One of the most enduring traditions of ANZAC Day is the fellowship of sharing songs and ditties. These song-swapping rites, usually accompanied by a bellyful of Anzac day beer, are conducted under Rafferty’s Rules with popular wartime songs being belted out alongside bawdy ballads, tall stories and barrack-room ditties. The songs of the Australian at war also show us another side of the Digger mythology and how we unconsciously use popular music to record our folklore.
It’s hard to believe that we have fought in thirteen wars since the 1860s: The Maori Wars of Taranaki and Waikato, Sudan, Boer, Boxer Rebellion, WW1, WW2, the ‘Cold Wars’ of Korea and Malaya, Vietnam, Gulf, Timor, Afghanistan and, most recently, the War Against Terrorism. Every one of these conflicts produced a body of anonymous song and, in each case, reflecting the popular music of the time.
Soldiers 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.
When researching my book ‘Diggers’ Songs’ (Australian Military History Press, 1996) I became fascinated how songs were used by the armed forces. In the Sudan and Boer wars the songs tended to reflect the nationalistic parlour songs complete with matching sentiment and doggerel. The first and second World Wars saw popular song, mostly British, being the most accepted parody vehicle whilst the Korean and Malaya wars saw the songs turn more introspective. Vietnam saw American influence grow stronger and, of course, the circulation of a whole genre of songs voicing disagreement with Australia’s involvement. The most traditionally circulated song to emerge from the Gulf war was a current popular song that lent its title to a different beat as Phil Collin’s ‘Something In The Air Tonight’ took on new meaning.
The Korean War signalled a change in how we fought with the airforce playing an increasingly important role. As wars staged primarily in the air the role of the songs were different and, as you can imagine, staring at a computer screen, surrounded by whirring noises, is not conducive to singing. 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 or playing a small instrument like the mouth organ or tin whistle. What started out as a lone voice 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 creating new words and ditties. ‘I’m Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage ‘ became ‘I’m Only A Girl In Uniform’. ‘My Little Grey Home In The West’ became ‘My Little Wet Home In The Trench’ and the perennial bush favourite ‘The Dying Stockman’; became ‘The Dying Aviator’.
Traditional songs, mostly anonymous, are passed on by oral transmission and, quite often changed, for better or worse, in the process. Songs from the various branches of the armed forces are an ideal study because of the way military personnel are continually relocated. It is fairly easy to appreciate that a song could be carried from barrack to barrack, camp-to-camp, war zone to war zone by one soldier. That same soldier could have sung the song in a bar frequented by sailors and airmen who, relating to the subject matter, carried the ditty back with them to their own base. This is exactly how the old shearing and droving songs moved around in the bush with the song carrier being the itinerant worker. One also needs to factor in that up to fifty years ago Australians sang a lot more. We entertained ourselves rather than today’s society that gets entertained, mainly by the electronic media. Some songs, like ‘The Quartermaster’s Store, started life in WW1, served time in subsequent wars and is still being sung today.
In surveying the songs we sang in the thirteen wars it is easy to track those periods when singing was a popular past –time. Songs were definitely sang in the bars of Saigon during the Vietnam War however fewer occurrences were reported from Timor, Afghanistan and the Gulf. This most probably has a lot to do with the shorter time-span of the conflict, technological change, fewer troops and the reality that we hardly sing anymore.
As a folklore collector I was also curious about the role of women in creating, singing and circulating songs. I am assured the Red Cross Nurses, the WAAF and other women certainly sang in the early wars however it was difficult to find out what songs they sang. War historian and WW2 serviceman, Tom Johnson, told me “The WAAF and nurses were usually quite reserved and although they no doubt enjoyed singing popular songs it simply wasn’t acceptable to sing the usual army songs, especially the bawdy ones”. As a folklorist I know women nowadays are not shy about telling jokes and I’ve known quite a few to belt out a bawdy song or two. Things were different fifty years ago.
One area that produced a large body of interesting parody was the Women’s Land Army, which was a well-organised national scheme to introduce young women into service in the rural sector during WW2. As an army they were trained, uniformed and sent to properties all over Australia where they either lived in a community or were assigned to farms. I was fortunate to meet the Land Army’s unofficial historian, Jean Scott, who remembered some of the ditties including this parody of Two Little Girls In Blue.
Two little girls in overalls,
Two little girls I knew,
They were sisters and they had blisters,
And often frozen toes.
Those two little girls in overalls,
Each had a job to do,
They joined the land Army
And now they’re quite balmy,
For helping to pull Griffith through.
Jean Scott told me that singing was an important recreational activities and many of the women composed songs as well as parodies. This backwards parody of Show Me The Way To Go Home was a popular item.
Oh, way me the show to go home,
I’m bed and I want to go to tired,
I had a little hour about a drink ago.
And to my head right went,
I’ve roamed no matter where,
Over foam or land or sea,
You will always find me songing this sing,
Way me the show to go home.