The Diggers


Becoming an Ally and Under the Bridge both include reflection on the history of private property as the root of poverty, oppression and marginalization. All of the world’s cultures have their own story of transformation from the idea that human beings are an integral part of a living Earth, the source of all life, to one where a privileged minority has the right to exploit resources, human beings and other forms of life, keeping the wealth for themselves. In England, this change reached its peak during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with many people resisting, as individuals and organized groups. One of these was called the Diggers, and both books contain their story in the form of a song called “World Turned Upside Down (The Diggers Song),” by Leon Rosselson.

I was introduced to “World Turned Upside Down” by Vancouver acappella trio Aya! on their benefit tape for AIDS Vancouver (Slim Evans Records and Tapes, 1988). With the kind permission of Aya! member Micki McCune, I include that recording here (3.5 minutes, starts at the 10 second mark):

It was recorded by its composer, Leon Rosselson, with Roy Bailey and Frankie Armstrong, on the album That’s Not the Way It’s Got to Be (Fuse Records and Smithsonian Folkways, 1975) and with his daughter, Ruth, on a four CD boxed set released by PM Press in 2011. One of his performances of the song can be found on YouTube at:

There are many other recordings of this song, including one by Dick Gaughan on A Handful of Earth (Topic Records, 1981), also on YouTube at: Billy Bragg on Between the Wars (Go!Discs, 1985), on YouTube at: A British band called Chumbawanba has posted YouTube recordings of both Rosselson’s song ( an older, seventeenth century song about the Diggers composed by their leader, Gerald Winstanley ( Aya included Winstanley’s song at the end of their version as well.


So who were the Diggers?

Here is a excerpt from Becoming an Ally (Third Edition, 2016) with references to historian Christopher Hill’s 1972 book about the English revolution, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. New York, NY: Viking:


For about twenty years in the mid-seventeenth century, there was “a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England” (Hill 1972:12). During what is now called the English Civil War or the English Revolution, Parliament and its army defeated the forces of King Charles I, executed him, and established a republic. Feudal society and its structures of loyalty and dependence came to an end. Eventually a new order was established that suited the gentry and wealthy merchants, “a world safe for businessmen to make profits in” (Hill 1972:12), but not before a period of “glorious flux and intellectual excitement” (12). Various groups of common people came forward trying to establish their own vision of political, religious, and economic equality (11). Some of these were the Levellers, Fifth Monarchists, Baptists, Quakers, Muggletonians, Seekers, Ranters, Anabaptists, Familists, and also the Diggers. Apart from the Baptists and Quakers, these names are little known today because their political and economic solutions to the problems of poor people in their time were swept away when the gentry, king and bishops, along with the newer class of merchants, were re-established in 1660 (11–12, 21–23). As Christopher Hill says:


There were, we may oversimplify, two revolutions in the mid-seventeenth century England. The one which succeeded established the sacred rights of property … gave political power to the propertied … and removed all impediments to the triumph of the ideology of the men of property. … There was, however, another revolution which never happened, though from time to time it threatened. This might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions. (1972:12)


And who is Leon Rosselson?

From the website of Pm Press:

Leon Rosselson has been at the forefront of songwriting in Britain for fifty years. His songs range from the lyrical to the satirical, from the personal to the political, from the humorous to the poignant. His early songs were topical-satirical (some of them were featured in the TV satire show That Was the Week that Was) but he broadened out from there, absorbing different influences, from Music Hall to French Realist Song, and experimenting with different song forms.

He has performed in every conceivable venue in the UK and has toured North America, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and Australia. He has written songs for a stage performance of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and scripted shows about the Spanish Civil War, sexual politics (Love, Loneliness & Laundry) and the nuclear issue (No Cause for Alarm). His song “The World Turned Upside Down” has been recorded & popularised by, amongst others, Dick Gaughan and Billy Bragg, and has been sung on numerous demonstrations in Britain and the United States.

He has released twelve CDs of his songs and published two songbooks, Bringing the News from Nowhere and Turning Silence into Song. He has also had seventeen children’s books published; the first one, Rosa’s Singing Grandfather, published by Puffin, was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 1991. Visit his website at, you can also see Leon Rosselson on YouTube.