Sing! Sing! Sing!

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 – London

…God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Gen 2:3)

And who am I to argue with that model of constructing a project schedule? Day 7 of our World War I trip will be a day of rest and relaxation. I’ll encourage students to work on research projects, catch up on missed journal work, and do something completely unrelated to the First World War. Something they couldn’t ordinarily do in Arden Hills, Minnesota in January.

Albanian-style Lamb's Liver
I mean, who can resist this?

(As a model of how this works… When I was in London doing dissertation research, I met up with some grad school friends and went to a restaurant that had Albanian liver on its starters list, so naturally I figured, “When am I ever going to get a chance to eat Albanian liver again?”, and while I didn’t exactly enjoy it per se, and it had little if anything to do with my study of education in post-1945 Germany, I have since been proven correct in my choice of how to use that moment of time, having not encountered Albanian food of any kind again. And I probably won’t, unless I somehow wrangle an invitation to Jim Belushi‘s house. But perhaps I digress…)

Since there’s not much course-related material about which to blog for this seventh day of the trip, let’s talk about an important aspect of the war that will be hard to reproduce well in this version of the course: patriotic songs.

In particular, songs associated with the English music hall, a cultural form that students likely won’t encounter during their visit to London, since it’s gone the way of its American cousin, vaudeville. But its significance to the culture of the war went far beyond the fact that former music hall prodigy Charlie Chaplin, having long since scarpered for Hollywood, made films like this and this.

As former students of mine (and viewers of this video on our department’s Facebook page) well know, I enjoy integrating singing with teaching. Ideally, our little traveling learning community will have grown so tightly knit that we’ll spontaneously break (Almost Famous-style) into a rousing medley of “La Marseillaise” and “The Watch on the Rhine” on the bus trip from Belgium into France.

(William: “I have to go home.” Penny: “You are home.” Me: “But I don’t <gulp> even <sniffle> like <sob> Elton John.”)

While I hold my breath for that to happen, however, enjoy my five favorite music hall anthems of World War I: (linked where possible to lyrics and audio at the fantastic FirstWorldWar.com site)

“It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (written by Jack Judge and Harry Williams)

Too easy, you say. Why are English soldiers supposed to long for a small town in southern Ireland, you wonder. And you’re both right. But here are two off-center reasons for including IALWTT:

  1. Best final scene of a TV sitcom finale this side of Newhart.
  2. Speaking of famous women named Mary… The song’s alternate version that (I strongly suspect) soldiers vastly preferred to sing:

That’s the wrong way to tickle Mary
That’s the wrong way to kiss
Don’t you know that over here, lad
They like it best like this?
Hooray, pour les français
Farewell, Angleterre
We didn’t know the way to tickle Mary
But we learned how over there!

“Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser” (Alf Ellerton)

Don’t you wish people besides Mr. Burns still used words like “kibosh”? Don’t you wish people still nicknamed their kids “Alf”? Don’t you wish more songwriters could rhyme “And if Turkey makes a stand” with “She’ll get gurkha-ed and Japan-ned”?

Me neither. I’m just sayin’.

“Never Mind the Food Controller” (Lee & Weston)

Never mind the Food Controller
We’ll live on love
Just one kiss and a squeeze
Will be better than bread and cheese
Never mind my sugar ration
For your lips I’ve got a passion
They’re so sweet, they’ll sweeten up my tea and coffee
They’re as sweet as any toffee

Now, yes, there was rationing in Britain, and food prices rose substantially. Two years into the war, in July 1916, sugar cost twice as much as it had in 1914, and even bread and potatoes were up 40-50%. But all things considered, British hunger during WWI is a pretty flimsy sacrifice on which to build a love song metaphor.

British Officers Listening to the Gramophone
The Western Front, 1917 – British Officers Listen to Gramophone Records – Imperial War Museum

In her great memoir, Testament of Youth, war nurse Vera Brittain recalled taking a furlough from the front lines late in the war and finding it almost unbearable listening to civilians whine about having to skimp on butter. And Londoners certainly weren’t going to find more sympathy from their counterparts in Berlin. Thanks to a British naval blockade that continued well after Armistice, Germans were quite literally starving to death by 1918, subsisting on turnips and sawdust-filled sausages while their meat consumption dwindled to as low as 12% of 1914 levels.

Still, the song’s got virtually no beat and you can’t dance to it. I give it a 71.

Your King and Country Want You (Paul Rubens)
A Conscientious Objector (unknown writer)

Until 1916, Britain had no system of conscription. It started the war with a tiny professional army that was mostly decimated by Christmas 1914, then relied on a highly effective recruiting campaign to solicit volunteers who could fill out British ranks in Belgium, France, and elsewhere.

Overseen by Lord Kitchener (hence the “Kitchener’s Army” tag for the volunteers), British recruiting enlisted (so to speak) all sorts of techniques: promoting military service as a grand adventure; spontaneous rallies at sporting events and pubs that encouraged men to join up in groups of friends (“pals’ battalions”); and even the pulpits of the Church of England (mixing Christianity and patriotism came as naturally to a country with a state church as to many modern-day free church evangelicals).

Most cynically, British recruiters played upon insecurity, shame, and Victorian-Edwardian ideals of masculinity. In one famous slogan, members of the next generation asked, “What did you do during the war, Daddy?”, curious about their fathers’ exploits (or lack thereof). And sung by older, matronly women like Vesta Tilley and Helen Clark, “Your King and Country Want You” implied that good sons could best please their mums by becoming cannon fodder.

We’ve watched you playing cricket and every kind of game
At football, golf and polo you men have made your name
But now your country calls you to play your part in war
And no matter what befalls you
We shall love you all the more
So come and join the forces
As your fathers did before

The British government did allow for the possibility of men objecting to military service on religious (and perhaps other) grounds. But would-be “conscientious objectors” risked ridicule of a particularly insulting sort. Say, being personified on the music hall stage by a performer who sang:

Objection is a thing that I have studied thoroughly
I don’t object to fighting Huns
But should hate them fighting me

Imagining his “conscientious” character now assigned to a special camp and resenting the scorn of a drill sergeant, the singer continues in an increasingly mincing tone:

But oh I got so cross with him
I rose to the attack
And when he called me “Ethel”
I just called him “Beatrice” back

Nope, homophobic insult comedy was not invented by Tracy Morgan. And finally, the manhood of pacifists well in doubt, the song concludes with the couplet:

Send out me brother, me sister and me mother
But for gawd’s sakes, don’t send me!

Tomorrow: we’re off to Oxford!

<<Day 6        Day 8>>


One thought on “Sing! Sing! Sing!

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