The Songs And Shows Of World War I


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Music historian Russell Davies discovers how the musical stage reflected the world situation in 1914 and what the troops were whistling as they marched to war.

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This is the second in a five-part investigation (one each year) by Russell Davies of the music, from theatres and music halls and from the soldiery, that came out of The First World War, together with the voices, from the BBC archives, of some of those who went through it.

Alongside those famous songs indelibly associated with this period ('Pack Up Your Troubles', 'Keep The Home Fires Burning') Russell unearths rarities such as "When The Lusitania Went Down", "Sister Susie's Marrying Tommy Atkins Today" and "Don't Take My Darling Boy Away" - in original 1915 versions.

Also recorded that year was Percy Grainger's "Shepherd's Hey", which we hear as played by The Victor Concert Orchestra, while other compositions of that year include the poignant Frank Bridge piece "Lament: Catherine, Aged 9; Lusitania 1915" (he'd known the child who went down with the ship) and an excerpt from a piece that US composer Charles Ives wrote as a reaction to the same tragedy in America. The Scottish Pals' Singers reprise trench songs "Far, Far From Wipers I Long To Be" and "Gassed Again" and US reactions to the war include "Don't Bite The Hand That' Feeding You" and Afro-American comedian Bert Williams's "I'm Neutral". Popular songs and standards that lasted well beyond the war are Jerome Kern's classic "They Didn't Believe Me" (Russell compares the original 1915 recording sung by Alice Green and Harry MacDonough with Elvis Costello's more recent version), a famous music-hall classic from Ella Shields - "Burlington Bertie From Bow" and "Balling The Jack", a tune that helped introduce the Fox-trot to these shores, in another extraordinarily clear 1915 recording, by Elsie Janis and Basil Hallam.

"Britain's Best Recruiting Sergeant" was how another music hall artiste came to be described, thanks to her songs like "The Army Of Today's All Right" and her wartime efforts are recalled by Pat Kirkwood, who played her in a 1957 biopic. The whole programme is a rich tapestry of sounds that includes many memorable voices; old soldiers recalling their experiences, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter remembering the poet Rupert Brooke on his way to Gallipoli and death; Londoners remembering the first bombs that fell on London... from Zeppelins. Extremely well researched and written by Russell Davies, The Songs and Shows of World War I is a Wise Buddah production made for the BBC by Roy Oakshott.