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Pop Culture Picks

EPOCH Editorial Board

Some members of the board have chosen some of their favourite examples of historical popular culture, all the way from the tenth century to the modern day.

The Book of Taliesin: Bardic Poetry from Early Medieval Wales: Ed Moore

Note: - Wales and Welsh are replaced by Cymru and Cymry, respectively.

Book of Taliesin, Aberystwyth, NLW, Peniarth MS 2
Book of Taliesin, Aberystwyth, NLW, Peniarth MS 2

One of my favourite examples of pop culture from history is the bardic works of poetry from early medieval Cymru. While many of these works have been lost due to their oral nature, some have survived to this day through the Book of Taliesin. The Book itself is believed to date back to the early fourteenth century, but it contains poems that go back as far as the tenth century, possibly even earlier. The earliest version of the Book we have is called Peniarth MS 2, which is a manuscript that lacks its cover and a few of its original leaves.

The Book of Taliesin is best known for the prophetic poem Armes Prydein Vawr (The Great Prophesy of Britain), which depicts the Brythonic peoples, Gaels, and even Vikings from Dublin uniting under the leadership of the Cymry to permanently drive the Anglo-Saxons from Britain. This sentiment likely still resonates in certain communities in Cymru to this day.

Uthyr Pendragon, Aberystwyth, Peniarth MS 23C
Uthyr Pendragon, Aberystwyth, Peniarth MS 23C

Additionally, the Book contains some of the earliest sources of Arthurian legend, including Marwnat Vthyr Pen (The Elegy of Uthyr Pen(dragon)). It also provides valuable insights into the semi-mythical kingdom of Rheged, mostly through a series of praise poems to its first known king, Urien Rheged.

Meliadus talking to King Urien, MS 12228
Meliadus talking to King Urien, MS 12228

Overall, the Book and its poems offer a fascinating collection of early medieval poetry. They not only serve as crucial sources for understanding the period but also stand as a testament to the oral bardic tradition of Cymru.

'The Grumbling Hive' from The Fable of the Bees: Dabeoc Stanley

The frontispiece of The Fable of the Bees, 1714.
The frontispiece of The Fable of the Bees, 1714.

Bernard Mandeville’s poem The Grumbling Hive is amongst my favourite items of pop culture from history. A scandalous sensation first published as a quarto pamphlet in 1705, the poem was reprinted as part of The Fable of the Bees in 1714 and remained extremely popular throughout the eighteenth century. Flicking through the pages and you quickly find out why: it is a gloriously witty and scathing satire of the prevailing moral norms of the time, all packaged in the charming guise of human-like bees struggling with the calamitous consequences of choosing to abandon sin and live lives of virtue.

The Grumbling Hive is fascinating to look at as a historian of crime because Mandeville portrays the bees as corrupt, scheming, villainous, immortal, but happy and thriving. Indeed, he argued that it was exactly this illegal and illicit behaviour which drove their success. As the poem states:

‘Such were the Blessings of that State; Their Crimes conspired to make ‘em Great; And Vertue, who from Politicks Had learn’d a Thousand cunning Tricks, Was, by their happy Influence, Made Friends with Vice: And ever since The Worst of all the Multitude Did something for the common Good.’

Mandeville’s verses speak to the discourses about smuggling, crime, and vice in eighteenth century popular culture – illuminating the rich debate waged in ephemeral print media on the streets outside of the halls of power. I would argue, therefore, that The Grumbling Hive should be a must-read for anyone keen to participate in the wonderful world of eighteenth-century popular culture – or indeed anyone who enjoys a bawdy animal-themed defence of sin.

Bob Dylan's 'Maggie's Farm': Amy Louise Smith

We have a tendency to think of music as one thing – a ‘piece’ of music – made permanent and immovable by the process of recording. Folk musicians have lamented the ubiquity of recording as an end to the natural exchange and dialogue of oral cultures. The example I have chosen shows that modern music is still fluid, dynamic, and reactive: Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’, from the 1965 album Bringing it all Back Home, once called ‘counterculture’s war cry’.

