Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Where the nightingales are singing...

Hello dear readers,

A little note tonight to share with you a charming piece of Great War era music...

McBey, James. "A Concert", 1917.  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1408) 

In an episode of the recent television drama, The Crimson Field, the three main characters, all young VADs, perform a song together for the benefit of field hospital patients and staff. The sweet and wistful song caught my attention and I decided to learn what I could about it.

As it turns out,  not only was "There's a Long, Long, Trail" a most popular Great War tune, but its history also traces back to one of my almae matres.

The song was composed in 1913 by two Yale undergraduates, Alonzo Elliott and Stoddard King. The story goes that the two young men dreamed up the lyrics and melody one lazy afternoon on campus.
1914 sheet music cover

Elliott and King were not soldiers, and the war had not even begun when they wrote this song. And yet, "There's a Long, Long, Trail" seems to have lent itself well to the experiences and sentiments of many of our ghosts of 1914, whether combatant or civilian.

Full of gentle words of longing, the song contrasts a dreamy, moonlit, space that unites the singer and his or her love with the "long, long trail" keeping the two apart. A closeness, all too evanescent, is conjured up in memory and imagination, though reality sets "many a weary mile" between the two lovers.

The song traces the singer's path from a point of loneliness at the far end of the trail to a hoped-for reunion in which the two lovers walk beside one another. Time and distance work against the singer and his or her love at first, constituting the arduous trail that separates them. Ultimately, however, the song suggests that time and distance (covered) are the very things that will bring the lovers back to one another. In the meantime, dreams will have to do.

A couple of the recordings of "The Long, Long Trail" available for your listening pleasure:

  • A soaring 1917 version by John McCormack, likely one that many of our ghosts of 1914 heard.

  • A lovely, much later, 1940s rendition by the Sons of the Pioneers.

I'll close here, hoping that you enjoy this sweet tidbit of Great War musical history.

© Fiona Robinson