Lyrical Assistance

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Kewangji
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Lyrical Assistance

Postby Kewangji » Fri Aug 28, 2015 10:30 pm UTC

Dear everybody,

I've been listening to this song since it came out three years ago (not continuously) and there are a few bits of the lyrics that I'm just not getting. I'm asking y'all to help me rap-genuis this thing. This is a noble quest and probably people from the North of England, Northumberland specifically, would be very helpful. But I'll take any help I can get by this point. I've emailed the band and they did not reply, possibly because no-one reads fan-mail, possibly because they're humans and meant to do it but forgot. Please help me understand this haunting song. Here is the song:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7GSI-4yZKg

Here are the almost complete lyrics, annotated to the best of my knowledge.


The Unthanks, Black Trade wrote:All you welders and riveters and boiler-smiths and plate-men1
You gaugers2 and pipe-fitters, sparks3 and sheet-metalworkers
You riggers and copper-smiths, red letters4 and hard drinkers
Cailers and laquers5, you pullers and tappers6


1 All good so far. It's a list of blue collar jobs in the docks. I'm guessing a plate-man fastens plates, or maybe fashions them.
2 A gauger is someone who inspects "dutiable bulks" in the loading/unloading-process of ships coming and going.
3 A spark could be someone who cuts metal with a blowtorch?
4 I read somewhere, once, that red-letter men were slightly above most workers in the hierarchy and did some of the supervising/inspection, but all I can find when I google this now is that red-letter men has to do with red-letter days, i.e. holidays, so red-letter men would be saints. I think that bit is unlikely .
5 What is a cailer? I'm sure I've misheard or spelt this wrong or misunderstood the accent. Maybe it's a failure of imagination on my part, or a failure of depth on this wide wide web, but I can't find a plausible mention of any variation of this word if I search for it. I've spelt it an obviously wrong way here for that purpose. Also very uncertain about 'laquers'.
6 Maybe it's "dappers," as one version of the lyrics states on a Chinese site, or something.

Half seven horners7, you crawl as a mob
From the gates into hell with a tab in your gob8
Eight9 bucks10 a piece, poke a hammer and dab11
A day lasts a lifetime and life is a job
When you’re black trade
You’re just black trade12


7 The horn blows at half past seven and everyone drops their work. I think 'horner' is a verb here, probably?
8 Obviously work is hell. What is the tab in their mouth(s)? When I hear this I imagine that the workers are drinking beer straight from the tap, but I realize typing this out that the sound is possibly a b rather than a p. On the other hand it's very hard to sing "tap," so. Please speculate rampantly.
9 If I focus when I listen I hear 'bait' instead.
10 Does "bucks" mean money in Northumberland? ...What even is the rest of this? Is it a stoop of beer that costs eight bucks? Or is it a baitbox?
11 I am almost certain I've got this wrong because I can't imagine what it means.
12 Black trade refers to all the jobs mentioned in the chorus. Specifically I think it's people who work with iron in the shipyard. I don't think the "black" is the same as in the black market (i.e. not taxed labour), or but a case could be made for it. I've read a bunch of discussions on it, and the theme of metal seems to ring truest to me. But I am so much not an expert.

Your family needs you to do as needs must
To the mercy of metal and madness you trust
In the keels and the girders, tappers13 and dust
And a deadly concoction of sweat, fumes, and rust14
‘Cause you’re black trade
You’re just black trade


13 Keels and girders are parts of the inner structure of a ship, where the craftsmen work on the ship in this image. A tapper here is perhaps not the same tapper as in the chorus, if that indeed is a tapper. I think it's a part of piping here, rather than a profession or a descriptor of a handsome man, at any rate.
14 Another song on the album laments asbestosis in an almost ring-around-the-rosie way.

[chorus]

The bane of your life lies there snug in the slips15
She’s round at the stern and she’s wide at the hips
She’s proud in the bow and a pout on her lips16
Says this country's an island and an island needs ships
And you’re black trade
You’re just black trade


15 From Merriam Webster: Slip, n. "a sloping ramp extending out into the water to serve as a place for landing or repairing ships."
16 Comparing a ship to a woman, even specifically a wife, is an old metaphor. A ship is always "she" and not "it". Nothing shocking here, I think. The idea of a wife slowly sucking the life out of her husband is also old hat, I think.

And the draftsmen and joiners17 come all spick and span
With their overalls creased, shirt and tie, to a man18
When you’re up to your eyes in the plateliest tan19
You’ll be fitting in with them one day if you can
‘Cause you’re black trade
You’re just black trade


17 A draftsman is someone who draws up the blueprints for machines and ships, I think. A joiner joins pieces of wood and bulds things that way. I guess they're higher up in the hierarchy because they work with wood and not metal (and therefore less deadly fumes and stuff?)
18 I'm very uncertain here. Pretty sure I'm Mondegreening something. Also pretty sure there are some dropped letters that I can't fill in myself. Pretty sure that it ends on a prepositional phrase such as "to ..." and that it has to do with the verb "come" in the previous line, but more than that I cannot say.
19 I confess I have no idea what's going on in this line. Even less so than the last one. I can't make sense out of the sounds that come after "eyes." When you're up to your eyes in the previous town? When you're up to your eyes in her, 'pletely as tan?No, none of that, but it has to be /something/.

