Around the start of the 80s I wrote some dialogue and monologues and most of the original music for the ‘Nice (if you can get it)’ revue, directed by Margaret Ford. At the time it was put together and (briefly) toured, I was working by day for a company that built staircases (mostly). This song is based on my personal experience of working in the woodworking industry, though I was a wood machinist, not a carpenter.
In a recent conversation, I expressed some regret that I never got to do something like the radio ballads put together by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, Charles Parker et al, then realized that the revue was actually quite near to that concept.
Ian Campbell also wrote some songs in that idiom, including one called The Apprentice’s Song, but it’s about gas fitters. Mine is about an apprentice carpenter, and I’ve changed the title to avoid confusion with Ian’s song.
Originally a poem of sorts, but re-recorded as a song after a discussion about that harsh little joke in the third verse. I honestly can’t remember if it was used in the revue – it was written around that time, but maybe not soon enough to be included. Like ‘Long Stand‘, it touches on the uneasy relationship between the old hand and the apprentice – while hazing or snipe-hunting is a particularly unpleasant way of keeping the young ‘uns in their place, it’s not always considered the duty of the master to encourage the apprentice.
The tune is now mostly associated with ‘Tramps and Hawkers’, a song that seems to have been written by ‘Besom Jimmy’ in the late 19th century, though the tune is far older than that. (Ewan MacColl used the same tune for England’s Motorways, from the radio ballad ‘Song of a Road’, about the people who built the M1.)
Fetch the rolls: make the tea: then grab the end of that
And sand it till your fingers bleed, if you think you’ve planed it flat.
Call yourself apprentice? Lad, I’d be ashamed
If I knew so little, to be called by such a name
Never mind the splinters: In a year or two
You’ll have quite forgotten that they ever bothered you.
Hands as hard as English oak, muscle, skill and guile:
That’s what makes a craftsman; but not you, for a while
Cut yourself, you silly sod? Take care, if you please,
And don’t bleed on the timber: do you think it grows on trees?
Call yourself a craftsman? No, lad, never you.
Though if you try your hardest, one day you might scrape through
So you’ve got your piece of paper? I hope I’ve taught you well,
And I won’t deny you’re willing: no doubt time will tell.
Call yourself a craftsman? That’s as may well be…
Another year, or five, or ten, and then perhaps we’ll see…