó el lumpenproletariado – basicamente, los pobres y obreros que no estaban de acuerdo con él:

Lo mismo que en 1849, durante las vacaciones parlamentarias de este año, el partido del orden se había dispersado en sus distintas fracciones, cada cual ocupada con sus propias intrigas restauradoras, a los que la muerte de Luis Felipe daba nuevo pábulo. El rey de los legitimistas, Enrique V, había llegado incluso a nombrar un ministerio formal, que residía en París y del que formaban parte miembros de la comisión permanente, Bonaparte quedaba, pues, autorizado para emprender a su vez giras por los departamentos franceses y dejar escapar, recatada o abiertamente, según el estado de ánimo de la ciudad a la que regalaba con su presencia, sus propios planes de restauración, reclutando votos para sí. En estas giras, que el gran Moniteur oficial y los pequeños «monitores» privados de Bonaparte, tenían, naturalmente, que celebrar como cruzadas triunfales, le acompañaban constantemente afiliados de la Sociedad del 10 de Diciembre. Esta sociedad data del año 1849. Bajo el pretexto de crear una sociedad de beneficencia, se organizó al lumpemproletariado de París en secciones secretas, cada una de ellas dirigida por agentes bonapartistas y en general bonapartista a la cabeza de todas. Junto a roués arruinados, con equívocos medios de vida y de equívoca procedencia, junto a vástagos degenerados y aventureros de la burguesía, vagabundos, licenciados de tropa, licenciados de presidio, huidos de galeras, timadores, saltimbanquis, lazzaroni, carteristas y rateros, jugadores, alcahuetes, dueños de burdeles, mozos de cuerda, escritorzuelos, organilleros, traperos, afiladores, caldereros, mendigos, en una palabra, toda es masa informe, difusa y errante que los franceses llaman la bohème: con estos elementos, tan afines a él, formó Bonaparte la solera de la Sociedad del 10 de Diciembre, «Sociedad de beneficencia» en cuanto que todos sus componentes sentían, al igual que Bonaparte, la necesidad de beneficiarse a costa de la nación trabajadora. Este Bonaparte, que se erige en jefe del lumpemproletariado, que sólo en éste encuentra reproducidos en masa los intereses, que él personalmente persigue, que reconoce en esta hez, desecho y escoria de todas las clases, la única clase en la que puede apoyarse sin reservas, es el auténtico Bonaparte, el Bonaparte sans phrase. Viejo roué ladino, concibe la vida histórica de los pueblos y los grandes actos de Gobierno y de Estado como una comedia, en el sentido más vulgar de la palabra, como una mascarada, en que los grandes disfraces y los frases y gestos no son más que la careta para ocultar lo más mezquino y miserable. Así, en su expedición a Estrasburgo, el buitre suizo amaestrado desempeñó el papel de águila napoleónica. Para su incursión en Boulogne, embute a unos cuantos lacayos de Londres en uniformes franceses. Ellos representan el ejército. En su Sociedad del 10 de Diciembre, reunió a 10.000 miserables del lumpen, que habían de representar al pueblo, como Nick Bottom representaba el león. En un momento en que la misma burguesía representaba la comedia más completa, pero con la mayor seriedad del mundo, sin faltar a ninguna de las pedantescas condiciones de la etiqueta dramática francesa, y ella misma obraba a medias engañada y a medias convencida de la solemnidad de sus acciones y representaciones dramáticas, tenía que vencer por fuerza el aventurero que tomase lisa y llanamente la comedia como tal comedia. Sólo después de eliminar a su solemne adversario, cuando él mismo toma en serio su papel imperial y cree representar, con su careta napoleónica, al auténtico Napoleón, sólo entonces es víctima de su propia concepción del mundo, el payaso serio que ya no toma a la historia universal por una comedia, sino su comedia por la historia universal. Lo que para los obreros socialistas habían sido los talleres nacionales y para los republicanos burgueses los gardes mobiles, era para Bonaparte la Sociedad del 10 de Diciembre: la fuerza combativa de partido propia de él. Las secciones de esa sociedad, enviadas por grupos a las estaciones debían improvisarle en sus viajes un público, representar el entusiasmo popular, gritar Vive l’Empereur!, insultar y apalear a los republicanos, naturalmente bajo la protección de la policía. En sus viajes de regreso a París, debían formar la vanguardia, adelantarse a las contramanifestaciones o dispersarlas. La Sociedad del 10 de Diciembre le pertenecía a él, era su obra, su idea más primitiva. Todo lo demás de que se apropia se lo da la fuerza de las circunstancias, en todos sus hechos actúan por él las circunstancias o se limita a copiarlo de los hechos de otros; pero Bonaparte que se presenta en público, ante los ciudadanos, con las frases oficiales del orden, la religión, la familia, la propiedad, y detrás de él la sociedad secreta de los Schuftele y los Spielberg, la sociedad del desorden, la prostitución y el robo, es el propio Bonaparte como autor original, y la historia de la Sociedad del 10 de Diciembre es su propia historia.

