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John Mullen, La chanson populaire en Grande-Bretagne pendant la Grande Guerre 1914-1918

Paris, L’Harmattan, L’aire anglophone, 2012, 287 p. ISBN: 978-2-296-99666-3
Gilles Couderc
Référence(s) :

John Mullen, La chanson populaire en Grande-Bretagne pendant la Grande Guerre 1914-1918, Paris : L’Harmattan, L’aire anglophone, 2012, 287 p. ISBN: 978-2-296-99666-3

Texte intégral

1Subtitled ‘The show must go on!’, John Mullen’s book aims at making us hear and see what sort of entertainment working-class Britons could expect from their music halls before and during the years 191418, the most popular form of entertainment those days. As the book’s introductory chapter indicates, few books about the Great War have looked into the situation and attitudes of the working-class through its favourite forms of entertainment. Most studies have concentrated on the elites, reproducing, the dichotomy between the officers and the private soldiers which so characterized British armies. Mullen is aware of the pitfalls of writing about ordinary working-class people who left very few written documents and whose attitudes were in no way homogeneous. Writing a history of the working class through the songs that it most enjoyed and that became bestsellers as sheet music, a definition of ‘popular songs’, seems a worthwhile endeavour which fills a gap in the studies of British people’s leisure activities.

2The number of songs quoted here is enormous: 1,063. Contrary to France, most Britons had long been city-dwellers, and the songs were the product of, or aimed at, an urban culture. Conscription was only set up in 1916 in the UK while universal military conscription had long been voted in France, hence the staggering amount of songs needed in the UK to keep the numbers of enlisted men up. Mullen sifted through an impressive array of documents, hence the numerous footnotes acting as a bibliography. His study does not concentrate exclusively on the London scene, but moves to a little industrial Lancashire town. Between the book’s eight chapters, a short portrait of music hall stars helps us put a face to the name of those who launched those thousand songs.

3Chapter II draws the picture of the business of producing songs for a popular audience after taking stock of the musical entertainment available to the time’s different social classes. Attending musical shows was by far the most popular pastime and a genuine entertainment industry featuring working-class idols began to emerge in the 1880s. Eager for respectability and under strict surveillance, it took care to remove any hints of vulgarity, bawdiness, sexual impropriety or political radicalism from its songs to attract more moneyed middle-class audiences. Most important among the industry’s actors were the theatre managers who were urged to offer ever more sophisticated entertainment in an increasingly competitive context. Some of the theatres were linked to local charities which supported the war effort as a humanitarian cause. Stage-hands and musicians gradually became unionized as productions became more elaborate and shows more frequent, leading to more strikes over pay and work conditions, like the great 22-day long strike of 1907, but also to improved living standards.

4Who wrote the songs? Half a dozen companies like Star or Francis Day & Hunter employed composers and writers, published songs and sold them to artists, or organized competitions in the quest for new talents. Since the Copyright Act 1911 those songs earned royalties, each artist owning the exclusive rights for one or several songs, sold as sheet music. Most composers and writers were men, earning a pittance, but the development of the record industry boosted the careers of hit song writers like Noel Coward or Ivor Novello as they reached wider audiences, especially soldiers in the trenches. Gramophone companies like Columbia or Coliseum had a hard time convincing music hall stars to record their hit songs as they feared to lose spectators.

5Most singers were male, and remained the majority during the war despite increased opportunities for women. Before the aspiring singers, often from humble circumstances, had made a name for themselves and earned extravagant fees, life was hard, hence the need for the 1906 Variety Artistes Federation. Music halls were submitted to censorship exerted by government, town councils and temperance leagues. Many Edwardian socialist organizations who supported the notion of ‘rational leisure’, meant to entertain and educate, dimly viewed music halls and all such ventures as cheap and demoralizing. They developed a network of socialist choral societies and published several song anthologies aimed at fashioning a general literary and musical culture for the socialist movement.

6The war deeply and variously affected the whole industry which considered that the interests of the British Empire were those of humankind as a whole and the theatre in general became the government’s best recruiting officer and fundraiser. Song publishers turned out thousands of war songs, sent free sheet music to the troops for amateur theatricals or to entertainers near the front. Even after the war enthusiasm had waned, the pro-war consensus remained strong within the population and became the golden opportunity for managers and publishers to make money while showing off their patriotism.

