4

Amongst the different versions of this song (Known by various names including "The Chemical Worker's Song", "Process Man" and "The ICI Song") that are floating around, there seem to be two variations of the second verse.

Well I've worked among the spitters and I've breathed the oily smoke

and

Well I've worked among the spinners and I've breathed the oily smoke

What could be the meaning of the word spitters? Is it just a mangling of the lyrics, or is it an antiquated term for some kind of occupation or machinery?

I doubt it would mean "people who spit".

I have a feeling spitters might be propagated from a transcription error in the Great Big Sea recording, in which it is very difficult to distinguish the sound as n or t, (they may even be singing "spitters"). But I was curious to know if it was a variation that had some other legitimate meaning.

The original recording by Ron Angel with the word "spinners"

9

A small ambiguity of pronunciation set up a dual lyrical standard. Clearly the original song by Ron Angel used the word spinners, as confirmed by colorantshistory.org:

I've worked among the spinners I've breathed in the oil and smoke.
emphasis mine

The spinners clearly referred to machinery operated by employees of British Nylon Spinners (BNS), and one of the alternate titles refers to BNS's parent company ICI:

British Nylon Spinners (BNS) was a British company set up in 1940 by ICI and Courtaulds to produce nylon yarn.

There was no variance in the lyrics until the cover published by Great Big Sea in the 1995 release of their UP album. That version contained an ambiguous pronunciation at the 55 second mark. Although some of Great Big Sea's live versions moved back to the original spinners, the ambiguity circulated by their popular album impacted subsequent covers of the song. Some artists move back to the original spinners, while others proliferate spitters. The published lyrics seem to suggest that spitters has overcome spinners, and even karaoke lyrics associated with Great Big Sea's version use spitters.

It is often true that ambiguity adds value to poetry and lyrics. Since the nylon spinners of the mid 1900s are outside the context of 21st century listeners, spitters offers a more appealing visual of machines, factories and disgusted factory workers spewing out pollution and poison.

1

The original lyric was, spinners. There was a nylon plant at Billingham ICI ( the plant that the song was originally written about) that produced nylon yarn. Ronnie always sang spinners when he sang his song, I should know because he was a very good friend of mine and I had the great misfortune to have to work at the plant. The song says it all

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