The seeds of irreverent humour that inspired the likes of Wayne and Shuster and Monty Python were sown in the trenches of the First World War, and The Dumbells—concert parties made up of fighting soldiers—were central to this process. Soldiers of Song tells their story.
Lucky soldiers who could sing a song, perform a skit, or pass as a “lady,” were taken from the line and put onstage for the benefit of their soldier-audiences. The intent was to bolster morale and thereby help soldiers survive the war.
The Dumbells’ popularity was not limited to troop shows along the trenches. The group also managed a run in London’s West End and became the first ever Canadian production to score a hit on Broadway. Touring Canada for some twelve years after the war, the Dumbells became a household name and made more than twenty-five audio recordings. If nationhood was won on the crest of Vimy Ridge, it was the Dumbells who provided the country with its earliest soundtrack. Pioneers of sketch comedy, the Dumbells are as important to the history of Canadian theatre as they are to the cultural history of early-twentieth-century Canada.
“Jason Wilson, an accomplished musician who has authored three previous books on Canadian history and culture, has written an outstanding book on the musical entertainment for Canadian soldiers during the First World War. Soldiers of Song discusses the Canadian ‘concert parties’ that performed during and after the war, with a focus primarily on the most well-known show, the Dumbells. ... I was impressed by the author’s ability to balance an historical approach with cultural analysis. This is in contrast to earlier works on concert parties, which are more descriptive. The author’s extensive use of primary materials also makes the book a useful historical source on early-twentieth-century Canadian popular music. ... Soldiers of Song is a valuable and insightful survey of wartime entertainment that also sheds light on Canadian music theatre of the early twentieth century. Reproductions of photographs of performers and performances are interspersed throughout, and there is an extensive list of sources and acknowledgements. Completing the presentation are nine appendices detailing the personalities, performances, and publication histories of the most prominent Canadian concert parties. ”- Sean Luyk, University of Alberta, CAML Review
“Jason Wilson has written a vivid account of one of the most colourful chapters in Canada’s history. He has unearthed a great story, which despite its significance has been almost forgotten. He captures the mixture of song, laughter, bravery, and gallows humour with which the Dumbells buoyed the spirits of Canadian soldiers during the Great War as they struggled with the appalling realities of trench warfare. In their wartime and postwar appearances, the Dumbells contributed notably to the development of a Canadian style and a Canadian national spirit. ”- Thomas H.B. Symons, C.C., O.Ont., FRSC, founding president of Trent University and chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust
“The Great War is remembered as a terrible and senseless conflict where a generation was put through the sausage-grinder of stalemate and slaughter. Nine million were killed, including more than sixty thousand Canadians. The civilian soldiers who formed the ranks of all armies suffered under terrible strain, but they found coping mechanisms in the midst of destruction. Laughter, humour, pranks, and songs helped them to endure. Meanwhile, behind the lines, concert and theatre groups offered humourous skits and performances to bolster morale. In Soldiers of Song Jason Wilson has produced a groundbreaking study of these concert parties, with a focus on the most successful of them, the Dumbells. Wilson, a scholar and two-time Juno Award nominee, has researched deeply to unearth and reconstruct the popular songs, irreverent jokes, and cutting barbs directed against the war effort, generals, and the enemy. His work reminds us that the more than 450,000 civilian soldiers who served overseas came from all professions, including actors, comics, and musicians, and that they too contributed to winning the war. ”- Tim Cook, Canada's History
“This rich cultural study details how Canada’s long music hall tradition strengthened morale on the Western Front. This isn’t always a nostalgic view, for the performances mirrored the racism as well as the moral and gendered ambiguities of the age. But the Dumbells’ humour nurtured a style that anticipated The Wayne and Shuster Hour, Monty Python, even Saturday Night Live. From these pages one can almost hear the songs and laughter of a generation at war. ”- Geoff Hayes, University of Waterloo, co-editor (with Mike Bechthold and Matt Symes) of Canada and the Second World War: Essays in Honour of Terry Copp
“In this fascinating study . .. we are shown how, as the war continued, the traditional content based on the Music Hall led to a growth in the darker side of comedy which arose from the trench experience. ... This most enjoyable book is a welcome addition to our knowledge of the everyday life at the Front. ”- Bob Wyatt, The Western Front Association Stand To!