7Chapter III tackles the many faces of the entertainment industry which rapidly benefited from government support so as to keep home fires in high spirits and soldiers on leave happy, a national duty. Music hall shows offered a huge variety of entertainments but songs, especially the sing-along type, had the lion’s share. Entertaining the troops involved music hall stars like Harry Lauder but was officially set up by commanding officers who encouraged amateur theatricals involving their men full-time. Some theatre professionals, like Lena Ashwell, put pressure on government to be allowed to entertain the troops and organized thousands of concerts thanks to popular support. Live shows still were at the centre of the music industry before the gramophone and the radio took over, and music hall stars were popular with all ages.

8Chapter IV first discusses the hazards of analysing such songs outside their historical context. What is lost to us is how the songs were received. Mullen quotes the controversy around the value of such songs, denounced by Adorno as pure commercial products generated by a manipulative cultural industry for the pleasure of moronic audiences, a conception that has come under heavy criticism as elitist and obsolete. The songs examined here belong to the ‘prehistory of modern popular music’ and the format has not changed much today. Beside words and music, the ‘character type’ staged by the singer was of crucial importance. Vesta Tilley dressed up as a man, Harry Lauder as a ‘stage Scot’, a carefully constructed image with a voice to match. Their art lay in establishing a rapport with their audiences by highlighting experiences shared by the working class and by adopting the tone of the friendly advice.

9Mullen quotes 1,063 songs which account for a quarter of the whole production, and include songs mostly known in the UK and mostly ‘hit songs’. Most aimed at simplicity and directness, the better to be sung and memorized by audiences. Despite the difficulty to categorize songs by theme, Mullen manages to identify several such ones: comedy, Ireland, the Irish or other regions like Dixie, singers, musicians and music, food and drink, and ‘others’, dealt with in this chapter. The following chapters are devoted to love, men and women in society and life during the war or on the front. ‘Motto songs’ meant to convey Victorian values like work and thrift disappear from the wartime corpus as well as melodrama. Comic songs mostly rely on ‘tongue twisting’ and hit every scapegoat imaginable. Irish-themed songs make no attempt at folksy melodies but reflect the presence of the Irish minority in the UK, the victim of racist stereotypes and humour but also the symbol of a long-lost pastoral world. After the 1916 Easter Rising, those songs gave way to Dixie-themed songs which invited audiences to dream of ‘the good life’ of the white man in an idealized past, far away from war. Food and drink songs extol the virtues of simple working-class food and the pleasures of sharing them. Music-themed songs mostly tackle the emergence of ragtime whose syncopated rhythms invaded Britain in the 1910s. ‘Others’ deal with the complexities of being an artist or the changes in the entertainment industry.

10Chapter V recalls the condition of women, slowly emerging from marital and male thraldom. Men and women lived in separate spheres, especially within the working-class, with homemaking wives and wage-earning husbands. In 1914 Mrs Pankhurst gave up campaigning for women’s voting rights to support government, conscription and the right for women to serve their country. Yet her daughter Sylvia took an anti-war stand and helped pacifists wanted by the police. The outbreak of war deprived working-class women of their wage-earners, throwing them into deeper poverty. Only after conscription was set up in 1916 did government campaign for women to get jobs, despite strong resistance from every class of society. Women were numerous in the entertainment industry and provided their audiences with positive role models of independent women, without supporting feminist causes. Suffragettes’ activism, the butt of songs before 1914, was seen as ‘against nature’, but neither Vesta Tilley nor Marie Lloyd refrained from singing those.

11Many songs idealized women as mothers. The changing role of women also inspired song writers, conveying men’s concern at women’s greater independence, including in the area of sex, where attitudes were slowly evolving from Victorian practices. Singers had little time and opportunity for very expressive songs. Tragic love had no place on the British stage at the time, even if ‘You Left Behind a Broken Doll’ was the hit song of 1915 and if the 1916 ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’, sung as a duet, became an outlet for the wartime harrowing suffering. Hen-pecked husbands and unhappy marriages remained ubiquitous, despite the few songs which offered a positive vision of women, thus reflecting the general consensus.