It is a blues song, and despite being electric, has Dylan’s characteristic twang. It is fast-paced and communicates frustration and resentment while offering hope for the future. Fans have many readings: some have suggested that it speaks to Dylan’s reluctance to remain pigeonholed as a folk singer (‘Maggie’s Farm’ was performed at his first electric set). Yet, the history of the song and its continued reuse and reference speaks to victims of differing economic fortunes. For listeners in the '60s, ‘Maggie’s Farm’ reflects the frustrations of industrial working-class America who are witnessing, but not yet benefiting from, the country’s meteoric post-war boom.

Musicologists largely agree that ‘Maggie’s Farm’ was itself based upon the traditional song ‘Penny’s Farm’ (first recorded in 1929, and later by Pete Seegar). The tune and refrain are also recognisable as the song ‘Hard Times’, which dates back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. Dylan has another adaptation of this song – ‘Hard Times in New York Town’ (1961).

In the 80s, ‘Maggie’s Farm’ enjoyed a renaissance as a protest song. The Blues Band adapted the song to critique and satirise Margaret Thatcher’s government, and many others quoted the song to the same effect. Mark Knopfler paraphrased the song in ‘Why Aye Man’, which is about the exodus of labourers to Germany that decade, as a result of Thatcher’s policies: ‘We had the back of Maggie’s hand’, he sings, ‘Nae more work on Maggie’s farm.’

Over the years it has also been referenced or recorded by bands like the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. It was also, supposedly, a favourite of Barack Obama during his presidential campaign.

The most recent adaptation, the 2012 Goodnight, Texas song, titled ‘I’m Going to Work on Maggie’s Farm Forever’, has an altogether different tone. The singer is resigned to his role, slaving away on Maggie’s farm. It evokes the end of an era. America is only a few years out of the worst recession in almost a hundred years. The realities of class and poverty now seem insurmountable to a generation whose outlook is markedly different to that of their parents.

Pride, dir. by Matthew Warchus (20th Century Fox, 2014): Karianne Robinson

When I was asked to write a few words about my favourite piece of popular culture, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk about Pride (2014). The film – directed by Matthew Warchus - tells the true story of an unlikely relationship that developed between the residents of a small mining village in South Wales and a group of London-based gay and lesbian activists during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Pride deftly depicts the complex layering of identities – gender, sexuality, class, nationality, age – present amongst these two communities. The adversity they experienced and the support they provided for each other makes this a film which is both heart-warming and, at times, heart-breaking to watch.

Members of LGSM after a film showing of Pride, 2015.
Members of LGSM after a film showing of Pride, 2015. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Pride is part of a small genre of films that explores the nature of working-class masculinity against the backdrop of industrial unrest and decline in the late twentieth century. It keeps company with the likes of Brassed Off (1996), Billy Elliot (2000) – both also set during the 1984-85 miners’ strike – and The Full Monty (1997). Whilst these films may look to the past, as with all cultural representations of historical events, they are equally revealing of the period in which they were made. The success – perhaps even the production – of Pride is a marker of the changes that have taken place in British society with regards to sexuality since the 1980s.

Green Day's American Idiot: Will Garbett

Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot is a great example of historical pop culture. Published towards the end of President George W. Bush’s first term, the record’s themes – war, the political right, urban decay – speak to its immediate context of production. However, these themes also speak to aspects of history, in America and further afield, in the last sixty years. This is what makes it so interesting: not only is American Idiot a representation of its own time and place, but it also calls to mind other times and places. The former is an important route into thinking about and remembering the past. The latter is an important part of recontextualising the past and using it to understand our own lives. The record takes on a life of its own, speaking to our experiences of our own towns and cities, our own politics and politicians, our own television wars.

US Marines in Fallujah, Iraq, 7 April 2004 (Public Domain). To Will’s mind, the image recalls the music video for ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends.’
US Marines in Fallujah, Iraq, 7 April 2004 (Public Domain). To Will’s mind, the image recalls the music video for ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends.’


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