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Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)


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GUEST,Ray 25 May 20 - 06:09 AM
Steve Gardham 25 May 20 - 06:26 AM
GUEST,henryp 25 May 20 - 06:44 AM
Jim Carroll 25 May 20 - 07:24 AM
GUEST,Ray 25 May 20 - 08:51 AM
John MacKenzie 25 May 20 - 08:53 AM
Jim Carroll 25 May 20 - 09:19 AM
GUEST,henryp 25 May 20 - 09:20 AM
Jim Carroll 25 May 20 - 10:09 AM
Charmion 25 May 20 - 05:05 PM
Joe Offer 25 May 20 - 06:03 PM
GUEST,Gerry 25 May 20 - 07:40 PM
Charmion's brother Andrew 25 May 20 - 08:41 PM
GUEST,henryp 26 May 20 - 03:23 AM
Jim Carroll 26 May 20 - 03:32 AM
GUEST,henryp 26 May 20 - 04:12 AM
Jim Carroll 26 May 20 - 05:41 AM
Jim Carroll 26 May 20 - 05:57 AM
GUEST,Phil d'Conch 09 Feb 23 - 07:53 PM
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Subject: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: GUEST,Ray
Date: 25 May 20 - 06:09 AM

Came across this song recently. Would anyone like to hazard a guess at its composer? ... and can anyone identify a tune? I assume it would be called "Browned Off".

Thanks for looking.

I used to be a civvy chum as decent as could be
I used to think a working lad had a man’s right to be free
Until one day they made a ruddy soldier out of me
And told me I have got to save democracy


Oh I was browned off, browned off, browned off as I could be
Browned off, browned off, an easy mark that’s me
And when this war is over and again I’m free
There’ll be no more ruddy soldiering for me

Now every day I’m on parade long before the dawn
Every day I curse the ruddy day that I was born
For I am just a browned off soldier any one can see
They browned me off to help to save democracy

They stuck me in a battle dress and made me cut my hair
They took away my civic shoes and gave me another pair
Instead of grub they gave me slosh and plenty of fresh air
And told me I had got to save democracy

The colonel kicks the Major and the Major has a go
He kicks the poor old Captain who then kicks the N.C.O.
And as the kicks get harder the poor private you can see
Gets kicked to ruddy hell to save democracy

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 25 May 20 - 06:26 AM

Ewan MacColl and John Mackenzie according to my notes, to the tune 'Sunlight' and in the US they use the tune 'Son of a Gambolier'. This just from my index. I could possibly dig deeper if need be.

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: GUEST,henryp
Date: 25 May 20 - 06:44 AM

Jimmie Miller/Ewan MacColl, after he was called up at Wathgill Camp, Richmond. (1940)

Joan Littlewood wrote; Jimmie's updated version of "Browned Off" went the rounds of the British Army.

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 25 May 20 - 07:24 AM

Thanks Henry - I didn't have that information
Don't suppose you have similar regarding 'The Govan Pool-room song' ?
I've put this up elsewhere, but a friend oif ours, a BBC history buff now living in Sussex is researching for a book entitled, 'jimmie and Joan' on the join work done by Ewan and Joan Littlewood.
He has asked us for information such as this
Keep safe all

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: GUEST,Ray
Date: 25 May 20 - 08:51 AM

Question answered, thanks . I suspected as much but my source didn't explicitly say who wrote it.

For the record, the song features in a report by Lieut. Colonel J Humphrey, Commanding the 11 Bn. The Kings Regiment, dated 16 Dec 1948 [sic] - which I suspect to be 1940 - on Private 3779986 James Henry Miller.

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: John MacKenzie
Date: 25 May 20 - 08:53 AM

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 25 May 20 - 09:19 AM

Thanks John - I'd forgotten about that conversation - happens far too much nowadays

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: GUEST,henryp
Date: 25 May 20 - 09:20 AM

Jim, it's from Joan Littlewood's Autobiography; After that, he cheered himself up, to the tune of Clementine:
    Down in Wathgill, Richmond, Yorkshire by the winding River Swale
    There's a camp where browned-off soldiers tell a very sorry tale...

