Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pack Up Your Troubles

In 1914, evidently before anyone had formed a clear view of what horrors lay ahead, the British music publishers Francis & Day ran a competition to find the best marching song of the year. The winner was Pack Up Your Trouble In Your Old Kit-Bag. The chorus is still familiar to many people, but the verses are not as well known: (A “Lucifer” was a brand of match and a “fag,” of course, was a cigarette.)

Private Perks is a funny little codger,
With a smile, a funny smile,
Five feet none, he’s an artful little dodger,
With a smile, a funny smile,
Flush or broke, he’ll have his little joke.
He can’t be suppress’d.
All the other fellows grin
When he gets this off his chest, Hi!

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile.

While you’ve a Lucifer to light your fag,

Smile boys that’s the style.
What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile, so
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile.

Private Perks went a-marching into Flanders,
With his smile, his funny smile.
He was loved by the privates and commanders
For his smile, his funny smile.
When a throng of Germans came along
With a mighty swing
Perks yelled out, “This little bunch is mine!
Keep your heads down boys and sing, Hi!”

Pack up your troubles, etc.

Private Perks came back from Bosch shooting,
With his smile, his funny smile.
Round his home he then set about recruiting
With his smile, his sunny smile.
He told all his pals, the short and the tall,
What a time he’d had
And as each enlisted like a man
Private Perks said, “Now my lad, Hi!”

Pack up your troubles, etc.

Private Perks is the archetype of the indomitable Tommy in his most cheerful aspect. The verses underline his pluck and popularity, despite his tiny stature, 5’0”, and the fact that his smile is evidently “funny” in the sense of odd. Despite these impediments, everybody loves him, officers and enlisted men, “flush or broke.” He is brave and cunning too – “an artful little dodger,” who, champing at the bit, goes after the Germans and comes back triumphant. He is also persuasive, as the final verse with its ominous recruitment theme makes clear.

Pack Up Your Troubles was a spectacular success, and when Felix joined up and went to France it must have been a source of pride to discover that the song had become so popular, especially in the midst of worsening conditions at the front. Equally, it brought renewed satisfaction to both that the song was equally popular among an entirely new generation of soldiers who fought Hitler. Felix Powell survived the First World War, but sadly he appears to have been a victim of the Second. He committed suicide in 1942 while serving in the Home Guard.

Everybody knows how hard it can be to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. The lighthearted tone of Private Perks’s refrain is at odds with the bravery and self-sacrifice which it urges upon the men, and the mortal danger to which it alludes. Think of the unfortunate tommies who found themselves actually having to sing Pack Up Your Troubles on their way to the trenches in Flanders. In fact, the smile is a surprisingly persistent motif the literature and mythology of warfare. It has been worn by victorious generals, such as Lord Roberts whose “ruddy smiling countenance” was noted by The Times on the Victory Parade through the streets of London at the end of the Boer War. It has been worn with compassion, but also by the vanquished with bitterness or resignation. We find it in Homer. It has been traced to primitive conflict, expressions of rage, observed on the faces of slain warriors, and deployed as a badge of courage, as in Robert Browning’s memorable scene of the storming of Regensburg by Napoleon’s army where “Smiling the boy fell dead.” And it is showing no sings of losing its power, particularly in the sinister conflicts of our own time.

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