Jack's Musings: Songs of the Soldier February 25 2010, 0 Comments

Contributed by Jack Kopstein Soldier’s Songs and Marches The lives of soldiers in the armies of the world have often been expressed in song. Cavalry troops often sang on the march. ‘Singers to the Front” would be the shout and the men would form up in three lines while rare songs of every description were heroically voiced. Troopships, particularly of the British Navy were a hotbed of sing-songs with sailors and soldiers joining in and provided instrumental backgrounds with fiddles and concertinas. The repertoire of the soldiers would consist of songs which they had learned at home; folk melodies, street ballads, sentimental ballads. Many of the songs had a military reference but much of the folksy material was of the common culture. The songs were frequently written down by officers and bandmasters. One such song is the Speech of Sgt Smith, a Song of the Royal Engineers was written down by a Captain Ward to the tune of Chesapeake and Shannon. Some regiments encouraged the singing of traditional songs as evidenced by the Somerset Light Infantry with a song called High Germany. In Britain the wealth of folk music spawned the entrance of the Regimental march into the legend of the units which fought in various campaigns., the most famous being the Welch tune Men of Harlech which celebrates the stand by the defenders of Rorke’s drift January 22nd 1879. Much of the early improvised material gained wide usage. The Battle of Waterloo is one of the oldest songs which trace its ancestry back to men whom actually fought at Waterloo. Many of the authors of the songs cannot be traced but since the songs travelled usually from mouth to mouth, the words were often altered to fit the conditions of service. The American civil war tunes became the battle cry for many troops, on both sides of the war. Men marched into battle, with voices raised singing the songs of war such as Battle Hymn of the Republic and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, or the Confederate song O’ I’m a Good Old Rebel. In Britain an officer of the Rifle Brigade wrote in 1809 wrote: “Our men are in very high spirits, and we have a most excellent band of music and thirty bugle-horns, through every country village strikes up the old tune Over the Hills and Far Away. The songs and marches of the British Army inspired a writer to pen a book called The Romance of the Regimental March and which included a background to several of the marches which had become the official march of British military units. Very clearly many marches were derived from the music of well-known classical composers, but others were the very simple tunes which gave meaning to the every day life of the soldiers. The Royal family succeeded in contributing marches, the most well known being the Royal Artillery Slow March written by the Duchess of Kent in 1836. Very often music was written or sung to celebrate battles and wars. In the US the Battle of Trenton was remembered with a tune by the same name in 1792 by a composer named James Hewitt. The official marches of American fighting units became standard fare for early military bands such as March of the First Alabama Volunteer Regiment by John Holloway 1837. Later composers would express themselves with music which fêted US Presidents. Andrew Reinagle an early American composer wrote Jefferson’s March in 1804. Later funeral music for a president became common as evidenced by The President Harrison Funeral march of 1841. The songs which commemorate both wars and popular figures seem to have been the driving force behind the phenomenon of the rambling soldiers. The Death of General Wolfe at The Heights of Abraham in Quebec 1759 is an example of the longevity of battle songs. The song Cheer, Boys, Cheer made its appearance around 1854 and contained a phrase which was the proverbial complaint in the British Army in the nineteenth century: Here come General Howl and Scoff The head of the hungry army No soldier song better defines this decade than the hymn Amazing Grace. Every Canadian service person killed in action in Afghanistan has been honored with the bagpipe rendition of the song. It was played over and over to commemorate and remember those killed in New York during 9/11 attack. It has become thematic of police officers killed in the line of duty and Firemen whom have given their lives to save others. The lyrics begin “Amazing Grace, how sweet it is” refer to the reclamation of the soul; it is played more often today to recognize those that served and whom have given their lives to save others or in remembrance. The music and words appear below. The narratives, songs and ballads have combined over the centuries to present a view of service life through the eyes of its rank and file. It is through this historical contribution that we both understand and praise the sacrifice for those who take up the call of arms.