Joan and Jimmy, written by Jim Woodland and directed by Mike Bettison, tells the story of Joan Littlewood and Jimmy Miller, standing amongst the rubble of 1945 post war Britain.

Jimmy Miller has changed his name to Ewan McColl; both are embarking on a career in radical political theatre, performing one-night stands across the North of England - a forerunner of present rural touring! They founded Theatre Workshop in Kendal with a travelling troupe of storytellers and outlaws committed to the overthrow of the established order(!), where the rich got richer and the poor got austerity- even then!

In 1952, they parted company. Joan and Theatre Workshop headed to London, and Ewan to the folk music world. In Theatre Workshop tradition, Joan and Jimmy asks the audience to reach their own conclusions and take the ending of these stories and songs beyond Village Halls and into their lives.

Jim Woodland has studied this period in great detail.

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 25 May 20 - 10:09 AM

Thaks Henry - that's about how I remember it except Ewan said he had argued against the move to the Theatre Royal and considered it a sell-out to what T.W. stood for
The Critics had been rehearsing 'The Festival of Fools' one night at Mount Pleasant and we all adjourned for a meal to the Mhoditis Greek Cypriot Restaurant in Camden Town - by coincidence, Joan walked in during the middle of the meal   
Ewan proudly introduced us to her one by one, explaining who we were, what we worked at and where we came from
I, as the only one of the group who 'got his hands dirty' at work was given pride of place - still brings a little glow :-)

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Subject: RE: Who Wrote This song? - 'Browned Off'?
From: Charmion
Date: 25 May 20 - 05:05 PM

I've known this song my whole damn life.

The version I learned, the last line of the refrain was, "There'll be no more trips around the world for me." Scans better.

Also, in verse 4, it's "civvy" shoes, not civic.

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Subject: ADD:: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: Joe Offer
Date: 25 May 20 - 06:03 PM

(Ewan MacColl)

I used to be a civvie, chum, as decent as can be;
I used to think a working lad had a man’s right to be free.
And then one day they made a lousy soldier out of me
And told me I had got to save democracy.

O, I was browned off, browned off, browned off as can be;
Browned off, browned off, an easy mark, that’s me.
But when this war is over and again I’m free,
There’ll be no more trips around the world for me.

They stuck me in a convict suit, they made me cut my hair,
They took my civvie shoes away, they gave me another pair.
Instead of grub they gave me slush and plenty of fresh air And that was all to help to save democracy.


Now, every day I’m on parade long before the dawn,
And every day I curse the ruddy day that I was born.
For I am just a browned-off soldier, anyone can see—
They browned me off to help to save democracy.


The medical inspection, boys, is just a bleedin’ farce—
He gropes around your penis and he noses up your arse.
For even a private’s privates, boys, enjoy no privacy—
You sacrifice all that to save democracy.


The colonel kicks the major, then the major has a go,
He kicks the poor old captain who then kicks the N.C.O.
And as the kicks get harder, the poor private you can see
Gets kicked to bloody hell to save democracy.


BROWNED OFF (1940—1945)
When Ewan was in the army he wrote quite a number of what were, at that time, incendiary pieces. Joan Littlewood writes: “. . the Medical Officer resented the entertainment. ‘Write another song about me, Miller, and I’ll give you an injection in a place you will never forget.’”
(Joan’s Book, Joan Littlewood’s Peculiar History as She Tells It, Methuen, 1994)

Source: The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook Oak Publications, 2001, page 298

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Subject: RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: GUEST,Gerry
Date: 25 May 20 - 07:40 PM

To the tune of Stung Right, attributed to Joe Hill?

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Subject: RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: Charmion's brother Andrew
Date: 25 May 20 - 08:41 PM

Charmion and I learned this song at our mother's knee. MacColl published it on vinyl on "Songs of the British Army." I literally sang it as an infant in my high chair, along with "When This Bluggy War Is Over."

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Subject: RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: GUEST,henryp
Date: 26 May 20 - 03:23 AM

Joe Hill set Stung Right to the tune of the evangelical hymn, Sunlight, Sunlight. Published in 64 hymnals, so presumably it was well known at the time.

