"You've come a long way..." The Premier of another Iconic War Song

31 January 1912, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", written and first performed by Jack Judge, premiered in a Stalybridge music hall in the Greater Manchester area.

“That's the wrong way to tickle Mary,

That's the wrong way to kiss.

Don't you know that over here, lad

They like it best like this.

Hooray pour Les Français

Farewell Angleterre.

We didn't know how to tickle Mary,

But we learnt how over there.” 

(Alternative concluding chorus to a popular tune as sung in the Great War)

"It's a Long Way to Tipperary" 
Sheet music cover from a United States/Canada issue (before 1918)

When the first group of males banded together in the grey dawn of time, grabbed their war-clubs and set forth to vanquish the despoilers of landscape in their abominably foreign abodes around the next bend of the river, we can be almost certain that had a song on their lips. When they marched and when they returned, not all of them, though, quite shaken but full of swagger, glossing over the fundamental shock of warfare. Few things tie toiling people together like a song, sung at work, at play, at celebrations, secular and religious, and when a day’s work is done. Soldering makes no exception. “'That's a nice song,' said young Sam, and Vimes remembered that he was hearing it for the first time.
'It's an old soldiers' song,' he said.
'Really, sarge? But it's about angels.'
Yes, thought Vimes, and it's amazing what bits those angels cause to rise up as the song progresses. It's a real soldiers' song: sentimental, with dirty bits.
'As I recall, they used to sing it after battles,’ he said. 'I've seen old men cry when they sing it,’ he added.
'Why? It sounds cheerful.'
They were remembering who they were not singing it with, thought Vimes.” Terry Pratchett pointedly sums up the whole affair in “Night Watch”. Some of these tunes are artificial hideosities, celebrating the great leader, the party, the place one is supposed to get slaughtered for happily and what not. Some belittle the foe one is about to engage, naturally, many satirize the conditions of soldiery, miserable food, long marches, idiotic commanders, many deal with homesickness and yearning for loved ones left behind, the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame, the killing and dying and some were once popular tunes from a completely different context that went to war with the men and women struggling far from home. More often than not, they became something of a soundtrack for the conflicts they were sung in and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” certainly belongs into this category.

Jack Judge, to the left, and his partner in composing more than 32 popular music hall ditties, Harry Williams*

"A hundred paces farther and Stalybridge shows itself in the valley, in sharp contrast with the beautiful country seats, ... Add to this the shocking filth, and the repulsive effect of Stalybridge, in spite of its pretty surroundings, may be readily imagined.” Friedrich Engels described the Tameside town near Manchester back in 1844, one of the centres of the industrial revolution, some 200 miles northwest of Piccadilly, Strand and Leicester Square, as the crow flies. Naturally, the place was full of Irish workers and those of Irish descent around 1900 and since it’s a time-honoured tradition in Manchester, Liverpool as well as in New York and Boston to poke fun at Irish immigrants, Pats and Mikes yearning for their Molly and home and other stale clichés, Jack Judge, a Worcestershire-born fishmonger with grandparents from Tipperary had a rather easy job of setting said clichés into lyrics to be sung to a catchy tune and hit the local music hall. Allegedly, Jack had accepted a bet that he couldn’t write a popular tune overnight and he did, in a Stalybridge pub, on 30 January and performed it the very next day in one of Stalybridge’s music halls. One can still imagine the audience singing and whistling the ditty when they left the place that night and Jack had won his 5-shilling bet with distinction. Two years later, the Connaught Rangers marching through Boulogne on their way to Flanders Fields had the song on their lips, a reporter from the Mail saw and heard them, enthusiastically wrote home about it, in November 1914, the famous Irish tenor John McCormack recorded “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and within the year, the tune had gained worldwide popularity. And the somewhat dubious merit of becoming a cheery icon of the Great War.

Postcard from the Great War

band played the tune to counter the panic aboard the sinking “Lusitania”, when the liner was torpedoed by U-20 off the Old Head of Kinsale a year later when more than a thousand died. One of the first sad climaxes in the reception history of the song, along with the remembrance of the millions who would not hear and sing it anymore, fallen in two World Wars and other conflicts since 1914. In 1984, Tipperary set a sign against the town being associated with war and popular war songs by creating the Tipperary International Peace Award, described as "Ireland's outstanding award for humanitarian work" with awardees from Geldof to Mandela along with nominating the annual “Tipperary Song of Peace”. Still, though, the tune and at least the name of the town is best remembered across the world in association with Tommies marching to the Great War, from pop icons like the crew of “Das Boot” to Marcie from the “Peanuts” singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”. The welcoming signs on the edge of Tipperary reminding the weary traveller that "You've come a long way..." have disappeared though.

* the image above was found along with an excellent article about Harry Williams on the "Irish Mirror" website:


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