[chorus]

You’re just black trade [x4]




If this goes well perhaps other people also need lyrical assistance and I'd be happy to lend my hand at that. If it doesn't go well, I will be sad. This is my last resort. Y'all are smart. Make me proud.
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby poxic » Fri Aug 28, 2015 10:45 pm UTC

Uneducated free-association suggests that plate-men get plate-tans. Working with metal grinders will tend to cover you in finely ground bits of metal. Presumably one who did the most metal-grinding would get the most plately tan.

I have no idea whether plate-men do grinding, but it's a possible connection.

Apropos of not much, I did an image search for people covered in grinding flotsam. One of the terms I tried was "metal grinding man". Lo, this was on the first page.

On drafters/joiners: if they are higher-ups and don't get dirty, then the trousers of their overalls might have a sharp crease from ironing. Matches the notion of them wearing shirts and ties - they only get overall'd up when they're visiting the worksite.

Other musings: a joiner as defined in various places seems to inhabit a workshop, doing small pieces that are then sent out to be added to larger constructions. If that's the case, they'll run less risk of death and injury than someone who is welding in place where large hunks of material are being craned around.
Last edited by poxic on Fri Aug 28, 2015 10:52 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby Deva » Fri Aug 28, 2015 10:50 pm UTC

8: Assumed a bar tab. Guesses a larger, perpetual debt, in this case.
15/16: Perhaps a ship’s figurehead, also.
18: Heard “to a man” before. Means all of them have creased overalls, shirt, and a tie. See also: “down to each and every man”.
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby Echo244 » Fri Aug 28, 2015 10:55 pm UTC

Quick couple of comments.

Sparks = electrician.

I think your red-letter-men thing is an accurate guess, if the song is lamenting the loss of this industry.

Dunno about cailers/lacquers, no time to listen to see if the word is something else.

Tab = cigarette, gob=mouth.

No firm comment to make on dab, might have time to listen closely later.

Black trade could be any heavy industry.

Can't tell about the rest. I'll see if I can make more of this tomorrow.
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby EvilDuckie » Sat Aug 29, 2015 6:56 am UTC

Deva wrote:8: Assumed a bar tab. Guesses a larger, perpetual debt, in this case.


It was common to pay the workers wages in cash, usually once a week in a pub or bar owned by the shipyard/mine/mill/plant/factory/whatever, so if the workers were drinking a bit too much they'd potentially incur a debt with their employers, with part of their weekly wage going towards their tab.
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby badmartialarts » Sun Aug 30, 2015 10:46 pm UTC

Cailer might be koehler, which mean charcoal-maker in German. Not sure why they'd use a German word there. A "lacher" is just a person who lives by a lake so it's probably not a German word there. Pullers I would guess are people who yank out old rivets, to go with tappers, who drill holes for new rivets.

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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby Kewangji » Thu Sep 03, 2015 12:34 am UTC

Hi all! Thank you for your thoughts on this, this is precisely the kind of thing I was hoping for. Please keep it coming! (My reply delayed a bit by suddenly being thrown into university again.)

poxic wrote:Uneducated free-association suggests that plate-men get plate-tans. Working with metal grinders will tend to cover you in finely ground bits of metal. Presumably one who did the most metal-grinding would get the most plately tan.

I have no idea whether plate-men do grinding, but it's a possible connection.

Apropos of not much, I did an image search for people covered in grinding flotsam. One of the terms I tried was "metal grinding man". Lo, this was on the first page.
I think this might be a tad too thin. I'm already not very certain that that is indeed the words in the song. I think what plate-men do might include grinding, if they're the ones cutting plates out of larger sheets of metal or shaping things more precisely, but I also doubt you'd get a tan from that because then the hot metal would be hitting your flesh constantly.

That image is very strange, also. The URL helps a bit for context.

poxic wrote:On drafters/joiners: if they are higher-ups and don't get dirty, then the trousers of their overalls might have a sharp crease from ironing. Matches the notion of them wearing shirts and ties - they only get overall'd up when they're visiting the worksite.

Other musings: a joiner as defined in various places seems to inhabit a workshop, doing small pieces that are then sent out to be added to larger constructions. If that's the case, they'll run less risk of death and injury than someone who is welding in place where large hunks of material are being craned around.
These ring very true! I am prepared to accept them. The black trade would be doing the (literally) dirty work.

Deva wrote:8: Assumed a bar tab. Guesses a larger, perpetual debt, in this case.
15/16: Perhaps a ship’s figurehead, also.
18: Heard “to a man” before. Means all of them have creased overalls, shirt, and a tie. See also: “down to each and every man”.

