Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty
A.J. Mills, Fred Godfrey & Bennett Scott — London: Bert Feldman, Star Music; New York; Toronto: Chappell; Melbourne: Dinsdales’, 1916.
Note: Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) apportions royalty shares under song title “Take Me Back To Blighty” as follows: Godfrey (16.667%), A.J. Mills (16.666%), Bennett Scott (16.667%), Chappell Music (25.0%), Glenwood Music (25.0%); under song title “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty” as follows: Godfrey (16.667%), A.J. Mills (16.666%), Bennett Scott (16.667%), Warner Chappell Music Canada (25.0%), PRS [Performing Right Society]Shares (25.0%)
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Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty a phrase so famous that it finds a place in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations was a favourite of the British Tommies on the Western Front and wherever they found themselves, in both tragedy and triumph. Reporting on the torpedoing of the troopship Aragon in the Mediterranean in December 1917, in which 610 men died, a newspaper quoted one survivor as saying,
As a happier example, another newspaper reported that, soon after Armistice Day 1918, “Constantinople had the biggest thrill since the arrival of the British when this morning a battalion landed near Galata Bridge and marched up the hill to Pera, headed by a band playing the cheery melody ‘Take me back to dear old Blighty’.”2 As a morale-booster, the song had few peers, as this extract from a letter home by a sergeant from Leeds, writing in December 1916, attests:
Indeed, the songs association with the First World War is almost iconic. Noël Coward borrowed Blighty for his sprawling 1931 stage production Cavalcade, about British life in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In the Academy Award–winning 1933 film version, however, Coward dropped Blighty in favour of another Godfrey song, Take Me Back To Yorkshire , for a scene set on an Edwardian seafront. In his follow-up film This Happy Breed (1944), directed by David Lean, Coward favoured Blighty once again, having returning Tommies sing it as the camera pans over the London streets of 1919 from high above in the film’s opening sequence.
Blighty has been used in several other films as well. It appears in a 1929 Vitaphone short called Pack Up Your Troubles, where it is sung by a group called The Lyric Quartet, and in Not So Quiet On The Western Front (1930), starring Leslie Fuller and Mona Goya. It is reprised in 1943’s Variety Jubilee, a film about the Music Halls and featuring appearances by Charles Coborn, Tom E. Finglass (as Eugene Stratton), Ella Retford, and George Robey. Blighty shows up in Love Story (1944), starring Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Granger; The Rake’s Progress (1945), starring Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, and in the Errol Fynn film Let’s Make Up [also known as Lilacs In The Spring] (1956). In The L-Shaped Room (1962), Australian actress Cicely Courtneidge, playing an aging Music Hall star, belts it out in army tunic and cap (Courtneidge was no stranger to Godfrey songs, by the way, having performed his My Tennessee, Is That You Calling Me? in pantomime in 1919). In the 2006 film Flyboys, World War One British airmen are heard singing it in their barracks in France.
Here’s what a 1933 newspaper article had to say about Blighty:
Though both Florrie Forde and Ella Retford sang the song with great success, it was effervescent Dorothy Ward, wife of Music Hall star and songwriter Shaun Glenville, who introduced it. In a newspaper article, Miss Ward reminisced: “Then [in 1916] came Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty, which Fred Godfrey wrote in my house at Hampstead. I was due to sing it at Liverpool the next day, and there was no time to get the band parts written, so Godfrey himself came up with me and accompanied me on the piano.”5 Indeed, Godfrey sat in for a time as Dorothy Ward’s pianist on the stage (“Melodyland,” The Era, 20 September 1916, p. 14), so he evidently was quite comfortable playing in public.
In an undated interview, Godfrey had a more modest recollection of how the song came about: “At the old Oxford Music Hall there was a show called ‘Blighty.’ Bennett Scott, A.J. Mills and I were going by, and one of us suddenly said ‘What an idea for a song!’ Four hours later it was all finished, and the whole country was singing it soon afterwards. I got — not very much.”
Still another source suggests that the inspiration for the song was “Captain Bruce Bainsfather’s humourous ‘Fragments from France’,”6 a popular cartoon featuring a cast of Tommies headed by a character called Old Bill that appeared in The Bystander magazine during the war.
