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Category: Music

1970s Folk Music and the Business Cycle

I have a particular fondness for the folk revival movement of the 60s and 70s. This movement included bands like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span, and also the works the late great Sandy Denny. However in this or nostalgia filled binge one song stuck out to me. That is the Steeleye Span cover of the Hard Times of Old England.

This song was particularly relevant given recent news reports that the UK has entered a recession. Recently, reflecting upon the fortunes of my homeland has become a fairly common occurrence. Coupled with bleak news of an Autumn Statement from Chancellor Jeremy Hunt laden with tax hikes and spending cuts to try and fill a £55 billion hole in the national finances, this song struck a particular chord with me, invoking a strong emotional response. The first verse and chorus is as follows:

Come all brother, tradesmen that travel along

O pray, come and tell me where the trade is all gone

Long time have I travelled and I cannot find none

And sing all the hard times of old England

In old England, very hard times

This apt description of unemployment captures the hopelessness of job loss in a way I find really commendable. The despairing appeal as to where the jobs have gone reminds me of a fundamental question I've had since I was 8 years old watching the economy collapse around me in 2008 and the queues for the JobCentre grow endlessly larger: If people want to work, why can't they?

Yet, the song has an intriguing nuance to it that cuts through its pessimistic premise. The last verse is one of hope. It, and the closing chorus, are as follows:

And now to conclude and to finish my song

Let us hope that these hard times, they will not last long

I hope soon to have occasion to alter my song

And sing all the good times of old England

In old England, jolly good times

This hope that the bad economic times will end and good times are round the corner is inspiring. It also speaks to ancient wisdom. All things considered, there will be periods of prosperity as well as decline in economies. This reminds of the laws of the business cycle. That is in good times credit is cheap, companies can borrow easily, and the economy grows. But this bubble will burst and those companies sustain themselves purely on debt collapse causing unemployment, reduced tax receipts, and recession. Yet, this may improve the economy in the long-term, making a market where only the productive survive. This ushers in a new era of prosperity.

I doubt that this is what was going through Maddy Prior's mind when she recorded this song in 1975. But that was an era of similar deprivation in the UK. Suffering from similar "stagflation" wherein prices rose but wages and growth stalled, things looked bleak in 1970s Britain. But things, in a stumbling and convoluted way, did get better. In the high growth era of the 2000s, when unemployment was low and British GDP per Capita exceeded France, Germany, and the USA,  it was jolly good times indeed! Maybe similar prosperity will return soon.

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