Introduction We are currently living through the one-hundredth anniversaries of the battles of the Great War (1914-18). A century ago, Battles such as Mons and Loos had finished in stale-mate, leaving thousands dead in their wake; and the horrors of The Somme were in full flight. Passchendaele, and The Kaiserschlacht were yet to happen, and so the killing continued. Those names still send a shudder down the spine of many of us living in the 21st Century – in spite of the fact that very few people alive today are actually old enough to remember the conflict – and no one alive who actually fought in it.
Yet still it lives on in our cultural memory; and many of us have family stories handed down about the living Hell of the Great War. My own family were fairly typical in that we provided four young men for the British Army – Len was killed in action on the Somme (and I am writing this article now in commemoration of his sacrifice in July 1916); his brother Frank was wounded; Jim was captured (but escaped); and my Grandfather Albert came through unscathed (at least physically). Jim and Albert were musicians – the former played banjo and sax in at least two early Jazz bands after the war (See the photo above; and my article #8); and my Grandad Albert was an accomplished amateur violinist with musical interests that ranged from the Classical to the popular. (Look out for an article about his violin and a Waltz that he wrote, on this website at some time in the future).
Many musicians fought in the war of course. Many bandsmen acted as medics and stretcher-bearers even if they were not directly involved in the fighting. In the days before multi-media entertainment, many young soldiers were adept at some form of musical instrument or other, and would entertain their mates to raise their spirits or just to relieve the boredom.
Given that The Great War is still a lurking spectre in the national psyche, it is not then surprising to find that it still inspires the writing of songs to this day – as every new generation has its take of the conflict. There is apparently still plenty to say about it from many points of view. I have chosen just four very moving songs that illustrate modern perceptions of three very different aspects of the Great War – yet all are aspects with which we can sympathise. They are all based on true stories.
Larry Miller: ‘Soldier Of The Line’: My first example is by this remarkable Blues-Rock guitarist; and is the title track from his excellent album – arguably his best – Soldier Of The Line (2014). The song is a world away from his usual Blues-Rock repertoire. I have described it before as being a kind of ‘Progressive-Folk lament’. It is skillfully played on acoustic guitar in DADGAD tuning; and has a very hauntingly appropriate melancholic vibe about it. The album version is also enhanced by a sympathetic cello. (For my interview with Larry and a review of a gig he played in Essex, last year, see my article #61).
Larry’s song is based on the experiences of his Grandfather and Grand Uncle – brothers and musicians who – like millions of others – served at the sharp end in the Great War. It is written from the point of view of a Tommy actually serving in the trenches at the Front. Within the lyric, Larry skillfully explores the things that would be going through the mind of the young soldier, far from home and loved ones; asking himself what he is doing there (yet resolutely determined to do his duty nonetheless); and eager for letters from home – and desperately hoping that his lady-love is still waiting for his return. It is a poignant song which Larry has thoughtfully crafted both musically and lyrically.
Unfortunately, soon after I interviewed Larry last year, he suffered a stroke; but I’ve heard from his Bassist Derek White, that he is slowly recovering and has played a little guitar lately. I’m sure all of his fans and all of my readers will join me in wishing him a speedy return to full health. He also told me during the interview, that he was working on a new double album – something of a magnum opus from the way he described it to me – so let’s all hope and pray that he is able to complete it soon.
Here is a video of Larry performing ‘Soldier Of The Line’ (With thanks to Sarah Reeve)
Amy Goddard: ‘Gladdie’: My second example is a song that was deservedly a semi-finalist at the 2015 Song-Writer Awards; and features on Amy’s wonderful second album, Secret Garden. (See my album review #94). It was also available as a single (See my review #79).
The song looks at the war from the perspective of one of those loved ones left behind to ‘keep the home fires burning’. In this case the protagonist Gladdie (Amy’s Great Grand Mother) is missing her sweetheart who is away at the Front. It is a beautifully tragic song of three verses and three choruses. In the first verse Gladdie is remembering her dates ‘walking out’ with her beau before he is sent to the Front. In the second they correspond by letter; and she is frustrated by the lack of information. Of course, in the final tragic verse, she receives the news that her beloved has unfortunately died. How many such stories – sadly mostly now long forgotten – could once have been told about the Great War? They say that every family endured the loss of a loved one during the conflict, so this song serves to remember them all.
