Diggers’ Songs next


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‘Tipperary’ was a popular song that grew up in the music halls and Melboume-born star of the British music hall, Florrie Forde, was the best known singer of the song. She had a good ear for a popular song and was recognised as the ‘greatest chorus singer of them all’ however her early attempts to popularise the song failed. It was only when the British soldiers marched away to war and took the song with them that it became a massive success and an accepted part of every soldier’s kit! Rome’s other big hit was ‘Goodbye-ee’ which pointedly ‘waved goodbye to the fighting men’ and this song was taken up by the civilian population as their tribute to the men leaving for the Front.

The First World War, that war which we foolishly believed was to be the ‘war to end all wars’, saw popular music play an important role as both entertainment and also providing words and melodies that could be and would be parodied. Likewise it would be difficult for many soldiers to even think about the Second World War without hearing the music to ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, ‘Lilli Marlene’ or the much-parodied exploits of a certain ‘Mademoiselle From Armentieres’.

Even ‘Blind Freddie’ would appreciate that the songs of the services tended to be ‘rough and tumble’ and considering that the mess halls, the barracks, the ablution blocks and the town bars were the prime ‘recital halls’ then the use of bawdy language was commonplace and to be expected. As a folklorist I do not censor and I defend the language usage as part and parcel of the performance of the material. (The occasional ‘dots’ are there to protect the innocent, both young and old!) Australians have a well-earned reputation for calling a spade a spade. Blood oath!

The songs and the role they played changed again after the Second World War and this was very much a move reflecting the current state of popular music and the changing face of warfare. Unlike previous wars the confrontations in Malaya, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf became primarily a war of the air and a war where battles became unrealistically described as ‘skirmishes’. Gone were the unbearably long days, weeks and months of waiting in the trenches as airforce personnel despatched load after load of high-powered bombs on daily or dawn raids. Being a war of the air meant that the need to sing or compose songs was unnecessary as the only ‘hanging around’ was at base where you listened to radio or, in the case of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, watched videos. In combat the surrounding noise would have ensured that singing was nigh impossible and, besides, the sophisticated radar equipment demanded intense concentration.

The Australian service men and women who fought in the later wars did sing during those occasions where they hit the towns and cities on Rest and Recuperation leave however the songs that they sang once again reflected the popular culture and contemporary pop songs became the main vehicle for parodies. It is a comment on the times that I was unable to collect many songs about our participation in the Gulf War. This is not to say that we have stopped singing although we have certainly stopped singing as a social entertainment. These days singing is most likely to be restricted to one or two people who have come up through what I call the ‘Neil Young School Of Guitar Playing And Singing’ (well, many of them sound like they are trying to imitate Neil Young). These people will create a parody, sing it and the audience will attempt to join in but it is usually a feeble attempt as the majority of the songs are not conducive to group singing. This is more a comment on the style of contemporary song compared to the usually more melodic and simplistic songs of the earlier part of the century. Compare the ‘structural complexity and memorability’ of ‘Something In The Air Tonight’ to ‘Bless ’em All’ and it is easy to see how ‘Bless ’em All’ is a better song carrier. This is not to say that any one song is a better song – just a better song for a parody vehicle. It is also worth mentioning that alcohol seems to reduce the overall embarrassment of singers (and usually resulting in them being more embarrassing!) and it most probably why the few Vietnam songs that have survived had their debut in a Saigon bar.

It is interesting to note that one of our first military parodies uses A.B. Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and many believe that this song became an ‘unofficial’ anthem for the ‘Diggers’ who possibly didn’t feel too comfortable about ‘God Save The King’ as a parody vehicle. Lionel Wigmore in his book “The Japanese Thrust’ (Australian War Memorial Press) talks about the use of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ as a rally cry during the Battle of Muar, in Malaya: ‘a rapid and spirited assault was necessary to gain space. Anderson ordered Beverley to lead his men singing into the struggle. This he did, and these were the words they sang:

Once a jolly swagman, camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree….

‘Waltzing Matilda’, never sung by Australians with more enthusiasm than when they meet in surroundings strange to them, had become a battle song.’

The Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars saw a new type of war as the airfbrce played an increasingly important role. As a war staged primarily in the air the role of the songs were different. In the earlier wars the infantry had to spend days, weeks, months at the front living in trenches and waiting for ‘further orders’. Returned servicemen told me that the boredom was just as bad as the battle and one of the few possible forms of entertainment was singing. What started out as a solo singer often finished as a trench full of soldiers singing the same song. Such isolation, and the need to stay awake through the long nights and days, provided an ideal platform for the ‘wits’ to change the words of popular songs and create new words and ditties so that ‘I’m Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage’ becomes ‘I’m Only A Girl In A Uniform’, I Wore A Tulip’ changes to ‘I Wore A Tunic’ and that perennial bush favourite ‘The Dying Stockman’ becomes ‘The Dying Airman’.

‘Back at the base-camp the men rested on their palliasses playing cards, two- up, writing letters home and singing the old songs. Quite often a soldier would have a mouth organ, a tin whistle, jaw harp or even a guitar and a singalong would erupt. There was usually a wag who had put new words to some familiar old song and even more likely that the ditty mentioned various men in our platoon.’ (Bill Lowry, Penshurst, 1995).

With the advent of sophisticated aircraft and associated weaponry the situation changed and the soldier or airman was surrounded by whirling and whining sounds that were certainly not conducive to singing! The Gulf war saw these planes and weapons become even more sophisticated and it is difficult to imagine a soldier singing to a computer screen!

The fact is that Australians at war have always sung about their experiences at ‘the front’ and ‘at home’ and these songs, reflecting periods of extreme frustration and fear, tend to be short humorously bitter parodies or ditties. The experience of war with its obvious horror is not a pleasant subject for a songwriter to confront so the songs move away from the descriptions of battle to seemingly unimportant subjects like the attitude of the military brass, the lousy food, the lack of booze and women, the loneliness and the memory of home and family.

There are also the songs that have a role in taunting the enemy and there is something to be said for giving the enemy a ‘human face’ that can be hated. This appears to be a psychological necessity and we can trace the history of our wars through The Mahdi, The Empress Dowager, Kaiser Bill, Adolph Hitler, Ho Chi Min and Saddam Hussein. Without these ‘monsters’ we find it difficult to kill everyday soldiers. Another category of song is those that place the soldier at the front line to defend ‘King, Home and the Mother Country’ and whilst predominantly ‘recruiting’ songs they are songs usually developed for the general public and as a conscience-pricking reminder that duty calls.

In every war the soldiers, sailors and airmen sang in the towns and cities where they had their rest and recreational leave. ‘R&R’ meant ‘letting your hair down’, ‘cutting a rug’, going on the ‘rantan’ and ‘cutting loose’! Men travelled in ‘packs’ moving from bar to bar and consuming vast quantities of alcohol as if to flush the fears of war away with the booze. Some of the same songs travelled with the drinkers and songs like ‘Horseferry Road’ or ditties like ‘When I Die’ were common to several wars. Repetitive songs, especially chorus songs, like ‘The Quartermaster’s Store’ which allowed singers to add their own verses were extremely popular and once again the poor old Sergeant Major was the main target. When you think about it the ‘airing’ of such gripes could only be done through song and this was most probably revenge enough for the drill, the early morning abuse and the seemingly endless inspections. You couldn’t very well bop him on the nose but sure as hell you could make him a figure of ridicule through the songs!

The songs also relieved the tension of the horrors of war where one’s mates could be blown to smithereens and you had no option but to continue to fight. The songs offered a fantasy escape that many men would have needed if they were to fight again. This is not to say that the songs were sentimental and the reality is that they were far from it as they glossed over such horrors preferring to sing about the enemy, home and that ‘other horror’ – army food! Interestingly few of the songs could be described as ‘hateful’ towards the ‘soldiers on the other side’ and especially in the WW1 and WW2 songs there seems to be an unspoken respect for the enemy front-line fighters despite the fact that they were definitely the enemy.