Stung Right - Joe Hill, 1913

I was stung right, stung right, S-T-U-N-G,
Stung right, stung right, E. Z. Mark, that's me
When my term is over, and again I'm free,
There'll be no more trips around the world for me.

Sunlight, Sunlight

Sunlight, sunlight in my soul today,
Sunlight, sunlight all along the way;
Since the Savior found me, took away my sin,
I have had the sunlight of His love within.

Words; Jud­son W. Van De­Ven­ter (1855–1939) Songs of Sov­er­eign Grace (Phil­a­del­phia, Penn­syl­van­ia: Hall-Mack, 1897)
Tune; Win­field S. Weed­en (1847–1908)

Winfield S. Weeden was born in 1847 in Middleport, OH. In his early life he was active in teaching singing schools throughout that area in Ohio. As singer and associate to Judson Van deVenter in his evangelistic campaigns, Weeden assisted in meetings at East Palestine and Sebring.

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Subject: RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 26 May 20 - 03:32 AM

"Charmion and I learned this song at our mother's knee."
Wonder how you mother reacted to the 'medical inspection' verse :-)
You don't hear too many people singing that one, even today
Jim Carroll

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Subject: RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: GUEST,henryp
Date: 26 May 20 - 04:12 AM

From Joan Littlewood's Autobiography; 1940

Then Jimmie's call-up papers arrived.

I'd never been out of Salford town, the place where I was born
Until one day I joined the ranks and wore a uniform
But I'd rather never travel if the only way to see
The world is through the rifle sights of a Mark 4 303.

[See Trafford Road Ballad, Tune adapted from Eppie Morris. From the WMA Topic Songbook, 1951]

Soon he was turning out a song a day and it was obvious that the CO had no intention of letting him be transferred to a regiment which would offer some activity more fascinating than square bashing.

Jimmie wrote me every day, mostly jokes and nostalgia. It must have been disappointing for the police who were opening them all.

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Subject: RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 26 May 20 - 05:41 AM

Peggy calculated that Ewan had forgotten nearly as many of the songs he never wrote down than he left behind

One he did that doesn't get sung nowadays

E9 THE GRAVEDIGGER'S SONG                

'About a hundred gravediggers at Mount Jerome's and two other Dublin graveyards are to go on strike from finishing time today. Pickets will be placed on Monday. The dispute has arisen from a claim for another week's holiday a year.' (The Guardian, June 12, 1965:

tune: traditional Irish ('The Kerry Recruit)
new words and trad arr.: Ewan Maccoll

O, come all you gravediggers in Erin's green isle,
Put down your owld spades, boys, and rest for awhile;
Sit down on a headstone and listen to me,
While I sing of the wrongs done in this cemetery.

Chorus:        With me toorin an ya,
        With me toorin an ya,
        With me toorin an yoorin and yoorin an ya.

For forty-five years now I've wielded the spade,
A craftsman I am in the gravedigger's trade;
The stiffs of owld Dublin all the year round,
I plant nice and decent in this holy ground. (chorus)

The cut's seven feet long and almost as deep,
Two feet wide at the shoulders and less at the feet;
You may travel this country around and around,
But a finer bone-orchard will never be found. (chorus)

I've seen the fine funerals, people in droves,
Dressed up in their mourning just like bloody crows,
All full of Jamieson's, boiled ham and cake -
But not once have I ever been asked to the wake. (chorus)

Back in the twenties, sure that was the time,
When the Tans were around and we worked overtime;
His Majesty's guns knocked down Dubliner's homes -
But he gave 'em free lodgings in old Mount Jerome. (chorus)

I once buried a gent, he was thirty-two stone,
I dug for two days, I was worked to the bone;
I flung from the shoulder and flicked with the wrist -
And his widow stuck one lousy bob in me fist. (chorus)

We've buried the poor and we've buried the rich,
The hardworking man and the son of a bitch,
The old and the young, sure they all end up here -
Six thousand we plant in an average year. (chorus)

Yes, an average year and by no means the peak,
One-hundred-and-twenty-five stiffs every week;
By my calculations that's eighteen a day -
Sure, they give us no peace with their passing away. (chorus)

