Brett Holman at Airminded has posted up a video of the Aussie pub band Weddings, Parties, Anything performing their song ‘A Tale They Won’t Believe’. As Brett explained in a previous post, the song is about a celebrated incident in Australian history, the cannibalism of the bushranger Alexander Pearce. Quite aside from Robert Hughes’ version of it in The Fatal Shore, this is an episode which I think I saw Victoria Wood describing in a programme she did about the Empire. Pretty well known, therefore.
Brett also points out – and the video highlights – that the song totally goes off in a packed pub. This set me thinking about history songs: can anyone come up with an example of a song about an incident in modern (or earlier) British history that would get the same reaction?
A few things:
1) I’m talking about a song which references the past, not a song that’s a reaction to a contemporary moment and subsequently been seen as ‘summing up an era’. Save that for your guest appearance on ‘I love the 1980s’.
2) I’ve said ‘British’, but I’m willing to cast the net pretty widely, so if it relates to British history we’ll have it, even if there’s no way the band themselves would count themselves ‘British’. This means that, even though it doesn’t rock out, I can reference ‘Navigator’ by the Pogues, which I think is a great history song.
3) The only person I can think of who might come close is the bard of Barking, Billy Bragg. His version of Leon Rosselson’s ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ is pretty definitive, I think, even if he doesn’t get much reaction out of the audience here.
But singing about The Diggers and starting a song with ‘In 1649…’ is a brave way to go, let’s face it.
Even so, I have to say that, whilst I have a soft spot for Billy, his views on patriotism and a lot of his music, I’ve always liked his historical songs rather less than the rest of his work. It gets too preachy for me, and the gap between his politics and mine gets too big. ‘Between the Wars’ is a classic example: eliding, I think, the 30s and the 80s to not much purpose.
But not a bad song to set on a syllabus on the problems of the British Left and defence policy in the twentieth century. Anyway, it’s disqualified from here on the basis that you can’t imagine it causing drinks to be spilled, except possibly in the rush to get out of the pub.
4) There is a total ban on ‘Willie McBride’ on the basis that although it’s First World War related, it’s bloody awful. Although if you’re of a strong constitution, the comments by viewers on this youtube version will remind you of the continuing political significance of the remembrance of the war in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
I’m not sure if I’m particularly working on a point here, or just using it as an excuse to look up songs online. But if we can’t come up with a British equivalent, damnit, we’ll just have to write one ourselves. Now, who can think of a good rhyme for ‘Post war consensus’?