Tragedy, Music and Morale: Popular Music and the First World War

War's personal grief and tragedy too have left their indelible marks, but one of the lighter legacies of this conflict was in popular music.

This year, the western world has been engaged in marking the centenary of the First World War.

We are fearfully watching its legacy today as the Middle East and Africa erupt in sectarian conflict, much of which can be traced directly to the geographical boundaries drawn in those regions by European colonialist powers following the First World War.

Personal grief and tragedy too have left their indelible marks, but one of the lighter legacies of this conflict was in popular music.

I have been meditating on this as we at the Maritime Museum of B.C. put together a performance of a First World War Musical Revue.

I was speaking with my 97-year-old grandmother (who lost her father in the war) about the songs we’ve chosen for the set and she remarked: “Isn’t it interesting how the Second World War mostly re-used the songs from the First War, rather than producing its own, aside from White Cliffs of Dover?”

This anecdotal testimony does seem to be remarkable, especially considering that by the 1940s most families had their own radio and therefore immediate access to popular music.  A Billboard Pop Chart was actually published was 1940.  In 1914-1918, by contrast, popular music was mostly experienced via sheet music played on one’s home piano, or via a recording, played on a phonograph or gramophone.

And so, I looked through lists of Second World War music and discovered that while there were new hits on the radio, the songs sung by soldiers were almost all exactly those sung by soldiers 25 years before.  Something about that music really stayed in the collective consciousness.

Pop culture is of course not a modern phenomenon: it has only become more adaptable thanks to modern technology and the ease of dissemination which it enables.

Prior to 1914, popular music was rapidly evolving. The earliest jazz and ragtime rhythms were seeping into music and changing not only what we heard, but how we danced, how we socialized, and how we expressed ourselves.

At the outbreak of the war, perhaps the most popular song in dance and music halls was Alexander’s Ragtime Band with its familiar and very prescient refrain: “They can play a bugle call like you never heard before/ So natural that you want to go to war.”  The ragged tune and rollicking beat was foreshadowing for the jazz explosion that followed in the 1920s.  The lyrics, however, were alarmingly on-point.

When men began signing up for a jolly good fight in 1914, the music they marched and sang to as they headed to the bloodbath of Europe echoed their optimism.  The assumption was that the war would be short, and would provide adventure and an opportunity for young men to prove themselves in battle.

Stirring tunes with a distinctly patriotic tinge dominated the training corps and the dance halls.  Pieces like I Love You Canada tugged at the heartstrings of soldiers and their families, with lyrics like “Though shot and shell are flying, Canada I think of thee/ It’s the land I’d do or die for, and my heart is there always.”

Simple music and easily memorized lyrics created a long-lasting impact.  One of my favourites has the rather whimsical title of Good-byeee.  There is a playful, upbeat element to this piece, which describes “brother Bertie” going to war “with a smile on his lips and his lieutenant pips upon his shoulder bright and gay”.

However, as the war dragged on, the music’s tone changed.  Songs like Keep the Home Fires Burning rang out on the home front as wives and mothers confronted loss and longing for their boys overseas.

One surviving letter to the Canadian Field Comforts Commission is from a soldier who wrote to thank them for sending the soldiers harmonicas, which were always used on their marches to and from the front lines.  Music like Pack up your Troubles and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary dominated these journeys.  Their cheerful melodies and hopeful lyrics were integral to maintaining morale in rat-infested, blood soaked trenches.

These songs were used again during the Second World War.  Some men who fought in the First World War were still young enough to enlist in the Second, and brought their trench songs to another era of warfare altogether. Their tunes and lyrics remain with us now, and not just in the minds of people of my grandmother’s generation.  Most people can still hum or sing along to them today, which helps us to remember the young men and women whose voices were silenced 100 years ago.

•••

Kate Humble is the interpretive co-ordinator at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.

•••

Mark your calendar

The Maritime Museum and the CEF100 Commemoration Society are hosting a sing-along Tribute to the Great War in Stories and Song at St. Luke’s Church Hall on Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased via www.mmbc.bc.ca or by calling 250-385-4222 ext. 112.

 

 

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