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Soldiers of Song

The Dumbells and Other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War

By Jason Wilson
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Paperback : 9781554588442, 248 pages, November 2012
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554588831, 248 pages, November 2012
Audiobook : 9781771125345, April 2021
Ebook (PDF) : 9781554588824, 248 pages, November 2012

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Table of contents

Table of Contents for Soldiers of Song: The Dumbells and Other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War, by Jason Wilson
List of Figures
I Introduction
II The Music Hall and Beyond
III In the Interest of Morale: The Dumbells and the Development of the Canadian Concert Party
IV Only a Soldier Knows: The War and Humour
V The Canadian Concert-Party Experience
VI The Dumbells in Peace
Notes on Sources and Acknowledgements
A Dramatis Personae: CEF Concert-Party Entertainers of WWI
B Notable Concert Parties of the CEF and BEF
C Important Casts of the CEF Concert Parties
D Postwar Concert Party Revues
E North American Tour Itineraries
F Catalogue of Dumbells Sheet Music
G Catalogue of Dumbells-Related Music
H Miscellaneous Songs
I Important British Music-Hall Revues


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.


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!

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