On Remembrance Day - or Veterans' Day or Armistice Day, according to taste - I find myself thinking about songs from the Great War. It may have been "the war to end all wars", but it was a bonanza for Tin Pan Alley. More war songs were written for the First World War than for any other war before or since, and many of them resonate to this day - Over There, Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (And Smile, Smile, Smile), How Ya Gonna Keep'Em Down On The Farm After They've Seen Paree?, Mademoiselle From Armentieres (Hinky-Dinky Parly-Voo), etc. But it's the ballads I think of - the catchpenny songs of love enlarged by the canvas they're played against: If You Were The Only Girl In The World, for example, a favorite of the British Tommies in the hell of 1916, the year of the Somme. But I do believe the loveliest song to emerge from the war is this:
Roses are shining in Picardy In the hush of the silver dew Roses are flow'ring in Picardy But there's never a rose like you It's almost an art song rather than a pop song, yet it's utterly without the stiffness and pretension of so much of the English pseudo-lieder. It's an ethereally perfect union of words and music (with one exception, which I'll come to later), and yet it's muscular enough to work in other ways, too: in the Fifties, Vegas cats like Buddy Greco started doing it as an up-tempo uber-swinger with hepped-up whoops interpolated throughout, and, nutty as it sounds, it worked, all the way to the end:
It's the rose that I keep (whoop!) I see it in my sleep (eek!) It's the rose that I keep Locked up in my crazy swingin' heart! But, putting such liberty-takers aside, even Count John McCormack, the Irish tenor who had the original hit record on it 80 years ago, understood implicitly that it was something bigger and more profound than almost all the fragrant Edwardiana to which it harks back.
The authors are Fred Weatherly and Haydn Wood. Weatherly was a successful barrister, a King's Counsel, on the Western Circuit of England's courts, but he dabbled in songwriting, and very successfully. His best-known song is the famous lyric to The Londonderry Air:
Oh, Danny Boy The pipes, the pipes are callin' The Air is one of those traditional tunes that had been around a good half-century before Weatherly got to it and had had many other sets of words appended to it - among them Emer's Farewell and Erin's Apple Blossom, to name but two lyrics by Alfred Percival Graves.
When Danny Boy was published in 1912, Graves, an old friend of Weatherly's, flew into a huff at Fred's impertinence in fixing words to a tune he'd already commandeered. In his splendid autobiography of his musico-barristerial life, Piano And Gown, the lyricist justifies Danny Boy this way: "Beautiful as Graves's words are, they do not to my fancy suit the Londonderry air. They seem to have none of the human interest which the melody demands. I am afraid my old friend Graves did not take my explanation in the spirit which I hoped."
Still, Weatherly was right. That's one reason why Piano And Gown, an 80-year old memoir by a forgotten figure, is worth digging out. Styles of songs may have changed - and had already changed by the time the author wrote his book - but that's still excellent songwriting advice.
Any words can be fixed more or less competently to The Londonderry Air, but Danny Boy taps into the essence of the music and articulates it. Even more remarkably, the words weren't written to the tune. Weatherly had never heard The Londonderry Air until his sister-in-law sent it to him, and he realized it would make an excellent tune for a poem he happened to have written. A syllable here, a syllable there, and Weatherly had completed the words that now seem so organically tied to that tune, to the point where today it's all but impossible to hear the music of Londonderry Air without also conjuring Danny Boy, the pipes, the glens, the sunshine and shadow and all the other marvellous imagery. In a songwriting profession whose British branch was notable for its hacks, the moonlighting KC was a rare talent.
