Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
Julian Gaskell playing the accordion while wearing a bowler hat and mid 20th century clothing.

Burial Club – Julian Gaskell & his Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Julian Gaskell digs into a broadside ballad about burial clubs, and tells us where he went with it and what attracted him in the first place.

I found ‘Burial Club’ during one of many dives into the world of the Bodleian library broadside collection. I particularly enjoy browsing ballads by theme and on this particular excursion I was looking at ‘funerals’, and there it was. I am unable to find any further information about this ballad, other than that it appears on a number of different broadside prints from the mid-19th century (25 results on VWML). No tune is indicated and I can find no other references to the ballad. However, it led me to some interesting research into burial clubs.

By throwing these old works back into performance we can highlight some of the hectoring and judgemental behaviour which is still around us today.

Julian Gaskell

What were burial clubs?

Burial clubs were popular in the 19th century as a way of saving up to cover the costs of your funeral (or that of a family member), avoiding the indignity of a pauper’s grave. This would have been something that was used by poor people rather than those who knew they could afford a funeral, and as such there were accusations and assumptions of fraud and of ‘cheating the system’, such as families with sick children subscribing to multiple clubs to cash in on their children’s death. There also seems to have been a loophole in the law whereby a death certificate (which was what was required to get the payout) could be obtained just by asking the registrar – no proof of death was required – so it is believed that many false claims were made in this way.

Exploring the song

The ballad ‘Burial Club’ [Roud V4033] takes a typically hectoring Victorian broadside view of a couple seeking to defraud a burial club for a “jolly blow out”.  The husband pays a crown and signs up to the club, the wife goes and claims the money, they throw a party “to show how genteel I had been”, the wife dances and flirts with another “cove” called Joe and wishes the husband was actually dead, then a “man in black… like the devil in search of his grub”, from the burial club, rudely interrupts the fun. The unhappy couple gets 12 months each for defrauding the club.

Interpreting the song

I wanted to go with the slightly more macabre story which is heavily hinted at, in which the husband actually ends up murdered, and so I missed out the last verse and added the ‘soul’ to the Devil’s “I’ve come for the soul of the man wot is dead, I belong to the Burial Club!” I edited the first four verses down into two verses to get the story moving faster as a song; apart from this, the verses are pretty much straight from the broadside. I took the liberty of adding a howling chorus to break up the narrative, with “is nothing in this life enough? You can fool some folks in this world sometimes but you won’t fool the Burial Club” and “contempt is all we get from above” to underline the judgemental tone and supernatural aspects for the folks at the back of the room…

They’re rather like a musical One Show with topical songs on airships, strikes, Frank Sinatra, etc.  

Julian Gaskell

One of the things I particularly like about a ballad like this is that it is quite a blank slate musically – it doesn’t sound particularly traditional or folky; it seems to sit much more in the vernacular, popular or comedy side of the broadsides. This lyric strongly suggested a New Orleans street jazz funeral groove to me, or perhaps a calypso. What we ended up with is a bit of both; the violin and banjo tip a nod towards Wilmoth Houdini’s brass lines, and the drums and accordion are attempting a funereal jazz swagger (within the limitations of playing both at the same time as singing!) I can definitely see a connection between mid-20th century calypso and broadside ballads in the type of storytelling, rather like a musical One Show with topical songs on airships, strikes, Frank Sinatra, etc.  

This brings me back to why I am interested in these ballads in the first place. Many of the songs I am drawn to seem superficial and ephemeral, and bring to mind social media, daytime television, populist podcasts and so on. I like to think that by throwing these old works back into performance we can highlight some of the hectoring and judgemental behaviour which is still around us today, and if not that at least enjoy a good old yarn involving death and booze.

‘Burial Club’ is taken from Broadside Bangers Vol.2. Find out more about Julian Gaskell & his Ragged Trousered Philanthropists via juliangaskell.co.uk. Forthcoming live dates include Green Note (Camden, Feb 4th), The Bell (Bath, Feb 5th), and The Poly (Falmouth, Feb 24th).