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Every war gets at least two soundtracks, one for authorized consumption on the home front and one for less well-regulated deployment in the field. During Vietnam, the silent majority tuned in to hear “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “Okie From Muskogee” as the troops got their fix of Hendrix, the Dead, and the Doors. That the War on Terrorism is a sequel to Desert Storm can be discerned by the public’s reluctance to change the tune: Each time out, “God Bless the U.S.A.” has been awarded banner status back home. And if Blackie Lawless has his way, the necessary excitement of blood lust will again redound W.A.S.P.-ward. Inspired by fan mail from Gulf War tank jockeys who found that nothing got their motor going like “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast),” Lawless & Co. proclaim their forthcoming release to be “an album to go kill people by.”
But when recording technology was in its infancy, bulky and expensive, and the official will monolithically strong, the grunt’s perspective was usually suppressed. The ribald rhymes and song parodies that sustained World War I soldiers were almost never committed to wax. Collections of vernacular verse had to be reconstructed after the fact, often from memory and subject to the censor’s scrutiny. What the British recording industry preserved was largely the product of sketch comedians and professional songsmiths—in other words, exactly what the boys at the front made fun of.
As a popular art form whose primary nostalgia market has died off and that never developed much in the way of a secondary one, World War I-era recordings attract little commercial interest. The nearly four hours of material on English label CD41’s two-volume, three-disc set “Oh! It’s a Lovely War”: Songs & Sketches of the Great War 1914-1918 constitute virtually the only CD pressings of a number of cylinders and 78s that remain largely unheard outside collector circles.
Whether honed by verse-chorus-verse propagandists or improvised by left-right-left mud-sloggers, the war song caters to a constituency striving to unify itself (which is why the opposite of the war song is not the peace song, but the protest song). And no contest depended on uniformity of opinion as much as World War I did. How else to get a nation’s mothers to feed their sons to the trenches?
Rife with pluck, bluster, and high-minded self-abnegation, and overflowing with ritualized outpourings of romance, longing, and team pride, “Oh! It’s a Lovely War” is a veritable catalog of societally approved British coping. War is hell? Perhaps. But notwithstanding all the lads who would never again see dear old Blighty, war was undeniably an inconvenience. The daffy hero of Leo and Hesse’s skit “Tommy’s Fags” may have been seriously wounded dragging his buddies to safety, putting himself in contention for the Victoria Cross, but the only thing troubling him is his lost packet of smokes. To use a generational catchword, they’re “napoo” (a corruption of the French barmaid’s “Il n’y en a plus”—”There are no more”). To go without was to be expected—and accepted—with cheer.
By contrast, Courtland and Jeffries’ waxing of the terribly catchy and mock-upbeat “Good Bye-ee”— driven by brass bass and decorated with tinkly mallet turns—satirizes the required attitude of merry sacrifice. The song is gentle enough, though, that the listener marches right along with its Lt. Bertie, who is “tickled to death to go” and “do his bit,” although he really ought to know better. He probably did, of course, but to refuse was to be considered a coward. “A Conscientious Objector” heaps ridicule upon those who shirk their duty by hiding behind principle, as exemplified by Alfred Lester’s mincing buffoon. The chorus, a lampoon of a recruitment march marked by staccato trumpet flourishes, was later cut loose from the rest of the song and taken up by soldiers, who used it to diminish forbidden fears: “Send out me brother/Me sister and me mother/But for Gawd’s sake, don’t send me!”
If the Washington wives who scapegoated W.A.S.P. in the ’80s are still out there, it would behoove them to note that songs with an actual body count are likely to have not Satan (or Blackie or even Ozzy) behind them, but the military-emotional complex. The hit parade acted as a press gang in 1914, when Helen Clarke sang “Your King and Country Want You,” a rousing ditty enjoining lads who had met with success on the golf course or cricket pitch that Flanders fields marked the logical next step in their journey through the glories of sport. “And no matter what befalls you,” she stiffly warbles, “we shall love you all the more.”
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Though the shrill and maternal Clarke scarcely musters thoughts of a sweetheart, a perennial theme of recruiting songs is the increased romantic availability of right-thinking young ladies to men in uniform. One of the most direct, “Now You’ve Got the Khaki On,” finds the raspy-voiced Marie Lloyd, a music-haller who ladles on the working-class sauciness, promising “an extra cuddle tonight” to a fellow previously undesirable but suddenly possessed of that certain something. Two-and-a-half decades later, Mack Gordon’s words for “You Can’t Say No to a Soldier” declared warrior-love to be a matter not of taste but of decree: “If he’s gonna fight, he’s got a right to romance.”
