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Wartime popular music

Although popular music from 1914–18 often made no mention of war at all, it was nevertheless shaped by wartime preoccupations, anxieties and fantasies. John Mullen explores how people listened to and performed popular songs during World War One, and what this tells us about life in Britain at the time.

For a long time, historians did not study the popular music of 1914–18. Perhaps it seemed trivial to concentrate on analysing entertainment during such a tragic period, when so many were living in deep fear at the Front, or waiting for a horrific telegram at home. When wartime popular music was mentioned, it was presented either as a form of spontaneous jingoism defending the Empire, or a morale-building way of putting on a brave face. However, until recently, the vast majority of the songs around during World War One had been completely forgotten, so historians’ attitudes towards them were not based on objective research: popular song was in fact far richer and more varied than has been supposed.

Popular song does not reflect or illustrate history that is produced elsewhere, in muddy trenches or panelled ministerial chambers. Popular song is history: it encompasses a series of mass activities (singalongs, music hall attendance, the buying of sheet music) that are part of the history of society. Popular music was important in the lives of those who experienced World War One, as it is for people today. Thousands of songs were written and performed, of many different kinds: funny songs, sentimental songs, political songs and rude songs, to name but a few. Theatre chains and sheet music publishers made fortunes, and a few stars became tremendously wealthy. Just like today, the three-minute song dominated, and the Christmas-time hit might be forgotten by summer. Yet there was also much that was different from today. There was no internet, MP3, television or radio, and very few houses had gramophones. Sheet music sold by the million, as did tickets to the music hall. In Britain in 1916, for the price of the cheapest gramophone, you could buy 220 tickets to go to the music hall, the central institution for popular song at the time. A hit could sell over a million copies in sheet music. There were three million pianos in Britain in 1914, thousands of street singers and millions of middle-class musical evenings and working-class family singsongs. Popular music was not associated with youth culture at the time, because youth culture in the way that we think of it did not exist: at 12 years old, girls frequently became domestic servants and boys became labourers or worked in a factory. There was no such thing as a teenager, and on a Saturday night young and old would watch the same turns at the music hall.

What did people sing about during the war?

We know that in Britain, three quarters of popular songs did not refer to the war in any way at all. People continued wanting to sing about love, exotic fantasy and knockabout comedy (mothers-in-law and shy fiancés were among the topics). But new themes were added that could express popular anxieties, generally without threatening a fragile consensus about the necessity of the war. Love songs, generally sung from the point of view of the man, were often about having met the perfect girl (pieces such as ‘My Bonnie Lassie’ or ‘The Girl with the Golden Hair’ were popular). This theme could be made topical (‘Little Rosalie, My Pretty Refugee’ or ‘My Little Ammunition Girl’). A female, let alone feminist, point of view was almost unheard of.

Songs dreaming of a distant rural paradise – generally Ireland or Dixieland (both places the vast majority of the audience would never go) – were popular (‘My Little Cottage Home in Sweet Killarney’ or ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’). During the war there was more reason than ever to dream of being far away, and the two smash hit musical comedies from the years of World War One were set far from home: ‘Chu Chin Chow’ in China and ‘The Maid of the Mountains’ among bandits in Italy. It goes without saying that racist stereotypes were very much present in these shows.

Most members of a music hall audience had probably at some point in their lives known what it was like to go hungry. This might explain the popularity of songs about food (‘Boiled Beef and Carrots’ is still known today, whereas ‘Hot Meat Pies, Saveloys and Trotters’ has been forgotten). Songs about food could also be made topical with references to rationing, which was introduced in early 1918; one such song was titled ‘Never Mind the Food Controller, We’ll Live on Love!’

By 1914, frankly rude songs would not get on stage, though indirectly suggestive ones did (‘Tight Skirts have got to Go!’ or ‘Nothing but Boys and Khaki by the Seaside!’) A jolly tone was generally compulsory, but this did not stop widespread prejudices expressing themselves, and occasional racist or antisemitic songs could be hits (‘Sergeant Solomon Isaacstein’, ‘The Lovesick Coon’ or ‘John Bull’s Little Khaki Coon’).

War songs

The first few months of World War One saw dozens of recruitment songs and pieces defending the Empire’s cause. But after that, recruitment songs and glory-of-war songs had almost completely disappeared (the 1915 book of greatest hits, the Francis & Day’s Annual, contained not one recruitment song, though conscription had not yet begun). People still wanted Britain to win the war, but for a song to be a success in the music hall, the entire audience had to sing along with enthusiasm, and songs like ‘Your King and Country Need You’ or ‘Be a Soldier, Be a Man’ could not expect unanimous approval once the first heavy casualty figures had come in.

