Harp & A Monkey's new album, War Stories, is inspired by the anniversary of the start of the First World War. However, using Martin Purdy's expertise on WWI, the band - Simon Jones and Andy Smith - explore the wider picture and have produced not so much an album but a musical social documentary which has taken the lesser walked path when bringing together the stories of that tragic war.
|Martin Purdy. Picture Danny Farragher|
Musically they have been piecing together a picture of the different aspects of life experienced by the Tommys and their families other than the mud, death, shells and gassings, as Purdy explained.
"When we were first asked about doing a World War One themed project we were a bit wary of it because in the centenary 2014 everyone is going to be doing stuff and, although I'm a First World War historian, I wanted to distance myself a little bit from some of that stuff.
"We thought we'll do something but we want to do something different and instead of focusing on the glorious dead and the fallen and poppies, which is how most people tend to remember and think of the First World War. It's really easy to forget the fact that for every 10 British servicemen who served, nine of them came home, and the forgotten men are really the men who came home and who were lost in this narrative of the fallen. So we said we going to make this record and talk a lot and focus a lot on the men who came home." *
You can't help but notice the amount of background work the trio have put into this collection.
Opener The Banks of the Green Willow focuses on the those who made it home who were called the "forgotten men". As much as they can in a single song they try to address the complexities of feelings felt by those who survived. The wonderful thing about HaM is that they can get away with a lighter tune while tackling a fairly hefty subject using that distinctive and eclectic sound which has become synonymous with them.
The gentle song tells of those who came back, some whole, others maimed or mentally scarred for life carrying the injuries which affected them, their wives and families and were often forgotten in all the remembrance.
Scattered among the songs are archive recordings of soldiers and people who were directly affected by the war which add an extra poignancy.
Soldier Soldier is a story in the true sense of the folk tradition. The gentle and tinkling tune tells the story of tragedy and exploitation where a lover looks for news of her soldier to be met by a comrade who treats her sympathetically but has an ulterior motive and ultimately tries to take the place of her lost love.
The lyrics of HaM's songs cut to the chase and are quite acerbic and, while they may not carry the shock value to the slightly jaded modern listeners, in times of war - right up until the Falklands Conflict - there is a good chance this album would have been banned from national airplay.
Broken Men carries on the story from the opening track with the lyrics concentrating on the men who were crippled or disfigured and the adjustment and sometimes rejection they faced from their spouses and lovers as they tried to get back some semblance of normality.
HaM manage to keep a feel for the black trench humour juxtaposing the gentle, almost playful style of music using instruments such as the xylophone and Jew's harp with the seriousness and gravity of the subject.
|Harp & A Monkey. Picture Danny Farragher|
What follows is perhaps the most unusual angle on the war and that is how many men were put out of action by sexually transmitted diseases. Not a side of the war which is often brought to the public attention. The tune and some of the lyrics will be more than familiar to many folkies and what the song does is open up the view of the war which has been somewhat narrowed to the atrocious figures.
Another familiar tune comes with Raise A Glass To Danny which is the story of Daniel Laidlaw who won the Victoria Cross but was ultimately buried in an unmarked grave in the 1950s. Remarkably HaM have included a recording of the Piper of Loos himself. This is another ballad where Purdy's matter-of-fact way of singing lets the story take precedence over the eclectic style of music.
The Long Long Trail is a tragic tale of two brothers who were separated by procedure never to be reunited because of the war. Once again HaM have got hold of a recording of one of the relatives who brings authenticity to the story. Connie Noble recalls the words of her father who said: "For a bit of red tape I couldn't see our Bob for the last time."
Once again with The Postman's Song the trio come up with a side story which wouldn't occur to most people but the awful job of the local postie who had to deliver all the death notices to families, sometimes many in one village. The postman would be greeted like the angel of death bringing the worst news possible and was witness to many outpourings of grief from stricken mothers and wives.
There is an ominous opening to the song and the musicians even throw in a reggae beat to this story of a thankless job.
Ghosts Around The Table, strangely enough, has a much stronger beat and there is a harshness to Purdy's voice as he relates the tale of the bond between men who faced the horrors in the trenches together. One such group met for an annual dinner until there were too few left to sustain the ritual but such was the bond that those who were left still claimed to feel their comrades presence. There is an urgency about this song more than other on the album.
|The new album|
Once again the strength is in the storytelling made all the more poignant by the fact it's about real lives.
War Stories is a very thoughtful and thought provoking album, it's very clever and in it's own way widens the vision and perception of the First World War. It also adds flesh to the bones of so many men, women and families who could easily get lost in the horrific statistics of World War One. What HaM have done is grounded this historically significant event back among the ordinary people with a very insightful and well thought out piece of work.
War Stories is out now and available from the band's website. You can catch the trio live on July 23-24 at Village Pump Folk Festival, Trowbridge, Wiltshire. Tickets
* Taken from an interview with Mark Radcliffe on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show broadcast July 13 2016