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Harry Champion

Whether it really was the outstanding characteristic or not, to many people energy was the dominant trait of the music-hall--energy with exuberance--and if anyone might be said to epitomize these qualities it was Harry Champion. But too many second-rate impressions of the "good old music-hall" have begun and ended with a violently-produced version of Harry Champion's "Boiled Beef and Carrots" or "Any Old Iron," so that the vigour that certainly does exist in those songs now seems disproportionate and even false.

Further, just as the excessive sentimentality and patriotism of many songs echo something specific of their own time, so does the excessive exuberance of many of Harry Champion's songs represent something particular to the time when they were first sung. The music-hall did have a rough vigour, and it certainly could be exuberant, but it also had many other and richer qualities and it is those that are more lasting and more interesting. In a vigorous song such as "'Arf a Pint of Ale" there is something more than the crude energy which is the main ingredient of too many of Harry Champion's songs--at least as they are now interpreted by those with simple conceptions of what vigour means--a purely external energy. "Any Old Iron" and "Boiled Beef and Carrots" have suffered from their treatment. Too often a single element, boisterousness, has been magnified out of all proportion in the presentation of these songs in order to epitomize "the music-hall." Champion's chief attribute was shared, if to a lesser degree, by many music-hall stars; but, naturally enough, as it was this idiosyncrasy that he developed, it dominated his performance. As part of a night's entertainment, Harry Champion's act was appropriate and went well; as representative of music-hall as a whole (something, of course, he never presented it as being), it is inadequate.

Champion delighted in songs about food--about pickled onions, hot meat pies, saveloys, trotters, tripe, onions, and even baked sheep's heart. But he had many other songs-- "Everybody Knows Me in Me Old Brown Hat," "What a Mouth," "Beaver," "Ginger You're Barmy" (an expression alive enough to be used recently by David Lodge as the title for a novel), and that nice inversion of the Henry VIII theme, "I'm Henery the Eighth I Am," where it is the Widow Burch who has been married seven times before, and every time to a "Henery."

"A Little Bit of Cucumber" dates from the beginning of the First Great War. Its chorus fairly rattles along, and the words, in sound and meaning (especially the repetition of "pickle" and the breaking up of "cucumber"), make an appropriate mixture. The sound can be improved by singing "Cu-cum-you-come-cu-cum," as is sometimes done. In such a song the chorus bears the chief emphasis and the verses mainly serve to lead up to it. In this song, cucumber is considered a fit food for weaning, but elsewhere Harry Champion considered boiled beef and carrots more suitable for this purpose, at least as compared to tripe or steak or even a little bit of old cod's roe. The lineation of the verses is haphazard and their order careless. The second verse might much better be placed last, and the end of the third verse is not particularly appropriate to what is to follow.

Logical order is not the thought uppermost in the minds of composers of music-hall songs, not so much because of any innate inability to be logical, but simply because the medium does not make great demands upon logic, if only because the audience is not to be involved in the way that it is in the legitimate theatre. Their gross illogicality jars nowadays.

What probably struck the arranger of this song as more important than logic was that his fourth verse made possible the introduction of a loudly shouted "Where" to introduce the last chorus and so get the audience really going. The appeal in this song, as in all those Champion had about food, was to the wholesomeness of working-class tastes (boiled beef, pickles, tripe and saveloys) as opposed to the effeteness of those who went in for social occasions (asparagus, chaffinches, and the head of the pig--stuffed with jam--instead of its feet) or the parrot food upon which vegetarians feed. These songs rejoice wholeheartedly in the pleasures of life, and to this extent are not unlike the songs of Marie Lloyd and Nellie Wallace--and, of course, Gus Elen's "'Arf a Pint of Ale," and all that went with it.