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"My pocket’s low and taxes high..."

Songs of Tax Resistance

by DAVID YEARSLEY

A handful of tax resisters lingered outside of the post office in downtown Ithaca on Monday into the early evening when I walked by, my return already filed electronically earlier that day. The protesters formed a small but respectable group, middle-aged and orderly, with clear and sensible placards, and eager to share their views on the ethical necessity for, and practical approaches to, defunding the war machine.

They seemed in good spirits, but I imagined a burst of elation gripping them and a spontaneous outburst of collective song.  It would have had to have been Samuel Webbe’s glee, “My pocket’s are low and taxes high,” a part song whose music and social context demonstrate that the biggest tax resisters are those at the top of the economic spectrum, the very rich and powerful who themselves often reap direct benefits from the military adventures that require the levies that they so loathe.

Webbe was the greatest and most prolific composer of glees and catches, a convivial genre of song descended from the English madrigal that achieved great popularity in Georgian Britain. Webbe was born in London in 1740 but moved to Minorca in the Mediterranean, when his father, a colonial official, was posted there in advance of the Seven Years War. Minorca was one of those British holdings secured by, and crucial to the Royal Navy, and when Webbe’s father died unexpectedly and the Spanish retook the island, Webbe and his family returned to London in sorrow and poverty.

A catholic, Webbe made his way in the musical world, first working as copyist of manuscripts in a music shop and then jobbing as organist in the Sardinian and later the Bavarian Embassy Chapel, “papist” religious establishments, as they were often referred to in the 18th century. His musical education was minimal and ad hoc, acquired at the behest of the Bavarians.

Webbe was a prolific composer of church music, but it was in the rarefied world of aristocratic singing clubs that he made his name. Sir John Hawkins explained the importance of singing clubs his seminal History of Music published in 1776, right in the midst of Webbe’s ascent as the leading glee composer in that form’s golden era:  “in the year 1762 a society for the improvement of vocal harmony, was established, by a great number of the nobility and gentlemen, met for that purpose, at the Thatched House Tower, in St. James’s Street Westminster, by the name of the Catch Club. As incentive to the students in music, they gave prize medals to such as were adjudged to excel in the composition of canons and catches, and rewards of the same kind have been disperse ever since.  These encouragements have contributed greatly to extend the narrow limits of the old harmony.”

The organization’s full name was the Gentlemen’s and Nobelmen’s Catch Club, and Webbe won the first of its medals at the inaugural competition in 1766, and kept on winning the contest – some seventeen times – until 1792. The medal itself was a valuable thing made of gold worth some 10 ducats and minted with an image of Apollo and Bacchus on it and the motto — taken from one of the clubs favorite canons — “Let’s DRINK and let’s SING together.” Webbe was also a powerful bass singer often heard on the London opera stage and this fact must have also endeared him to his more high-born comrades.  So welcome were musical contributions and personal presence that although neither genteleman nor noble, he was made Privileged Member in 1771. In 1784 he became the club’s secretary, holding the post until 1812, when the last Club prize was given; on that occasion, it was awarded for a composition commemorating Webbe’s long years of service.

Webbe composed hundreds of glees, catches, and canons for the club, often writing the texts as well as the music. Among these myriad offerings is one published around 1805 and surviving, among other places in the British Library: “My pocket’s low and taxes are high.”  It allowed the rich and powerful men of the Catch Club to grumble in song about William Pitt the Younger’s first income tax, passed in 1799, to finance British involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. It was an admirably progressive tax, that began on incomes only above the handsome annual sum of £60 in the bracket at under one percent, and moving up to as high as ten percent at the top of the scale.

The income from members of the Catch Club offered a prime revenue source. Not only aristocrats but even royals belonged. Two of George III’s many sons, the Dukes of Cambridge and Cumberland were long-time members of the Catch Club as were many other leading figures in politics and the military. How things have changed: the Windsor boys of each generation have matched their forbears in a talent for debauchery, but apparently not for music.

Scanning the list of members of the period, from Viscount to Earl to the newly wealthy men of empire and industry, it is clear that they could afford to pay the tax. In his glee Webbe gave musical expression to their philosophical and self-interested objections, offering the club a seemingly benign way to vent its distemper. The text, likely by Webbe himself, is a classic of supply-side sentiment, when liberals were still new rather than neo—and still singing to boot:

My pocket’s low and taxes high;

Ah! I could sit me down and cry

But why despair? The times may mend

Our Loyalty shall us befriend.

God save great George our king,

Long live our noble king,

God save our king.

Send him victorious happy and glorious,

Long to reign over us,

God save the king.

Propitious fortune yet may smile

On fair Britannia’s sea-girt isle,

Then poverty shale take her flight,

And we will sing by day and night. God save great George our king,

Long live our noble king,

God save our king.

Send him victorious happy and glorious,

Long to reign over us,

God save the king.

Webbe’s piece bemoans the present and looks forward to the future. The music begins with a long bass solo—perhaps sung by Webbe himself?— in a stricken b-minor, the melody moping downward with the low pocketbook, then reluctantly tramping upward with the “high taxes.” The three upper parts then enter in reluctant counterpoint that claims not to “despair” but clearly does just that. The scoring is for bass, two tenors, and alto, the later sung in falsetto that would have given the lament a keening pathos—a campy style  of singing that continues to be essential to in-drag theatricals of the Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard and the annual musical of the Bohemian Grove in their redwood enclave in Northern California. The dirge then tries its best to do its patriotic duty, with an ironic minor setting of God Save the King. The singers will have to pay, but they won’t do so gladly.

The second verse offers hope of a tax-free future, and flees to the haven of D-major: “Propitious fortune yet may smile.”  The music rouses itself, becoming chordal and united, rather than disparate and aggrieved. One can imagine the sonority booming off the paneling of the Thatched House Tavern where the club continued to meet even during such tax-addled times. Now the second reprise fills the sails of the national anthem with the stiff breeze of prosperity: the best way to enrich the country is to enrich one’s self.

Pitt’s tax generated only about half of the expected receipts. Clearly the wealthiest were not as forthright in the declaration of income as even a state of war might have called for. With Napoleon’s defeat the tax was promptly repealed, and the rich and powerful tried to insist that their records be burned, presumably lest later accountants find economies of truth on the part of the great. That flaming public destruction of tax files took place in 1816, the year of Webbe’s death, and perhaps he was well enough not only to witness the event but also to break into tax-free song with his clubmates. The pockets would be fuller soon.

The Catch Club resisted the tax not only in song, but in their financial declarations and payments. Both methods had their satisfactions.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com