The Moving On Song

by Ewan MacColl (1915 –1989)

Born in the middle o the afternoon
In a horse-drawn wagon on the old A5
The big twelve-wheeler shook my bed
“You can’t stop here” the policeman said

“You’d better get born in some place else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go, Move, Shift”

Born at the tattie liftin time
In an old bell tent near a tattie field
The fairmer says “The work’s a’ done,
It’s time that you were movin on”

Born on a common near a building site
Where the ground is rutted wi tractor wheels
The local people said tae me
“You lower the price o property”

Born at the back of a blackthorn hedge
Wi the white hoar frost lyin all around
No eastern kings came bearing gifts
Instead the order came to shift

Wagon, tent or trailer born
Last week, last year, or in far-off days
Born here or a thousand miles away
There’s always men nearby who’ll say

“You’d better get born in some place else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go, Move, Shift”

Tattie: potato
Tattie liftin: potato harvest
Twelve-wheeler: huge lorry

This song was brought to Sangschule by Eileen Penman, singer/songwriter and until 2010 a member of the four-part Scottish women’s harmony group Stairheid Gossip. Based in Edinburgh, Eileen has many protest songs in her repertoire as well as traditional Scots songs.

This song written in 1960 formed part of a BBC radio documentary called The Travelling People, one of the series of Radio Ballads created by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger with the support of producer Charles Parker in the 1950s and 60s.

The format created for the series overturned the convention of using actors to read a written script, and used instead “actuality”, the actual recorded words of the people interviewed, slotted in with songs written by MacColl which also captured the words and thoughts of the people whose story it was.

MacColl said in his autobiography, Journeyman, that the experience of travellers made a perfect Radio Ballad subject. Travellers “possessed many skills of which rural society made use from time to time. Consequently, when they were needed they were tolerated. When they were not needed they were driven away.”

MacColl and Peggy Seeger spent time living with travellers and recording their stories with the help of singer and settled traveller Belle Stewart. She introduced them to family and friends who would otherwise have been guarded with outsiders.

When programme producer Charles Parker set off to do the same, Peggy told him:
“Ask them to tell you about particular instances in which they’ve been ‘moved on’, or shifted. It’ll be a river you can’t block, the torrent of words and stories.” Peter Cox quotes Peggy in his book Set Into Song and goes on to quote traveller Minty Smith, recorded in Kent “on what Peggy described as a horrific piece of wet land they had been dragged to”:

“ I was expecting one of my children, you know, one of my babies, and my husband’s sent for the midwife and in the time he was going after the midwife the policeman come along. Come on, he says, get a move on. Shift on, he says, don’t want you on here, on my beat. So my husband says: Look, he says sir, let me stay, he says, my wife is going to have a baby. No, don’t matter about that, he says, you get off. They made my husband move, and my baby was born going along and my husband’s stayed in the van and my baby was born on the crossroads in my caravan. The horse was in harness and we was travelling along and the policeman was following behind, drumming us off and the child was born, born at the crossroads.”

Her story came early into the programme and led naturally to the opening song, “The Moving On Song”.