This post is my third in a three-part series on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay.” Previously I talked about the origins of the poem, and gave a critique of its content. Those posts may be found here:
Now I want to consider the various attempts to turn the poem into a song. The volume in which the poem appeared is called Barrack Room Ballads for a good reason. The poems are all, to one degree or another, in the form of what 19th century poets thought of as ballads. Now this is a slightly complex matter. Nowadays we think of a ballad as a species of lyrical song, but in the 19th century the term was somewhat vaguer. For example, the Harvard English professor, Francis James Child, collected verses in a five-volume work which he called English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898). He gleaned these verses from various sources, mostly literary and antiquarian, and published them without music, because he was interested in their poetic form, not their musical qualities. It was not until almost a century later that Bertrand Bronson published the twelve-volume work, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (1959-1972) that the scholarly and literary world came to appreciate that Child’s ballads were meant to be sung, and that most of them ultimately derived from the oral singing traditions of ordinary people, often shepherds and farm laborers.
Kipling’s ballads are more in the vein of Child’s ballads than Bronson’s but most scholars now believe that Kipling had particular well-known songs in mind when he wrote the poems, because of their metrical structure. Kipling’s “My name is O’Kelly, I’ve heard the reveille…” for example, fits the Irish rebel song Lillibulero quite well, and, therefore, could have been in the back of Kipling’s head when he wrote it. Whatever the case, the Barrack Room Ballads, including “Mandalay” are easily turned into songs which, perhaps, makes them more memorable and durable. “Mandalay” at 6, 4-line stanzas plus chorus (also indicative of ballad form), is rather too long for popular stage performance or commercial recording as a song, so when Oley Speaks wrote music for it in 1907 he trimmed it to the first, second, and last stanzas only, giving the gist of the poem, but not the specifics. Often even the second stanza was omitted. The first and last stanzas taken together, with the absence of the middle particulars, present an image of a (generic) British soldier thinking wistfully of his service in Burma and longing to return. The mangled Cockney voice is largely absent so it could be an officer or a common soldier speaking. Peter Dawson’s version, with his high-class accent, gives the impression that the singer is an officer. My first post presents Dawson’s version, which you can review there. Here’s a film version from 1935 featuring Laurence Tibbett going all out in dramatics and with an accent that meanders between upper crust and the gutter.
Transforming the poem into an officer’s lament (in the Peter Dawson vein) perverts Kipling’s intention of portraying a working stiff who once served in the Queen’s forces in Burma, and saw a world he never imagined existed in his childhood in England, and to which he yearns to return. Tibbett does a better job at threading the needle than most, but gets a bit lost in his purpose through rank theatrics. How about this for theatrics. What is it? Red Skelton meets Rudyard Kipling?
By contrast, Old Blue Eyes, makes a mockery of the whole thing, although I have no doubt someone will like this. Kipling’s army grunt is now a Las Vegas lounge lizard. Sinatra has tinkered with the words a little because Kipling was apparently not hip enough for the swinger. Kipling’s Burma girl is now a “broad” and the man who can raise a thirst is now a “cat.” These changes, not to mention the jazzy rearrangement of the music, deeply offended Kipling’s widow. Watch at your peril:
If you poke around YouTube you’ll find dozens of quite similar renditions mostly from the 1930s and ‘40s. It did surprise me to discover this version: a 1971 version by the Danish popular quartet, Four Jacks – in Danish.
So . . . let me return one more time to Pete Bellamy’s 1973 version featuring the entire poem to a different tune from the familiar Speaks version.
This is the version I tend to return to when I want to be reminded of Kipling. It has two things going for it. First, it contains the complete poem, and, second, it’s not full of dramatics. It lets the poem speak for itself.
Another version that gives the full poem is this electronic remix by Toby Darling.
Interesting, but I’ll pass.
I’d be surprised if any of the singers here has actually been to Mandalay. It makes a difference to me. Frankly I don’t think any of them are evoking Mandalay (in the 19th century or now). What is Mandalay to them? Somewhere exotic? A tourist dream? What? To me it’s home. Next I will muse on what that thought means to me.