A trade newspaper noted:
Blighty became the greatest hit of Fred Godfrey’s early career. Years later, in 1929, he was induced to appear on the Variety stage with Irish tenor Tom E. Finglass. The act featured Godfrey’s best-known chorus songs — with Fred on piano, an ever-present fag hanging from his lip — and Blighty was their big finish. After their 11 November 1929 appearance at the Exeter Hippodrome, the local newspaper’s reviewer gushed,
Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty continued to evoke home for Britons decades after the song was first heard. Just as their fathers had in the Great War, servicemen in the Second World War sang it for its yearning for home and to keep their spirits up:
Returning servicemen and POWs from Burma and the Far East happily sang the song, too:
The song remained popular with homecoming Britons long after the end of the war, too. The Dundee Courier included a “Stop Press” item on the front page of its 31 October 1946 issue announcing the arrival of the passenger liner Queen Elizabeth on its maiden civilian West-to-East Atlantic crossing: “Queen Elizabeth berthed at Southampton early this morning. She had completed her maiden West to East voyage from New York in five days and three hours. Many passengers in evening dress lined the decks as she berthed, singing ‘Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty’.” And in 1955, air service between London and Perth, Australia began with a Godfrey sendoff: “To cheers and a brass band playing ‘Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty,’ a Qantas Airlines Superconstellation left Perth, Western Australia, to-day on the first flight of a regular Perth-London service.”12
The length of the list of known Blighty recordings attests to the song’s popularity over the 100 years since it first captured the public’s ear. One of the more unusual, and moving, versions is that of British blues singer Kevin Coyne, on his 1978 LP Dynamite Daze. Another unexpected tribute came in 1986 from the influential British rock band The Smiths, who quote a snippet of Cicely Courtnedges recording of Blighty at the start of The Queen Is Dead, voted 15th-best album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll conducted by HMV, the BBCs Channel 4, The Guardian newspaper, and London radio station Classic FM.
Dorothy Ward (Regal G-7398, 1916)
F.W. Ramsey (Regal G-7404, 1916)
Courtland & Jeffries (HMV B-760, 1916)
J. Norrie (Clarion 970, 1916 [cylinder]; Clarion 171, 1916)
Florrie Forde (Zonophone 1725, 1916)
———, in “Selection of Old Time Hits” (Rex 8093, 1933)
Hay & Croft (Scala 1022)
Stanley Kirkby (The Winner 3085, 1916)
The Band Of H.M. Irish Guards, cond. by Chas. Hassell (The Winner 3113, 1916)
Arthur Fields (Columbia A-2451, 1917)
The Two Filberts (Jumbo 1501, 1917)
The Unity Quartette (Columbia 2742, 1917)
Jamieson Dodds, in “Service Songs” (Columbia 2767, 1917)
Robert Carr (Clarion 185, 1917)
Alan Turner (HMV 216020-A, 1918)
Robins & White (Scala 938, 1927?)
