WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Hum Trum

Regency era London was a noisy place to be. Streets were congested with all manner of traffic, from private carriages to hackneys to freight wagons. Pavements on the sides of streets were just as clogged, with all manner of hawkers and their carts, writhing seas of pedestrians, and just gawpers in general. The racket raised by the sheer number of people and machinery was enormous. Add to that the criminal element of pick-pockets scurrying about, and the streets were a mishmash of business, leisure, and delinquency. So what else added to the noise pollution of the time?

Street Musicians.

According to Jane Austen’s World, musicians “roamed the land, and London streets offered a pandemonium of sound, much of it derived from musical instruments.” Street musicians were known as buskers, and they were equally loved (or at least tolerated) and loathed. And while many buskers had real instruments, such as violins and barrel organs, others made music from devices cobbled-together from whatever implements could be collected from people’s cast-offs.

Hum Trum

A musical instrument made of a mopstick, a bladder, and some packthread, thence also called a bladder and string, and hurdy gurdy; it is played on like a violin, which is sometimes ludicrously called a humstrum; sometimes, instead of a bladder, a tin canister is used.

The Enraged Musician by William Hogarth, 1741, British Museum.

Street musicians would play popular folk songs and ballads, some classics of storytelling and some downright bawdy numbers. Jane Austen herself copied many such “common” songs in her handwritten collection of sheet music. She especially enjoyed tunes by composer Charles Dibdin. His prolific compositions ranged from serious and patriotic, to ditties and sea shanties. The latter of such songs were the main pieces played upon the hum trum. One of Dibdin’s most famous songs is Tom Bowling. I can only find today what my Granny would have called “highfalutin” versions of this song about an everyman, but it’s an excellent example of the type of folk song that would have been played by street buskers in hopes of earning a penny or three.

Here, a sheer hulk, lies poor Tom Bowling, the darling of our crew;
No more he’ll hear the tempest howling,
For death has broached him to.
His form was of the manliest beauty; his heart was kind and soft
Faithful below, Tom did his duty, and now, he’s gone aloft.

Tom never from his word departed; his virtues were so rare
His friends were many and true-hearted; his Poll was true and fair.
And then he’d sing so blithe and jolly, ah!
Many’s the time and oft.
But mirth is turned to melancholy, for Tom is gone aloft.

Yet shall poor Tom find pleasant weather, when He, who all commands,
Shall give, to call Life’s crew together, the word to pipe all hands.
Thus Death, who kings and tars despatches,
In vain Tom’s life hath doffed,
For though his body’s under hatches, his soul is gone aloft.

The television show Harlots has some of the best representations of folk songs I’ve heard of late, amongst its likewise faithful (I swear I can almost smell the scenes in this show) depictions of sex trade and fine society in the midst of politics and economics in Georgian England. In Episode Four, the younger daughter of brothel owner Margaret Wells sang a song during the masquerade party Pandemonium, thrown to earn enough blunt to pay off the debt of moving on up, to Greek Street rather than the East Side. Lucy sang the 18th century ballad My Thing is My Own.

I, a tender young maid, have been courted by many
Of all sorts and trades as ever was any.
A spruce haberdasher first spake to me fair
But I would have nothing to do with small ware.

My thing is my own, and I’ll keep it so still
Yet other young lasses may do as they will.

A sweet scented courtier did give me a kiss,
And promis’d me mountains if I would be his,
But I’ll not believe him, for it is too true,
Some courtiers do promise much more than they do.

A fine Man of Law did come out of the Strand,
To plead his own case with his fee in his hand;
He made a brave motion but that would not do,
For I did dismiss him and nonsuit him too.

Next came a young fellow, a notable spark,
(With green bag and inkhorn, a Justice’s clerk)
He pull’d out his warrant to make all appear,
But I sent him away with a flea in his ear.

A Master of Musick came with an intent,
To give me a lesson on my instrument,
I thank’d him for no’hing, but bid him be gone,
For my little fiddle should not be plaid on.

An Usurer came with abundance of cash,
But I had no mind to come under his lash,
He profer’d me jewels, and great store of gold,
But I would not mortgage my little Free-hold.

A blunt Lieutenant surpriz’d my placket,
And fiercely began to rifle and sack it,
I mustered my spirits up and became bold,
And forc’d my Lieutenant to quit his strong hold.

A crafty young bumpkin that was very rich,
And us’d with his bargains to go thro’ stitch,
Did tender a sum, but it would not avail,
That I should admit him my tenant in tayl.

A fine dapper taylor, with a yard in his hand
Did profer his service to be at command
He talk’d of a slit I had above knee,
But I’ll have no taylors to stitch it for me.

A Gentleman that did talk much of his grounds
His Horses, his Setting-Dogs, and his greyhounds
Put in for a Course, and us’d all his art
But he mist of the Sport, for Puss would not start

A pretty young Squire new come to the town
To empty his Pockets, and so to go down,
Did profer a kindness, but I would have none
The same that he us’d to his mother’s maid, Joan.

Now here I could reckon a hundred and more
Besides all the Gamesters recited before
That made their addresses in hopes of a snap
But as young as I was I understood trap.

My thing is my own, and I’ll keep it so still
Until I be marryed, say men what they will.

From Pills to Purge Melancholy, Vol. IV, D’Urfey

Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart have a fine cover of the mournful-yet-vulgar song, but the adaptation by the Sirens is a much earthier and faithful rendition that does justice to the innuendo-laden lyrics. And their harmonies are gorgeous.

Some of the songs from Harlots are original compositions done in the style of Georgian tunes, and they fit both historically and in circumstance. My favorite so far is Mary Cooper, for all that it’s subject is about to die of myriad working girl ailments. As the harlots paraded poor Mary’s corpse through Covent Garden, all they lacked were violins, organs, and a few hum trum. I can’t find a clip of the actual scene, but the lyrics tell the story well. Watch Season 1, Episode 2, to see the feast for the eyes (in both horrid and sumptuous glory) that is Harlots.

Get your hum trums out and play along.

Mary Cooper, Mary Cooper.
She’s had every Lord and Trooper
Kisses scorch, her waps are super.

Mary Cooper, Mary Cooper,
She’s had every Lord and Trooper.
Mary Cooper, Mary Cooper,
Leaves her lovers in a stupor.

Ridin’ high, no man can dupe her-
London’s Venus, Mary Cooper!

 

 

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2 thoughts on “WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Hum Trum

  1. Hi Renée, great article, thank you! We’ve done a bunch of research into historic street music, but I didn’t realise it had made it into Austin’s writing, nor seen these videos. Just a note: we’re “busk.co”, not “busk.com” 🙂

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