John Tams, seven times winner of BBC Music Awards and the original songmaker for War Horse and songman Bob Fox, a celebrated, leading voice and musician in the UK folk scene, have brought together a re-telling of all the songs in their complete forms featured in the multi-award winning show.
War Horse, acknowledged as the most popular show in the National Theatre’s history and seen by over 8 million people worldwide, is based on former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo’s book – in Michael’s own words – ‘The story of a horse, a boy and a war’.
This beautifully recorded new album includes the complete War Horse Songbook and a postscript of new works – companion pieces to the storytelling and the ever-resonating impact of The Great War.
Bob Fox’s intuitive and masterful re-telling of these songs, accompanied by his beautifully accomplished guitar settings, and additionally in the company of Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band, form the heart of the album – at its core a message of remembrance and above all peace.
A Garland for Joey is released on 11th November 2017 via Fledg’ling Records
John Tams on the Songs on “A Garland for Joey – The War Horse Songbook.”
Snowfalls – (The Year Turns Round Again)
Originally made as the opening song for the National Theatre’s Candleford, the second play in the Larkrise to Candleford double bill. Candleford was set on St. Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) on a floor cloth covered in “snow,” hence “Cruel winter cuts through like The Reaper………” with a chorus – “And the snowfalls….,” the song’s original title.
“War Horse” required a new approach for the song to roll across the numerous seasons and years The Great War suffered in the telling of the play. It became my role to make new lyrics and take the song from its original guitar-made inspiration to a different place. Since the guitar was anachronistic to the new production I re-set the song to a traditional folksong “Dives and Lazarus,” and re-made it in the show’s image.
Ironically, Bob Fox has reinterpreted it with a beautiful guitar setting – but that was the whole point of re-telling the songs in Bob’s redoubtable image.
I trawled obsessively, the Moody and Sankey hymnbook seeking songs and anthems that might otherwise be overlooked. Right or wrong I edited out many of the “Godly” references and made new verses in an attempt to add more to the portfolio of people’s anthems. I wasn’t trying to de-Christianise them, just to reappraise them, put them back to be sung out loud by anyone who took something from them, Christians and Non-Christians alike? Maybe it’s about context and there’s none better for “Only Remembered,” than “War Horse.”
“Lest we forget,” runs deep in the play. The melody, which I love, is not mine – composed by American Methodist Ira D. Sankey with original words by Horatius Bonar. I remade most of the words to our “War Horse,” needs.
Incidentally, Bonar was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and Sankey in Edinburg, Pennsylvania? Maybe why visiting Americans often pronounce the former by way of the latter?
Incidentally again! Sally and myself were invited to watch “Only Remembered” being filmed by Steven Spielberg for his version of War Horse in Castle Combe, Wiltshire with 300 background artists, singers and over 30 horses. It didn’t make the final cut.
The Scarlet and the Blue
Shortly after War Horse opened at the National Theatre ten years ago I received an email from an audience member, “ticking me off,” for using an IRA song in the show. The correspondent was referencing “We’re all off to Dublin in the green, in the green,” which adopts the same melody as “The Scarlet and the Blue.” Several things crossed my mind. As a songmaker, have we stopped listening to the words? There’s no reference, or implied connection to the IRA. In fact the song originates from the Royal Horse Artillery pre-dating by many years the accusation and my guess with no certainty is that the IRA connection probably stems from one of the Behan brothers, likely Dominic who was wont to attach new words to old songs. So, there’s some common ground there with his work, my work and the work of many others. Stand on any football terrace and you’ll hear robust parodies set to old tunes.
I only dallied with a few choice words and it is rightly credited as “traditional.”
