Music threads it way through The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper, from folk to opera, with music hall and a hymn in between.
Jack and Robert’s song
A classic folk song, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy” is about a grand lady turning her back on her wealthy husband for the freedom of roaming with the Romanies. The song is ancient, with variations across the British Isles; yours truly used to sing it at school and was captivated by its story and its melody. The version below is performed by The Chieftains, with a wonderful animation by Veronica Dolcich.
If you’re the beautiful and rather horrible Quentin “Queenie” Charles, what better way is there to entertain the officers than by singing “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” from Puccini’s La Boheme? Sung by Mimi, the grisette, she will bestow her sexual favours on the men who will give her something in return. And sung here by legendary diva – she of the exquisite eyeliner – Maria Callas.
Trooper Pritchard, the former choirmaster who I’ve mentioned before, sings “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer” at an impromptu service held in the stable yard. Welsh rugby fans belt this hymn out from the stands at international matches, and it was sung in the trenches during WW1. Legend has it, when the German soldiers heard their Welsh counterparts singing it on the other side of No-Man’s Land, they were so moved that they joined in. The lyrics have obvious parallels for soldiers: the “barren land” which could be No Man’s Land, “death of death and hell’s destruction” reflecting the heat of battle. It’s sung in the following clip by a Welsh choir.
I’ll ‘list for a soldier and follow my love
“Sweet Polly Oliver” or “Pretty Polly Oliver” is another folk song. The version below – on a scratchy 78 – was arranged by Benjamin Britten and sung by his partner Peter Pears. When Polly’s lover joins the army, she disguises herself as a soldier to follow him. She ends up injured on the battlefield for her troubles, but all is not lost. Another favourite from school, because what’s not to love about cross-dressing romance?
A Blighty one
Fed up of sitting in a trench with shells whizzing overhead? You too can head back to Blighty by shooting off a toe or a finger! Yes – some men, desperate to get home, really did do this, and called it “a Blighty one” – Blighty being slang for Britain. The music hall song “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” – not actually a song about shooting off your extremities, however – was first performed in 1916 and Florrie Ford recorded it in 1917. Her rendition is below, with a slideshow of photos showing men at the Front. Fans of The Smiths will recognise this song – a clip of Cicely Courtneige singing it in 1962 film The L-Shaped Room, dragged up as a soldier and swishing a swagger stick about (but of course), appears at the beginning of The Smiths’ 1986 song “The Queen is Dead”.