Where soldiers did mention death it was a fleeting pass and more likely to be about the enemy such as in ‘My Little Wet Home In The Tent’ where the words of one of the versions offer:

There’s a dead Turk close by
With his feet to the sky,
And he gives off a beautiful stench.

If there is any area of our wartime experience that is glaringly missing it is the songs that came from the female services. Many women fought in the three forces and I know that they sang however I could not track down many specific songs that could be described as representative. Of course many of the songs sung by the men were picked up and also sung by the women however, considering the segregated barracks such opportunities to exchange songs were limited. Some observers point to the fact that women would be disinclined to sing the more bawdy songs and would have restricted their repertoires to popular songs. I find this difficult to accept as I have collected all types of songs from women including a good few bawdy songs! Another area of song are those that were sung back home in Australia particularly by the women involved in essential war industries. Fortunately, and thanks to Jean Scott, I have been able to include a selection of songs from the Land Army and these offer an important perspective of our military folklore.

The songs in this collection come from real people. Many were offered to me by my family and fellow collectors, others were sent to me in response to my continued requests on ABC radio, through letters to magazines and (I often fear) to shut me up as I pestered people to scratch back inside their memory banks. I also trawled my way through many books, army magazines and library shelves so I am indebted to those noble archivists called librarians. What’s left came to me from the back of my own ‘noggin’ and files – over thirty years of collecting and singing. I point out that folklore is a strange little devil having little regard for historical accuracy, preferring to let the emotions run loose and believing that the facts should never get in the way of a good yam! Historians tread carefully for this is the people’s history!

Australians have fought in eleven wars. It seems incredible but eleven times we have responded to the sound of the bugle and every time it was a call to join our allies at arms. We fought in the famed Maori Wars of Taranaki and the Waikato; a contingent of gallant lads travelled to the Sudan Wars and then our Lighthorsemen galloped into the Orange Free State and the Boer War. Next came the Boxer Rebellion and then the First and Second World Wars.We glibly believed that World War Two was the last ‘World War’ but we were wrong and over and over again our troops were called to battle, or to keep the peace, in lands sometimes too close to home – Malaya, Korea and these were followed by the horrors of Vietnam. As if to remind us that war is always ‘just around the comer’ our troops rallied in 1990 to confront the threat of yet another uprising in that wom-tom zone known as the Middle East.

Music has long played a leading role in so many early times of conflict. The British drummer boy signalled that the Recruiting Sergeant had arrived in town to entice enlistments with the King or Queen’s ‘shilling’; the Scots used the bagpipes to signal that the clan war parties were on the move; American Indians, like so many native people, prepared themselves for the battle by fortifying the braves through repetitive drumming, dancing and song; the American Civil War was fought to the sound of the fife and drum whilst the northern European tradition called for excessive feasting, drinking and epic singing before the battle.

Music also played a role in documenting the successes of armies. Even disastrous defeats were made to sound like heroic battles. Nearly all cultures offer epic songs that tell of glorious victories, heroic deeds and sanctioned pillage. Such historic songs obviously played an important role in being retold down through the years to fortify and ready soldiers for the next battle- front. Australia, by comparison, offered only a short European settlement and virtually no experience of war to sing about!

Around the time that Britain commenced establishing a penal settlement in New South Wales the role and sound of military music and song was changing to reflect the times. It had moved from the troubadour days where travelling singers were relied upon to relate and act as custodians for the soldier songs and old ballads to a more disciplined military based-music. Specially composed military songs were created and promoted and the singing style became more of a stylised rendition than the ballad of old. England had, of course, also become a more stabilised monarchy and the songs reinforced this fact swearing loyalty to the King and death to all those who would dare to threaten the Crown. Nationalistic songs with long-winded titles emerged such as ‘The Soldiers Lamentation For The Loss Of Their General’, ‘The Pitman’s Revenge Against Bonaparte’ or ‘The Countryman’s Reply To The Recruiting Sergeant’. This is not to say that there were not songs deploring the war or warning against accepting ‘the King’s Shilling’ – these songs simply were unlikely to be sung by soldiers whose repertoires would have been predominantly songs about loyalty to the King, the separation from loved ones and songs that ‘belonged’ to their infantry battalion.