The Sound of Gun Fire – Music and The Great War

War? What is it good for? Not quite absolutely nothing…

Throughout the twentieth century, war inspired many musicians and composers. Some glorified it, but many opposed it. The protests against the Vietnam War arguably help mould a style of popular music that came to define a decade. It’s notable that the relatively recent Iraq war inspired so little in the way of a musical response in Britain, despite widespread opposition to it. Why was that, or did I miss something? Neither has there been much of a musical reaction to the current economic woes, come to think about it. Where are today’s Billy Bragg and Red Wedge? Perhaps musicians can’t find any easy answers, or maybe their canny record labels realise that today’s audiences prefer to escape from reality rather than challenge it.

Anyway, I digress. The Great War has inspired many great works of literature and art, but probably less attention is paid to the great variety of musical responses. Today I’d thought I’d share some World War One protests songs – a couple from America composed in the early years of the war itself and two more contemporary tracks by British bands. First off is I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier by the US vocal group The Peerless Quartet. Released in late 1914, it quickly found popularity amongst the large numbers of American who opposed participation in the bloodshed in Europe. The song is the lament of a lonely mother who’s lost her son in the fighting. In addition to being anti-war, it was viewed at the time as feminist because of its claim that:

“They’d be no war today,
If mothers all would say,
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”’.

Former president Theodore Roosevelt remarked at the time that: “foolish people who applaud a song entitled ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’ are just the people who would also in their hearts applaud a song entitled ‘I Didn’t Raise my Girl To Be A Mother'”. Very Tea Party.

Another American pacifist song from the time was Irving Berlin’s (of There’s No Business Like Show Business fame) track Stay Down Here Where You Belong. Penned in 1914, the lyrics depict a conversation between the devil and his son; the devil exhorting him to “stay down here where you belong” because people on Earth do not know right from wrong.

“To serve their king, they’ve all gone off to war.
And not one of them knows what they’re fighting for.”

Like The Peerless Quartet’s number, it swiftly found popularity in the early years of the war, when the popular mood in the America was very much opposed to joining the fight. However, after the US did enter the conflict, popular sentiment quickly changed. Berlin was soon composing patriotic songs and would have preferred to have forgotten Stay Down Here Where You Belong altogether. However, Groucho Marx took a liking to it, much to the chagrin of Berlin who allegedly offered him money to stop singing it. He didn’t.

The next track is by The Stranglers, one of my favourite bands when I was at school (no one, and I mean no one, could more faithfully reproduce The Stranglers logo on text books than me). North Winds Blowing is from their 1984 album Aural Sculpture. It was never released as a single, although I always rated it was one of the LP’s best tracks. It’s catchy, evocative, with some powerful lyrics:

I saw an orange robe burning
I saw youth on fire
I saw metal machines that were turning
On a generation that hadn’t yet tired

I heard of two generations being murdered
In a Europe that was shrouded in black
I witnessed the birth pains of new nations
When the chosen people finally went back

“We will remember them,” says Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance. As we approach the war’s centenary, it seems that modern musicians are playing their part. In 2009, Radiohead released a single dedicated to Harry Patch, the last British survivor of the trenches. My final track, however, is Paschendale (sic) from Iron Maiden’s 2003 album Dance of Death. During that year’s world tour, lead singer Bruce Dickinson would sing it track wearing an old trench coat and helmet while the stage would be strewn with barbed wire. One prominent music website described it as “quite easily the ultimate Maiden masterpiece”.

In a foreign field, he lay
Lonely soldier, unknown grave
On his dying words, he prays
Tell the world of Paschendale


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About Author Profile: Toby Ash

A former journalist, Toby now works a consultant in the private and humanitarian sectors. When not in deepest Cornwall or darkest London, he trots the globe taking stunning photos which you can see on his Instagram account - @toby_ash

4 thoughts on “The Sound of Gun Fire – Music and The Great War

  1. Brit
    October 21, 2012 at 19:50

    Great and eclectic stuff, Toby.

    Re current lack of anti-war pop, there was that cringeworthy but catchy song “Everybody’s Gone to War” by Nerina Pallot a few years ago, but I’d guess most politicised stuff is probably in the hip hop genre, or it was before it went bling.

    October 22, 2012 at 00:54

    “It’s notable that the relatively recent Iraq war inspired so little in the way of a musical response in Britain, despite widespread opposition to it. Why was that, or did I miss something?”

    The US forces in the Vietnam War were largely recruited through the draft. When Nixon–with the forces somewhat drawn down–decided on a volunteer-only military, a lot of the energy went out of the anti-war movement.

    America has always had considerable ambivalence about the military. The British commanders in the 1760s complained of the Americans’ readiness to harbor deserters. The draftees of 1940-1941 scrawled OHIO in the latrines–“Over the Hill In October”, though in fact almost none did desert in October 1941.

      October 24, 2012 at 13:29

      Good point George. Yes, war is always more objectionable when you might actually have to fight in it yourself.

  3. Gaw
    October 22, 2012 at 07:58

    Nice selection Tobes. I somehow missed that Stranglers album. Must look it up.

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