¿Imágenes más positivas procedentes de otras revoluciones? Si fueras un dictador marxista, ¿nos enviarías al gulag o nos dedicarías una estatua?[:en]Although he benefitted from them, the position of Trotsky with respect to organ-grinders is not clear. Marx on the other hand leaves no room for doubt. He opposed Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s populist 1851 coup, which restored universal male suffrage, so he claimed in The Eighteenth Brumaire that the considerable popular support for Bonaparte came, not from the proletariat, but from what he called the lumpenproletariat – basically, the poor and workers who didn’t agree with him:

As in 1849 so during [1850]’s parliamentary recess — the party of Order had broken up into its separate factions, each occupied with its own restoration intrigues, which had obtained fresh nutriment through the death of Louis Philippe. The Legitimist king, Henry V, had even nominated a formal ministry which resided in Paris and in which members of the Permanent Commission held seats. Bonaparte, in his turn, was therefore entitled to make tours of the French departments, and according to the disposition of the town he favored with his presence, now more or less covertly, now more or less overtly, to divulge his own restoration plans and canvass votes for himself. On these processions, which the great official Moniteur and the little private Moniteurs of Bonaparte naturally had to celebrate as triumphal processions, he was constantly accompanied by persons affiliated with the Society of December 10. This society dates from the year 1849. On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpen proletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10. A “benevolent society” – insofar as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need of benefiting themselves at the expense of the laboring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old, crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade in which the grand costumes, words, and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery. Thus his expedition to Strasbourg, where the trained Swiss vulture played the part of the Napoleonic eagle. For his irruption into Boulogne he puts some London lackeys into French uniforms. They represent the army. In his Society of December 10 he assembles ten thousand rascals who are to play the part of the people as Nick Bottom [A character in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. – Ed.] that of the lion. At a moment when the bourgeoisie itself played the most complete comedy, but in the most serious manner in the world, without infringing any of the pedantic conditions of French dramatic etiquette, and was itself half deceived, half convinced of the solemnity of its own performance of state, the adventurer, who took the comedy as plain comedy, was bound to win. Only when he has eliminated his solemn opponent, when he himself now takes his imperial role seriously and under the Napoleonic mask imagines he is the real Napoleon, does he become the victim of his own conception of the world, the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history. What the national ateliers were for the socialist workers, what the Gardes mobile were for the bourgeois republicans, the Society of December 10 was for Bonaparte, the party fighting force peculiar to him. On his journeys the detachments of this society packing the railways had to improvise a public for him, stage popular enthusiasm, roar Vive l’Empereur, insult and thrash republicans, under police protection, of course. On his return journeys to Paris they had to form the advance guard, forestall counter-demonstrations or disperse them. The Society of December 10 belonged to him, it was his work, his very own idea. Whatever else he appropriates is put into his hands by the force of circumstances; whatever else he does, the circumstances do for him or he is content to copy from the deeds of others. But Bonaparte with official phrases about order, religion, family, and property in public, before the citizens, and with the secret society of the Schufterles and Spiegelbergs, the society of disorder, prostitution, and theft, behind him — that is Bonaparte himself as the original author, and the history of the Society of December 10 is his own history.

