In this guest blog, Meic Stephens explores the history of a popular war-time song which made it from a concert to the front in a matter of weeks.
Ivor Novello (David Ivor Davies; 1893-1951) was not yet at the height of his fame as a man of the musical theatre when, one wet evening in the autumn of 1914, the Welshman sat down at his piano in his Aldwych flat and played the first few bars of a melody that he’d been humming to himself for the past few days. He was still only twenty-one and, although he had had a few small successes as a composer of light music, his was not a household name and he was living quietly with his mother as the war entered its first winter. All that would change overnight: he was about to become the celebrated author of a song so popular that it summed up the stoicism of the British people during the crisis and was to live on as one of the best-loved songs of the years entre deux guerres. There were to be other songs inspired by the war, and Ivor wrote some of them, including ‘The Laddie in Khaki’ and ‘When the Great Day Comes’, but none would take off like ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, and all are forgotten now. Only ‘Tipperary’ could rival it in popularity and poignancy. Ivor’s creation was different from the rest in that it avoided outright jingoism and expressed the yearning of the civilian population for peace rather than the martial prowess of those on the front line.
There is more than one version of how Ivor came to write his masterpiece. According to one of his biographers, W. Macqueen-Pope (1951), the song was prompted by his ambitious mother, the formidable Clara Novello Davies, music teacher and choir-mistress, who pestered him to write a patriotic tune that she could promote at concerts and in the music-hall where her own compositions found an outing. When he didn’t comply, she wrote her own song, ‘Keep the Flag a’Flying’. Ivor found it embarrassing and so he wrote his own tune which he thought was passable. Now he needed the lyric to go with his first line, ‘Keep the home fires burning’. He had a friend, Lena Guilbert Ford, an American long resident in England, who was the first to hear Ivor singing the opening phrase and some of the chorus. She was asked to go home and come up with the lyric for his tune. When she rang a few days later and heard her sing the verse:
Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning.
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
Till the boys come home.
he knew he had the makings of a hit song. There are other versions of how the song came to be born, including one in which the composer bade the maid bank up the fire in his sitting-room with the words, ‘That’s right, my dear, we must keep the home fires burning . . .’ but the collaboration between Ivor and Lena G. Ford are not in dispute.
The song still had to be launched and this was where Mam played her part. Accompanied by Ivor, a young Welsh singer and pupil of his mother’s called Sybil Vane, brought the house down during a Sunday League Concert at the Alhambra. To his great astonishment, the composer heard the audience – mainly working-class people with whom he felt a special rapport — joining in and, to the wildest applause, they kept on singing the words over and over again, even as they made their way out of the theatre and into the street. Within weeks the song had swept the country and reached the Front. Its popularity showed no sign of waning, especially after the Americans entered the war. The composer’s mother, ever eager to boost his reputation, is said to have paid organ-grinders to play the song in the streets of London. A year after its first performance, it had earned Ivor the nice fortune of about £15,000, which helped set him up as a man of the theatre for many years thereafter. Only Lena G. Ford, who shared his triumph, did not live to enjoy the wealth she had helped him earn: she was killed, with her son, in an air-raid over London in 1918. Ivor Novello would go on to write musicals set in Ruritania that included Glamorous Night (1935), The Dancing Years (1939) and King’s Rhapsody (1949) and to enjoy a career as ‘King of Make Believe’ like no other.
Performed by Frederick Wheeler for Edison Records in late 1915
The song’s immense popularity has outlived its creator. Recorded many times by singers such as John McCormack and, in our own day, Cerys Mathews, it has been featured in films such as Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), Chariots of Fire (1981) and, more recently, Gosford Park (2002), in the last of which the country-house guests are entertained by Jeremy Northam acting the part of the composer as he sings ‘The Land of Might-have-been’ at the piano.
As part of Glamorous Night: A Celebration of Ivor Novello, Sir Mark Elder leads the Hallé and Toby Spence (tenor) in Keep The Home Fires Burning.