The lyrics are at the bottom, feel free to skip my pontification and jump right to the good stuff!
Written by the radical Brit, Ewan MacColl, Ballad of Accounting expresses an outcry against the system that is universal enough for many to relate to, but with such engaging imagery that it paints a poignant picture. The verses start of with a chronological hook that, in a few short lines, captures the evolution of optimism into cynicism, into hopelessness, and finally into outrage and action. This can be related to by the listener as both a description of an individual’s trip though life or the journey-of-rude-awakenings by a new member to an organization.
Despite the phases of despair and the relentless outrage measured out in the verses, ultimately the song is a positive call to action, and asks the question that is the central issue in many teleologies: how did you leave the world that you found?
The song also frames issues of oppression in delightfully Anglo ways. Even simple phrases like “keep off the grass”, for example, are immediately understood by all; but within the context of British class-struggle, the phrase has the added layers of connotation of their right-of-way battles of land use that literally carve up the country into the haves and the have-nots.
There are many recordings of this song floating out there, and many more busked about on street corners. My favorite version is Karan Casey’s (of Solas fame) who’s sweet voice provides an interesting counterpoint to the nature of the lyrics. That version is in the mix of the Listen Now rotation on this site, so keep your ears peeled!
If you are keen on learning more about MacColl, check out www.balladofaccounting.org
Ballad of Accounting by Ewan MaColl
In the morning we built the city
In the afternoon walked through its streets
Evening saw us leaving
We wandered through our days as if they would never end
All of us imagined we had endless time to spend
We hardly saw the crossroads and small attention gave
To landmarks on the journey from the cradle to the grave,
cradle to the grave, cradle to the grave
Did you learn to dream in the morning?
Abandon dreams in the afternoon?
Wait without hope in the evening?
Did you stand there in the traces and let ‘em feed you lies?
Did you trail along behind them wearing blinkers on your eyes?
Did you kiss the foot that kicked you, did you thank them for
Did you ask for their forgiveness for the act of being born,
act of being born, act of being born?
Did you alter the face of the city?
Make any change in the world you found?
Or did you observe all the warnings?
Did you read the trespass notices, did you keep off the grass?
Did you shuffle up the pavements just to let your betters pass?
Did you learn to keep your mouth shut, were you seen but never heard?
Did you learn to be obedient and jump to at a word,
jump to at a word, jump to at a word?
Did you demand any answers?
The who and the what and the reason why?
Did you ever question the setup?
Did you stand aside and let ‘em choose while you took second best?
Did you let ‘em skim the cream off and give to you the rest?
Did you settle for the shoddy and did you think it right
To let ‘em rob you right and left and never make a fight,
never make a fight, never make a fight?
What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?
Were you content in the evening?
Did they teach you how to question when you were at the school?
Did the factory help you, were you the maker or the tool?
Did the place where you were living enrich your life and then
Did you reach some understanding of all your fellow men,
all your fellow men, all your fellow men?