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Gerard F. COBB (1838-1904)
Barrack Room Ballads

To T. A. [1:10]
The Young British Soldier [4:06]
Mandalay [4:56]
Route Marchin’ [3:00]
Soldier, Soldier [4:07]
‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ [3:56]
Troopin’ [3:24]
Ford o’Kabul River [3:57]
Danny Deever [4:52]
Shillin’ a Day [2:16]
Cells [3:01]
Belts [3:55]
The Widow’s Party [2:56]
Screw-Guns [3:49]
Gunga Din [4:33]
Oonts [2:55]
‘Snarleyow’ [5:01]
For to Admire [4:00]
‘Back to the Army Again’ [3:53]
Tommy [3:10]
Ralph Meanley (baritone), David Mackie (piano)
rec. 15 November 2001, Sutton, Surrey. DDD
CAMPION CAMEO 2056 [73:90]

Although educated in England, Rudyard Kipling was born, and spent his early years, in India, a country that had a strong influence on him throughout his life, and for which he retained an abiding affection. When he returned to India as a journalist in his late teens, he set about collecting material that he could later use in his other writings. Amongst his jottings were stories from, and notes about, the soldiers doing garrison duty at Lahore. Returning to England aged 24 to launch his career, Kipling realised the potential appeal of songs about army life after seeing the popularity of Music Hall songs. Drawing upon his previously collated observations and anecdotes, he started writing the Barrack Room ballads. The first volume was published as "Barrack Room ballads and others verses" in 1892 and proved an immediate success. The editor of the Scots Observer was so overwhelmed by them he was said to have stood up and danced on his wooden leg. So a second series was published four years later.

Gerard Cobb was born twenty seven years before Kipling. Trained in the sciences, he was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and had a wide range of sometimes eclectic interests. These included the Tractarian movement, cycling and municipal concerns. In his later years he dedicated most of his time to composition, and his output is comprised songs – over 120 of them - as well as chamber, piano and church music. He also wrote a few larger works, such as his Song of Trafalgar. His songs were generally quite popular, and the Barrack Room settings were no exception. The first set of five - along with one song by another author - appeared the same year as Kipling’s original poems, and was a huge success. He composed a second set - of the same number - the following year. When these proved equally popular, a third set - of six, also from Kipling’s first series - and two single songs from Kipling’s second series followed four years later.

There are numerous settings of Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads and many of these have been recorded. These Cobb settings are easily amongst the finest - if not necessarily the best known. The most famous is surely Oley Speaks’ version of On the Road to Mandalay. This disc is the first recording of the complete Cobb settings.

At first sight, the disc looks rather amateurish - the graphics of the front cover are awful. This impression is borne out by the recorded sound which is a little poor. There’s a somewhat tinny-sounding piano and the baritone’s voice is just slightly coarse and harsh. That said, this rougher quality is probably quite authentic for the music type. Let none of this put you off! The notes are scholarly, informative and interesting, and give full biographical information as well as details of the songs. We also read about the performers’ approach to the music, and there are explanations as to why omissions have occurred. I was delighted that the performers decided to stick to the authentic versions and keep in words that would now be extremely politically incorrect. I also find it a sad indictment that they have to explain their decision to place musical authenticity over political correctness. In any case, many of the songs that could be taken as offensive to ‘ethnic minorities’ are actually being affable and approving towards them.

The songs themselves are possibly an acquired taste, but if one enjoys military-style ballads, are fantastic. They are very varied in range, and combine the best of music-hall numbers, Victorian/ Edwardian ballads and art songs (Soldier, Soldier, Ford over Kobul River and 18 for example), sometimes with a hint of folksong. They range from the humorous (11), light-hearted marching songs (4), to contrasting ones full of pathos (8, 9, ) and others that are just incredibly moving.(2, 15). Some blend elements of all these, such as 6 - brilliantly, scintillatingly funny yet also desperately touching – handkerchiefs at the ready!

Ralph Meanley has a robust baritone that suits this sort of music very well indeed – characterful and buoyant, if slightly too rough to be beautiful in tone. My only real criticism is of his grace notes, which can sound quite ugly (4). He also strains a bit at some of the higher notes. Yet in songs such as 5 his voice comes across as quite attractive and he shows he can do sensitive as well as blustering. His accents are excellent (10 and 2), and he communicates the personae of the songs brilliantly. This is possibly not surprising – he was a regular on Friday Night is Music Night and Songs from the Shows. David Mackie, his accompanist, worked as a repetiteur and conductor for D’Oyly Carte and is a Gilbert and Sullivan and Cobb expert. His delicate and sensitive accompaniment shows his experience. The performers are not afraid to add characterisations, fill out the piano part and interpret where they feel the need.

This is a disc that charmed, amused, delighted, and moved me to tears. It is a shame that it is not better produced, but these songs – though they may come across as twee to some - are certainly worth hearing. Furthermore, as a valuable historical record, they are an important part of our heritage. Personally, I deem this disc worth its weight in gold.

Em Marshall

see GERARD FRANCIS COBB (1838-1904) by David Mackie



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