Fred Weatherly was a man in late middle-age when he wrote his two biggest hits - 62 at the time of Danny Boy, 68 for Roses Of Picardy. That's unusual, too. Most writers have youthful bursts of energy, a creative peak, and by the time they're in their sixties are either gracefully declining or sputtering very erratically. But, secure in his day job as a lawyer, Weatherly wrote for pleasure and never stopped enjoying it. A former tutor to the King of Siam (Rodgers and Hammerstein could well have found themselves writing The King And Fred), friend of Dickens and Gladstone, he serenaded the Queen-Empress herself on Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. And, although his lasting songs post-date ragtime and early Irving Berlin, they like him have the whiff of the 19th century about them. Roses Of Picardy is in some ways the last great Victorian parlour ballad. When war came in August 1914, his first song, Bravo, Bristol!, was conventional enough:
It's a rough, rough road we're going It's a tough, tough job to do But sure as the wind is blowing We mean to see it through Who cares how the guns may thunder Who recks of the sword and flame We fight for the sake of England And the honour of Bristol's name
It was stirring, but in a somewhat generic sense. Picardy came two years in, after the the mud and the slaughter and the knowledge that this would be slogged out a lot longer than Tommy ever thought in 1914. Picardy was born as Danny Boy was - as words never intended for that tune. In this case, Weatherly had written them to music by Herbert Brewer, a composer and later organist of Gloucester Cathedral. But the publisher rejected the song, and so Weatherly banked the lyric and, a while later, tried again - this time to a tune by Haydn Wood.
There is a story in circulation that Weatherly wrote this after being stationed in France and having an affair with a war widow. Untrue. He was married and in England at the time. But perhaps that testifies to the author's gift for "human interest". After all, the verse sets up a very vivid scenario:
She is watching by the poplars Colinette with the sea-blue eyes She is watching and longing and waiting Where the long white roadway lies And a song stirs in the silence As the wind in the boughs above She listens and starts and trembles 'Tis the first little song of love ...
It's not an ostentatious verse but look at the specifics - the poplars, the eyes, the colour of the roadway. For the last 70 years or so, not many folks have bothered with the verse, but Sinatra uses it on his Great Songs From Great Britain album with a ravishing arrangement by Robert Farnon, Canada's all-time greatest orchestrator of popular music.
Frank's voice was tired from concerts and Farnon deserved better than the rough timbre on that London session, but boy, is he into the song. You get to the penultimate line of the verse and you, too, listen and start and tremble. What's he going to do with that last bit? Sinatra could easily have rendered "'tis" as "it's". But he doesn't. He sticks with the lyrics as written, and makes the ghostly archaisms of Weatherly's Victorian English very real and true. And then the chorus:
Roses are shining in Picardy In the hush of the silver dew That's one of two spots where the song betrays its age. Haydn Wood set Weatherly's word "silver" on three notes - "si-ilver" - and the melisma intrudes on the scene: its artificiality reminds you that this is a guy singing a song. Most singers of recent decades (though not Sinatra) find a syllable to fill the third note and render it as "in the hush of the silvery dew". Haydn Wood does it again in the second half of the chorus:
And the roses will die with the summertime, And our roads may be far apart - which Wood makes "fa-ar apart", and which most contemporary singers fill out as "our roads may be so far apart".
But these are small easily corrected blemishes on a remarkable song. Roses Of Picardy is a First World War I'll Be Seeing You, a ballad for lovers parted by circumstances beyond their control. It seems like a war song because Picardy is in France and France was where the war was. But, in a lyric of specifics, it's very non-specific about the precise situation. The war is present, but only by implication, and in the ache of the notes on which "flow'ring" is set in that second couplet:
Roses are flow'ring in Picardy But there's never a rose like you
"I do not claim to be a 'poet'," said Weatherly. "I don't pretend that my songs are 'literary', but they are 'songs of the people' and that is enough for me. Longfellow expresses better than I can what I mean:
Long, long afterwards in an oak I found the arrow still unbroke; And the song from beginning to end, I found again in the heart of a friend."
Or as Weatherly put it, reworking Longfellow's sentiment: But there's one rose that dies not in Picardy 'Tis the rose that I keep in my heart.
"Why is it that songs appeal?" mused the King's Counsel. "Is there not a story in each? A melody which remains - deep down in our hearts? We may listen to the noblest sermons. We may study the deepest philosophy. We may be elevated by the loftiest speeches. We may read the brightest pages of history. And yet none appeal to us with quite the same appeal Song and story appeal to the heart. From the heart they come and to the heart they go." Copyright Mark Steyn, 2007