It’s exactly 100 years since the first public performance of a very famous British music-hall song, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
And it’s exactly 100 years and one day since it was written – on January 30th 1912. Well, if you’ve composed a good number, you may as well sing it to the world. In my folk-singing days I occasionally wrote a topical song one day and sang it the next – I remember the day the Berlin Wall came down…but I digress.
I’d always assumed the song was composed during World War 1, because that’s certainly when it was at its most famous, and the well-known recording by John McCormack was made in 1914. It was one of the best-loved songs among the British soldiers in 1914-18, and even though that seems a very long time ago now, I’ve only got to hear it played or sung and it conjures up the horrors and the heroism of that “war to end all war” as nothing else can.
Like so many of the best songs, it wasn’t composed over weeks of agonised creativity. Jack Judge, a music-hall entertainer, wrote it one night in Stalybridge, near Manchester, when somebody bet him five shillings that he couldn’t come up with a good number in 24 hours. Five shillings…hardly a fortune even then! (Later some of his family, who were Irish, disputed this charming story – but I like it.) And he performed it the following night at the Grand Theatre, Stalybridge.
What turned it into an iconic war song? Serendipity, I suppose; plus the fact that it had all the ingredients for a catchy popular hit. An easy tune with a simple chorus, and the sentimental universal theme of homesickness. Irish songs lamenting the disappointments of London compared with the joys of the Emerald Isle were fashionable just then. “The Mountains of Mourne”, another such, was written only twelve years before “Tipperary.”
So many wartime favourites, not surprisingly, have had wistful wish-we-were-home themes; “There’s a Long Long Trail A-winding,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and from World War 2, “We’ll Meet Again”. And of course “Tipperary”, from a soldier’s point of view, had a good rhythm to march to.
In its original context of the music-hall, it had a mixture of sentimentality and humour. There were some comic verses in between the familiar choruses, which the Tommies would have heard on the gramophone records they played in their dugouts, but probably didn’t sing much on the march. You can find the complete lyrics on the Internet: here’s just a tiny sample:
Paddy wrote a letter to his Irish Molly-O,
Saying “Should you not receive it, write and let me know!
If I make mistakes in spelling, Molly dear,” said he,
Remember it’s the pen that’s bad, don’t lay the blame on me.”
All good knockabout stuff, and written at a time of peace, the so-called Golden Age of Edwardian England. I wonder how Jack Judge felt when his jolly five-shilling refrain became a world-wide hit? Was he surprised…pleased…proud? He should have been proud, to write a song so universal and so memorable.
And I wonder which, if any, of the songs composed today will still be remembered in another hundred years?