12Chapter VI tackles the social content of the songs. While some see the music hall as a genuine popular culture conveying the voice of the working-class, others consider it a ‘comfort culture’, compensating workers for their miserable living conditions and a means for the elites to control the masses. The debate has often taken little account of the specificities of cultural productions. The music hall combined the quest for profit and respectability of stars from humble backgrounds with whom the working class could identify. Economic imperatives in a highly competitive market made explicit protest or controversial content impossible unless it voiced a wide consensus. Was the working-class basically anti-imperialist, anti-militarist or deeply patriotic? There was a wide variety of attitudes and the initial enthusiasm was not the only reason for people to enlist. The majority of British soldiers who fought the war were forced to do so by the 1916 conscription laws. The common take on the Great War today is of popular patriotic songs sung at home while soldiers on the front sang cynical anti-war songs. The music hall’s part was far more complex. Harry Lauder and Vesta Tilley contributed to the initial wave of patriotism with songs which staged the unity of the nation behind ‘King and Country’, while the Celtic nations actually dragged their feet. Recruiting songs gradually disappeared as the increasing numbers of the dead hit the nation. They were replaced by ‘comfort songs’ such as ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ (1914), while Novello’s hit ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, also of 1914, dreamt of the end of the war. The music hall little reflected the popular opposition to the war after 1916 or the many strikes between 1915 and 1918. Anti-German songs were few, despite anti-German demonstrations, as hate does not sell well on the consensual music hall stage. Similarly, death is absent from most songs. Only in post-war songs do they appear, castigating war profiteers, rabid war-mongers and the cruelty of some officers.

13Mullen concludes that the music hall songs he reviewed pertain both to a genuine popular culture and a ‘comfort culture’. His next chapter deals with songs over which censorship, respectability or commercial imperatives held no sway. He first examines church hymns, part of the culture shared by the soldiers, only to remind us of the bellicose attitude of most churches and of their use of those hymns to forward their position. Popular hymns like ‘Rock of Ages’ or ‘Abide with Me’ were recruited for war propaganda and new ones composed or collected. But church hymns, like the few folksongs taught in British elementary schools, also lent themselves to peaceful purposes or to parody.

14The bulk of the chapter is devoted to 168 songs written by the soldiers themselves: anonymous and short, they use well-known tunes or songs. Their aim was to persuade the home front of the sheer horror of their daily life in the trenches, in addition to which the men had to endure the snobbery and cruelty of their officers, known to them dismissively as ‘other ranks’, hence the general scornful irony aimed at officers, the antipatriotic sarcasm and humorous self-mockery. Were those songs the authentic voice of popular rebellion and the opposite of the commercial music hall songs, or the indomitable spirit of the British Tommy, a heroic anti-hero? The political and ideological debate rages on as we have lost the true meaning of those songs.

15Mullen’s last chapter recalls that the world popular songs paint was much more complex than what we imagine, especially as the music hall declined after the war. Songs which evoked the war only account for a third of the total production and do not support the war contrary to what was previously assumed. Rather than a militant institution defending social causes, the music hall aimed at creating a consensus and yet reflected the tensions of changing times, from Victorian values to modernity. Part of the prehistory of the modern entertainment industry, it existed in opposition to ‘highbrow’ culture which looked down on a genre deemed frivolous and vapid.

16Mullen is conscious he has only tackled a part of the whole picture. Considering the limits set by the series, he has done a great job. He must be commended for establishing the songs’ historical and social context and for recalling the critical debates around popular culture. He provides a wide panorama of popular and serious music, abundant footnotes and Internet links. He writes with obvious sympathy for the music hall, its songs, its stars and audiences. He allows French readers to get a glimpse of a genre that television has killed off and of a part of history they shared with British people. Let’s hear him!

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Gilles Couderc, « John Mullen, La chanson populaire en Grande-Bretagne pendant la Grande Guerre 1914-1918 », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 83 Printemps | 2016, mis en ligne le 13 mai 2016, consulté le 11 décembre 2017. URL :

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Gilles Couderc

Université de Caen

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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