Diggers’ Songs next 1


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By the middle of the nineteenth century it became obvious that music had attracted a commercial edge. ‘Penny dreadful’ song sheets or broadsides were giving way to ‘popular songsters’ with arrangements for the pianoforte, violin and mandolin. The popular music industry was starting to replace the old songs that had been sung for years and even the newsworthy broadside ballads of the Seven Dials district were being edged out by singalong songs and sentimental ballads with equally heart-rendering titles like ‘Don’t Sell My Mother’s Picture In The Sale’ or that tear-jerker of all tear-jerkers, ‘The Luggage Van Ahead’. Next came the Music Hall and the choms rang out loud and clear – ‘turn up the music and give us another song!’

By the time of the First World War it was apparent that with this war for the first time both the civilian population and the soldiers would be singing the same songs. Florrie Forde, sang ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Goodbye-ee’ and was joined by thousands as they jam-packed the music halls to sing our soldiers to battle. Commercial recordings were produced and wind-up gramophones carried the songs far and wide, even to the front line.

Australians have also sung in every war. They sang on the march to relieve boredom and to maintain uniform marching time, they sang in the barracks, in trucks as they criss-crossed the country and, of course, they sang in the trenches. Above all, they sang in those rare opportunities when they were ‘temporarily free men’ on leave and on ‘the rantan’. The songs in this collection are mostly songs sung by the troops rather than the work of Tin- Pan-Ally songwriters. Mind you, considering the number of parodies using popular songs of the day it would be unfair to dismiss the role of the professional songwriter. Florrie Forde may have been singing ‘Tipperary’ Oops soon changed the words to suit their needs and the first line soon became ‘It’s a long way to Melbourne, It’s a long long way to go’. It seems that no popular song was safe from the wit of parody.

Whether the point of the song was directed at the enemy, or at the army institution, or at the seemingly deplorable character and attitude of any or all Sergeant Majors, or whether it compares the singers’ troop unit with other units (always with much ridicule of the latter), or dwells plaintively on the delights of beer and women; or whether it has no point whatever and is just plain silly – the idea is the same: get your troubles off your chest! – ‘pack up all your cares and woes’.

In assembling the folkloric jigsaw that could be loosely described as ‘Australian military folksong’ I searched high and low to ensure that this collection would be as representative as possible. Much of the material came from ready informants and, in most cases, returned soldiers, who were eager that the old army, airforce and navy songs be recorded. In this day and age of electronic entertainment even ‘Blind Freddy’ should be able to see that the old songs are threatened as we become a nation of people who get entertained rather than entertain each other.

In reality little has been done to collect this important part of our tradition. Graham Seal of the Centre For Australian Studies at Curtin University published a pioneering ‘work in progress’ as a folklore occasional paper, in 1991, titled ‘Digger Folksong And Verse Of World War One’ and British writer, Martin Page, published quite a number of Australian songs in his highly enjoyable books ‘Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major’ and ‘For Gawdsake Don’t Take Me’. Apart from these three publications the soldier’s song book is rather empty.

It is not surprising that there are no available songs from the Maori Wars considering that they took place in the middle of last century and that they only involved a handful of Australian soldiers. This isn’t to say that songs were not written or sung and I am confident that there were such songs. I, wrote to the New Zealand Library Service to no avail. I am still curious to see if the Maori people have any songs that document this episode of their history and if any such songs mention the Australian participation.

The Sudan produced songs as this was the heyday of the patriotick song complete with jingoistic phrasing and equally bad verse. It is also little wonder that so few songs from this war entered the tradition as they were mostly unsingable and very forgettable! The same could be said of the Boer War where the surviving songs still smack of the heavy hand of the poet as opposed to the free-thinking, free-wheeling pen of the community-at-large and the pack-slogging soldier in particular. One suspects that the soldiers did sing a great deal because singing was so much a part of every day entertainment however these songs were more likely to be ‘barrack room ballads’ than patriotic songs and because of their rowdy and rough language they would not have survived being far too rough-house to be printed or even sung in ‘polite society’. This is more of a comment on the social environment of the time than on the shyness of singing soldiers!

It was in the First World War that the role of the ‘soldier songs’ became more defined and many of the songs created in this war also travelled down through the years to be used in subsequent wars and it is possible to see a WWI song reappear in WW2 and also in the Korean War. Even the ever-popular ‘Dinki Di’ has this distinction and it is fascinating to compare the three versions and see how they travel. In many cases such songs only require a slight change of location or personnel and they are new again.

