Great Big Sea: Empire and the Art of the Protest Song

It’s Canada Day, which is an extremely weird “national” holiday. Sure, most of English Canada is waving flags celebrating “Canada’s Birthday!” It’s hardly important what that means specifically, but the anthropomorphication of a nation state is key. Technically, it commemorates the 1867 confederation of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and a no-longer extant morass of Ontario and Quebec called the Province of Canada. Other provinces and territories would be added for the next 132 years, sometimes on July 1, but generally not. However, the vaguely defined shifting colonial administration of British North America is not celebrated equally in all places; famously, Quebec takes advantage of the day off for a defiantly practical Moving Day. In Newfoundland, the day is divided at noon, and Canada Day takes place in the second half. The first half is reserved for the more sombre Memorial Day.

 

Memorial Day marks the anniversary of the slaughter of the Newfoundland Regiment in the battle of the Somme in the First World War, 1916. Newfoundland’s participation in WWI was it’s big chance to prove their worth to the British Empire. As it turns out, the Empire had already assigned their worth. In the grand tradition of empires everywhere, the colonials were treated little better than cannon fodder: roped in with nationalistic pride, dispatched without discretion, and honoured only posthumously. In a different century, in a different war, James Wolfe, British major general at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, sent Scottish soldiers into battle in front of the English, stating it would be “no great mischief if they fall.” That battle is one of the foundational pivots of Canadian history, solidifying British presence in North America more than 100 years before confederation. Memorial Day marks the same lesson as ANZAC day in Australia and New Zealand, that regardless of your faith in the empire, the empire views you as a resource to be used, and, if necessary, used up entirely. The Newfoundland Regiment suffered a 90% casualty rate, more than 500 men lost in a single charge.

 

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I have a preoccupation with protest songs. I don’t especially like them, but I’m fascinated by the intersection of art and politics, and how often it doesn’t work out. It’s a balancing act. A bad protest song never wants for passion, but they get clumsy. The urgency of the message sometimes overshadows focus and articulation. Sometimes songwriters want you to know how serious the song is, so they rely on conventional compositions, which makes them boring. My friend Juniper describes it as a lack of trust in craft, which sums it up nicely. I don’t want to get into examples, I’m sure you can think of some.

 

On the other hand, when done properly, a good political song can really break your heart, and with that in mind, here is my favourite song about war.

 

 

Recruiting Sargeant is a 1997 song by Great Big Sea. It’s an adaptation of The Twa Sergeants, a traditional Scottish tune about being tricked into fighting for the British Army against Napoleon (even within the British Isles themselves, the British Empire has been up to this for centuries). Twa Sergeants is a lively, light song about how horrible farm work is, how the food sucks and how you should really join the army, see the world, get laid and make a fortune. It’s irony, of course; a satirical echo of lies told to poor boys to convince them to die in someone else’s war. Fortunately, being an olden day folk song, this is completely unrelatable, and nowadays we no longer have to worry about poor young men being tricked into military service.

 

 

Recruiting Sargeant performs the balancing act of maintaining the irony and spirit of Twa Sergeants while intensifying the darkness. The verses tell the story of the Newfoundland Regiment in plain, clear terms, almost without commentary, over a spare, solemn instrumental. The bodhrán plays military rolls and while a mournful pennywhistle keens overtop.

Every verse ends with the refrain of the recruiting sergeant: “enlist ye newfoundlanders and come follow me”. Using this line, verbatim, each time, allows the song to transition into a chorus of pure propaganda. The guitar hits a pickup on a big cheesy five chord, the band switches to double time, and the chorus becomes a lively march about being brave and killing Huns and wearing a sweet uniform. Even the music is sarcastic.

 

Great Big Sea tells the same joke over and over again, and every time it hits harder. Every time it’s less funny and more angry. The last time you hear “enlist ye Newfoundlanders and come follow me” in a verse, it’s from the mouth of the very King of England, still peddling his lie, still looking for suckers.

 

There’s lots of songs memorializing soldiers, and some of them are even good, but many of them are maudlin and uncritical or even endorsing of the institutions that send soldiers to their deaths. They are vague and not engaged with the realities of war and horror and death. Recruiting Sargeant has no interest in comforting you about the death of these men, and it’s completely frank about what happened to them. They didn’t sacrifice themselves for freedom, they were cut down not just by their enemies, but by the callousness of their commanders. It has more in common with BYOB by System of a Down than something like Some Gave All by Billy Ray Cyrus.

 

Recruiting Sargeant works because it pulls the same trick on the listener that the British Military played on Newfoundland. It promises you’re gonna have a good time before all the death and anger. It makes you think about coercion, disingenuousness, and the inhumanity that underlies the empire. That makes it good listening for Canada Day, and not just Memorial Day.

About Jesse Conlang

Jesse Conlang lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has trained squirrels to operate pens and pencils at his whim. You can probably tell that by the quality of the work.
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