Urban Music in Eighteenth Century London

Last year, attempts by the police to take down ‘drill’ music videos from the internet made the news. Drill music, a genre which originated in Chicago, features balaclava clad youths, in particular from London estates, rapping about gang violence and threatening rivals. At the request of the Metropolitan Police, YouTube deleted 30 videos (although they have since been re-hosted on a porn video website), and one drill group in London has been issued with a court order that bans them from making music without police permission.

While ‘drill’ might be a recent phenomenon, a look at 18th century London shows that controversy over obscene music and its links to criminality is actually nothing new.

In 1750, the Bishop of London blamed an earthquake on:

the infamous and obscene songs and ballads that are openly sung on our public streets, to the great uneasiness of all modest and virtuous persons who are passing by; to the great corruption and depravity of our servants and children and to the total discouragement of virtue among the common people in general.

In 1785, the Universal Daily Register condemned ‘the indecent songs and immoral ballads chanted in almost every street of this metropolis’ as ‘destructive to the growing youth of both sexes’ and ‘marked with sentiments diabolical and unnatural’.

One contemporary commentator bemoaned the fact that ‘obscene ballads and songs in praise of thieving are the only ones sung about the streets’. These songs – known as ‘flash ballads’, ‘cant songs’, ‘bawdy songs’, and ‘gutter songs’ – glorified criminality and lionised the likes of highwaymen, while also covering sexual topics using language that would still be seen as shocking today.

Cant songs ‘cursed the constable, mocked the thief-catcher, boasted of the deeds of highwaymen’, and ‘shared the joy of freed prisoners’. They made use of street slang of the time, such as ‘tale’ (sword), ‘brace of wedges’ (pistols), ‘ridges’ (guineas), and ‘Dancing Cock’ (a drunk). In addition to celebrating a criminal lifestyle, popular songs also praised drunkenness.

Bawdy songs and gutter ballads, meanwhile, were sexually explicit. The popular song ‘Morgan Rattler’, for example, included the following lyrics:

First he niggled her then he tiggled her
Then with his two balls he began for to batter her
At every thrust, I thought she’d have burst
With the terrible size of his Morgan Rattler

Female songs were as common as male. In one, a woman looked ‘for some lusty fellow / Who’s able to give me some reason to laugh’. Another had these lines:

Some say that a tailor my husband shall be
But a tailor good lord why he’s no man for me
For his nose and his arse too near they do meet
That I think that his heat can hardly be sweet

A pair of female singers in the 1780s would sing on the Strand:

For my smock’s above my knee, she did say, she did say
You may have a smack at me, bowl away, bowl away.

Another pair of female singers would conclude a song by bucking their pelvises and simulating orgasm, to the delight of gathered crowds.

Meanwhile, a male song featured the story of how a wife’s veracious sexual appetite had reduced a man to a skeleton. The song closed with these lines:

For which I’m sure she’ll go to Hell
For she makes me fuck her in churchtime

Numerous calls were made to outlaw these songs and for government regulation of singers. The ballads slowly died out in the 19th century, as patriotic songs glorifying England’s military might came to the fore. It is clear from the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, though, that in the mid-19th century these ballads were still popular enough to warrant action by the authorities. Fines or imprisonment for up to fourteen days were the punishment for:

Every person who publicly offers for sale or distribution, or exhibits to public view any profane book, paper, print, drawing, painting, or representation, or sings any profane or obscene song or ballad, or uses any profane or obscene language.

Many have a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles as a more innocent and wholesome time, and to view contemporary society as uniquely degenerate. The assumption is that England’s drinking culture is something relatively new (it’s not), that the widespread use of ‘bad language’ is a modern phenomenon (it’s not), that the proliferation of betting shops and online gambling is something without precedent (it’s not), that football hooliganism is a recent development (it’s not), and that our modern irreligiosity is a major departure from a pious past (it’s not). Likewise, while drill music may indeed be a problematic development, the air of London was filled with the sound of obscene and criminally-linked music three hundred years ago. There is nothing new under the sun, particularly when it comes to English culture.

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