Conflict is always a catalyst for technological development. Weaponry, logistics, transportation and communication are the obvious beneficiaries of the wartime push to be better equipped and better prepared. But it wasn’t until the First World War that these technologies began to be instantly assimilated into non-military life. The massive improvement in the quality of photography, film and audio recordings between 1914 and 1918 was a direct result of the conflict but had a huge and instant impact on many people, not just soldiers and politicians. The first newsreels featuring footage from the trenches gave everyone an insight into the horrors and banalities of war – it made positive propaganda more difficult and contributed to the received wisdom that the Great War was perhaps the most terrible of all wars. Sound recordings gave voice to the testimonies of real people. As a result, the war became arguably the first event in world history in which a ‘bottom up’ approach to its study (‘history from below’, as E.P. Thompson had it) yielded results that were as least as valuable as the old methods of seeing events through the eyes of its major players.
A side-effect of the comparative glut of recorded material is that artists – painters, poets, musicians – were able to respond to events with greater variety and veracity, often without even having seen any combat themselves. This doesn’t mean that they haven’t been affected. On the contrary, it exposed the fact that war had huge consequences on families, friends, on an entire generation of individuals. Naturally, the testimonies of many of this generation have been lost. Some, however, have not, and a significant number of contemporary artists and performers have created projects whose intention is to bring them back into the public consciousness – a kind of creative folk history.
One such attempt is War Stories, the third album by Lancashire folk trio Harp & A Monkey. The premise of War Stories is simple enough – a collection of songs, some traditional, some newly composed, some an organic splicing of both, that seeks to tell the forgotten personal histories of various people whose interactions with the First World War were less conventional than those in the usual narrative. But the album’s unique selling point is its copious sampling of oral recollections: not just those of veterans and and their family, but of others involved in the war in sometimes unexpected roles. This method is an intriguing one, and can only be pulled off if the songs are good enough to stand alone and accommodating enough to let the recorded testimonies tell their own stories.
Luckily, we are in the hands of three especially talented musicians. The first song, The Banks Of Green Willow, is an audacious beginning. Diving straight in with a decidedly untraditional time signature played on glockenspiel and banjo, it tells the story of the ambivalence of war on the psyches of surviving soldiers. The song’s bravery lies in its insistence that war could sometimes be a positive influence on those who signed up to fight, and that those who survived were often unfairly forgotten in the rush to remember the dead. The voice sampled here is that of Sir John Hammerton, speaking on a film made in the 1930s about these very subjects. As the singing stops and we first encounter Hammerton’s voice, we become aware of subtle, surprising electronic effects complementing the traditional instruments. As an opening track, it perfectly sets out the album’s manifesto: it is faithful to the source material (Hammertons recorded monologue) but at the same time unafraid to use modern flourishes to elaborate on the fine musicianship. It is instantly refreshing.
On Soldier Soldier the group adapt a Rudyard Kipling poem from ‘The Barrack Room Ballads’: already an immensely popular collection by the time the war began. Lyrically, it is a piece of black humour, told from the point of view of a serviceman to the lover of one of his fallen comrades. Martin Purdy’s brusque northern tone perfectly suits the speedy, impatient narrative, while Andy Smith’s flickering banjo and Purdy’s occasional glockenspiel offer strange hints at an unexpected gentleness at the song’s core. Gallows humour is something of an early theme. Broken Men positively revels in it – a marching beat for a song told from the perspective of a man who has lost a leg. It gives an idea of the pain suffered not just by the injured soldiers but by their families whose lives are forever changed. The coda gathers in vocal power, signifying the huge numbers of men – literally armies of men – coming home in an injured state.
Humour is often overlooked in histories of violence, but the British sense of humour must have been an important weapon for the men at the front. The tongue in cheek jauntiness of the banjo-led Charlie Chaplin exemplifies this, and once again the voice of John Hammerton lends a sense of reality to the piece, whilst tying it in to the melancholy of the album’s first track.
A Young Trooper Cut Down is the group’s take on the well-known syphilis ballad, popular since the eighteenth century as a particularly bleak kind of public health warning. A fitting spoken recording this time comes from a female veteran of the Imperial War Graves Commission – a timely reminder that the voices of history are all too often male. Once again the glockenspiel – that most innocent-sounding of instruments – provides and effective counterpoint to the grimness of the subject matter.