Community Singing, in “Song Memories Of The War” (HMV B-2637, 1927)
Community Singing, in medley (HMV C-1601 [12"], 1928)
Band of H.M. Welsh Guards, in “Popular War-Time Marching Songs” (Broadcast 365, 1928)
Band of H.M. Life Guards, in “Community Song Selection” (Broadcast 430, 1928)
The London Orchestra; dir. by John Firman, in “Communityland — Selection” (Zonophone 5313, 1929)
Charles “Nat” Star & His Band, in “Songs Of The Western Front” (Sterno 561, 1929)
Harry Davidson & His Orch., 1930s?; reissued on CD & cassette tape “Harry Davidson” (Evergreen Melodies C77 [disc], E77 [tape], 2002/03 catalogue)
Ella Retford, in “Ella Retford Songs Medley” (Regal Zonophone MR-205, 1930); reissued on LP “The Greatest Music Hall Bill Ever Assembled” (Music For Pleasure MFP-1146, ca. early 1960s); reissued on cassette “Playing The Halls 1” (Evergreen Melodies EVR9, 1991); reissued on CD “Top Of The Bill” (Pearl PAST CD 9753, 1992); reissued on 3-CD set “Great Songs From The War Years” (Big 3, 2014)
Debroy Somers Band, in “War Marching Songs” (Columbia DX-112, 1930)
Jack Hylton & His Orchestra, in “Tommies’ War Time Memories” (HMV C-1888, 1930; Victor 130815-A, 1930)
———, in “Jubilee Cavalcade” (HMV C-2744, 1935)
Imperial Vocal Medleys, in “Echoes of 1914 — Army Songs” (Imperial 2464, 1930)
The Jolly Old Fellows, in “Dug-Out Ditties” (Regal MR-193, 1930)
Will Evans & Company, in “Khaki Memories (A Song Scena)” (Edison Bell Winner 5282, 1931)
Noël Coward, in “Cavalcade Vocal Medley” (HMV C-2431, 1932)
Don Porto’s Novelty Accordion Band, in “Recollections Of 1914-1918” (Eclipse 813, 1933)
Gracie Fields, in “Old Soldiers Never Die” (Rex 8618, 1935)
Lew Stone & His Band; Sam Browne, vocal, in “Songs the Tommies Sing” (Decca F-7278, 1939)
Sidney Thompson’s Old-Tyme Dance Orchestra, in “Marine Four Step Communityland March Medley” (Parlophone R-3580, 1951)
Verdi and Jimmy Silver & His Music, on LP “Party Time At The Astor Club” (Decca LK-4290, 1958)
Cicely Courtnedge, from soundtrack of film The L-Shaped Room (1962), interpolated by The Smiths on LP The Queen Is Dead (Rough Trade Rough 96, 1986); and CD (Rough Trade Rough CD96, 1986)
Jimmy Shand & His Band, in medley (Parlophone R5050, 1963)
Carl Tapscott Singers, on LP “Pack Up Your Troubles” (RCA Camden CASX-2527, 1964)
Warren Mitchell, with Bill Shepherd, His Orch. & Chorus, on LP “Alf Garnett Sings Songs Of World War I” (Allegro ?, 1967?)
The Concert Band & Chorus Of The R.A.A.F., directed by Sqd. Ldr. R.A.Y. Mitchell, on LP “30 Smash Hits Of The War Years” (Crest WAR-39/45, 1974); reissued on CD disc & cassette tape “Songs Of Britain” (Evergreen Melodies C84 [disc], E84 [tape], 2002/03 catalogue)
Barry O’Dowd & The Strand Singers, on LP “English Pub Songs” (Axe AXS 516, 1976 re-issue of earlier Australian release)
Kevin Coyne, on LP “Dynamite Daze” (Virgin V2096, 1978; reissued on CD, Virgin CD12096, 1991)
Diamond Accordion Band, on LP “Your Favourite Singalongs, Vol. 2” (Emerald Gem GES-1229, 1980s)
Connor, on CD “The Magic Wurlitzer, Vol. 1” (Prism PLATCD 31, 1992)
Pack Up Your Troubles (1929); Not So Quiet On The Western Front (1930); Variety Jubilee (1943); This Happy Breed (1944); Love Story (1944); The Rake’s Progress (1945); Let’s Make Up [also known as Lilacs In The Spring] (1956); The L-Shaped Room (1962); Flyboys (2006). The song was also interpolated in the “screen comedy” The Better ’Ole, starring Syd Chaplin and Bruce Bairnsfather (La Scala Theatre, Coventry, December 1927), but on the assumption this is a silent film, perhaps flash cards are merely used to indicate its being sung..
Numerous pantomime productions, including Howard & Wyndham’s Sinbad The Sailor (Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 1916); Rich Waldon’s Tommy Trotter (Princess’s Theatre, Glasgow, 1916); Florrie Forde’s Jack And Jill (Olympia, Glasgow, 1916); Levy & Cardwell’s Hop O’ My Thumb (Metropole Theatre, Glasgow, 1916); by Lily Vine in Dick Whittington (New Theatre, Cardiff, December 1916); by Olga Torby in Little Bo Peep (Regent, Salford, December 1916); in Noël Coward’s Cavalcade (opened 13 October 1931, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 405 performances).
1 “The Aragon: Last scene on torpedoed troopship — every man for himself,” Western Gazette, 15 February 1918, p. 1.
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