In studying the songs of the First World War one needs to have one eye cocked towards the popular music industry, especially the British Music Hall, and the emerging gramophone industry. Music publishers played an important role in the dissemination of the songs as they plied their trade promoting songwriters, singers and song books. All these had Australian equivalents and when one considers that some of the most influential international music hall artists were also Australian there is a direct link. Melbourne-born Flon-ie Forde, ‘Music Hall’s greatest chorus singer’, was as influential as Vera Lynn was to become in WW2 and Sydney music publisher and songwriter, Joe Slater, published volume after volume of his ‘Imperial Songster’ and several ‘Wartime songsters’ published ‘in support of our fighting men’.

The music used to carry the songs is also worth exploring. Certain older tunes, especially marching and recruitment tunes reappear with new words, however it is the more popular tunes that the soldiers turned to as their favoured vehicle. The repetitive ‘cumulative’ songs tend to prefer the commonly-known, usually older traditional songs, and this might have something to do with the fact that these songs were favoured for the drunken sessions in bars and taverns. ‘Abdul The Bul Bul Amir’ certainly falls into this category. The popular tunes like ‘Tipperary’ and ‘A Wee Doch And Doris’ turn up time and time again and have a lot to do with the overall commercial success of the original song. It’s easy to imagine how a bored sentry soldier could create a parody for his own amusement and then how such a parody could travel as other soldiers heard the soldier sing his ditty in the shower-room, mess-hall or even in the trenches. One also needs to appreciate that folks used to listen to the words of songs in those days!

Whilst music has a noble history at the front line it appears that musical instruments were few and far between. The smaller, more portable, instruments were obviously the most popular – the harmonica, jaw-harp, tin whistle and ukulele. There were also ‘novelty’ instruments including the musical saw, the kazoo, the bones, spoons, tissue paper and comb and when they could find the right leaf, the ‘gumleaf’. Many the ‘barrack’s band’ would have offered a combination of these instruments to back an inspired rendition of ‘Sweet Adeline’, ‘Ka-Ka-Ka-Katie’ or ‘Ida (sweet as apple cider)’.

It was in WW1 that the songs openly expressed the emotional fears experienced by the soldiers. This was new in the history of soldier songs and it was apparent that the army ‘brass’ was prepared to turn ‘a deaf ear’ to allow such fears, grievances and downright bitch-sessions to be aired. It was also a lengthy war and the songs played an important role in maintaining solidarity and morale. There is something spirited in defiantly singing in the face of the enemy and it appears as if singing songs about ‘top army brass’ was considered good practice!

I’ve always thought that the monologue, How Would You Be?,is so typically Australian with its improbable exaggeration combined with what has become known as ‘a dry sense of humour’. It has also led me to speculate whether the term ‘dry sense of humour’ is distinctly Australian and does it come from our outback with its seemingly endless plains of red dust? I first heard ‘How’d Yer Be?’ recited by Alex Hood in the 1960’s and its hilariously absurd imagery has remained with me ever since. I could not resist the temptation to add even more to this story!

War is always a frustration and the songs, parodies, ditties, poetry and stories serve many well-earned roles as a morale booster, to facilitate camaraderie, to educate and assimilate ‘new recruits’ and to allow that necessary on-going de- fusing of tension. As with other periods of history when all is not well, like economic recessions and depressions, the songs tend to be short and not so sweet, and, army songs being what they are tend to be very much to the point – boots and all! This said, I believe that the bawdy songs were not as bawdy as we would believe and certainly not as crude as today’s society would allow. What was considered shocking in WW1 could be ‘wicked’ in the 1940’s and simply bawdy in the 1990’s. Sexual innuendo certainly played a role in ‘reminding’ the soldiers that there was another side of life however, one suspects, it was similar to the ‘bromide in the tea’ which supposedly suppressed such urges! It is the later wars, particularly the Korean and Vietnam Wars, that the ‘filthy songs’ gained wide circulation and this most probably reflects the fact that the majority of song sessions would have been when the soldiers were relaxing and ‘on the town’ – this being a more acceptable venue for such songs and, besides, the on-leave soldiers wanted to be reminded that there was such an urge as sex!

The first call to arms meant training and there’s a load of truth in the old maxim that ‘life in the army would make a man of you’. There was no choice as recruits marched, marched and marched some more with the only diversion being rifle drill – Present Arms! Attention! Present Arms! – and hour upon hour of boot polishing (Soldier! I want to see your face shine in that!), brass polishing (I want that buckle to be like gold!) and blanco duty (Soldier! I don’t want to see a single mark on that webbing!).

Soldiers have always sung ditties to accompany route marching. It not only served a purpose as a time-keeper but also as a relief from boredom – especially if the words could be spiced up a bit with topical references. This aside, there were several standard ditties used by Australian soldiers down through the years and one suspects that these ditties had another use in regimentation. If you can get a new recruit to sing, march and drill in time you have the makings of an army!