may never witness the like again
Having poetry read aloud gives it another layer, one which rests on the speakers voice. The way in which they utter the words, the moments at which they pause, the tone they settle and the feeling with which they imbue the words. It all adds something that is not always there when reading alone to oneself.
Hearing Jim Carter read some of my most favourite poetry on the Show of Hands album, opened them up further to me. Sitting and letting the words wash over me or walking across the fields and moors in the rain with the lines of The Silent One, overlaid on a quietly whistling track of Tipperary, the song fading at the same time as the poem – it gave the poem something new, and gave me something new too; a feeling of atmosphere, stronger than just the words of Gurney himself.
The album itself consists of two discs – the first one of spoken word poems. It begins with Wilfred Owen’s Anthem and ends with The Fallen by Laurence Binyon; therefore it is not chronological in nature. Many of the poems are ones which would be familiar to a great deal of people but there are also ones that I had never read or seen before such as Yvan Goll’s Requiem for the Dead of Europe. The lack of chronology means that there is no overarching narrative particularly, and I do wonder what the impetus was for ordering the tracks. The second disc is a collection of songs by the band themselves, though some have been written by others. A few of the songs, such as The Gamekeeper have appeared on previous albums, but are now given a new arrangement.
The middle of the first disc finds the band putting Bombed Last Night [x] alongside The General by Sassoon. It feels unspeakably right – darkest humour against the righteous anger and indignation of the poet. It is almost chilling in a way as the voices of the men who are singing slowly fade out and away, after the poem itself has already finished, leaving one with a distinctly uncomfortable, almost eerie feeling. There are other, more familiar songs which have been attached to poems, such as I Vow to Thee my Country, alongside Jessie Pope’s The Call. The poem ends in a gently questioning manner, yet the song rises above it – soaring and then fading gradually – like optimism itself slowly losing conviction. One wonders what it would have felt like to be surrounded by such propaganda, nudging and cajoling and pushing that it was the right thing to do, to sign up.
There are other poems that are left well alone, with just voice and no music – Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, the textured voice of Carter bringing new panic and strain to those immortal words “Gas, GAS!” and then a gently exasperated tone to The Soldier Addresses His Body, one which fits so well – a chummy conversation occurring that I would never have given to Rickword’s piece. Similarly, Brooke’s The Soldier is reminiscent I think, of a son speaking to his mother, seeking to reassure her – a more human and gentle look at a poem that I simply saw previously as a particularly blind kind of patriotism harking from Edwardian England.
The songs on the second part of this recording are not ones that I have ever heard, but I believe some may be more familiar to those who have listened to Show of Hands before. The Padre, from the view of an army chaplain is the voice of a man who watches the soldiers who first come to him, unknowing of what they will face, and he remains with them until the very end when he is the one to give them a last ‘grain of comfort.’ He sees them as all the same, as his ‘flock’, whether they believe in God or not – a true leveller and an interesting look into what might have been on a chaplain’s mind. The beginning of the song suggests that he was once a parish chaplain – thrust now into this land where he watches those around him train, fight and die, whilst he remains.
The Lads in their Hundreds by A.E. Houseman has also been turned into a song, sung by Imelda Staunton, different in tone to the spoken poem of earlier in the track listing. There is a jolly nature to it, that if one did not pay attention to the words, might delude one into considering it to be a bright piece. There are other songs here which are popular songs from the period such as the ever present Long Way to Tipperary. The song is first heard alongside Sassoon’s Concert Party: Busseboom, but is presented here without words, and is instead an interesting combination of beatbox and harmonica. Whilst reading reviews before I purchased the album, I was slightly repelled by this – confused as to how on earth it would work, wary that it would seem gauche. In listening to it however, it does work, in an odd sort of way. The beginning, with a lone harmonica, brings to mind someone quietly eking out the song on a battered mouth organ in a dugout, an image with startling power. It gives way however, to the sounds of beatboxing. It is not the sound which I associate with it, instead it is almost akin to the fading fall of bombs, the explosions the final sound of the track.
There are few major rearrangements and reinterpretations of tracks such as this, the majority of songs from the period sounding more or less akin to what I imagine they would have sounded like. Despite this, I do like this album – though I have a soft spot for older music, the tunes from the 1940s and 50s, and the second part of this album is somewhat similar. I would recommend it more for the poetry readings than the songs themselves on merit alone. It is an interesting artistic response to the centenary and one which I continually find myself coming back to.
Centenary: Words and Music of the Great War can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon.
(on a mostly unrelated note, I have now had this blog for two years! A huge thank you to everyone who has stayed with it – and me – from the beginning, and to those who have come across it more recently, RT’d links on twitter or shared them on Facebook. It is so very much appreciated!)