I’m still looking for material about soldier’s songs, and recently came across this article in the excellent Spectator archive. It’s a November 1917 review of F.T. Nettleingham’s collection, Tommy’s Tunes, and reminds us that the subject was not always seen through the socialist-populist filter of ‘Oh What a lovely War’. The Spectator site’s text is obviously created using the kind of scanning device that generates quite a few errors, so I’ve made my own corrected version, and thought that I would share it here:
War is a very disappointing subject for the conscientious artist. If he is a student of the graphic arts, he draws carefully studied pictures of battles as they ought to be, full of atmosphere and composition, with all his lights and shades nicely echoed and balanced, and the purblind public reject his efforts in favour of the crude realism of the picture palace. If his genius moves him to verse, he writes stirring odes and pulsating lyrics alive with fire and human emotion cunningly cast in the finest metrical form, and obstinate troops blankly refuse to sing them. When the private soldier is moved to raise his voice in song, he prefers first the common tunes that have formed the stock-in-trade of the amateur vocalist for generations : “Annie Laurie,” “Ye Banks and Braes,” “Kathleen Mavourneen,” ” Killarney,” ” Swanee River,” “John Peel,” and their like. Next in popularity come the music-hall songs of the moment, which enjoy a terrific but fleeting vogue for a few months and then disappear as quickly and mysteriously as they arise. Last in order of frequency, but very nearly first in their quality of endurance, are the professional ditties ; some of them traditional from a time “beyond which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary,” but continually being revised and brought up to date by topical allusions and impromptu additions ; others technical parodies of well-known hymns and “favourite ballads”; others, again, completely original, of which a very large portion are interminable chanties built up by successive accretions in the manner of ” The House that Jack Built”, ” Who Killed Cock Robin?” or—to take a more musicianly instance—”The Merryman and his Maid” in The Yeomen of the Guard. It is from this third class, the professional ditties invented by the men in all ranks and divisions of the fighting-line, that Mr. Nettleingham has made the present collection.In any literary sense, of course, they are not subjects for criticism.