Hooray for Drivel

‘Mr. Robert Graves is interested in the ‘ballads’ that came into existence among the British troops during the war, but these are the merest drivel as he would agree.’

John Spiers, Scrutiny (June 1935)


  1. Bill
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    To be fair to Spiers, this throwaway footnote appears in a discussion on the diction of the Scottish Border ballads. It is hard to argue with his point that the songs of the troops are more akin to popular entertainment than to “ballads” of that sort.

    • Posted July 19, 2015 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Are you saying that ‘popular entertainment’ is by definition drivel?

      I’m currently researching soldiers’ songs, and have come across articles in wartime musical magazines by writers pained that the soldiers are not singing folk songs, but prefer their own musical vernacular. They are probably the same writers who in the pre-war decade had been forceful in establishing folk-song as part of the school curriculum, as an antidote to the vulgarity of music hall, etc. It is interesting that the folk-songs taught in schools form no noticeable part of the soldiers’ musical repertoire; hymns and popular songs are the crucial influences.
      (That’s among the English soldiers, by the way. The Scots seem to have sung traditional songs like ‘Wha saw the Forty-Second’ and ‘Annie Laurie’.)

  2. Bill
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Not even Mrs Leavis went quite that far, but the Scrutiny writers would generally seem to have subscribed to a clear division between a serious and a less serious art. “The contemporary popular taste as represented by the contemporary popular entertainment … is of a very much lower order” as Speirs puts it. Of course, he is trying to argue the seriousness of the Border ballads despite their lack of obvious literary polish and their alleged paganism, so it suits him to distance them from “contemporary popular entertainment”.

    The serious study of popular art forms is a more modern phenomenon, except among social historians. I doubt most of the Scrutiny group even shared Eliot’s affection for music hall.

    What soldiers’ songs, like (eg) disaster broadsheets, tended to take from folk songs were the traditional tunes, rather than the words.

    • Jonathan Lighter
      Posted July 20, 2015 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      But they took very few of those. My impression, I believe like George’s, is that music-hall melodies provided the tunes for most soldiers’ songs; and hymn tunes provided a few more.

      On the other hand, there existed a dozen or more bawdy songs that had been known especially in the army and navy for many years. These were “folk songs,” in every relevant sense, and sung to their own tunes, though they were rarely acknowledged during the war. Of course, for most people in 1914-18 the term “folk song” carried irresistible connotations of innocent rusticity.

      Of the bawdy repertoire, few memoirists mention more than the titles “Ballocky Bill the Sailor” and “Skiboo!” (forerunner of “Inky-Pinky Parlez-Vous”) were the most often mentioned, though “The Lobster” (which has origins in the seventeenth century, was also widely sung. Brophy & Partridge (1930, and especially 1965) give some of the actual words.

      Lieut. F. T. Nettleinghame of the RFC/RAF, the earliest collector of “army songs,” printed a few bowdlerizations among the majority of perfectly innocent examples.

      No twenty-first century scholar would call the songs collected by Nettleinghame “drivel.” But in conservative quarters even the “Barrack-Room Ballads” of Kipling were regarded as vulgar, and by contemporaneous standards of poetry music-hall songs were also drivel: cliche’, crudely humorous, unsophisticated, neither profound nor improving, etc.

      Whatever one may think of Brooke’s War Sonnets, “Whiter than the Whitewash on the Wall” isn’t quite in the same league.

  3. Bill
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    Nettleinghame does seem to suggest that some of the “old songs” were sung alongside the ones he noted down, but much of the folk song revival was a fairly recent phenomenon in 1917. Cecil Sharp’s song book for schools was only published a few years before the war, and the whole question of their collection has been a political minefield over the last 40 years.

    Of course, even at the time, folk song was seen by both Sharp and the Board of Education as a nation-building exercise
    – “the expression in the idiom of the people of their joys and sorrows, their unaffected patriotism, their zest for sport, and the simple pleasures of a country life”.

    Nowadays, it would be even harder to come to a clear definition of “folk song”. I assume it includes much we would more commonly think of as “nursery rhymes”. “Old MacDonald has a farm” and “One man went to mow” both have versions in Nettleinghame. And “Tommy’s Tunes” is given as the earliest source for several songs that now have Roud index numbers.

    But you are right that popular songs furnish the base (both words and music) for most of the “Tommy’s Tunes” collection. Whether they came from the music hall I’m not sure – quite possibly some went back to the music hall after becoming popular with the troops.

    The closest contemporary parallel seems to be the songs of football crowds, many of which started as long-gone “hit” songs, but have been adapted and changed from club to club and player to player.

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