During post-production of Spielberg’s War Horse, I was called to Abbey Road to record “The Scarlet and the Blue.” There, in the Beatles studio I met with an eighteen strong classically trained choir – globally celebrated and regular contributors to movie soundtracks. I was left to conduct the session! They sang it beautifully of course but it wasn’t beauty that I was after. Trying to get time-served opera singers to unlearn their hard-won techniques and sing a vernacular song in a vernacular style took a dozen and a half takes. Three hours later and to their credit they stood the test. I can only apologise for maybe ruining their reputations and possibly their voices. After the session, I sought sanctuary in the Abbey Road bar and shared a cigarette with the ghost of George Harrison. The song did find its way into the movie but if you blink you’ll miss it, providing you can blink with your ears?
Definition: “Stand ready for an attack especially one before dawn.”
Dedications: George Butterworth and The Durham Light Infantry.
Imperfect memory tends me to think that “Stand To” was not part of the original commission for War Horse but somehow found its way into the production thereafter. I have no recall of when it came to me and yet I’m sure of those who were guiding my hand.
On a recce (a purloined term with little irony of the militaristic – “reconnoitre,”) in the good company of the BBC’s foremost documentary makers, I was part of a quartet researching the battlefields and war graves of Flanders Field in preparation to make the Radio 2 Radio Ballads of The Great War. Early in our itinerary was Crucifix Corner, (nearby Bois des Fourcaux – High Wood) where still stands a metal crucifix, pock-marked and bullet-riddled but still there on the site of one of the last cavalry offensives. Horses against machine guns! Unqualified, in matters of pedology, as indeed I am on most subjects – against a blue-skyed morning, shadowed by the rusty cross, it was the colour of the soil that affected me most – an incardinious red. I took it to be bloodstained and as I walked the ploughman’s furrows I found myself treading more lightly for fear of disturbing what lay unrecovered beneath my feet.
Thiepval is the monument to 72,246 of the unrecovered. It was our next stop and as we travelled, I took voice, regaling my companions with tales of George Butterworth and in conclusion as we pulled into the car park – there was George, right on cue, ten feet tall. “That’s him! That’s George!” I shouted. I recognised his photograph, which now adorns the doorway of the visitor’s centre, yet I knew, “deep-down,” he would not have liked to be singled out amongst his fellow-fallen.
So, George Butterworth – in brief – (don’t get me started!) – a friend and colleague of both Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams and with them a founding member of the Folksong Society – collector of over 200 folksongs, employed by Sharp as a professional morris dancer – composer – see “A Shropshire Lad,” settings of Housman and “Banks of Green Willow,” other manuscripts he burned in a garden bonfire, in York on the day he enlisted in the Army.
As 2nd Lieutenant with the Durham Light Infantry, made up mostly of coalminers, he understood them and they came to understand him. As an upper-middle class aesthete, he took them “over-the-top” and brought them back – he won a Military Cross – they loved him. He wrote of them in many letters, the gist of which remains – “ordinary miners – extraordinary men.”
When a sniper’s bullet felled him, the Durhams recovered his body and carried him to their trench but increased artillery bombardment destroyed his resting place – hence George Sainton Kaye Butterworth M.C. appears on the wall at Thiepval. He was 31.
Cecil Sharp was in the U.S. collecting folksongs in the Appalachian Mountains when he heard in 1916 that his demonstration side of morris dancers had not only lost George but half of its other members.
Vaughan Williams said: “He was the best of the best of us.”
The sandbag/poppy image on the reverse of “A Garland For Joey,” I photographed at Thiepval.
One perhaps, the only one, of my songs made-up at one sitting of maybe two hours that came fully formed with a tune that arrived with the words.
As Associate Director at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield I was gifted a young, promising director, Stephen Daldry, now known for (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Queen) to help produce Nick Darke’s adaptation of Laurie Lee’s “Cider With Rosie.”
I’d been privileged to meet the ever under-valued Laurie Lee over a glass or two in Chelsea and, like everyone fortunate enough to spend time with him, I was improved by his company.
So, I residually had my time with Laurie and the debt I and numerous others owe him.
How to start a play?
Playgoers arrive. They bring their “present” day to the theatre – maybe they’re late? – squeeze in a quick drink and with all their daily pasts left outside the theatre, when the lights go down something has to change.
