Today’s song is ‘Let’s Jump the Broomstick’. This is a song written by Charles Robins and performed first by a black Nashville group, ‘Alvin Gaines & The Themes’, in 1959. It was subsequently covered that same year by Brenda Lee. Her version reached Number 12 in the United Kingdom in 1961. The song was featured on her 1960 album, ‘Brenda Lee’. The song is based on the popular custom and phrase ‘jumping the broom’. The song was arranged by Owen Bradley.
This song was first heard by me at the age of 18 years. Brenda Lee had always been a favourite singer of mine and no sooner than I’d heard a few notes of the song I just knew it would remain a favourite song of mine.
I first came across the broomstick reference when I started work in the mill at the young age of 15 years. I overheard a conversation between two workmates one afternoon and heard one say, ’They’re living over the brush, tha’ knows.’ It transpired that they’d been talking about a Cleckheaton man they knew who’d hit it off with a Heckmondwike woman and within two months courtship, they’d set up house and home together to live as man and wife, only they’d never got married. Such unmarried couples were called ‘cohabitees’ in my youth and were generally frowned upon by most ‘respectable people’ and were often spoken of as ‘living in sin’ by the older citizen.
In later years, I became an avid reader and History was my favourite subject. I’d always been fascinated by the ‘Industrial Revolution’ period and the construction of the huge wide bridges spanning the rivers of Great Britain, the viaducts, the underground sewers, the railways, the canal tunnels and the building of the motorways. One book I read was about the navies who migrated to England to work building our roads and train tracks which cut and tunnelled through hillsides and rock mountains of our marsh and moorlands. As an Irish man, I learned that many immigrant workers were from Ireland and to save money, they would build humble shacks at the side of their working sites where they would eat, sleep and live with their wives and families. Other single women were also employed as cooks and laundry cleaners to the workers on site.
During the 19th century, should a couple from this humble working-class choose to get married, instead of paying for the usual marriage licence fee and going through a church ceremony, they would simply declare their love for each other in public and jump across a broomstick hand-in-hand which had been placed on the ground. Once the broomstick had been jumped, the couple were considered man and wife.
I have often wondered how such a marriage might have been later dissolved had it not worked out, and then an old working mate called Albert (whose tales we never knew to be true or false) told me one day when I raised the question. A few of us listened attentively for Albert’s explanation.
As usual, once Albert had gathered an audience to hear a bit of wisdom being spun from his lips, he’s string it out for as long as possible by getting out his pipe, tapping it on a hard surface and emptying it, carefully filling the bowel from his tobacco pouch, lighting it and taking half a dozen puffs of it before continuing with his explanation as his listeners eagerly awaited his tale.
“I’ll tell you how such marriages were dissolved to the satisfaction of the community!” Albert replied before lighting his pipe again and having a few more puffs. “The couple, who had once jumped the broomstick together but who now declared their relationship broken, were stood side-by-side in public sight of their friends, who again acted as witnesses to the ‘dissolution ceremony’. Only this time it would be the ending of their relationship they gathered to witness. A senior member of the community would then commence the ‘divorce proceedings’ by drawing the image of a heart in the sand, and then he would write the names of the man and woman side-by-side inside the heart”.
Albert would always puff on his pipe or light it again whenever he reached a crucial part of his story before concluding his tale.
“After their names had been written inside the heart”, Albert continued in hushed silence as we all waited for the punch line of the story, “ the couple would be handed (in turn), the broomstick they had once jumped over before living together (that had remained in their charge ever since their commitment day as a marriage memento). The man would erase the woman’s name from the heart with the broomstick before passing it to her. Then, she would erase the man’s name from the image of the heart. When this action had been carried out by the couple, the broomstick would then be jointly broken by the couple by them jumping on the handle of it together; thereby signifying the dissolution of their marriage.”
We never knew if Albert’s tale had been true or false, but by God, he knew how to tell a story and keep us all spellbound throughout its telling. I have since searched high and low in every book about the custom of ‘jumping the broomstick’ but have never found any explanation that told me how they dissolved such unions to the satisfaction of their communities. Only Albert knew if the story he told us during our morning tea break at the Brighouse mill was true or not, and he took that knowledge to the grave with him forty years ago.
Thank you for being my Facebook friend, Christine Mountney. Bill x
Love and peace Bill xxx