Appropriately, there is plenty of action on “Oh! It’s a Lovely War”—much of it generated with timpani and slide whistles, as on the notoriously simulated field recording of “Gas Shells Bombardment by British Troops Advancing on Lille”—but only the vaguest allusions to the horrors of war. The “nightmare” recalled by Sgt. Edward Dwyer on the ostensibly forthright “With Our Boys at the Front” is only a long march. Later, he tells of taking “about an hour and a half to make a cup of tea” from melted snow—again, quite an inconvenience. The real purpose of his speech is to browbeat “slackers.” “Be a sport!” he cries. “Come up and show the damn Germans that we’re better men than they any day. Don’t stay at home singing ‘Till the Boys Come Home.’ For when the boys do come home, nothing will be too good for them….” Dwyer himself never reaped those rewards; he was dead before he turned 22.
The promises of lavish welcome were lies anyway, and by the time the extraordinary “Stony Broke in No-Man’s Land” was cut, in October 1921, it was permissible to admit it. Friendless and jobless in postwar London, the singer, who finds only “thousands and thousands of fellows a lot worse off than me,” turns the homesickness that fueled many wartime songs on its head: “But I confess, I was contented more or less/When I was stony broke in no-man’s land.” The performance treats the song as if it were a stock piece of woebegone melodrama, right down to its hand-wringing recitation, but it’s a far more bitter thing. How better to strike back at the nation that betrayed its veterans than in the idiom taken to heart on the home front?
Among his comrades, your average infantryman communicated his disaffection and dawning sense of the absurd with bits of homespun dada. His scabrous alterations of familiar tunes were generally considered unfit for cylinder or disc, but in a rare departure, Sgt. Dwyer was allowed to render a cappella a few snatches of one of the most pathetic. To “Auld Lang Syne,” he sings, “We’re here because we’re here because/We’re here because we’re here/We’re here because we’re here because/We’re here because we’re here.” For less than 20 seconds, a barroom warhorse speaks to the unremitting pointlessness of the Flanders adventure.
Voices like Dwyer’s, squeaky, tentative, and untrained, are not often heard on early discs. Pre-electric recording technology favored plummy, orotund singers, strength being needed to drive the cutting needles, and Irish tenor John McCormack was a natural fit. He is heard on “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a music-hall flop predating the conflict that went on to become the biggest hit of the war years, as well as on “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” whose stately Zo Elliott melody suffers little at the hands of Stoddard King’s lyrical boilerplate, and “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” which earned young composer Ivor Novello a military reprieve so that he might pen more tunes like it.
All are parlor songs par excellence, made to be banged out on the family piano from the sheet music that continued to be the main way music was distributed to the public, and to be sung by everyday people raising in unison voices that spanned little more than an octave. Stateside, they went for about 60 cents a copy, but who knows what they actually cost in the prolonging of a tragic muddle that desperately needed to be cut short? To hear them, even today, is to marvel at the treacherous power of popular song.
As welcome as digital transcriptions of these records are, CD41’s handling of their packaging is almost a total botch. Scratchy, semi-intelligible 85-year-old recordings filled with outdated jargon require extensive annotations, full lyric sheets, and a glossary. Label boss and record collector James Nice provides little of the sort. He can’t even get his facts straight, being unable to decide whether the Miller who cut, and apparently also penned (only surnames are given for writers), “Stony Broke” was Harry or Frank.
Considering that Nice’s only foray into analysis involves a blundering misprision of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, we should perhaps be thankful that he didn’t attempt further commentary. Still, a little research would have been appreciated. Crack open a guide such as John Brophy and Eric Partridge’s The Long Trail: Soldiers’ Songs and Slang 1914-18 and many of “Oh! It’s a Lovely War”‘s obscurities become clear. You learn, for example, that “Jack Johnsons” were large shells that exploded in bursts of black smoke, impoliticly named for the famous African-American boxer, and that the “Old Contemptibles” was the nickname adopted by the Expeditionary Force after an inadequate translation of remarks by the Kaiser, which contained a reference to the “contemptible little British Army.”
Naturally, none of this appears in the CD booklets. CD41 gets away with such laziness, and with simply atrocious typography, copy editing, and proofreading, only because it’s assuming an audience already expert in the war’s trivia, bookish history hobbyists who desire only the primary sources of which they’ve read. Although it’s undeniable that the main value of “Oh! It’s a Lovely War” is documentary, not musical, I can’t be the only listener coming to the series from the phonographic side of the fence.
Indispensable to fans of early recordings for now, “Oh! It’s a Lovely War” will be filed away as soon as a more serious label comes up with a definitive treatment of the material. Then we’ll march off mouthing Bertie’s unforgettable refrain: “Bon soir, old thing, cheerio, chin-chin, napoo, toodle-oo, good-bye-ee!” CP