“The more we learn about war, the more important it becomes to sing about peace.” This bold and concise statement sits prominently in the new double CD set In Flanders Fields by Coope Boyes & Simpson, released to mark the centenary of what was known as the war to end all wars. Of course the conflict didn’t live up to that promise and so the truth of that opening statement remains, but through combining fresh, insightful writing of their own, with songs and poetry contemporary with the conflagration and others pulled from the tradition they remain very much on message. It’s been a consistent focus of their work all the way back to the release of We’re Here Because We’re Here almost 20 years ago. As then, the power of that message finds its equal in the power of the voices of what many have come to regard over those intervening two decades, as UK folk’s finest a cappella trio, Coope Boyes & Simpson.
It should be no surprise that three significant works about WWI, all two CD sets, have come from Robb Johnson, Show Of Hands (in collaboration with actors Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton), and now Coope Boyes & Simpson. All three acts are noted for strong political commitment within their music. When Robb Johnson’s Gentle Men was reviewed here back in December last year we made reference to the involvement of Belgian museum director Piet Chilens and the Passendale Peace Concerts. Both play their part here as well. Coope Boyes & Simpson have appeared in five different peace concerts starting as far back as 1993 and have two previous CD sets based on those performances. WWI has remained a constant thread in their recordings since then, with a notable collaboration with Michael Morpurgo for Private Peaceful. In Flanders Fields is the culmination of all of this adding new material to new recordings of songs first performed through this series of concerts.
The timing is spot on, with 28th July marking the first official declarations of WWI 100 years ago and the steady escalation and descent into hostilities through the following week plunged the world into its first truly global conflict. It’s fitting that this anniversary is the focus of solemn remembrance, although none of the protagonists and participants are still with us. History and the passage of time of course gives us perspective and the volatile political state of Europe, the simmering resentments, gathering arms race, outright imperialism and forthright belief in god and nationhood produced an inevitable powder keg. Commentary suggest the fragile pacts and treaties needed to keep the various factions at arms length were like dominoes lined up and ready to fall.
Anyone looking for evidence of the power of this CD set need go no further than the first song, which is actually track two as there is an opening tune. Lester Simpson’s Fault Lines sums up the political maelstrom, the naïve sense of boy’s own adventure, and the misery of wives and mothers left behind before finally drawing the analogy of the hell on earth, with soldiers cowering in the mud before the whistles sent them over the top, lined up like dominoes. Each scene works as a ratchet turn as the machinery is oiled and set towards its ultimate consequence and pointless slaughter. More than nine million, mostly young men died in battle as did an almost equal number of civilians who should never have been targets in the first place, but fell foul of this or that offensive or criminal and often systematic retribution.
Indeed part of the success of this collection of songs is that it gives a voice to the individuals, the ordinary men and women at the heart of this story. There are some 50 tracks spread across two CDs, which gives room to cover so many different facets of the story. Amongst the poetry and commentary are the hopes and fears, the nightmares and the prayers and a goodly dose of biting humour that runs from the ribald to the gallows. The soldiers’ lot was not a happy one and they were quite prepared to give voice to that.
The sheer scope of what is contained here precludes a track by track analysis, but as much as anything, it’s the clever juxtaposition of different styles that keeps you hooked in. There’s England To Her Sons, the poem by William Noel Hodgson, who served as a lieutenant and was killed on the first day of the Battle Of The Somme. It’s skilfully set to the tune of Praise My Soul The King Of Heaven, adding a hymnal weight to the message of god, duty and sacrifice. The song gives way to The Sergeant Major’s Having A Time, a variant of the, “Inky-pinky parlez-vous,” strand of bawdy songs, which also suggests fortune is determined by rank. There are other songs that make that point like the marching song Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire, the final verse being a poignant reminder of the fate of many an ordinary Tommy.
As well as soldiers songs, there are others that are contemporary and set the wider scene. There’s Lloyd George’s Beer, composed by the highly successful comic songwriting partnership, R.P Weston and Bert Lee, which bemoans the weaker ale being brewed so that the munitions workers and industrial war machine didn’t lose time to the demon drink. There’s also Tickler’s Jam, from the Grimsby supplier with the MOD contract that suggests an army does indeed march on its stomach.
There are also those left behind and Shule Agra, which translates as Go My Love, with it’s lament of, “Johnny has gone for a soldier,” is a reminder of the fears realised by millions that you would never see a loved one again. It’s a point made personal by the medly of Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day and Standing In Line, which emphasises the youth of so many that were killed. The latter part, written by Lester, reflects on his Great Aunt Annie, who was widowed in 1917 and lived alone, with her half empty washing line. It also hints at the pressures people felt to volunteer and the misinformation that hid the true horrors of what awaited. There is also Perhaps, with lyrics written by Piet Chiles and translated by Lester and Barry, which is inspired by Testament Of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoires, which document the trauma of loss.
There are songs too that deal with the lesser documented aspects of the war such as the impact on the local population, with Jim Boyes Flanders highlighting something that is often overlooked in the history of the conflict. He also wrote Spring 1919, which looks at the devastation and rebuilding that was needed in the aftermath, with the ongoing horror of unexploded bombs and shells continuing to take lives after the event. Lester’s Shuffling Jack meanwhile looks at the legacy of the war for the combatants, many of whom were driven to the brink of insanity and beyond. Lester’s The VADs documents the Voluntary Aid Division, which comprised of often well to do girls, whose privileged lives meant they wouldn’t even have washed a pot, but who found themselves in nursing roles coming face to face with the wholesale slaughter and horrific injuries of the wounded. His, The Sergeant And The Serving Girl also tells the true story of love and marriage in the heart of war, only for the young Belgian bride to be immediately despatched back to England by the powers that be, to await her husband’s return.
Mostly this set is taken a cappella, with just occasional instrumental embellishment, but with various No Masters colleagues and the likes of June Tabor adding their voices to the distinctive three part harmony on occasion, and with constant shifts of focus and style, this set never flags. Admittedly the two CDs may be long for a single sitting, but the sum is much more than the constituent parts, profound and also profoundly moving.
It’s perhaps slightly ironic that the John McRae poem, from which the album derives its tile, was actually used in the recruitment drive. The last verse encourages others to follow and take the torch from the hands of the dead, so that they have not died in vain. It was written in 1915, when the notions of a just and valiant fight had yet to succumb to the out and out revulsion of the slaughter. It is none the less a potent elegy for a friend and for the many others that McRae saw killed and refers to the poppies that quickly sprung up around the graves, being credited with inspiring the wearing of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. For all of their anti-war polemic, I am certain Coope Boyes & Simpson would never downgrade the importance of that. Indeed, Only Remembered is a fitting and poignant conclusion to this exceptional collection. The torch that we can take from the dead is the light to show the way to live our lives in peace, perhaps then they will truly not have died in vain.
Review by: Simon Holland
In Flanders Fields is released today via No Masters
04/08 – Het Perron, Ieper, BE
Concert marking the launch of De Namenlijst / Naming of Names list of all victims of the Great War in West Flanders. With the Paul Rans Ensemble.
25/08 – Kings Place, London
Anglo Flemish First War Commemoration with Coope Boyes & Simpson, Michael Morpurgo & Paul Rans Ensemble
In Flanders Fields Tour
12/09 – Foundling Museum, London
13/09 – Folk at the Flavel, Dartmouth
14/09 – Bristol Folk House, Bristol
15/09 – Colchester Arts Centre, Colchester
16/09 – Leicester Guildhall, Leicester
17/09 – St Mary’s Church, Scarborough
18/09 – Drill Hall, Lincoln
19/09 – West End Centre, Aldershot
20/09 – David Hall, South Petherton
21/09 – Heeley Institute, Sheffield
04/10 – Derby Folk Festival, Derby
More dates and ticket links here: http://www.coopeboyesandsimpson.co.uk/