By 1915, songs that concentrated on dreaming of the end of the war were reliably popular. ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, ‘When Tommy Comes Marching Home’ and ‘The Trail That Leads to Home’ were typical. In 1918, for every song with the word ‘victory’ in the title, there were ten songs with the word ‘home’, and the same was true the following year, when the war was over.

What about anti-war songs? Once war broke out, these were not seen on the variety stage. Singers saw themselves as showmen and women, not political analysts, and it would have been impossible to get the whole house singing along to an anti-war song. But anti-war songs were popular at campaign meetings, like those of the Stop the War campaign in 1916, which was strong enough to organise gatherings in hundreds of towns across Britain. The popular anti-war song ‘Never Mind about the Gun’ was an exception: it had a wide following just before the outbreak of war, but disappeared the moment war broke out. This does not mean that dissenting songs could not get onto the stage. In 1916 a few anti-conscription songs were sung, in particular ‘The Military Representative’, which comically portrayed an officer refusing to exempt anyone from military service, even if they were 92 years old, or already dead! Once the war was over, a cheerful song about murdering one’s superior officer was a smash hit (‘Pop Goes the Major!’). Popular songs may help us understand how soldiers felt about their officers, an area of study that remains controversial.

Many songs express anxiety about the new roles that women took on during the war. These songs almost never directly support or oppose the changes in women’s roles: neither of these attitudes was consensual enough for a singalong chorus, and in any case direct political argument was not the stuff of the music hall song. Anxiety, however was widely expressed, and is evident in songs such as ‘Where Are the Girls of the Old Brigade’, ‘Women’s Work’, ‘Woman’s Opinion of Man’, ‘If the Girlies Could Be Soldiers’ or ‘The Girls Know As Much As You Know’.

The music

If we look at the musical content of wartime popular songs, we notice at once that it is much less sophisticated than today’s music. The technology was incomparably simpler, but this was not the only factor. The singer travelled from town to town and was accompanied by the local ‘house orchestra’ which learned the tunes on Monday morning for the first show Monday night. Experimental musical ideas were not welcomed! The use of voice was also simpler. In a hall of two or three thousand seats, without a microphone, projection was challenging, and intimate voices could not be used. Singalong choruses helped to build up volume. Furthermore, singers had to make an impression quickly, as they had only 15 minutes in a variety programme (perhaps before the acrobats and after the ventriloquist!). As a result, stereotypes and knockabout humour were much used.

A new kind of show, the revue, became increasingly popular during the war years. Instead of a show made up of dozens of individual acts, the revue offered an evening of entertainment in which there was centralised artistic control. This allowed for atmosphere to build up throughout the performance, and facilitated the use of special effects and choruses of dancing girls. A boom in romantic songs was one of the results. In 1916, ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’ was one of the very first romantic duets on the UK variety stage, and it was a smash hit.

What did soldiers sing about?

Soldiers’ songs were a separate category, invented by the troops, set to well-known tunes, not written for a market, and not required to please a mixed social audience. Soldiers loved to sing music hall hits and religious hymns, but the songs they wrote themselves provided a supplementary repertoire, and were less restrained than other forms of popular music. In particular, many soldiers’ songs were vulgar (‘Do Your Balls Hang Low?’, ‘Charlotte the Harlot’ or ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’). Many were antimilitarist or otherwise dissenting (‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’, ‘When This Bloody War Is Over’, ‘Now I’m a General at the Ministry’ or ‘Ode to the Corporal’).

As in other periods, the popular music of World War One developed out of a need to express an impressive variety of feelings, worries, attitudes and fantasies. The centrality of singalong added a communal aspect to the nation’s musical activities. Such activities, then as now, helped people to keep on living, but cannot be reduced to patriotic fervour.

Listening

A number of songs, with a concentration on the patriotic, can be heard on the First World War: a multimedia history of World War One website.

Further reading

Arthur, Max, When This Bloody War Is Over: Soldiers' Songs of the First World War (London: Piatkus, 2001)

Mullen, John, The Show Must Go On: Popular Song in Britain during the First World War (London, Routledge, 2015)

Mullen, John (ed.), Popular Song in the First World War: An International Perspective (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018)

Pickering, Michael, Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008)

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  • John Mullen
  • John Mullen is Professor of British Studies at the University of Rouen in France. He has published widely on the history of British popular music. He is the author of The Show Must Go On: Popular Song in Britain during the First World War (Routledge 2015) and editor of Popular Song in the First World War: An International Perspective (Routledge, 1918). His website is at www.johncmullen.net.