World War I commemoration and folk music


The video of this punk rock song is called Siouxsie & The Banshees ‘Poppy Day’ Live 1979.

By Nick Matthews in England:

In Flanders Fields finds a new voice

Monday 13th October 2014

Inspired by John McCrae’s World War I poem, a new folk rendition was a highlight of the Derby Folk Festival, writes NICK MATTHEWS

I had a fabulous time at the Derby Folk Festival earlier this month.

At one point it did not look like it would go ahead after a fire at the Assembly Rooms — however a large marquee in the market place saved the day.

Bill toppers included Steeleye Span, Show of Hands and Kate Rusby.

Lower down the bill however there were some real showstoppers including an outstanding performance from the wonderful Martin Simpson and a lovely laid-back slot from Americans Dana and Susan Robinson.

The most moving performance by a long way however was that of In Flanders Fields by vocal trio Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson.

They have been stalwarts of the festival for a long time and are one of my personal favourites.

That is not just because they release their music on the co-operative No Masters Voice label.

Their vocal harmony singing is sublime and they combine a mastery of the genre with tremendous wit and biting social commentary.

The folk world generally has produced some of the best musical offerings to mark the centenary of the first world war and as you would expect from folk artists, has done so from the bottom up.

This music video is called The end of “Gentle Men”, written by Robb Johnson and performed with Roy Bailey at the Ropetackle, Shoreham-by-Sea 24.7.14.

Robb Johnson’s Gentle Men, his family history of the war to end all wars, is very good indeed and so is Show of Hands’ Centenary, a mixture of song and poetry from the period.

This 18 June 2014 music video is called Show of Hands – Centenary: In Conversation with Steve Knightley.

Coope, Boyes & Simpson’s is a very substantial piece of work. It is both moving and funny and marks a 20-year collaboration, not only with the history but the place of Flanders itself.

Piet Chielens, co-ordinator of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, argues that they have been at the forefront of the commemoration in the West Flemish Front region for 20 years.

Their body of work on the war can be seen as a “lieu de memoire.”

Indeed in Flanders, he says, no artistic initiative seems to have been more successfully involved with the theme than that of this trio.

In their show they bring together eyewitness accounts, contemporary poetry and songs specially commissioned for the town of Passchendaele’s peace concerts.

The album’s title, In Flanders Fields, takes its name from the poem written by John McCrae who was killed on the Western Front in the first world war.

Ironically the poem was used in army recruitment and its references to poppies made them an important part of later commemorations.

In the live shows the pieces between the songs are as well chosen as the songs themselves, including quips from contemporary music hall song, extracts from the Ypres Times — the satirical paper produced by the soldiers in the trenches — as well as poetry and letters home.

They give voice to the poor bloody infantry and their contempt for the sergeant majors and officers.

Never afraid to prick the bubble of the pompous they create a rounded image of the war that is deeply moving.

Visiting Belgium over two decades changed the life of Boyes in particular.

He now lives there after visiting regularly since the ’70s, before becoming involved in Peace Concerts Passchendaele, where he made many friends and later made Belgium his second home.

His involvement with the Flemish folk scene began when he released a solo album called Out The Blue.

It was the first thing he had done on the co-operative No Masters label which he had set up with John Tams.

Chielens, who wrote for the Flemish folk magazine Gandalf, had known of Boyes since his time in Swan Arcade.

He reviewed the album which contained a song, Down On The Dugout Floor, that he had written after a visit to play the Dranouter Folk Festival near Ypres.

When Chielens started the peace concerts, he invited Boyes to go over and play with some Flemish musicians.

Once there he was asked if there was anyone else that Boyes would like to involve.

He had just started working with Coope and Simpson and eventually they took part in five different peace concert productions in Belgium and England, performing on former battlefields like Hill 60, among the memorials at Tyne Cot and at the request of the town of Passchendaele for their 80th anniversary commemoration of the long and terrible 1917 battle.

Many of these performances are now contained on In Flanders Fields and there is also an impressive book to go with the two CDs.

At Derby they mocked the Guardian’s description of their work as post-modern folk. More like “post-mortem” they said. Sadly there is nothing post about this work — as we embark on another war, it is strikingly contemporary.

This work is beautiful, funny, passionate and angry and a terrific antidote to much of the jingoism that marks the centenary.

The artists argue that “the more we learn about war, the more important it becomes to sing about peace.”

Get to see them perform if you can and let’s hope that’s what everyone who hears them learns too.

Nick Matthews is chair of Co-operatives UK.

7 thoughts on “World War I commemoration and folk music

  1. Any mention of folk music and a commemoration of WW1 shouldn’t forget the very moving song by Mike Harding of Christmas Day 1914 when the opposing troops ceased fire and played football in No Man’s Land as well as sharing rations. A sad time when the troops are happy not to fight, but the Generals insist.

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