More positive images from other revolutions? If you were a Marxist dictator, would you send us to the gulag or dedicate a statue to us?[:]

My top 10 boxing songs

All-star bill featuring Dan Mendoza aka the fighting Jew, manly Victorians, Joe Louis and the Dixieaires at the Battle of Jericho, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Rocky Graziano aka the Maharishi Yoghurt, Bob Dylan and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Muhammad Ali and over-reliance on computer technology, Rich Hall and the George Foreman Grill, Wesley Willis and Batman, and Ivor Cutler.

I had a drink last night in the Globe in Morning Lane, one of the best pubs in Hackney for a bit of banter. The landlord since 1988 has been Steve Powell of the London Ex-Boxers’ Association, which now has an excellent website with, among other stuff of interest, potted bios of a number of East End boxers. Everyone’s heard of Charlie Magri, and pioneer Jack Broughton and Terry Spinks are also quite well-known outside boxing circles, but I’d never heard of the following gentleman, a tribute to whom set me looking for more boxing verse and songs, listed here more or less chronologically.

The list

  1. Bare-knuckle fighter Dan Mendoza (LEBA / WP), maybe of Aldgate, later of 3 Paradise Row, Bethnal Green, and finally of Horseshoe Alley, Petticoat Lane, is the villain of The Odiad; Or, Battle of Humphries and Mendoza; An Heroic Poem (1788). This is despite allegedly losing this their first fight – he won the other two – as a result of foul play by Richard Humphries’ second, Tom Johnson: for in this versification of racial-religious stereotype Mendoza is the scheming artful Portuguese Sephardi, and Humphries the honest British Christian hero. OK, it’s not a song, but it could be:

         All hail! dread Prince, who, with a British blow,
    Shall lay some Dauphin, or some Louis low:
    Hail Cambria’s Champion! in my Cause appear,
    And thou F-t-k, second Pollux, hear;
    And you fell Warriour, whose enormous Nose,
    With fierce projection, threatens obvious Foes;
    Who, far as barb’rous Afric, learning fought,
    By a Black Champion’s black devices taught. 1
    And on the Golden Day that op’d the Lift,
    Grasp’d Bloodless Guineas in your griping Fist;
    Whilst Judah sick’ning at the luckless Fray,
    Curs’d her foul fate, and empty sneak’d away.

    It’s a shame that the nationalist bollocks puts so much iambic pentameter beyond the pale, because the descriptions of society and fighting are brilliant:

         What tho’ no Cannons thunder in my line,
    Nor Chiefs that glory in their stem divine;
    Nor whizzing Darts, nor clanging Shields you hear,
    Nor glitt’ring Blades, nor waving Plumes appear;
    Dire are the Scenes – the Fist by Fist repell’d,
    Black Eyes block’d up, and into mountains swell’d;
    The shatter’d Rib – the Nose’s broken bridge,
    The Head whose bumps protrude in many a ridge;
    Dissever’d Lips, whilst rattling Teeth around,
    Driv’n from distorted Jaws bestrew the ground;
    Dry Drubs and hollow Bangs resounds my song,
    Thwack follows Thwack, and Man drives Man along.

    Humphries training methods would not pass muster now – Stingo is strong ale or beer, says the OED, “perhaps simulating a Spanish or Italian ending”:

         The Palms prepar’d, th’ important day decreed,
    Each breathes destruction, and each pants to bleed.
    First, HUMPHRIES sought the spot, some friend to Box,
    Where Wolsey fell’d his first Paternal Ox. 2
    Here wrapt in Swanskin, with the cock he rose,
    The cock, who kindles courage, whilst he crows;
    Round the wide heath his wakeful steps directs,
    The closing Gripe, the cautious Guard projects:
    The pois’d huge weights, and made his bellows blow,
    Anxious to match is longer-winded Foe;
    Now with fierce Ripshaw, savage as himself,
    Pull’d the rear sirloin from the bending shelf:
    Now down in copious draughts the Stingo flow’d,
    Brac’d every nerve, and in his gizzard glow’d.


