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Songs of war

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Songs of war

What did soldiers sing in the trenches during World War I? Not what you might think, according to Dr Rob Burns, Associate Professor of Music.

“The popularity of the newly available gramophone gave soldiers of all ranks access to the contemporary music of the day and, contrary to popular belief, Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles were not the mainstays of the trench repertoire. Both songs were only popular in the early part of the war.”

Burns will deliver a paper entitled “When This Bloody War Is Over: new perspectives on the World War One folk music canon” in August at the Music of War 1914-18 conference for the Oxford Centre of Research at the British Library, in London.

“Many traditional British folk songs contain lyrics concerning the subject of warfare,” he says. “These songs often have interchangeable lyrics that can be varied depending on a particular war, a current monarch or an individual hero. There are comparatively few, however, composed specifically about World War I.”

By studying songs sung during the First World War, we can learn how new “folk songs”, drawing on historical elements of the time, might create a new World War I folk canon, says Burns.

“I maintain that many of the songs sung in trenches, despite their origins in early 20th century popular music, will have become 'folk songs' by default in years to come, a result of the emotive nostalgia that the memory of the war still invokes a century later.”

Photo: Graham Warman