8: Why would the tab be in their collective mouth?
15/16: Perhaps. Are there figureheads on metal ships? I can't recall having seen that. Although I think all ships have figurative figureheads if not physical ones.
18: That makes a whole lot of sense. I hadn't even thought of googling that phrase, but there it is. Splendid.

Echo244 wrote:Quick couple of comments.

Sparks = electrician.

I think your red-letter-men thing is an accurate guess, if the song is lamenting the loss of this industry.

Dunno about cailers/lacquers, no time to listen to see if the word is something else.

Tab = cigarette, gob=mouth.

No firm comment to make on dab, might have time to listen closely later.

Black trade could be any heavy industry.

Can't tell about the rest. I'll see if I can make more of this tomorrow.
Aha, thank you for these. I had never considered that about "sparks" or "tab"! It all sounds true to me. Do you have a background in any of this?

EvilDuckie wrote:
Deva wrote:8: Assumed a bar tab. Guesses a larger, perpetual debt, in this case.


It was common to pay the workers wages in cash, usually once a week in a pub or bar owned by the shipyard/mine/mill/plant/factory/whatever, so if the workers were drinking a bit too much they'd potentially incur a debt with their employers, with part of their weekly wage going towards their tab.
See also: Sixteen Tons. (I think I like the idea of tab meaning cigarette more, but there's definitely over- and undertones of workers being exploited by the bosses here.)

badmartialarts wrote:Cailer might be koehler, which mean charcoal-maker in German. Not sure why they'd use a German word there. A "lacher" is just a person who lives by a lake so it's probably not a German word there. Pullers I would guess are people who yank out old rivets, to go with tappers, who drill holes for new rivets.
Hm. The way I'd pronounce koehler sounds nothing like in the song. The bits about rivets sound very true though.
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby poxic » Thu Sep 03, 2015 1:34 am UTC

Kewangji wrote:I think what plate-men do might include grinding, if they're the ones cutting plates out of larger sheets of metal or shaping things more precisely, but I also doubt you'd get a tan from that because then the hot metal would be hitting your flesh constantly.

Metal dust cools fast (very large surface-to-volume ratio). I've read stories by people who get covered in metal dust while grinding, and they never mentioned getting burned by it. (Still might be an incorrect read of the "tan" part, of course.)
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby Sizik » Thu Sep 03, 2015 3:22 am UTC

"the plateliest tan" sounds more like "a platelayer's tan" to me, a platelayer being one who lays plateways.
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby Kewangji » Thu Sep 03, 2015 5:53 am UTC

poxic wrote:Metal dust cools fast (very large surface-to-volume ratio). I've read stories by people who get covered in metal dust while grinding, and they never mentioned getting burned by it. (Still might be an incorrect read of the "tan" part, of course.)

Hm, yeah, that makes sense about metal dust, thinking about it. Grinders tend to be pretty unconcerned about that stuff, don't they. Still, if the sparkleshow is aimed at them, I'd think that they would be wearing protective gear to not get it in their eyes/breathing ways?

Sizik wrote:"the plateliest tan" sounds more like "a platelayer's tan" to me, a platelayer being one who lays plateways.

Oh now this sounds very plausible! People who lay plateways or work in any kind of laying, really, tend to have tans, don't they? I can see a platelayer's tan being sort of the same thing as a farmer's tan, something acquired by working rather than relaxing. And it also takes less strain on my ear to hear 'platelayer' now that you've introduced me to that word.
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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby Alder » Thu Sep 03, 2015 11:17 am UTC

I have a possible for 'red letters' - had a listen, and it does sound like a 't' in the middle, but 'red leaders' were a thing in the shipyards back in the day. (Maybe it's an accent thing!)

Red lead was painted on to prevent corrosion and the folk who did that job were known as 'red leaders'...or 'rid leeders' in lowland Scots, which is how I recognise it. (My granddad worked in the shipyards on the Clyde in the 40s and 50s)

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Re: Lyrical Assistance

Postby Deva » Sun Sep 06, 2015 6:18 am UTC

Kewangji wrote:
Deva wrote:15/16: Perhaps a ship’s figurehead, also.

15/16: Perhaps. Are there figureheads on metal ships? I can't recall having seen that. Although I think all ships have figurative figureheads if not physical ones.


Wikipedia wrote:Figureheads as such died out with the military sailing ship. In addition the vogue for ram bows meant that there was no obvious place to mount one on battleships.[4] An exception was HMS Rodney which was the last British battleship to carry a figurehead. Smaller ships of the royal navy continued to carry them. The last example may well have been the sloop HMS Cadmus launched in 1903. Early steamships did sometimes have gilt scroll-work and coats-of-arms at their bows. This practice lasted up until about World War I. The 1910 German liner SS Imperator originally sported a large bronze figurehead of an eagle (the Imperial German symbol) standing on a globe. The few extra feet of length added by the figurehead made the Imperator the longest ship in the world at the time of her launch.

Evidently, no. Imagined wooden vessels, despite lyrics.
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