A war to end all wars

A time and place

Birmingham Town Hall

****a time and place

THERE is a simple beauty about a performance which is a heartfelt, gentle and genuine commemoration of the start of the Great War, the war that was supposed to end all wars.

Estimates of the numbers who dies are just that, estimates, numbers so large as to be beyond counting but somewhere around 20 million is a reasonable guess – 20 million voices asking why and even now, a century on, it is difficult to answer.

A Time and Place was three voices, Sam Lee a folk singer and song collector, a sort of latter day Cecil Sharp, and well-established traditional folk duo Becky and Rachel Unthank.

Along with arranger Adrian McNally, Rachel’s husband, and seven excellent musicians, the trio looked at the war in terms of songs and poems, set to music, of the time or about the time.

It opens and closes with the recorded words of Stephanie Ploughman, an old woman and her memories and the song Bideford Bridge.

There are songs set to poems by the likes of Siegfried Sassoon with the harrowing Suicide in the Trenches and War Film a sad song with the words of Derbyshire poet Teresa Hooley.

There was the poignant Vera’s Song with a letter from her soldier who was shot dead a month later and then her reply.

But perhaps the most poignant moment was Sam Lee’s Keep the Home Fires Burning, sung first in German, halten die home-feuer Brennen.

UNIVERSAL COST

It was never a German song, words by Lena Gilbert Ford and music by Ivor Novello, but it brought home the universal cost of the war; ordinary people, the liones led by donkeys, suffered on both sides with almost two million German soldiers killed, more than any other nation.

I, and Sam Lee don’t speak German, but a woman behind me who did, was impressed at the performance, although just the sound of the language was enough to stir emotions

Ford, incidentally, an American who had moved to England, was one of the first casualties of the new weapon of war, the air raid, when her home in London was hit in March 1918.

There were songs about the Christmas Ceasefire, of returning home, of a soldier, the only survivor from a group of farm boys in a village, being too afraid to see the mothers of his comrades who had died.

There were songs from Tim Dalling, more known for comedy in the trio, The New Rope String Band, including a song which sounds jolly enough except each verse ends with the sobering They will never come back.

There is Jim Boyes’ Spring 1919 when for many the war, or at least the battle was still going on.

Twenty years after the war 440,000 men were so maimed or suffering from being gassed, nerves, or debilitating illness that they had been unable to work and relied on state handouts.

This project avoided glorifying or condemning war, it just told the story of ordinary people with ordinary lives and despite the grandeur of the Town Hall, which would have played its part in the patriotism and recruitment a century ago, the trio of singers and stage of musicians still managed to maintain the simplicity and intimacy of a folk club, you would hardly have been surprised if floor singers had been introduced, and the informality gave the evening a sort of quiet authority.

A mention to Matthew J Watkins, who created a video on the hoof as the evening progressed with images of marching soldiers, or broken trees and, finally, a wall of crosses all helped by some excellent lighting.

There was no pomp, no military honours, no lofty words, just a simple and sincere marking of an event in history.

Roger Clarke

17-09-14 

The performance continues at the Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds on 19-09-14

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