         O sing, what deeds were done! what Gods appear’d!
    Who damp’d th’ exulting, who the drooping cheer’d.
    Down dropt the pallid Jew, and breathless sunk,
    A batter’d Mummy, an exhausted Trunk.
    On wings of woe the sable Carrier flies, 3
    All ominous she hovers in the skies;
    Duke’s Place, and Hounsditch, at the portent look,
    And all their black-ey’d Daughters shriek’d and shook.
    Him, as he wallow’d low, and sprawling lay,
    His chap-fall’n brethren bore with groans away;
    But swell’d with triumph, and with bruises too,
    The gaping Throng their Christian Champion view;
    On their broad brawny backs the Victor raise,
    Amidst the thunder of a Mob’s huzzas.

    Mendoza’s treatise and tutor, The art of boxing (1792), is still a good introduction. In 1795 he followed his own advice and closed on John Jackson, longer-armed and heavier, but hadn’t anticipated his opponent in the fifth round seizing his hair and pummelling him beyond recovery. Mendoza’s subsequent career include a splendid episode in 1809 when, working with other Jewish toughs, and paid by the theatre owners, he engaged in a campaign of violence and intimidation against those protesting higher ticket prices – the so-called Old Price Riots. When boxing was a Jewish sport by Allen Bodner may be of interest.

  2. Changes in the language mean that “The boxers” by Mr. Appleby, in Parsley’s Lyric Repository for 1790, may now have a certain appeal for camp aficionados of, for example, Turkish wrestling:

    Ye brawny-bon’d fellows, come lift to my ditty,
    Where boxers assemble to fight let’s away;
    Black eyes, bloody noses and cross-buttocks must fit ye,
    ‘Tis the ton, ’tis the tippee, the rage of the day;
    Then bruisers attend,
    To the call of a friend,
    Come haste to the battle, and make no delay;
    Come see boxing felicity,
    Which is all the delight of the grave and the gay.

    Here‘s a version of the tune, “Come haste to the wedding“, recorded from Mrs. Ben Scott (violin) and Myrtle B. Wilkinson (tenor banjo) by Sidney Robertson Cowell (much more than just the wife of Henry) in Turlock, California on October 31, 1939:

  3. Ian and Jennifer Partridge perform a cliché-ridden, and therefore essential, Victorian boxing song on their album Play the game:

    Tis but a sense of duty when you’re championing a beauty
    To defend her in a manner quite surprising

  4. The Dixieaires, “Joe Louis was a fightin’ man” (1950) – “was”, because Louis had announced his retirement in 1949:

    Now all you great fighters, you listen to me
    (Just like the battle of Jericho)
    You’ll never win a battle until you get on your knees 4
    (Way down in Jericho)
    Old Peter, Moses and James and John
    (Just like the battle of Jericho)
    Joshua fit the battle, and the battle was won
    (Way down in Jericho)
    Now let us talk about the Brown Bomber
    Tell the nation the story
    Let us talk about the Brown Bomber
    Joe Louis was a fighting man.

  5. The fight game (1963; host page), a “radio ballad” of boxing songs and interviews with Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, and Peggy Seeger. This segue and what follows are magical:

    Who would have a boxer for a husband or a son?
    A fighter in the family means your worrying’s never done
    They leave the house as right as rian, they’re off to win a prize
    But they get so knocked about they’re often hard to recognise.

  6. Rocky Graziano, NBA world middleweight champion 1947-8, as The Maharishi Yoghurt, in a Beatles parody from the late 60s (the images are priceless):

    I may indulge in yoga, it depends on where I sit
    I sometimes eat some yoghurt, just to keep me fit
    I don’t smoke funny cigarettes, and never take a drink
    Cos nothing gets me higher, than just to sit and think.