Time might shift historically, locations shift geographically, tempo and the ticking clock of lives change – music or song (with good costume and lighting) can bring all of that together, before even a word is spoken.
I’d seen a painting by Vincent van Gogh, mostly ochre and dark, an early work – peasants (his words) digging what I took to be turnips, their backsides to the artist.
Daldry liked it and we assembled an arc of 8 actors – behinds facing the stalls, dawn-lighting and as they moved drudgingly and slowly upstage they sang with labourers misplaced optimism, “Rolling Home,” – and we had a start.
For “War Horse” the song gave a collective voice to the community, a sense of unity, so oft missing in these harsh times when the individual overwhelms the collective.
“Rolling Home” has been conspicuous at festivals and folk clubs for many years, often introduced as a “traditional” song. Nothing could please me more.
I was playing a concert at Saltaire in Yorkshire, a 25th anniversary of the founding of a record label, Jim Boyes and I had formed as a co-op – “No Masters.”
I had a pre-booked call from Santa Monica with Steven Spielberg, Kathy Kennedy his producer and the giant of all movie music, John Williams.
Having rushed through a sound check, ahead of the concert, I stood on an unlikely bridge, in an unlikely location of industrial revolutionary Britain with a likely glass of chardonnay in my hand looking somewhat nervously at my phone.
It rang – Kathy introduced the team – one too many Johns, so I proffered I would address, John Williams as maestro and on we went.
As it ran, it became increasingly evident, that distanced by our Atlantic divide, coupled with my probable pedantry for UK traditional music, I was out of my depth – and maybe so were they?
But their passion for “War Horse” was evident – Steven, quite apart from being one of the greatest directors Hollywood as ever produced is also a card-carrying Anglophile. They knew the movie they were about to make and who was I standing on a bridge in Yorkshire with an empty glass?
The follow-up later was long email conversations with the maestro urging him to forsake the “Celtic Tiger” for his score, (omnipresent in Hollywood at the time) and re-awaken the “Albion Lion?” After all it was an English story set in Devon. I knew he’d been the principal conductor for many years for the Boston Symphony and was well aware of the English canon – Vaughan Williams, Delius, Elgar, Butterworth et al.
The maestro indicated that Steven preferred to do the lyricism on camera and not have songs and thereby words, emotionally directing his audience. In other words could I make a song with as fewer words as possible?
Drawing from “The Coventry Carol” I made-up a lullaby, “Lullee Lullay,” and sent it to the maestro. He responded with a beautiful piano setting, in his own hands.
Steven loved it – they all loved it. It never made the cut. Such is Hollywood.
John Williams’ score for the movie owed more to the English classical form than the Celtic, so I may have made a little impact. Be it known, I love the Celtic tradition in all its forms, indeed I recorded a good few albums of traditional musicians during field trips in the west of Ireland.
Still, it was good and indeed educational to spend time with Steven, his team and the maestro.
Steven Spielberg is an honorary Knight of the British Empire (2001)
The Brisk Young Ploughboy
Searching to find a correlation between in Morpurgo’s words – “a horse, a boy and a war,” I was drawn to “The Brisk Young Ploughboy,” which holds within it, centrally, a love story. How the boy was “pressed” into the army for his love and sent to a war to be “slain.’ Albert wasn’t pressed, he joined-up but there’s love saliently in his story and its telling. I put my trust in the audience and always have, to see round the corner of the obvious – to the suggested.
I adjusted a little of the original recording by traditional folksinger Harry Cox in the 1930’s, adding a verse or two……
“The ploughboy’s written home a letter
The best that he knew how
Saying this cruel war shall ne’er keep us apart
While cannon loud do roar
I shall keep our love secure
For my tunic buttons tight around your heart”
I print this, only because if there’s only one line in the context of a war play that I would like to be remembered for, it is the last line of the foregoing.
