There were a couple of anti-war songs floating around Europe in the late 1970s that were so striking that if you heard them once they stuck with you: “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and a song variously called “The Flowers of the Forest,” “No Man’s Land” and “The Green Fields of France.” I heard them over and over, from amateurs and professionals throughout northern Europe, though I don’t think I learned either until I got back to the States and found the lyrics to this one in Sing Out!
At the time I had no idea that both were written by the same man, a Scottish singer based in Australia named Eric Bogle. In the 1970s Bogle hadn’t yet made his first record* and pretty much everyone learned his songs from recordings by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, June Tabor, Priscilla Herdman, or other more familiar figures, and passed them along without any sense of the writer — an example of the enduring oral tradition in the days of phonographs and radio, but before the internet.
I finally heard an album by Bogle himself, in Vancouver, Canada, around 1982 or ’83 and was startled to find that he was ridiculously, raucously funny — I recall in particular a song mocking serious folksingers, “You’re a Bloody Rotten Audience (Whilst I am very good).” He was acutely aware of the discrepancy: when I eventually saw him live, I remember him singing an incredibly moving, heartbreaking song, followed by stunned silence, then a thunderous ovation… after which he mopped his brow and remarked: “I think I’ll stop writing songs and just hit myself over the head instead.”
All of which is by the way, because this song speaks for itself: a simple, brutal story that remains painfully relevant.
*A German reader, Manfred Helfert, corrects me, noting that three Bogle records were recorded and released there following his 1976 tour, on the “seedy” Autogram label. Helfert quotes Bogle’s opinion:
“These… were recorded during my first tour of Germany in 1976. Only the first one [Live in Person] was authorised, the other two are bootleg. Some of the songs were recorded ‘live’, the rest are obviously quite dead. If you ever come across a copy of any of these L.P.s, melt it down and fashion an ashtray out of it.”