17 Mar 2019

The Unthanks and Songs of World War 1

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 17 March 2019

British folksters The Unthanks have released an EP of songs setting texts by poets from the time of World War 1. William Dart listens to these and other songs inspired by The Great War.

The Unthanks

The Unthanks Photo: Supplied

The Great War gave the world some great songs.

This 1914 ballad by Ivor Novello, with lyrics by the American Lena Ford, was one of the first and one of the best. One of the best because its cozy fireside sentimentality offered such an ironic contrast to battlefield atrocities yet to come.

New Zealand composers back then were only too happy to lend crotchets and quavers to the cause, as revealed by Chris Bourke in his prize-winning Good-Bye Maoriland.

New Zealand certainly celebrated the centenary of World War One between 2014 and 2018. In fact, there were numerous musical celebrations in our concert halls, including full-scale symphonies, concertos and cantatas.

War, with all its heroics and horrors, has always fired up songwriters and, beyond these shores, singers didn’t wait until 2014 to discover the first world war as a subject.

The album Odessey and Oracle, by the English band The Zombies, was recorded in 1967, in the wake of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper. Its aims were lofty as was the fashion back then.

My American pressing of the LP comes with a liner note from none other than Al Kooper, quoting (with errors) some resonant lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

“Be not afraid
The isle is full of noises
Loud and sweet airs that give
delight and hurt not”

One of the tracks from Odessey and Oracle does set its sights on the Great War. The song "Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914)", written by Chris White, introduces us to a young butcher who, on being conscripted to the continent, finds a new and grim perspective to his trade.

It’s a tough, well-researched song, underneath its flowery-powery studio overload.

More recent artists have followed Chris White’s lead.

P J Harvey’s 2011 album, Let England Shake, dealt with those tumultuous times a century ago.

One song in particular, titled "On Battleship Hill", has her pondering harsh and brutal histories in the thyme-scented fields of the present, with the singer projecting a special vulnerability in a high almost keening register.

While P J Harvey works with an ambience that’s lean and a little on the rough side, Radiohead takes its listeners back to those times in a sumptuously upholstered coach. The song in question is the band’s 2009 single, "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)", Patch being the last survivor of the trenches.

Johnny Greenwood’s lush orchestrations look forward to his later film scores such as 2017’s Phantom Thread.

And don’t be totally taken in by Thom Yorke’s laidback vocals. The anger is still there when he tells us to take our leaders, give them a gun and let them fight it out themselves.

And there’s a detectable chill in the air when he predicts that the next hell on earth will be a chemical one.

A century ago, the First World War had its own minstrels, a group of war poets responsible for both powerful evocations and searing critiques of their times. Some, like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, didn’t return. Others, such as Ivor Gurney came back, but as a shell of what they once were.

Siegfried Sassoon did survive, leaving us many terse and unflinching pictures of what he’d seen and experienced.

Even in his own emotionally cool reading, this short verse, titled "Died of Wounds", comes across as a poem that certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

A first glance down the six songs on a new EP by the English folk group, The Unthanks, does reveal a welcome Sassoon connection — a setting of one of his most celebrated poems, "Suicide in the Trenches". Sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank have placed it as the centrepiece of  their latest release, itself the centerpiece of three EPs.

They themselves describe Lines Parts 1, 2 and 3 as a trilogy of song-cycles inspired by poetry, focusing on three female perspectives across time — the first being that of the Hull fishing worker Lillian Bilocca, the third a tribute to Emily Bronte and, in between, the human sufferings and loss caused by what some saw as the Great War for Civilization.

These six songs have been with the group for some time, from five years ago and a project titled A Time and a Place. Described as "Musical Meditations on the First World War", and presented at Leeds’ Howard Assembly Room in September 2014.

It was an ambitious evening, done in collaboration with folksinger Sam Lee, who guests on the EP’s opening song, made up of letters from Roland Leighton to his fiancée Vera Brittain before the 20 year old poet and soldier fell to a sniper’s bullet in France.

If this was a highlight of the live show, then so too was a setting of Teresa Hooley’s poem "War film", an intensely moving poem by a lesser-known war poet.

Another overlooked woman poet of this period is Jessie Pope, who was 46 when she was energized by the Great War, publishing her poems in the Daily Mail, and not winning friends amongst the disillusioned with their staunch patriotic stand.

The Unthanks have chosen carefully however and the poem "Socks" is a delicate consideration of how much the war intruded on the everyday as a woman sits knitting while thinking of her husband overseas. Thoughts of the absent partner are punctuated with details of knitting, purling and slipping, rendered perhaps in the regular beats of Adrian McNally’s piano.

One strange oversight amongst the line-up of this EP’s six songs caught my eye.  The poem "Everyone Sang" is credited as the work of Tim Dalling, a lively Scot whom you can catch online singing his settings of Louis MacNeice to his own accordion. While I’m not disputing Dalling’s musical contribution, the words are famously from the pen of Siegfried Sassoon, appearing in print just a year after the war ended.

Whether "Everyone sang" references jubilation at the Armistice or simply soldiers singing in the trenches is a matter for speculation, although Sassoon’s colleague Robert Graves, a trenchman himself, took exception to it, saying that Everyone "does not include me".

The musical contribution of Tim Dalling comes through in unexpected ways. Perhaps the new dissonance that rumbles from Adrian McNally’s piano has squeeze-box origins although the piano itself brings associations just as powerful as the Sassoon words being sung.

It was on this instrument that Gustav Holst, back in the first years of the Great War, penned the first movements of his massive orchestral suite The Planets. And although you’re not going to find any echoes of the composer’s bellicose Mars in the gentle songs of The Unthanks, they might share shelter very well indeed with Holst’s mystical Neptune.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Keep the Home Fires Burning' (Novello) – John McCormack
Remember: Vol 3 – 1911-1928 Recordings

'Goodbye, Maoriland' (Hope) – Mark Rosser (baritone), Brian Jamieson (piano)
RNZ recording

'Soldiers' (Turner) – Julia Turner
(Uber GG Music Works)

'Butcher’s Tale' (White) – The Zombies
Odessey and Oracle

'On Battleship Hill' (Harvey) – P J Harvey
Let England Shake

'Harry Patch (In Memory Of)' (Radiohead) – Radiohead
(Self release)

'Died of Wounds' (Sassoon) – Siegfied Sassoon (recitation)
Memorial Tablet: Siegfried Sasson: Poetry and Prose read by the author

'Suicide in the Trenches' (Sassoon, McNally) – The Unthanks
Lines Part 2: World War One
(Rabble Rouser)

'War Film' (Hooley, McNally) – The Unthanks
Lines Part 2: World War One
(Rabble Rouser)

'Socks' (Pope, McNally) – The Unthanks
Lines Part 2: World War One
(Rabble Rouser)

'Everyone Sang' (Sassoon, McNally) – The Unthanks
Lines Part 2: World War One
(Rabble Rouser)

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