From the forthcoming album, an expanded version of the Tears of Morning album to go with the upcoming book. I’ve recorded it before, but this version is heavily edited and remixed with copious synth.
This 1917 poem by Housman refers to the British Expeditionary Force, which German propagandists referred to as ‘mercenaries’ because at the outbreak of war, Britain’s army consisted of professional soldiers rather than conscripts or the later volunteers of ‘Kitchener’s Army‘. The BEF was practically wiped out by 1916. I find it hard to empathise with either Housman’s or Kipling’s imperialist sympathies, but the poem does have power. I hope my arrangement does it justice.
From ‘Last Poems’, by the way, not ‘A Shropshire Lad’.
I’ve taken a couple of passes at this setting of a Housman poem (from Last Poems). After I posted a version on one of my blogs, I came across an alternative version I’d forgotten. I didn’t like the vocal much (I never do, but I particularly didn’t like this one), but I did like the synth and guitars, so I did a little splicing and remixing (or is that slicing and dicing?). Coming back to it for a book and album project, I did some more radical slicing and dicing, and I like it much better now.
To be honest, I’m not altogether sure I feel positively about the poem, still less the ‘war to end all wars’, but the poem does have a certain power, without the naked imperialism of Kipling at his worst.
This 1917 poem refers to the British Expeditionary Force, which German propagandists referred to as ‘mercenaries’ because at the outbreak of war, Britain’s army consisted of professional soldiers rather than conscripts or the later volunteers of ‘Kitchener’s Army‘. The BEF was practically wiped out by 1916.
A poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ takes a very different view, regarding the BEF as “professional murderers”. I’m not sure how I feel about that one, either. Armies may commit atrocities, but its governments that set the context.
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
This is based on an 18th century lyric protesting against the Inclosure Acts, usually called ‘The Goose And The Common’ or ‘They hang the man and flog the woman’. I put a tune to a version of that lyric some time ago, and it’s on my ‘Cold Iron‘ album. While the privatization of common and/or waste land is more or less a done deal, the underlying topic of those who govern doing so for their own benefit rather than that of the people still has a very contemporary resonance. The lyric below makes that link more explicit: I don’t know that the world needs it, but somehow it demanded to be written… I don’t know that I’ll perform it as a song, though, as I’m already performing the older version.
The law demands that we atone
When we sell things we do not own
Yet lets MPs and Lords so fine
To sell off what is yours and mine
The poor and stateless don’t escape
When they conspire the law to break
This must be so, but we all endure
Those who conspire to make the law
You and I do not escape the web
Of laws that profit from us, the plebs
But MPs and their cronies too
Use or ignore them as it suits
The law forbids both man and woman
To protest corruption in the Commons
And so we all will Justice lack
Till we can vote to take it back…
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 –1906), the son of parents who were slaves in Kentucky before the Civil War, was better known in his lifetime for writing dialect poetry and prose, but in recent years his more literary writing has attracted more attention and respect. Maya Angelou borrowed a line from ‘Sympathy’ for the title of her autobiography ‘I know why the caged bird sings’.
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!
For my setting of ‘Thou Art My Lute’ I’ve used a consciously archaic arrangement to suit the tone of the poem.
Thou art my lute, by thee I sing,—
My being is attuned to thee.
Thou settest all my words a-wing,
And meltest me to melody.
Thou art my life, by thee I live,
From thee proceed the joys I know;
Sweetheart, thy hand has power to give
The meed of love—the cup of woe.
Thou art my love, by thee I lead
My soul the paths of light along,
From vale to vale, from mead to mead,
And home it in the hills of song.
My song, my soul, my life, my all,
Why need I pray or make my plea,
Since my petition cannot fall;
For I’m already one with thee!
I wasn’t particularly planning to do any more Housman settings, but this one suddenly demanded my attention. It does require more work – some guitar, at least – but I think the melody is mostly there. And if you’re going to set Housman, I suppose you have to consider the ‘Land of lost content’. And having (half) done this one, there are two or three more I think I’d still like to put music to. We’ll see.
‘A Shropshire Lad’ XL
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
I’ve posted a guitar-accompanied version of Tennyson’s poem before, but it suddenly occurred to me in the middle of the night that it might sound nice with a free-reed accompaniment. Since I don’t play concertina etc., I had to fake it with a Yamaha keyboard.
The recording here has been updated from a rough version to the version on my Cold Iron album.
The Inclosure Acts enabled the passing into private hands land that had previously been designated as either ‘common’ or ‘waste’. This process preceded by several centuries the formal Inclosure Acts (which began with an Act of 1604) and continued into the 20th century, resulting in the enclosure of nearly seven million acres. While enclosure facilitated more efficient agricultural methods, that increased efficiency and loss of communal land was a factor in the enforced move of so many agricultural labourers into towns. There are a number of variations of this poem, which is usually assumed to date from the 1750s or ’60s, when enclosure legislation started to accelerate dramatically. The tune here is mine: the repeat of the last line is not in the original text, but I thought some chorus harmonies might be nice. 🙂
There are a number of variations of the text, and often just the first two verses are quoted. There’s an alternative four-verse text from ‘Tickler’ magazine dated 1821 quoted here, but I like this text better.