Be it Brahms's Triumphlied, written for the 1871 Prussian victory over the French, or Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, which portrayed the fear and desolation of the 1941 siege of Leningrad, war and music have always had an intimate connection. The First World War years are no different.
In honour of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 2017, we started searching for Canadian wartime music from the era. What we found was music by Canadian songwriters that not only focused on the war, but also transformed to reflect what was happening as the war went on.
“This was the first big conflict in which the music as a whole could be mobilized,” says Jonathan Vance, history professor at Western University. He is the co-director of Wartime Canada, a project that aims to make the visual heritage of Canada at war — photos, posters, and more — freely available in digital form. Much of the sheet music he has found from the era came from shuffling through bins of mouldy papers at flea markets and rummage sales.
The music from this era had a few major themes, in sync with how the war progressed. Support for the British Empire was the initial focus, but then it shifted to Canada and national pride. As the years went on, music was used to encourage young men to enlist, followed by the release of songs about separation and yearning for home. When the war finally ended and families began reuniting that, too, was captured musically.
It's hard to verify whether these songs were sung by soldiers on the frontlines at Vimy Ridge or elsewhere during the course of the war. “The most we can say is that soldiers at the front were aware of this kind of music,” says Vance. “These songs are representative of the sorts of things they would have known during the war before they had enlisted, or from relatives.” But back in Canada, the sheet music was being printed, purchased and performed by civilians throughout the course of the war.
For his project, Vance decided to record some of the sheet music at his disposal so that people could not only see the notes, but also hear them. Working with a sound engineer from the university, Vance approached Western alumna Kelsea Meredith to sing the songs. She is accompanied by Debbie Grigg, a pianist from London, Ont.
“It was really important for me to capture the sound or what I thought would be an authentic sound from the war years, which was not particularly a good quality of sound, but more a treble-y, almost tinny sound,” says Vance. So instead of using a proper studio, they recorded in a classroom setting with dubious acoustics.
Although recorded a century after their release, when you pair the recordings and sheet music together, it paints a vivid picture of how this country's citizens were using songs as an outlet for a war that would claim thousands of Canadian lives. So as we mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, here’s a taste of the music from the Great War.
This is a very early patriotic Canadian march song that began with a stirring reference to bugle calls "from Niagara Falls to the coast of Halifax." Words by W.H. Stringer, music by Charles W. Lorriman.
Dedicated to the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, this song was privately published before Canadian troops left for the battlefields of Europe. Words and music by W.E. Delaney.
3. 'Good Luck to the Boys of the Allies'(1915)
Perhaps the most successful of Canada's early war songs, Morris Manley's lyrics paid tribute to all Allied soldiers but had special praise for Johnny Canuck. Words and music by Manley.
4. 'I Love You Canada' (1915)
Sung by Mildred Manley, Morris Manley’s daughter, "Canada's greatest child vocalist," this was a typical patriotic song that contained only a hint of the reality of war. Words and music by Manley and Kenneth McInnis.
5. 'King George’s Men' (1915)
This song, with lyrics by poet Jean Blewett, was dedicated to the 9th Mississauga Horse, a Toronto-area militia unit. Words by Blewett, music by Isabel Rutter.
6. 'Hats Off to the Flag and the King' (1916)
Dedicated to the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, this song included a popular trick: the first letters of each line of each verse combine to spell "Briton" and "Canada." Words and music by Will J. White.
7. 'Rally, Boys, to the Standard' (1916)
This song was intended to be sold by returned soldiers, both as a source of income and to encourage other young men to follow in their footsteps. Words by Mrs M.J. Payton, music by Edward M. Miller.
8. 'Why Can’t a Girl Be a Soldier?' (1916?)
This privately published song envisioned the women of Canada in the firing line with their men, because they can "carry a gun good as any mother's son." Words and music by Lindsay E. Perrin.
9. 'Heroes of the Flag (The New Veterans’ Song)' (1917)
One of Canada's most prolific songwriters and music publishers, Gordon V. Thompson wrote this song in anticipation of the parades that would be held to welcome Canada's soldiers home. Words and music by Thompson.
10. 'Take Me Back to Dear Old Canada' (1918)
Billed as "one of the biggest hits on the market," only the illustration of the nurse set this composition apart as a war song. Words and music by Will J. White.
11. 'Keep Watch' (1918)
This jaunty song paid tribute to the sailors of the Royal Navy, whose constant service of protection meant that "Canada has never had to fear war's alarm." Words by Will J. White and music by Jules Brazil.
12. 'You Are Welcome Back at Home Sweet Home' (1919)
This conventional welcome-home song is most remarkable for the cover illustration: the terrible strain of war is clearly visible on the faces of the soldier and his wife. Words and music by Gordon V. Thompson.
Editor's Note: Sheet music and audio courtesy of the Ley & Lois Smith War, Memory and Popular Culture Research Collection, Western University and wartimecanada.ca.
Follow Tahiat Mahboob on Twitter: @TahiatMahboob
More to explore: