Can You Wonder At Crime?

from by James Bell

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As far as I can tell this is a Victorian music hall song. I tracked down the tune from an American version - but it was in a major key. Perhaps a song this angry needed jolly music to make it palatable to a music hall audience, I don’t know. Generally speaking, angry polemic tends to go down better with a little sugar.

But I shifted it into the minor, because that seemed more in keeping with the words; although I admit that it’s perhaps less authentic to the spirt of music hall.

Now, maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place, but I spent a long time looking for old English protest songs in the vein of the American twentieth century folk singers, and I simply can’t find them anywhere. There are songs of protest, but they’re not these general calls to arms; they’re nearly always specific, about a specific political issue.

Here the song’s author lets rip with both barrels at the greed and hypocrisy of ‘John Bull’, the caricature of the typical English gent that proved so popular in Victorian magazines like Punch.

And I think it’s tempting to draw parallels with England today, but the situation is actually very different: crime rates seem to be falling decade on decade (regardless of which political party is in charge), our banks are not as full as can hold anymore, and I personally think that there would be much better ways of helping those in need than simply ‘scattering gold’ (which, in a crime-ridden society, would probably go straight to the ‘rogues on the stool’).

What the song does illustrate, though, is a long English tradition of passionate campaigning for social justice. And that, I believe, is a tradition that’s worth holding on to.


I've been thinking, of late I've been thinking
And my thoughts I can scarcely divine,
I've been thinking why people should wonder,
At London's great increase in crime.
Cries good old John Bull, “It's a poser,
There's something I can't understand,
And I'd fork out a trifle to know, sir,
Why crime should increase in our land ;
We've peace, we have plenty of gold, sir,
Our banks are as full as can hold, sir,
We can buy up the world, so I'm told, sir,
Yet still there's an increase of crime.”

It's quite true what you say, Mr. Bull, sir,
We have riches in heaps stowed away,
Mouldy with age and mildew, sir,
Guarded by night and by day,
But like the ill-natured dog in the manger,
Your gold to yourself to confine,
Where a little would make a great change, sir,
In our terrible increase in crime.
For expenses you don't care a jot, sir,
You feed German princes the lot, sir,
While the poor man with hunger may rot, sir,
Mr. Bull, can you wonder at crime?

Can you wonder at crime any longer,
When you see the police on their beat
Preventing the poor costermongers
From earning their bread in the street ;
While the rogue on the stool he stands grinning
At the broad open face of the day,
Your pocket he will pick for a shilling,
And the law cannot touch him, he'll say.
He defies all the East End Division,
He laughs with contempt and derision,
While you send the poor coster to prison -
Mr. Bull, can you wonder at crime?

I am sure you will own, Mr. Bull, sir,
Temptation is hard to resist ;
Look at our poor needle girls, sir,
Trying their best to exist ;
Can you wonder at their prostitution,
When blood-sucking forms barely give
Enough to ward off destitution ;
A girl, though she's poor, she must live.
The poor needle girl, God defend her
With feelings as keen and as tender
As your proud city ladies remember -
Mr. Bull, can you wonder at crime?

Just think when you're drinking your wine, sir,
How the poor of England are fed,
While you with your rich friends can dine, sir,
It's a godsend for them to get bread ;
Just visit the house of the poor, sir,
Such a sight you will rarely behold,
The fever dens go and explore, sir,
And scatter your hoarded up gold ;
For a little would soon break asunder
The chain that the poor suffer under,
Go listen to the great pang of hunger,
And never more wonder at crime.


from Joy & Jealousy, released November 5, 2013
Traditional arranged by James Bell.



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James Bell Oxford, UK

Recording artist. Singer. Guitarist. Songwriter. Producer. Performer of traditional English music. Not interested in being famous. Very interested in making good music. Prone to stubbornly ignore the advice of friends in the pursuit of a singular and unique artistic vision, only to admit in a couple of years that, yeah, okay, that particular thing didn’t really work. ... more

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