The Devonshire Carol
The Devonshire Cemetery, stands easily missed, half a mile from Memetz, France and was part of our planned research trip for the “Radio Ballads of the Great War.” An unprepossessing lay-by at the foot of a hill. – rough steps rise through tree canopies to one of the smallest and no-less beautiful and perfectly tended war graves I’ve ever seen. A dwarf-wall with a cryingly squeaky gate gives access to a stretch of manicured grass, maybe a couple of dozen paces long by half as much wide, where lie, often in shared graves, the Devonshire Regiment’s fallen and all inscribed – July 1st 1916 – the first day of The Battle of the Somme.
Capt. Martin had told his superiors there was a German machine gun emplacement across the road – even building a three-dimensional model to prove his point – but it went unheeded. In the early morning of July 1st he led his men down the hill and they were all cut down in a matter of minutes.
A plaque, atop the hill, slightly amended reads: “The Devonshires held this hill – they hold it still.”
Piet Chielens is the architect, curator and the heart of the In Flanders Field Museum in Ieper (Ypres.) Housed in the Cloth Hall, reduced to rubble during the Great War and now magnificently and rightly rebuilt, Piet’s work has touched thousands both the living and the dead. In Flanders Field holds within it a passion for peace and a unique presentation that denies comparison with any museum I’ve ever visited. I had the good fortune to meet Piet many years ago in the company of Carmen, his wife and the most vivacious, life-affirming, vital of women. Carmen took sick far too soon and died. This carol was originally dedicated, “A Carol For Carmen” and for me, will ever remain so.
The Cherry-Cheeked Optimists (Parts 1 & 2)
How to make a start for a five-year project to commemorate, by annual episodes “The BBC Radio Ballads of the Great War?”
I suggested a book-end – a top and tail idea that could give, as we moved through the war, a prologue and epilogue to each programme. John Leonard our executive producer – and it should be said the greatest radio broadcaster/documentary maker I’ve ever worked with, approved the idea.
Having set-up the premise it became increasingly evident that I’d painted myself into a corner and constrained by other commitments, the heavy-lifting of writing new annual lyrics fell to the singularly brilliant songwriter – Jez Lowe.
Choosing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” an American Civil War song, apparently sung by both sides, before traversing the “pond,” held within it a promise – a hope – and thanks to Jez the end-plates of the shows. Herein, as presented in “A Garland For Joey” is my original template.
Mons ( August 23rd 1914 )
Nineteen days after the declaration of War the British Expeditionary Force, mightily outnumbered, faced their first action. And they held.
Popular music at the time was on the move. The Second Boer War which had only ended thirteen years before brought back home songs such as “Dolly Grey.” Tin Pan Alley, (Denmark Street) was caught on the hop, so “our boys” in 1914 marched into France singing their father’s songs.
As a word-grinder – some great lyrics stemmed from this time, not forgetting some everlasting tunes and they certainly unified the marching boots. Soldiers sing – they always have – and they always will.
“Promises like pie-crusts,” comes from my mother. Thanks Vera.
This song owes much to Flora Thompson and my connection to Bill Bryden’s National Theatre production of Larkrise to Candleford. There was, in me, a need to make a song I knew would never make its way into the play and it wasn’t until I came across the coruscating couplet from Rudyard Kipling, “If any question why we died? Tell them, because our fathers lied,” that the song took shape. “Blame it on the fathers – blame it on the sons….”
Kipling had encouraged his son Jack to join-up. Jack, myopic and an unlikely soldier, through his father’s high status got a commission and was reduced to mud in quick time. Kipling took a private ambulance to the front to find him. I don’t believe he ever did – it broke the poet – and he wrote these lines.
My third inspiration is a photograph of a skeletal corpse, a vacant skull, a bony arm across his chest, lying in a forgotten trench – “like a scarecrow that has fallen in the rain.”
It is my hope you find at the core of these songs a message of remembrance and above all, peace.
John Tams – October 2017
A Garland for Joey is released on 11th November 2017 via Fledg’ling Records
Find out more about War Horse on Stage here: http://www.warhorseonstage.com/
Photo Credit: Graham Whitmore