War Songs

Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.

-Clemenceau

Among my list of intense first world problems is my addiction to military music, though it is a strange addiction and sometimes an unwelcome bedfellow. I tend to believe in a somewhat immersive approach to learning history, which includes popular songs and contemporary chamber music. My music purchases tend to be reflective of centuries past far more than reflective of that which is catchy or, in some cases, actively listenable. Many a time a friend has picked up my MP3 player and CD collection to find something to listen to, and many a time they have given me a sideways look. For a long time roughly 75% of my music collection predated 1900, and now the balance still tilts heavily before 1980. So they may find a wide swathe of American Civil War music or Prussian military marches, but would be hard pressed to find Lady Gaga or Daft Punk (or whatever it is the kids are listening to these days). Then we usually turned the radio on. I took up Led Zeppelin originally as an antidote to this.

It helps those who do their best learning with an active imagination, as I do, to have associative guideposts in their learning, and I often do my best knowledge retention by associating a contemporary song with a historical event or epoch. It is not easy given the wide range of interests I’ve had in the past, especially as a great deal is either not available in MP3 form (though more is readily becoming so) or is so esoteric that no one has even bothered to record it. I do a lot of cherry-picking to find, say, an 18th Century Soldier’s Song, and can occasionally waste hours trawling the Itunes catalog to do just that.

I do have a few standards; many of the most extensive recordings were made by Pete Seeger (RIP), Ewan MacColl (RIP), and many of the good people at the Smithsonian Folkways, who are to be commended for their attempts to preserve popular balladry. However, time has not necessarily aged all these recordings like fine wine. High fidelity and non-caterwauling sopranos are much appreciated.

The selection is diverse, ranging from contemporary pop with a military theme (Infected Mushroom) to marches (Fife and Drum or Bagpipes preferred), ballads, patriotic songs, military-related love songs, or settings of war poems in which breathy bass singers sputter along to tinkling pianos (very popular in the early twentieth century for unknown reasons). Recent purchases have included recordings of the Palestinian Fatah, two songs about the Mexican American War (which are the first I’ve located on Itunes, and were met with much rejoicing), and mariachi singers from an antiqued recording harmonizing about Pancho Villa. A disparate theme of coercive violence runs through it, with the most common criteria being that almost none of these CD’s have been customer-reviewed, likely because I am the first person to pay money for this content for a long while.

That said, I’m not a fan of Sousa and I have difficulty enjoying modern country songs that insist the Southern Cause was glourious. But I do enjoy the music on the whole, and sometimes I get a bit swept up. Patriotic songs were of course written to this effect, and I especially find myself singing Spanish Republican Songs with a great deal of vehemence while driving. I am aware that these songs are often part of a war mythology that I’ve been taught to distrust by my English teachers (clasping their copies of A Farewell to Arms). Balladry and especially the older songs also need to be set in perspective of the authors, and many are not truly contemporary to their events. My recent disappointment was to discover the song Cutty Wren was not really a song of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, despite Chumbawumba’s assertions to the contrary.

These songs remain essential to my understanding of history and military history, and this strange fixation has always enlivened my studies. Here are a few favorites:

Roses of Picardy: Favorite Music Hall song of World War I

Could You Please Oblige Us With a Bren Gun?: Noel Coward discusses the logistical shortfalls of Dad’s Army

Why, Soldiers, Why?: Also known as Why Stands the Glass a Round? It was supposedly sung by General Wolfe before the fateful battle of Quebec

Cam Ye O’er Fae France?: Jacobite Song about the Preparations for the 1715 Uprising

The Men Behind the Wire: IRA Song about Operation Demetrius

Artillery: Infected Mushroom, an Israeli Group. Turn up the bass.

Prussian Glory March: You too could knock out Austria in one battle with this playing

Ye Cavaliers of Dixie: A lesser known Confederate Patriotic song, I’ve always liked the imagery

An American Frigate: One of my few gung-ho American exceptionalist anthems, it tells the story of John Paul Jones’ fight off England’s Yorkshire Coast

Ay Carmela!: Republican Spanish song that spawned an interesting movie based on it

Will Ye Go to Flanders?: Still gives me goosebumps.

Chanterai Por Mon Courage: A 13th Century Song of Concern for those abroad on Crusade

The Burning of Auchindoon: So many Scottish War ballads, so little time. This is a personal favorite, though I prefer the Silly Sister’s Version

The Cossacks: Red Army Choir captures the swagger of the people it worked hard to exterminate

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