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War? What is it good for?

Nov 13, 2015

In the immortal words of Edwin Starr, “War, huh, yeah…what’s it good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.” Actually Edwin, I don’t think that’s entirely true. From ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’ to ‘Fixin’ To Die Rag’, from ‘Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag’ to ‘Universal Soldier’, from ‘I Didn’t Raise My Son To Be A Soldier’ to ‘Masters Of War’, from ‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’ to ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, war has inspired many brilliant songs that stand as formidable reminders of time, context and social attitudes that cut through the rhetoric and propaganda we’re supposed to swallow in times of conflict.

The current commemorations of The Great War have already produced a spate of fine album releases – Coope, Boyes & Simpson and Show Of Hands among them – which ram home that point; a point made all the more pertinent in the current terrifyingly brutal climate of warmongering around the world.

Amid all this history you wouldn’t ordinarily expect a modest fiddle to have its own epic chapter. Certainly not one purchased eight years ago – seemingly brand new – from a violin shop in Oxford. Its buyer was the then 18-year-old A-level student Sam Sweeney, who took it home, played it, blew away the rosin dust that had collected inside and noticed an unexpected mark on the inside. Closer inspection revealed tiny images of the painted flags of Great Britain, France and Russia, along with the inscription R.S. Howard and the words “Made In The Great War.”

Many things have happened to Sam Sweeney since then. He quickly established himself as one of the most promising young folk musicians in the country in partnership with Hannah James and with the group Kerfuffle; survived three weeks on the folk degree course in Newcastle before stomping out in disgust; and was almost immediately recruited as the youngest member of Bellowhead where, among other things, he was tasked to learn English bagpipes.

Also, somewhere along the way, he and his father collated scraps of information, went into full genealogy mode and assembled the various pieces in the jigsaw puzzle to solve the mystery of the inscription and reveal the remarkable tale secreted behind the purchase of an apparently brand new fiddle. I won’t reveal the full denouement of the plot, but it’s a gripping story involving music halls, marching bands, early 20th Century life, conscription and the appalling realities of war as the Allies advanced at the Battle of Messines in Belgium. All a century before Sam’s fateful entrance at Roger Claridge’s violin shop in Oxford.

The fascinating results of the research have inspired Sweeney’s album ‘Made In The Great War’. It’s wonderful and I’ve listened to it lots. But it still left me completely unprepared for the metaphorical bolt that knocked us all flat on our backs at the West End Centre in the garrison town of Aldershot on just the second night of the show’s first tour.

Sweeney was flanked by fellow Bellowheader Paul Sartin and concertina wizard Rob Harbron – all three appropriately garbed in braces and short hair (and flat cap in Sartin’s case) and pony-tailed storyteller Hugh Lupton in a show that held you in its grip from the first note. Sweeney lovingly played the fiddle at the heart of a story which was meticulously told with skill, guile and an overload of drama at its climax that left the woman next to me weeping. I wasn’t far off either.

Lupton is a word magician, luring you into the tale with transfixing sleight of the tongue and an expressive vigour that transports you from the violin shop in Oxford to the back streets of Leeds to the music hall variety theatre to the full, grimy, muddy horror of the front line trenches in Flanders. Around him the three musicians decorate the narrative with sharply contrasting musical backdrops – and it’s a show that’s not without humour – while at times shocking actuality film is projected on a screen behind them to add poignancy and reality. Paul Sartin is magnificent singing the period material and, in ‘The Ballad Of Richard Howard’, Sweeney and Rob Harbron have written and perform an extraordinary song that cleverly draws on the lyrical themes of ‘The Cruel Sister’ and is surely destined for a life of its own.

At the end there is the sort of silence you only experience from an audience that is wholly engaged and captivated as jaws are retrieved from floors. Then there is prolonged applause. And then animated discussion. I urge you to see it.

Colin Irwin

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