I remember one of the first times I wrote an article for a newspaper – a story that I thought needed the benefit of my historical knowledge – and a more experienced friend gently suggested that ‘Three hundred years ago…’ maybe wasn’t the best way to begin a news story.
So it’s a testament to the power of The World Turned Upside Down that the song can open with the words ‘In 1649…’ and still feel like it was ripped from the headlines.
The song tells the story of the Diggers, a radical group led by the visionary Gerard Winstanley who set up what was effectively an agricultural commune at St George’s Hill near Weybridge in Surrey amid the tumult of the English revolution. (Winstanley appears at 3:54 in this clip from the 1970s film of the same name.) Their experiment was short-lived, destroyed by the violent opposition of local landowners.
Billy Bragg dragged the Diggers back front and centre by recording the song as part of his Between the Wars EP, released towards the end of the momentous miners’ strike in 1985, another heroic defeat for the left.
The World Turned Upside Down, though, was written 10 years earlier by Leon Rosselson who had been crafting radical and satirical songs since the 1960s. The title is taken from Christopher Hill’s history of radical 17th-century political and religious movements. I didn’t know Rosselson’s version at the time and after Billy Bragg’s fiery delivery and the punky clang of his guitar, Rosselson’s gentler, folky style feels a little sedate.
But it was Rosselson who took Winstanley’s words – that the earth should be ‘a common treasury for all’ – and put them at the heart of his song. The result is a history lesson, a rallying cry and an unlikely pop song.
If Rosselson felt overshadowed by Bragg’s version, which went to No15 in the charts, he was gracious about it. ‘Some people think that it’s a folk song,’ he observed. ‘Or that it was written by Billy Bragg. Which is, I suppose, fame of a sort.’
Several others have performed versions of the song, including Roy Bailey and Dick Gaughan. Rosselson and Bailey teamed up for its first recorded rendition with Martin Carthy on guitar on the album That's Not The Way It's Got To Be in 1975. Chumbawamba also recorded it although they irked Rosselson by changing the line ‘we need no swords’ to ‘we take up swords’. (Rosselson’s own version does, though, include the implied threat of ‘You poor take courage/ You rich take care’.)
St George’s Hill, the site of the Diggers’ communistic enterprise, had by the 20th century become a luxury enclave, a golf course surrounded by the mansions of the rich. John Lennon bought a house there, Kenwood, after the Beatles moved south from Liverpool (George and Ringo lived just down the road).
The Lennon link feels appropriate because one way of looking at The World Turned Upside Down is as a less syrupy version of Imagine. Where Lennon’s song invites listeners to ‘Imagine no possessions … Imagine there’s no countries’, Rosselson (channeling Winstanley, sung by Bragg) talks of ‘All things in common, all people one’. They are both exercises in idealism but while one is an invitation to wishful thinking, the other celebrates people who put their ideals into action.
The line ‘… and no religion too’ has only grown in relevance since Lennon wrote it, but The World Turned Upside Down, conceived in the terms of an age when atheism was barely a concept, is much more specific about its religious objections: ‘The clergy dazzle us with heaven/ Or they damn us into hell/ We will not worship the god they serve/ The god of greed who feeds the rich while poor men starve.’
It would be nice to think that Lennon had picked up on some of the history of his country estate and that some of that spirit permeated the writing of his best-selling single. Nice, but unlikely. (Disappointingly, the mansion in the Imagine video is not Kenwood but Tittenhurst Park, Lennon’s subsequent home near Ascot.) Regardless, a combination of Leon Rosselson and Billy Bragg have ensured that the Diggers’ name survives in popular culture. As the song says: ‘They were dispersed but still the vision lingers on.’
Watching this summer’s World Cup I couldn’t help feeling that rather than sending out the England players to the strains of the dismal, forelock-tugging dirge that passes for the national anthem, The World Turned Upside Down might make a more stirring alternative. There again, perhaps English football already has enough heroic defeats of its own.
Chris Taylor works for the Guardian US and is the author of The Black Carib Wars: Freedom, Survival and the Making of the Garifuna and The Beautiful Game: A Journey Through Latin American Football