On Friday 21 October, I went to see Three Acres And A Cow, A History Of Land Rights And Protest In Folk Song And Story, featuring Robin Grey, Rachel Rose Reid, and Naomi Wilkins.
Three Acres And A Cow connects the Norman Conquest and Peasants’ Revolt with current issues like fracking, the housing shortage, transition towns, and food sovereignty. It covers the history of primitive accumulation through the Enclosures, sheep farming, the English Civil War, the Irish potato famine, and the Industrial Revolution, drawing a compelling narrative through the radical people’s history of the British Isles in folk song, stories and poems. It’s part TED talk, part history lecture, part folk club singalong, part poetry slam, part storytelling session.
“Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations. Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”
It is the second time I have seen the show, and I loved it just as much the second time as I did the first time. There were new songs and new information, plus a surprise cameo by the inspiring Peggy Seeger, who performed Hey Ho Cook and Rowe and Carry Greenham Home. The first was about a rent strike in the 1960s, and the second about the protests at the Greenham Common airbase in the 1980s.
One of the key features of the show is the Washing Line of History, which is a wonderfully Brechtian prop. It starts out with three or four things on it, representing all the history that most people remember from school (if you’re English, that would be 1066, the Norman Conquest; the Tudors and Stuarts, 1600s, and the Second World War). As the show progresses, it gets filled in with stories from the history of land rights and protest: the great Norman land grab, Enclosure, Wool and Sheep, Plague, trade wars and the Peasants’ Revolt, Enclosure, inflation, Henry VIII and the Monasteries, The English Civil War and the Diggers, Constitutional monarchy, poaching, food riots and the breakdown of the moral economy, the Parliamentary Enclosures, the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites and Swing riots, the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and early coops/unions, the beginnings of social housing, Ireland & Scotland, the Land Reform movement, Rent strikes and rent controls, Access to countryside, Post WW2 rural migration, agribusiness and CAP, new towns, Recent land protest and reform movements, the Via Campesina, Land Workers Alliance and the food sovereignty movement.
Another thing I loved about the show was its historical accuracy. I went to see The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s history show once, and was bitterly disappointed as it was not about history at all, and had a number of glaring errors in it. Three Acres And A Cow is about proper history, real things happening to real people, and the real struggle for land and resources. It presents an alternative perspective to the Whig Interpretation of History (which is, in part, the idea that the ruling classes will give us our rights eventually, if we just wait quietly and politely, because progress is inevitable).
The opportunity to sing along with the performers is also completely lovely. They teach everyone the chorus before starting the song, so it is proper audience participation. The singing along is part of the show’s collaborative and autodidactic philosophy (again, very Brechtian). There is also poetry, magnificently performed by Rachel Rose Reid (both her own work and a poem by John Clare).
These protest folk songs are an important part of our collective social history. They encapsulate moments in the struggle for freedom and land rights, and present an alternative perspective to history as written by the victors.
“Changing the story isn’t enough in itself, but it has often been foundational to real changes. Making an injury visible and public is usually the first step in remedying it, and political change often follows culture, as what was long tolerated is seen to be intolerable, or what was overlooked becomes obvious. Which means that every conflict is in part a battle over the story we tell, or who tells and who is heard.”
The main premise of the show is that since land is a finite resource, as the ruling classes grabbed more and more of it (the process of primitive accumulation), there were more and more displaced peasants, who could then be exploited in factories in the Industrial Revolution, or as soldiers in wars of colonial conquest (grabbing more land and resources for the ruling classes to exploit). Viewed from the perspective of land rights, the history of England (and of other countries) has largely been a struggle to get land back from the ruling classes, with varying success.
If you get a chance to see the show, or invite them to perform at a venue near you, go for it! Your perspective on history will be transformed, and you will have a whole load of lovely protest songs to perform around the campfire or on protest marches. And have a look at their very informative website and wiki, where you can explore the history in more depth.
Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. Her most recent book is “All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca”. She has also written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.