11/30/2014 07:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Carol for Our Times: The Melrose Quartet Perform 'Sing John Ball' (VIDEO)


As a music journalist it may seem out of place to bring up the socio-political issues of the day. But in the music that I have recently covered at the English Folk Expo, I found this song whose words and music stir me, and drove me to think about who we are and what we stand for as a species.

It's a great song, written by Sydney Carter about the revolutionary cleric John Ball who preached against the class system. His sermons were a rallying cry for the Peasant Revolt of 1381.

In Ball's own words:

"From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by.... unjust oppression.... And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty."

These were radical thoughts for a time when Church, Manor and Monarchy were the only systems, and the working class were starving while the royalty feasted. The rebellion was harshly put down. Ball was drawn and quartered and his severed limbs put on display as a caution to anyone who might think to challenge the powers of the day.

But Ball's words are remarkably close to the words of our own founding fathers, 400 years later. As an American attending the English Folk Expo, I found myself deeply moved by this song and its back story, and thinking about it repeatedly. It was also by far, the most often sung tune of the event.

The version I have chosen to post is by the glorious Melrose Quartet. These four people presented such a strong show that I truly wanted to stop my camcorders and just enjoy myself. In fact, this video only exists because I HAD stopped shooting, and then started with my handheld again.

A Carol for Our Times: The Melrose Quartet perform "Sing John Ball" from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

For all the hope and idealism of the lyrics of Carter's anthemic song, the reality is that we all carry within us the primal hard wiring that seeks to subjugate the "other." Perhaps it is a survival mechanism, but whether by a fluke of birth, race, wealth or brute force, there will always be a battle between the predators and the prey, the haves and have-nots, or simply, "us" vs "them." Even the victims of yesterday can become the oppressors of today; no one is exempt. It is why all spirituality attempts to connect us to each other, to see the face of the godhead in the face of the stranger, and to become better than the isolated, selfish creatures we are.

It is the toughest commandment; "to be ruled by the love of one another," but these days it is one we need to carry forth beyond the Holidays and into every day, and to everyone. It may even be a more relevant survival strategy in the long run. To quote a founding father "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

The Concert at the Main Stage was part of the Homegrown Festival, a joint venture between the
The Met Arts Center and the EFEx

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