The customers come here by day and by night;
I sometimes think Dubliners die out of spite.
But we're organised now and the union is here,
And we've struck for an extra week out every year. (chorus)        

The relatives come here with shovel and pick,
And the mourners have gone on a do-it-yourself kick;
They're cursing' and swearin' and flingin' up clay -
Bejasus, you'd swear all their wits were away (chorus)

Then stand fast, all diggers that in Dublin dwell;
From Deans Grange, Mount Jerome and Glasrevin as well.
They're parking their corpses all over the place -
But we'll fight until Dublin has run out of space. (chorus)

The Gravedigger's Song

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Subject: RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 26 May 20 - 05:57 AM

For those who didn’t know Ewan as a poet (Sean O’Casey, commenting on Ewan’s play-writing, ended with the words “a poet, I think”) – this is a long, poetic monologue he wrote for The Festival of Fools when the Vietnam War was at its height – I nevr say it performed, but I’m pretty sure he spoke it (he spent all the Festival of Fools performances I saw hunched behind a directors desk)
I still find it very moving, just reading it

Let us, for a moment, suspend
Our Parliariment of Fools
For the space of time that lies between
The impulse and the act
Of lifting glass to mouth,
Or holding lighted match to cigarette,
Briefly, that is, in the hope our ears
Will catch the dry weeping of the dead

Each year there are many dead.
The annual harvest of lives
Which have passed from seedling state
Through growth to flowering,
From thence to the bearing of fruit
And then to dry, narcessant autumn –
The natural dead,
And there are the others, those
Who are prematurely trampled down,
Or withered before flowers spring
From the bud.
It is they who weep;
The awful silent weeping of the dead.

That they had names is obvious,
And it can be presumed that someone,
Father, mother, husband, sweetheart, lover,
Their closest kin, know them well
And habitually addressed them by affectionate diminutives.

To us, their names were strange
And lay awkwardly on the tongue,
So they remain anonymous –
“Those people who were killed on August 9th
When bombs fell on that town in Viet Nam
What do they call it ?"
Or the ones who died at Stanleyville In March, or was it April ?

They died as ants die under the gardeners foot,
They screamed, moaned, shrieked, implored,
Raved in delirium, wailed like infants,
Wept or cursed………and died.
Those nameless, prostrate men of
The agency photographs,

Anticipating with fierce, rolling eyes
The lethal boots of Congo mercenaries;
Or standing, garlanded with ropes,
In pre-execution photos for men
Skilled in the use of delicate equipment.
From the newsprint they appear
To look through us as if we don't exist,
Knowing they are beyond succour,
Expecting no manumission
Of the sentence our silence has decreed.

Do they see anything beyond the grass and trees ?
Do they hear sounds other than those
Made by the crickets and low-flying beetles ?
All of which will still be there
When they, the men, are gone.
Do you ever wonder if their need for justice,
Their beliefs in the ultimate decency of human relationships
Survived those last few moments
When the casual cruelty of their enemies
Appeared to be the sole reality ?

Anthropologically speaking they were one, two halves
Which made a whole.
Both sides belonged to homo sapiens;
They walked upright,
Had fashioned tools to work with,
Developed elaborate languages
With which they could communicate
The most subtle nuances of thought.

The executioners were, as the phrase goes,
Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Bach, were theirs
And Newton, Democritus, Planck and Heisenberg;
They had domesticated plants and animals,
Tamed rivers, plundered mountains,
Irrigated barren places,
Learned the secrets of flight from birds
And explored the primeval constituents of matter.
But when it came to the point,
None of these things.
Was nearly so significant
As the sudden, downward thrust
Of field boot on a naked skull.

No, we cannot say we knew them.
We had a momentary knowledge of them
That is all, as we munched on breakfast cereal,
And glanced observerwise upon
The image of a youth in Viet Nam
Captured by two agents of democracy
Who, at the moment when the shutter opened,
Were opening his stomach with a knife -
Believing, presumably, that once his guts was open,
His mind would open too
And joyfully embrace
A different way of thinking.

