Sangstories
Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional
and newer songs 
sung by Sangschule 
of Linlithgow

I'm A Workin Chap

I’m a working chap as you may see
You’ll find an honest lad in me
I’m neither haughty, mean or proud
Nor ever taks the thing too rude
I never gang abune my means
Nor seek assistance frae my friens
But day and nicht through thick and thin
I’m workin life out to keep life in

Nae matter friens, whate’er befa
The puir folks they maun work awa
Through frost and snaw and rain and wind
They’re workin life out to keep life in

The puir needle-woman that we saw
In reality and on the wa
A picture sorrowful to see
I’m sure wi me you’ll a’ agree
Her pay’s scarce able to feed a mouse
Far less to keep hersel and house
She’s naked, hungry, pale and thin
Workin life out to keep life in

Don’t ca a man a drunken sot
Because he wears a ragged coat
It’s better far, mind, don’t forget
To rin in rags than rin in debt
He may look seedy, very true
But still his creditors are few
And he toddles on, devoid o sin
Workin life out to keep life in

But maybe friens, I’ve stayed ower lang
But I hope I hae said naethin wrang
I only merely want to show
The way the puir folk hae to go
Just look at a man wi a housefu o bairns
To rear them up it taks a’ he earns
Wi a willin heart and a coat gey thin
He’s workin life out to keep life in

Words:
Abune: above
Gey: very
Mind: remember

This song was brought to Sangschule by Gordeanna McCulloch.

The second verse is reminiscent of a poem, “The Song Of the Shirt” by Thomas Hood Verse 1: With fingers weary and worn/ with eyelids heavy and red / A woman sat in unwomanly rags / Plying her needle and thread -/ Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! / In poverty, hunger and dirt / And still with a voice of dolorous pitch / She sang the “Song of the Shirt”.

Published in Punch, 1843, it created a sensation, and was reprinted in newspapers and broadsheets, focusing attention on the exploitation of the poor and particularly of home workers. There were many paintings and illustrations.

Our song appears in John Ord’s Bothy Songs and Ballads, and also in The Greig-Duncan Collection, song no.656, where the note shows that Ord himself sent it to Gavin Greig who received it “Per favour of Superintendant Ord. October 1907.”

John Ord wrote about the song in his column “Byeways of Scottish Song” for The Weekly Welcome, 15th January 1908:
“This song resembles somewhat our modern music hall ditties. I picked it up, both words and tune, upwards of twenty-five years ago from the singing of an old friend, whom I have lost sight of for many years, and Mr James B. Allan, A.L.C.M., Glasgow, has arranged the music for the benefit of the readers of the Welcome. I submitted the song to Mr Gavin Greig M.A., the ex-president of the Buchan Field Club, who is perhaps the highest authority on folk song in Scotland, and he states that the tune is undoubtedly old, but that in his opinion the words are modern.”
Ord’s collection date takes the song back at least to 1883, giving an idea of what Greig meant by “modern.”

John Ord (1861 – 1928) was born in Strathbogie, Aberdeenshire, where his father was a farm servant, according to Adam McNaughtan’s note in Vol.8 of The Greig-Duncan Collection. He rose to distinction as a Superintendant in the City of Glasgow Police but throughout his forty years service he “maintained an interest in his native Strathbogie, returning there for holidays and taking the opportunity to add to his collection of folk songs from the area.” He and Gavin Greig were frequent correspondents. Ord did not live to see the publication of his book although he wrote the introduction.

Martin Carthy sang this song with revised and additional lyrics as “Work Life Out To Keep Life In” on the BBC North West documentary Hard Cash in 1990 and in 1993 on his own compilation Rigs Of The Time (1993) His version has three verses and chorus. The chorus, first and 2nd verses work off the original. He substitutes a verse of his own for the last two. This information and a transcription of his version is on website : www.informatik.unihamburg.de/~zierke/martin.carthy/songs .
Here is verse 1 and chorus according to the website:

Oh the working man as you can see / That is what he was born to be / Married to the working wife/ That is what she’ll be all her life / Never lived beyond their means /Nor sought assistance from their friends

No matter friends whate’er befall / The poor folk they must work or fall / Through frost and snow through sleet and wind / They work life out just to keep life in

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