Hardy, Napier, and Russell Revist World War I in (Bittersweet) Song

War and Peace
Bella Hardy, Findlay Napier, Greg Russell
Doncaster 1914-18/Doncaster Council

2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Whenever centenaries arise, the artistic world responds. Perhaps some of you have seen the Sam Mendes-directed film 1917 or have read about the monumental Peter Jackson documentary project “They Shall Not Grow Old,” in which photographs and filmstock were painstakingly restored, authentically colorized, and shown atop voice-acted survivor interviews. The anniversary is one thing, but if you’ve ever been to Europe you know that there’s scarcely a town or village that lacks a monument to the “Great War.” World War II led to greater loss of life, but World War I left deeper psychological scars. It hastened the demise of the aristocracy, magnified class inequality, ushered in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, and shook faith in humankind.

Three enormously talented British musicians offer one of the more interesting new takes on the Great War. Bella Hardy is a former BBC2 Folk Singer of the Year (2014) who hails from Derbyshire. She’s also a talented fiddler. Findlay Napier grew up in the Speyside region of Scotland and holds a degree from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Celtic music fans recognize him as the lead singer for the now-defunct band Back of the Moon. He now lives in Glasgow, where he is in great demand as a guitarist, musical collaborator, and producer. Greg Russell hails from near Sheffield, England, and was a 2013 winner of the Young Folk Award. Instead of calling attention to themselves, the trio mined the Doncaster (Yorkshire) archives and produced a commission piece of ten songs (and a film) based on the World War I stories they found there. Don’t expect banners and glory; the archives tell of futility, waste, and searing questions directed at those who led soldiers into senseless battle.

Napier offers “Thou Shalt Not Kill” with its simple-but-poignant query. What mandate, it asks, allows for the 5th Commandment to be set aside when all others are supposed to be followed: I wouldn’t lie, I wouldn’t steal/ Nor take my best friend’s girl/Now they say it’s fine for me/To ignore “Thou shalt not kill…” Napier’s take on the war is positively withering. He also offers the music hall style” It’s Made a Different Man of Me,” a letter home from a soldier who naively (sarcastically?) promises his wife that as soon as he’s discharged, he’ll put the war aside and give it no thought. He rounds off the album with “Little Tommy Atkins” and there is no question that he intends this story from long ago as a warning to future boys who think war is child’s play.

Bella Hardy gives a woman’s perspective. It’s an article of faith among North American feminists that the postwar treatment of World War II Rosie the Riveters was patriarchy and sexism at their ugliest. Check out Hardy’s “Belles of Brickfield” and you’ll know that North Americans were 30 years late in boarding the bandwagon. She also offers object lessons of war. Most wars begin with aforementioned banners and dreams of glory, but they seldom end that way. Don’t be deceived by the light waltz “Miss Freda Hooper;” Hardy has a different take on those who dance “the ghosts” away.

The content and gorgeous melody of Russell’s “God or Union” embodies the word “bittersweet.” Russell is a very powerful singer, as you will hear also on “Egbert.” That one is filled with the stirring muscularity of training camp promises, as well as a few hints of what hasn’t been mentioned. Hardy’s fiddle adds to a melody that’s where the martial spirit and dysphoria collide. If you want to know what war weariness sounds like, listen to Russell sing “20 Minutes.” Russell also gives us one of the war’s more touching stories. “Vic the Dog” is based upon the story of Albert Drury, who was saved from a fatal bullet by his cigarette tin. Vic is the name of an actual pooch, one he brought back to England from the trenches of France.

War and Peace is part of a larger project that recounts the sights and experiences of Doncaster war survivors. There is honor in it, even if it’s not defined the way politicians and generals tell of it. Though I’m not sure if Hardy, Napier, or Russell would agree, for me it’s a powerful reminder of the insanity of war. And more’s the pity that a hundred years later the same old promises–lies in disguise–continue to lead young people down the path of danger, horror, and loss.

Rob Weir

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