There are a lot of songs about the First World War, and most of them really get to me. The tragedy, waste, grief and pathos is almost unbearable. And so it should be. It’s really important to have these expressions in our culture, and the mainstream does not do anything like enough of it. There is a power in this kind of storytelling that goes far further to honour and remember than the laying of wreaths ever could.
Human lives are full of disasters, from the personal errors to the catastrophic horrors of war. These are things we need to know about. We need to meet them head on, and feel them keenly. By this means we are able to learn from each other. We can reflect on the things that have broken other people’s hearts and wrecked their lives, and do something different. The more we sing about the incomprehensible slaughter of war, the less willing we will be to rattle sabres and send our own children off to die. As Pete Seeger sang ‘when will we ever learn’? Well, the short answer is that we won’t if we steadfastly refuse to even think about these things.
We want our entertainment amusing, pleasant, distracting, easy. This is without doubt a very good thing to have in the mix, but if we have a culture that only wishes to be amused and refuses to look at anything dark or painful, we miss these chances to learn and to do better.
It may be uncomfortable to weep for the dead of wars that happened before you were born, but sometimes a song can help us do just that, and we are all the better for it.
This is a fairly upbeat sounding song, if you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics. Words by A.E. Houseman. And if for any reason, you can’t play or listen, here are the words…
The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.
There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.
I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.
But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.