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Not many contemporary artists have written and recorded memorable songs about the First World War, the horrific 1914-1918 conflict that killed nine million soldiers and 13 million civilians. One of the best is Australian folksinger Eric Bogle’s ballad “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” as covered by the Pogues on their 1984 album Red Roses for Me.
Toronto’s Tony Quarrington has recorded an entire album of original WW1 songs called For King and Country: Canada in the Great War and many are well worth hearing. It takes listeners through the experiences of Canadians during the war, in the trenches and on the home front. There are songs about Winnipeg flying ace Alan McLeod (“Prairie Boy with Wings”), Anishnabe sniper Francis Pegahmagabow, the slaughter of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at the Somme (the first-rate “Beaumont Bloody Hamel”) and the plight of the wives and widows left behind.
One of Canada’s top guitarists, Quarrington is known as a superb sideman, comfortable in both folk and jazz settings. He was Joe Hall's longtime collaborator in the Continental Drift and afterwards. But over the years he’s recorded several fine albums of his own, dating back to 1978’s amusingly titled Top Ten Written All Over It, which features a young Daniel Lanois on lead guitar and pedal steel and includes such wildly witty songs as “Lumsden St. Beanery.” And For King and Country is not Quarrington’s first concept album. In 2003, he released a wonderful tribute to Canada’s legendary gang of painters, Group of Seven Suite, on which he’s joined by guests including Jane Bunnett, Jane Siberry and Don Thompson.
For King and Country opens with “Enlistment” and ends, fittingly, with “Armistice.” In between there are songs that tell the horror of bloody battles at Ypres and Passchendaele. Quarrington sets John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” to an original musical score and adapts Robert Service’s poem “Rhymes of a Red Cross Service Man” on “Tipperary Days.” Some of the songs are co-written between Quarrington and those who perform on the album.
Quarrington surrounds himself with a fine cast of players and he’s wise enough to give lead vocal duties to singers better than himself, like Laura Smith, James Gordon, Mary Lou Fallis, Arthur Renwick, Zoey Adams, Don Francks and Mose Scarlett. Francks, Scarlett and Smith all recently passed away, making this among their last appearances on record. Smith’s stirring performance on “Passchendaele” is one of the highlights of the album.
The First World War was called “the Great War” and “the war to end all wars,” an idealistic claim that sadly became a joke. The peace treaty that ended the conflict ultimately wound up laying the groundwork for World War II. And wars have been a global reality ever since. But the First World War should always be remembered for its stories of bravery and sacrifice, which is what the songs on For King and Country do admirably well. Lest we forget.
Photo of Tony Quarrington by Paul Corby. Tony Quarrington and Zoey Adams photo provided by Q&A.