Raise A Glass To Danny tells the very particular story of Scotsman Daniel Laidlaw, a piper awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in the Battle of Loos. Laidlaw was practically forgotten on his return and was buried in an unmarked grave on his death in the 1950s. The tone here – set by lilting accordion and banjo – is ultimately celebratory, reflecting the long-awaited recognition Laidlaw gained when, in 2001, he was finally given a memorial stone. We are even treated to a snippet of Danny’s own piping. It is both stirring and heartbreaking. More ambiguous is The Long, Long Trail. The song is effectively a vehicle for bittersweet and ultimately sad tale told by Connie Noble of her father and his brother who were parted, thrown together and parted again by the war.
The humble postman is rarely thought of as a hero of war, but in The Postman’s Song he is given his due. His thankless task – to deliver news of death and injury on the battlefield to families and friends – is described in all its tragic detail, first with haunting a cappella vocals, then by Connie Noble’s touching narration of the moment she learned of her father’s injury, backed by haunting electronic touches. Another angle on bereavement comes courtesy of Ghosts Round The Table. Maybe the album’s saddest moment, it gives voice to the survivors of war whose comrades are dwindling year on year. A sobering reminder that while we may be able to live through wars, we cannot outrun time. The album concludes with Flanders’ Shore, an update on the well-known folk song Flandyke Shore. Here it becomes a tender message from a father to his family on the eve of his enlistment. It sounds almost like a music box tune, or a lullaby urging the family to sleep and forget about the father, who may or may not return. Much of its power comes from the interplay of Simon Jones’s plucked harp and yet more understated electronic squiggles.
It would be easy to rank this record alongside the plethora of other First World War-related art that has emerged in recent years. But that would be doing Harp & A Monkey a severe injustice. Firstly, the musicianship is so varied and so accomplished that the album would easily stand alone without its cultural and historical context. Just as the songs on, say, Nic Jones’s Penguin Eggs transcend their conceptual backdrop, so too do these. And secondly, the approach is so different that it deserves to be heard. The stories contained here might well refer to a well-known period of history, but the angles at which they come at that familiar narrative, the microcosms they create, are truly individual and at times unprecedented. War Stories is a courageous, often demanding and ultimately satisfying project.
A remote hillside on Holcombe Moor that bore witness to a rogue Zeppelin attack was one of the remarkable venues that was host to a series of shows by Harp and a Monkey to mark the ongoing centenary of the First World War.
Further performances took place in a village created in 1919 for disabled veterans of the conflict and their families and in a prison that housed hundreds of conscientious objectors.
The shows took place on August 22, 23 and 24 2015 and were supported by Arts Council England and The Western Front Association.
Harp and a Monkey Tour Dates
1st & 2nd: National Somme 100 Event, Heaton Park , Manchester (FREE WW1 shows)
3rd: Rustic Music & Arts Festival, Dutton, Cheshire
5th: Sandbach Folk Club, Market Tavern, Sandbach, Cheshire
9th: Folk Moot, Tamworth Folk and Rambling Club, Amington, Staffordshire. (With Bob Fox and Said The Maiden)
10th: The People’s History Museum, Manchester (FREE WW1 show) – Tickets
23rd – 24th: Village Pump Folk Festival, Trowbridge, Wiltshire. Tickets
21st: St John’s Church, Hutton Roof, Cumbria (FREE WW1 show)
27th: All Saints Church, Narborough, Norfolk (FREE WW1 show)
4th: Tenterden Station, Kent & East Sussex Railway (FREE WW1 show)
10th: Diggers’ Festival, Wigan
11th: Washington ‘F’ Pit, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear (FREE WW1 show)
17th-18th: Ramsbottom Festival, Greater Manchester
24th: Queen’s Head, Belper, Derbyshire
1st: Upstairs at The Golden Lion, Todmorden, Calderdale, West Yorks
7th: Porkies Folk Club, Poynton, Cheshire
8th: Peel Park Hotel, Accrington, Lancs
11th: ‘Remembrance’ show in Manchester. (Details to follow)
18th: Beverley Folk and Roots Club, East Yorks
3rd: Wigan, The Old Courthouse, Greater Manchester
7th: Ramsbottom Folk Club, Greater Manchester
14th: The Willow Folk Club, Kirkham, Lancs
War Stories is Out Now
Order via: Harp and a Monkey