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Publisher's Summary

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 12 years after the war, the Dumbells became a household name and made more than 25 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 20th-century Canada.

©2012 Wilfrid Laurier University Press (P)2021 Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Critic Reviews

“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)

“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

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