Amy has crafted a wonderful song in ‘Gladdie’. Her skillful guitar work (in Open-C tuning) coupled with her emotional – almost ethereal – vocal make this a haunting and poignant song that I know has reduced listeners to tears. The album version also features a sympathetic violin too, which enhances the sadness within the song.
Reg Meuross: ‘And Jesus Wept’: I first heard this remarkable song covered by Nigel Dee of The Acoustic Warehouse, Kingsteighton, Devon (See my review #29); and I am told that Reg has played at the venue himself). From this cover, I was inspired to investigate the original. It appears on Reg’s Dragonfly album of 2008, but I first heard it only a couple of years ago – and I’m very glad that I did.
The song deals with an aspect of the war that has at last received widespread recognition: the unjust execution of young soldiers for ‘Cowardice’. Reg was moved to write the song after reading of the plight of Private Harry Farr; executed by firing squad in 1916. This is one of the brutal travesties of the Great War that only comparatively recently has been given voice in the national conscience – that is, the ignorance of the Top Brass to accept, understand, and deal with the phenomenon of ‘Shell-Shock’ (which is now far better understood; and these days described as Combat Fatigue). Pte. Farr was posthumously pardoned in 2006.
Reg plays this haunting song on acoustic guitar in Drop-D Tuning. Again, a beautifully sad song entirely appropriate for the subject matter; and it is thoughtfully written (as is typical of Reg’s work).
Here is a video of Reg performing ‘And Jesus Wept’ from the Songs From The Shed Sessions
Del Bromham: ‘Harry Farr’: The same subject has also inspired the writing of ‘Harry Farr’ by Del Bromham of London-based heavy rock band Stray (of which Del is the only surviving member from the original group of the late ’60s). It appears on their album Valhalla (2010); and couldn’t be more different to Reg’s take on the subject; for whereas Reg emphasises the sad tragedy of Harry’s unjust execution, Del’s contains that sadness plus large portions of darkness and anger too.
Del’s interest in Harry’s story is far more personal than Reg’s too, in that Del’s Grandfather was actually diagnosed with ‘shell-shock’, after being injured at the Battle of Ypres, and spent his whole life after that in a mental hospital until he passed away in 1969. It was whilst watching a TV programme on Harry Farr and others who were executed, that it struck Del that his Grandfather too could have been condemned if he’d been sent back to the Front after being wounded at Ypres. ‘The song just had to come out’ Del told me ‘I remember the song was written very quickly, almost like an invisible hand was assisting me writing the lyrics.’ Its clear too that Del has done his homework on the historical facts of the case.
This song by Del has been described by other writers as ‘recalling Iron Maiden’ in essence; and that is fair comment (although Maiden have cited Stray as an early influence on their music), yet to me it primarily has the feel of a typical Stray/Bromham number (especially in the rhythm guitar part) – yet not merely a rehash of their earlier work. Its a great rocker that is popular in the band’s live set, and has an important message to impart – ie, making us aware of the plight of not just Harry Farr, but of the 300 or so other poor souls who were executed for ‘cowardice’ during the Great War. Del has always been known for writing deeper stuff than your average rock musician at times, that’s for sure.
Here is the video of Del Bromham’s Stray’s ‘Harry Farr‘
For more information about Harry Farr, here is a link to the Wikipedia page
It is a century or so since the events that inspired these four songs have passed; yet still they live on – and so they should, as I think it is important to remember that hideous conflict of 1914-18. Each is a very personal tale; yet can be seen as representative of many millions of similar true stories which are probably mostly forgotten by their families; so I applaud these writers for keeping the memories alive, each in their own way. There are no doubt other songs on the subject of the Great War (and it is a subject that interests me greatly), so if any of my readers would like to suggest others, I’d be pleased to hear about them. Finally, I’d like to thank all four of these remarkably talented and thoughtful song-writers for keeping these diverse and important aspects of the Great War alive through their wonderfully moving music and lyrics. They prove that although the war is long over, its dark shadow still haunts us to this day – and still inspires great songs. Long may that be the case. PTMQ