  7. I know nothing about Mister Calypson, but the sound and lyrics on “Muhammad Ali” point to 1970. The song refers to Ali’s early world title fights against Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Henry Cooper, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley; to his suspension following his refusal to be drafted for Vietnam; and to perhaps the most curious incident in his career, his “loss” to Rocky Marciano in a fantasy match organised by one Murry Woroner in 1969 using data analysis carried out on an NCR 315:

    The computer conspired against Mohamed Ali
    In the computer fight, aha, with good old Rocky
    Ali names the round he will stop you in and decide your fate
    The speed of a lightweight, the punch of a heavyweight.

  8. Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” (1975) is about the faulty murder conviction of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who challenged for the WBC/WTF world middleweight crown in 1964:

    Rubin could take a man out with just one punch
    But he never did like to talk about it all that much
    It’s my work he’d say and I do it for pay
    And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way
    Up to some paradise
    Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice
    And ride a horse along a trail
    But then they took him to the jailhouse
    Where they try to turn a man into a mouse.

  9. Rich Hall, “George Foreman grill” (1990s?):

    He went eight rounds in Kinshasa with Mohammed Ali
    He didn’t float like a butterfly or sting like a bee
    He just lay on that canvas all quiet and still
    But he was dreaming of the plans for a cheap sandwich grill
    I’ve got a George Foreman Grill, George Foreman Grill
    If you won’t cook my dinner, George Foreman will.

    Bonus track: Teresa Sykes‘ gospel tribute to the kitchen appliance in question:

  10. Wesley Willis, “I wupped Batman’s ass”:

    Batman got on my nerves
    He was running me amok
    He really killed me calling me a bum

  11. Finally, no Top 10 would be complete without a stadium song. King J over at Bleacher Report has a good list, including the Rocky theme, “Eye of the tiger”, and loads of hiphop, though he omits “Pop goes the weasel,” leitmotif in the Three Stooges’ boxing short Punch drunks (1934). But I dream of the moment when a loop of Ivor Cutler’s “I’m happy (and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not)” accompanies some brave soul to the ring:


Some excellent numbers have been omitted: for example, Prince Buster’s “Sting like a bee” and “Linger on”, both dedicated to Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, because they are instrumentals:

Another example, Buster “Buzz” Ezell’s “Joe Louis blues” (1943), which contains bebop fight onomatopoeia, but whose lyrics I can’t decipher:

A third example, Paul Simon’s “The boxer”, which doesn’t do it for me, even in this cover by Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and Shawn Colvin:

Suggestions welcome. For example, I don’t think I know (of) boxing songs in other languages, except for Pindar’s ode to the champion Hagesidamus in 476 B. C., which I met today in Diane Arnson Svarlien’s English translation:

There is a time when men’s need for winds is the greatest, and a time for waters from the sky, the rainy offspring of clouds. But when anyone is victorious through his toil, then honey-voiced odes become the foundation for future fame, and a faithful pledge for great deeds of excellence. This praise is dedicated to Olympian victors, without stint. My tongue wants to foster such themes; but it is by the gift of a god that a man flourishes with a skillful mind, as with anything else. For the present rest assured, Hagesidamus son of Archestratus: for the sake of your boxing victory, I shall loudly sing a sweet song, an adornment for your garland of golden olive, while I honor the race of the Western Locrians. There, Muses, join in the victory-song; I shall pledge my word to you that we will find there a race that does not repel the stranger, or is inexperienced in fine deeds, but one that is wise and warlike too. For neither the fiery fox nor loud-roaring lions change their nature.


  1. Publisher’s note: The Major’s Black Valet, who acts as Drill-Serjeant on these Occasions.
  2. Ipswich
  3. Publisher’s note: Mendoza informed his friends in town, that he would communicate the success of the battle to them by dispatching a pigeon; if victorious, a white one; a black one, if worsted.
  4. This trope, popular with Charles Stanley and other later religious entrepreneurs, seems to be Matthew 26:36-40, which however doesn’t mention knees:

    Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.
    And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
    Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.
    And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
    And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?