This performance from the English Folk Expo (EFEx) caught me by surprise, as I had never heard of the group Coven before. But I love surprises, and in truth, a sound man for EFEx, Tom Stanier assured me that I would be “blown away.” Which I was. This was the opening song of the concert: “Bread and Roses.”
Coven is a feminist collective, made up of three well known acts: Lady Maisery, O’Hooley and Tidow, and activist-singer Grace Petrie. The words of the song (which merit close listening) reference a women’s textile worker’s strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They were written in 1912, by James Oppenheim, who was inspired by a speech given at the march by Rose Schneiderman containing the statement “the worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” It’s a wonderful sentiment that elevates the class struggle from purely physical survival, to emotional survival as well. (As stated, “hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread and give us roses!”)
The poem has been set to music by artists as disparate as Mimi Fariña to John Denver, but here the music is by coven-member Rowan Rheingans. The arrangement is impressive too; I especially like Belinda O’Hooley’s chord voicings.
I am including the original lyrics with only the minor (but understandable) changes by Ms. Rheingans, in italics.
As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.
As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are women’s children and our victory is their gain
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.
As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.
As we go marching, marching, the future hears our call
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.
The performance was part of the Manchester Folk Festival, which works in conjunction with EFEx.