Origins of the project

The inspiration for the project arose out of a small number of interconnected (and admittedly personal) interests.

In the first place, I’ve always known and always loved the popular music of the early 20th century, the songs I grew up with as a child in the 1950s, spending much of my time in those early years with my grandparents.  Among my earliest memories are of my grandfather singing Lily of Laguna (1898), Down by the Old Mill Stream (1908), By The Light Of The Silvery Moon (1909), Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1910), Moonlight Bay (1912), If You Were The Only Girl In The World (1916), and many, many more.  By the age of 7 I probably knew the words to most of them.

My feeling had always been that these songs, so much a part of our common cultural heritage, should now belong to us all, and not to a small number of corporate entities whose interests are less in the music than in the money they make from jealously hogging the copyright to them.  Perhaps they have the legal rights; they do not, I strongly felt, have the moral right to privatise our shared history.  I’d published a number of videos on YouTube that had featured, in many instances, mere seconds of recordings from the early 20th century only to find that, within minutes of uploading, a ‘Matched third party content’ notice had been appended, with a list of copyright holders, preventing me from publishing under a Creative Commons licence.  For example, this video featuring the opening bars of Nat Shilkret’s Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1926) and the closing bars from Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day (1934) by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance orchestra with vocalist Phyllis Robbins.  Or this video featuring the opening 47 seconds of Ozzie Nelson’s Dream A Little Dream Of Me (1931).  Or this video featuring the 1909 recording of Gaston Dona’s La France Qui Passe.  I’d in each case contested the notice, and in each case–thankfully–resolved the dispute in my favour.  This spurred me to mount a campaign to make accessible to all, free of copyright, the popular music of the past.  It is within this context that I was motivated to build an open-access rights-free library of the memorable songs of the Great War period.

Peabody Building, Pimlico
Peabody Building, Pimlico

Further background to the project was to be family history and therefore inevitably in the world from which my family came.  My Auntie Vi (my great-grandmother’s sister) and Uncle Reg, whom I remember well (Auntie Vi died in 1967), were both born in the early 1880s.  I’d sit listening in fascination to their stories of their youth.  My great-grandmother’s family were from London’s East End (Uncle Len, her brother, was born in Spitalfields) and slowly migrated west as their mother, Mary-Anne Juden, sought work as a domestic servant.  My great-grandmother, Lilian, was born in Walworth, close to the Elephant and Castle; Auntie Vi was born in the Peabody Building in Pimlico.  The world they’d grown up in was that documented in Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896), in Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto (1892), in Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903), a brutally harsh world that would be disrupted, fractured, and in large part swept away by the Great War and its aftermath.  I was interested in how the social world of the period was mapped and mirrored in popular song.

Finally–and it’s this concern that argues, I believe, a very strong case for funding of the project–I was frustrated to find that there existed no single searchable repository in Britain of the popular music and music scholarship for the Great War period. Locating the myriad documents–even for a single son–would demand much time-consuming keyword web search with no metric for assessing, prior to clicking a link, the quality of resources thus discovered, and generally little or no structured interlinking of resources.  So I had a mission … and a project: to catalogue, for the first time, and to document as core social history the much neglected popular songs of the First World War.

But, more than anything else, this is for me a project about people.  It’s not about the Great War per se, nor even about the music of the war, but about how ordinary people muddled their way through those turbulent years and how popular song–then as ever–helped them to do so.

Please read the project proposal for the full story.

Christopher Hutchison
Project leader, Music Will Win The War

Wednesday, 26th March 2014

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