What did he, the prisoner, think of
As the knife revealed the blood and veins
And tissues of his being?
And the blistered cadaver
Of what was once a girl -
Did she remember laughter, kisses,
The racing heart, caressing hands
On breasts and thighs,
As the jet of flame
Reduced her eyes to cinders
And turned her body into
One great festering burn?

Strange to think this charred obscenity
Once had a name.

And those others, the groups, assemblies,
Numbered lists of persons unidentified
Whose short existence terminated in
The shuddering explosion of a bomb,
Conceived as a precision tool
By learned men in classrooms or by
Specialists who, like cooks or surgeons, in white
coats, Stoop over drawing boards ten thousand miles away.

These dead and 'smaller-than-average' people
In their drab skirts and flapping canvas trousers
Bleached by the sun like sails of yachts
At Cowes Regatta are,
At the moment of death, depersonalised
Turned into units, the sun of which
Fits neatly in a war communique.

How can we comprehend them?
Their life and death are equally
Beyond our comprehension;
As is their courage.
For they rise up against the weight of centuries,
They oppose their brittle flesh against
The armoured hosts of men made terrible
By the fact that, from the cradle,
They have been conditioned to believe
That everything they do is right.

How can we knew then?
The shabby corpses littering the streets
Of San Domingo in the July days -
Did they have names?.
The 2,000, 3,000, 5,000,
7,000 dead.
Did they, in the divided second
Before the bullets smashed the instrument of memory
Remember the music of guitars;
Did their belief in the inherent rightness of their cause
Survive the steel fiesta Staged by uniformed Neanderthals?
And the mestizos, high in the Andes of Bolivia and Peru
Those men and women of mixed Indian and Spanish Lineage -
Who struck in the mines for a weekly increase
Of eightpence farthing -
What were their last thoughts in the moment
Just before the bombs of jellied petrol and napalm
Destroyed the mechanism of thought?
It is not comfortable to speculate
Upon such things.
Nor is this the time
To mention them.

When is the time?
Tomorrow? The day after? Never?
It's important.
But not so important
As the fact the bar may close
And leave you thirsty, or that
Public transport may abandon you
Ten miles from home, or that you forgot
To post your coupon.
And yet, it is a simple fact
That the dead are weeping
And that they weep on our account.
They pity us,
Because we are too weak to hear.
Their deaths upon our shoulders,
Too cowardly to examine the roots and causes
Of these wanton deaths,
Too lazy to accept responsibility.
Above all, they pity us for our pride,
The childish vanity which leads us
To indulge in self-deceit and snug self-flattery
By referring to ourselves as human beings.
So ends this little All Saints Sermon.

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Subject: RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl)
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 09 Feb 23 - 07:53 PM

Mentioned above & see also: Help: Dirty Old Town? Meaning??? (MacColl)

Trafford Road Ballad
(Words and music by Ewan MacColl.)

Trafford Road runs through the heart of the dockland in Salford, on of Britain's bleakest cities. The above song was written in 1948 for Landscape with Chimneys a play dealing with life in Salford.

I've never been out of Salford town
The place where I was born
Except when I was in the ranks
And wore a uniform.
But I'd sooner never travel
If the only way to see
The world is through the battlesights
Of a Mark IV-303.

I have a little baby
He's the apple of me eye,
When I think about his future
My thoughts take wing and fly,
What kind of future can there be
With planes and tanks and guns,
With flying high and dropping bombs
On other people's sons?

I'd like to see the whole wide world
North, south, east, and west,
I'd like to travel everywhere
With the girl that I love best.
But I'll stay beside the Irwell
All me life before I'll stand
In some foreign country
With a bayonet in me hand.

I work each day upon the docks
And see the ships come in
And no one asks to see the color
Of a sailor's skin,
Side by side they're working men
From Norway, China*, Greece,
Why can't the statesmen do the same
And let us live in peace?
[Liner notes: The New Briton Gazette, Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger, Folkways Records FW 8732, Trk A5]

*Just fyi: The Chinese sailors' pinyin word for Norwegians, Greeks, Ewan MacColl & me & thee is . Translated variously as: barbarian, ordinary, uncivilized and/or wild; as all non-hua are regarded, then and now.

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