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Songs Of The Great War: Keep The Home Fires Burning
Various artists and performers
See end of review for track-listing
RETROSPECTIVE RECORDS RTR4236 [78.13]

One of the most remarkable things about most wars is how life, for a great many people, proceeds more or less as normal. That is very much the impression one carries away from the latest release by Nimbus subsidiary Retrospective Records, Songs Of The Great War: Keep The Home Fires Burning.
 
Despite the foregrounding of Ivor Novello’s famous song in the title, and despite the misleading cover image, most of the collection has nothing directly to do with the war; indeed several of the songs were written before 1914. There are really only three examples of ‘war songs’: the Novello number, George M. Cohan’s rousing ‘Over There’ (designed to encourage American involvement in the war), and the poignant, anti-war ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’. Two others have some claim to be war songs by adoption, as they were widely sung by soldiers: the famous music hall number ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ (1912), and the almost equally famous ‘Roses of Picardy’ (1916).
 
The other twenty-one tracks are simply popular songs of the period and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, lyrically and musically, they are completely uncoloured by the war, just as they have no special war-time significance apart from being popular at that time. What is more, many of them have a rather timeless quality, both in content and style, and indeed went on being sung and recorded for decades after the war – in some cases up to the present day.
 
Anyone who buys this collection expecting it to say something about the war, or to carry them back to a determinate and coherent cultural moment a century ago, is likely to be disappointed.
 
That may or may not be a significant caveat, depending on what one expects from an album entitled Songs Of The Great War, but in other respects this is a most satisfying and fascinating release. Though the introduction to the booklet emphasises that the first thirteen tracks, recorded in the First World War years, are of considerably lower sound quality than the second thirteen, which are recordings by later artists, the difference is significant only on a few tracks. In general the acoustic quality is impressively high, with Alan Bunting’s expert restoration and re-mastering preserving the distinctive character of 78 sound while at the same time offering the best possible version of the music – at least it is hard to imagine it ever sounding better.
 
Ray Crick, who made the selection, supplies excellent notes, as usual, though I find his reliance on Joel Whitburn’s calculations about ‘chart positions’ confusing and unconvincing; there were no charts as such until 1940. The reader is given information along the lines of ‘No. 1 hit record, 4th best of year’ (‘The Sunshine Of Your Smile’) or ‘No. 3 hit record’ (‘When You Wore A Tulip’) or ‘No. 2 hit song, 8th best of year’) (‘Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!’). I assume that the first means that the song would have topped the charts, had charts existed, and was the fourth biggest-selling record of the year: but then what do the others mean? I struggle to believe that we have so much information about the pattern of sales that we can confidently say that on any particular week a particular song could only have been the third best-selling record, or that the eighth best-selling record of the year would never have reached No. 1 on a weekly chart.
 
It’s easy to see why these songs were hits, though. Most of them have an instantly memorable quality and they touch all sorts of emotional chords. The mixture of British and American tracks is very revealing, for the British ones, mostly in ballad-style or derived from the music hall, feel far more dated. The American numbers, many of which have a jazz tinge, or a certain blues inflection, seem much closer to the popular music of later eras, and the collection thus captures a moment of cultural transformation with seismic long-term consequences. Many of the juxtapositions are arresting, not least because they hint at social fractures: surely the sort of record buyer attracted to the wonderful, impulsive ‘Tiger Rag’ by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was a very different person from those buying the succeeding song on this collection, John McCormack’s mellow rendering of the wistful ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’?
 
Altogether this release may have very little to say about the war, but it has plenty to say about the evolution of popular music in the 1910s and popular taste at that time. For anyone interested in this, or just wanting to hear some of the golden voices and golden melodies of a century ago, it holds a strong attraction.

David Chandler

Track listing
Keep the Home Fires Burning [3:09]
John McCormack
It’s a Long Way to Tipperary [3:04]
The American Quartet
You Made Me Love You [3:06]
Al Jolson
After You’ve Gone [3:20]
Marion Harris
When You Wore a Tulip [3:03]
The American Quartet
A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good [3:23]
Marie Lloyd
Chinatown, My Chinatown [2:35]
The American Quartet
The Sunshine of Your Smile [2.58]
John McCormack
K-K-K-Katy (Stammering Song) [2:55]
Billy Murray
Tiger Rag [3:05]
Original Dixieland Jazz Band
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling [3:09]
John McCormack
Over There [2:46]
Enrico Caruso
I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier [2.58]
The Peerless Quartet
The Cobbler’s Song [from Chu Chin Chow] [3:00]
Peter Dawson
Roses of Picardy [3:37]
Richard Tauber
Home, Sweet Home [2:12]
Deanna Durbin
Jerusalem [2:21]
Paul Robeson
If You Were the Only Girl in the World [3:02]
Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler
Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh! [2:46]
The Andrews Sisters
For Me and My Gal [2:32]
Gene Kelly & Judy Garland
Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral [3:11]
Bing Crosby
Pretty Baby [2.59]
Doris Day
Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody [2:50]
Al Jolson
They Didn’t Believe Me [3:14]
Kathryn Grayson
Play a Simple Melody [2:52]
Bing & Gary Crosby
A Perfect Day [2.30]
Paul Robeson