The First World War was perhaps the last global conflict in which oral history and folk tradition played a part. As the twentieth century wore on the globalising effect of technology on culture and media meant that wars were being talked about and recorded by journalists rather than by the soldiers themselves, and that the songs being sung by those soldiers changed from personal, local songs to internationally known and universal ones. But in 1914, the songs shared by the men on their way to the front often had the same tunes as those sung in the Napoleonic Wars or earlier, and the correspondence and poetry that made it back home formed the greater part of what we came to know about conditions in the trenches. This partly explains why the First World War still draws such an emotional response from people a hundred years on.
With that in mind, there are few more fitting ways to commemorate those events than in folk song. Songs For The Voiceless, a project created and curated by Michael J Tinker, attempts to do this by gathering a fine array of British folk talent and giving them the specific task of creating songs based on the true but overlooked stories of the war. Material of this kind will sometimes be harrowing, but can also be full of hope. Hartlepool vocal group The Young’Uns manage to cover both bases with the hugely atmospheric album opener Theo Jones. Katriona Gilmore lends a quirky edge to proceedings with Trojan Tree, a barely believable tale of an espionage mission carried out with the help of a metal tree.
One of the album’s highlights is Josienne Clarke’s gently melancholic As The Dust Settles. Based on her own great-grandfather’s exploits, the story is at once intensely personal and instantly recognisable. Another standout is Bella Hardy’s Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier. A deceptively simple arrangement, it sheds some much-needed light on the roles played by various women in the war, bringing a valuable piece of social history to life with clarity and beauty.
Proving that words are not always needed to tell a poignant story, Tom Oakes contributes Harry And Nellie’s First Dance, a waltz for harmonium and wooden flute composed to commemorate the meeting of his great-grandparents. Some light relief is provided by the Young’Uns, whose second contribution is a cheeky, unaccompanied medley complete with snappy dialogue and stuffy officers.
The impressive thing about this album is that, even in its saddest and most downbeat moments – Ian Stephenson’s Trenches, for example – it never falls into the trap of sentimentality. It is both a beautifully realised piece of art and a timely lesson in history. It doesn’t lose sight of the evident horror of war, or of the humour and humanity that helped the participants get through it. And it manages to throw in a good helping of healthy British cynicism to boot. A case in point is Jon Boden’s powerful version of an old song, If You Want To See The General, which closes the record with a bitterly humorous and eventually brutal sideswipe at the inequalities of army life.
Review by: Thomas Blake