Reflections on John Kirkpatrick’s ‘Tunes from the Trenches’


John Kirkpatrick, a Radio 2 Folk Awards Musician of the Year, appeared at The Witham in Barnard Castle on Friday 8th July.  And what an entertaining evening it turned out to be!  John told me he had accumulated so many songs from both the First and Second World Wars that it seemed right to put them together in a show (and on disc). 

Working with a button accordion and a couple of anglo concertinas (and a variety of headgear including his father’s Royal Navy cap from the Second World War), he covered an incredible range of songs, interspersed with occasional monologues and readings – I particularly loved a piece about the Army order allowing men not to grow moustaches during the First World War. 

There were well-known songs such as ‘A Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘Good bye-ee’, ‘The Siegfried Line’, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’, ‘Wish Me Luck’ (several of them were sung in both world wars and the audience readily joined in the choruses).  John also sang several soldiers’ versions of these and other songs – very funny and usually quite rude!  The tongue-twister ‘Sister Susie Sewing Shirts’, especially with a verse sung by her young brother with a lisp, was amazing.  Did you know that many of the First World War songs were devised as marching tunes because the regimental bands didn’t immediately go to war?

But many of the songs were less well-known and a revelation.  I had never come across the songs about rationing and food control or about the American Colonel (who can’t relax with the local women because of his rank) or the possible benefits of the blackout to young lovers.   The American song aimed at keeping the country neutral and out of the conflict in Europe was very touching, although John pointed out that it became unacceptable to sing it once the US was involved. Several songs were based on the foot-soldier’s generally unfavourable view of military hierarchy and the drudgery of military life (including one by Ewan McColl). 

Lloyd George’s restrictions on drinking hours during the First World War (still largely with us) and the production of the weaker ‘government ale’ came in for some stick from soldiers, as did Tickler’s plum and apple jam which turned up in more than one song.  The ingenuity of soldiers in taking well-known tunes and setting new words to them, as well as adapting the words of familiar songs, was brilliant, especially when you really got to hear the words and appreciate the cleverness of the adaptations.

John had spent the afternoon working with Cream Tees, a band of young musicians from Teesdale, and joined them to sing ‘Goodbye–ee‘ which they had only learned that day.   The youngsters played and sang music they had been learning as part of the M@HoT (Music at the Heart of Teesdale) First World War project ‘Always Remembered’ .  Several of these multi-talented young people also performed an intricate and colourful longsword dance as part of Teesdale Longsword team.  The audience thoroughly enjoyed their contribution at the beginning of the evening.

Throughout the evening the audience responded to the range of John’s songs and stories – funny, rude, clever, sad – and John’s encore ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ was a fitting end to a very enjoyable evening.

Judith Phillips


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