World War One - The Songs And Shows Of World War I

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191720171122

Russell Davies explores the music that accompanied the conflict.

The Songs and Shows of World War I: 1917. The year was militarily just as grim as was 1916, if not more so - and in this thoroughly researched programme, writer and presenter Russell Davies does not spare the listener the often terrible and tragic news from the various fronts. However, musically it is considerably more uplifting than the previous three, for one simple reason: the Yanks were coming and with them a great deal of more positive music. Where in the previous year we ended with 'Roses Of Picardy', this year we have John McCormack asking to "Send Me Away With A Smile". In 1916, The Peerless Quartet sang "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Stranger" while this year it's "America, Here's My Boy!" Of course conditions in the trenches became worse and worse, so the soldiery were still cynically creating alternative lyrics to old marches and hymn tunes, like "We're Here Because We're Here" to the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne': In fact the programme opens with the poignant sound, from 1915, of Sgt Edward Dwyer VC singing this "absurd and helpless" ditty which he and countless other Tommies marched to as they headed for the front. He was dead by 1917.

Russell explains the various circumstances that led to President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly bringing the United States around from their position of neutrality with his historic pronunciation "The World Must Be Made Safe For Democracy". He relates the heroic tale of telephonist Tessie MacNamara, who saved over a thousand lives at a munitions plant that was about to go up, through, it was told, German sabotage in January. And he tells how composer and performer George M Cohan, on seeing the newspaper hoardings announcing the declaration of war in April of that year, promptly wrote his famous song 'Over There', a song which did service in both world wars and is still heard (albeit as an advertising jingle) today.
The rise of Jazz was another important development in the musical world of the time, the first "jass" record, by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band being recorded for Victor in January 1917 and we hear an example of their work on the cacophonous "Livery Stable Blues".

Reports of short-lived successes and catastrophic mis-judgements are described by voices from the BBC archives and, after a particularly harrowing account of the Flanders offensive that was Passchendaele, infamous for its deep, deep mud which itself killed many of the troops, mules and horses who slipped off the duckboards into it, there is an especially poignant description of a General, found seated outside a staff hut, convulsed with sobs, unable to accept the realisation of the hell into which he'd been sending his men. The exploits of famous and infamous names come briefly into focus: Harry Lauder, whose son was killed in 1916, is heard in a moment from a fund-raising appeal for injured service-men; Albert Ball, the most famous pilot and most decorated (VC, DSO and 2 Bars, MC) in the Royal Flying Corps died in this year at the age of twenty. On the middle-eastern front, the exploits of T.E. Lawrence, 'Lawrence of Arabia' are described by one Colonel who knew him well - and by General Sir Edmund Allenby, who much admired him.

Then there was the Dutch-born courtesan and dancer, convicted of espionage in February that year who met her death before a firing squad in October, leaving behind her the legend of the mysterious agent, the subject of numerous romantic books - and a novelty song which we hear from some years later performed by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra: "Olga Pullofski, the Beautiful Spy". The hit musical of the period was "The Maid Of The Mountains", which ran to well over a thousand performances in London, though a mere thirty seven on Broadway. Much of its tuneful score lived on in the British concert hall for many years and we hear Olive Groves (again with Henry Hall) singing "Love Will Find A Way". Another long-lived tune from the time - "The Dark-town Strutters' Ball" - is heard, complete with vocal chorus and in amazingly good sound for the period, recorded for HMV by "The Savoy Quartet"; while arguably the best-remembered of all the 1917 crop of songs, "For Me And My Gal", appeared in the show "Here And There" and was reprised by the vaudevillians Van and Schenck in March 1917. Vaudeville and music hall songs remained, for the time being, the order of the day, hence The Two Bobs' rendition of "Paddy McGinty's Goat", replete with reference to German submarines off the west coast of Ireland. America began to make a serious impact on the battlefields of France and Belgium towards the end of the year but their greatest impact - and also the impact of American music - lay ahead in 1918.