Songwriting Using Historical Research

I had the pleasure of contributing to the “Creating MyCambridge” project, which uses songs and poetry to teach children about their local history in fun and interactive ways. 

Creating My Cambridge is curated by the amazing Helen Weinstein from Historyworks. Helen has brought together enormous talent including acclaimed children’ poet Michael Rosen, song writers from Horrible Histories, and a top team of educators that regularly visit and lead workshops in the local primary schools. For many of the students, their only exposure to music in school is through the songs that the History Works team presents.

I was asked to contribute “something about the navvies that used to work near Stourbridge Common or at the Stourbridge Fair”. In preparation, Helen, whom is a professor of history at the University of Cambridge, arranged a tour of the Cambridgeshire resources at the Central Library. So with that, I spent three mornings in the city library researching archives back to the sixteenth century related to a field near Cambridge that happened to be the site of medieval Europe’s largest annual trading fair.

The Cambridge Navvies

After compiling facts about the Cambridge-based navvies such as how they built the local canals in the 18th-century and the first railway station in the 19th century, I investigated fun facts to bring out the personal stories of the navvies. For example, when the railway workers used the dilapidated 1000-year old local church as their pub in the evening or how the “central” Cambridge railway station was built one mile from the centre of Cambridge because the University was concerned about the noise and possibility that students might use it to visit home for the weekend. I put my navvy fun-facts and technical terms into song lyrics and composed a catchy tune that was later arranged for three-part children’ choir by Bethany Kirby.

Verse 1

The Nav-vies were men who made the can-als,

For twelve hours a day they’d sweat with their pals,

Movin’ twenty tonnes of earth in a barrow up a plank,

And leavin’ it all at the top of the bank.

Verse 2

The navvies were men who laid the train tracks,

Cutting through hills with a pick and an axe,

Lay-in’ the ties and covered them with stones.

Sun burning their skin and wind freezing their bones.

Verse 3

When the whistle would blow, they’d off to their homes,

Built near the tracks so they’d not far to go.

For wages they’d get beef and a gallon of beer..

Then they’d drink and they’d stink all with a very good cheer.

Verse 4

When they got near to Cambridge, they ran into a bind,

The colleges they said, (suddenly whispering) “noisy navvies must pay a fine”

(a little louder) So the navvies built the station a mile out of town…(loud again)

Where they wouldn’t disturb all the men in their gowns.

Well our train tracks and boat paths are amazingly loooooong (hold this note until everyone turns blue)

Built by the navvies, our heroes of song!