Songs that lend a voice to the equestrian world in a way only music can.
In the immortal words of Edwin Starr, “War! What is good for? Absolutely nothing!” But then again, it did give him a hit song. War has always been a major inspiration for musical talent. From soldiers’ hymns to protest songs, the power and influence of these tunes is undeniable. I was recently reminded of this fact when I finally decided to delve into the multimedia marvel that is War Horse. For years, I avoided it because, whatever the outcome of the title character, I knew so many horses were going to die. But it was the desire to see those amazing puppets that won me over, and when the play passed through L.A. this month I broke down and bought a ticket.
I immediately knew it was the right decision when the play opened to the cast singing a haunting arrangement of “Only Remembered.” The artful combination of horses and music in this production is nothing short of inspired. I was hooked, and wanted more. So I gave the movie a try. No singing?! I like John Williams, probably more than the next person, but I was already convinced that song was an integral part of this story, and the score just left me wanting more. Then the investigator in me kicked in. Why were there no singing soldiers in this movie? The short answer is I just don’t know, because the original story, by Michael Morpurgo, is littered with them. This playlist is an attempt to rectify the situation. It is a modern soundtrack to the War Horse story as written by Morpurgo, which I think still has the most powerful telling of this popular tale.
Get the full playlist on Spotify here: War Horse: You Are My Song
1. WHERE YOU GO by The Young Romans from the album Tiger Child
In the beginning of all renditions of War Horse there is Albert, and there is Joey. Boy and horse become inseparable best friends. Albert trains Joey to come to him anywhere with an owl call, and the pair spend many pleasurable hours riding through the forests with Albert singing and whistling on top. Together they escape Albert’s alcoholic father and backbreaking farm work. “Where You Go” by the Los Angeles duo The Young Romans captures this energy. “Tell me your secrets, I’ll keep em’ close to my heart. Every high every low, oh no power could take us apart. Give me your story, I’ll give you mine.” And so the story begins with the highest of hopes and best of intentions.
2. THIS IS WHY WE FIGHT by The Decemberists from the album The King Is Dead
But as I warned, this is not really a happy story. “Come the war, come hell,” sings The Decemberists lead singer Colin Meloy in “This Is Why We Fight,” signifying the entrance of World War I into Albert and Joey’s story. Power takes them apart. Joey is sent to war, and young Albert is left behind, despite his protests, until he comes of age. Albert and Joey’s fight to reunite begins, and that is why they fight.
On a lighter note, this track is from the album “The King Is Dead,” which Meloy calls the band’s “quintessential barn record.” Indeed, the album was recorded in a barn at Pendarvis Farm, near Portland, Oregon, and the recording process has a fun horsey twist. According to album producer/engineer Tucker Martine, “[a] horse named Lucky was in a stable right by the barn, and sometimes, right at the end of a take, we’d hear this great big neeeiiigghh as things were ringing out. It was almost too perfect. I was secretly hoping Lucky would do that at the end of a keeper take.” I would be not so secretly hoping that too!
3. KNIGHTS OF CYDONIA by Muse from the album Black Holes And Revelations
For me this song is the epitome of riders on the storm, so I place it here to highlight Joey’s battle sequences with Captain Nicholls and Trooper Warren. The raucous whinnies and thunderous hoof falls that open this song follow Morpurgo’s description of the battle in which Captain Nicholls lost his life: “The gentle squeak of leather, the jingling of harness, and the noise of hastily barked orders were drowned now by the pounding of hooves and the shout of the troopers as we galloped down on the enemy in the valley below us.” If I were ever in such a situation, I would hope to have the hard-hitting chords of this Muse classic in my mind to keep me moving forward.
That being said, God knows he was “asleep on the job” when cavalry horses were sent head long into modern mechanized warfare. Again from the book: “These two horses…where the only two to make it. It was not their fault they were sent on a fool’s errand. They are not circus animals, they are heroes – do you understand, heroes – and they should be treated as such.”
4. HEROES by MIKA from the album The Origin Of Love
So that brings us to the topic of heroes. There are many in War Horse. Indeed, one thing I think the book does better than any other telling of the story is to highlight the heroism and humanity to be found in all of the warring parties. From the noble Captain Nicholls of the British Cavalry, to the young and audacious Emilie in occupied France, to German Gunnery soldier Friedrich “whose whole nature cried out against fighting a war,” Joey and his companion steed Topthorn often brought out the best in people – in addition to being heroes themselves.
At this stage in the story, Captain Nicholls is lost, and Emilie and her grandfather are housing Joey and Topthorn at night, while the German army uses the team to pull an ambulance for wounded soldiers all day. This is one of the best stages of the war for Joey because Emilie adores him and the German soldiers are exceedingly grateful for his service. Thus, I chose British singer-songwriter MIKA’s “Heroes” for this period. It is a modern pop rendition of the A. E. Housman poem “The Lads and Their Hundreds to Ludlow Come Into the Fair,” which was popular during the First World War. The song express a beautiful remorse in calming tones for the loss of life that will come from “fighting someone else’s war,” which is appropriate to bring up even this early in the story and the war.
5. BLOOD TO GOLD by Boy & Bear from the album With Emperor Antarctica
Peace is always a fleeting feeling during war. Joey and Topthorn are eventually visited by the German Gunnery at Emilie and her grandfather’s farm. As Sydney indie-folk outfit Boy & Bear sing in this song, the Gunnery outfit takes their home, and treats it as their own, including confiscating the horses to pull heavy artillery through the dead of winter. Neither the horses nor the soldiers are properly equipped for hardship. The sentiment among them all can be summed up in the song lyric: “I’m so damn cold, and if this blood don’t turn to gold I think I’m doomed.” It is during this time that Topthorn, Friedrich, and presumable Emilie are lost to the fray.
6. ONLY REMEMBERED by The Unthanks from the album Songs from the Shipyards
The music from the play is so beautiful, I could not resist paying tribute to it in this playlist. On stage, a story-specific rendition of “Only Remembered” arranged by John Tams is used, while this recent recording from the modern English folk group, The Unthanks, presents a slightly different lyric. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why this song, in any one of its many versions, struck a chord with World War I soldiers. “You might steal our future, but you’ll not steal our glory. Only remembered for what we have done.” And it is a fitting tribute to Joey and the fallen Topthorn, whom Joey will not abandon until a confrontation with a tank and heavy shelling forces him to go on the run.
7. TAMER ANIMALS by Other Lives from the album Tamer Animals
For Joey’s time trapped in no-mans-land, I searched for song with a post-apocalyptic feel since I imagine he must have felt like the last living soul on earth until he was saved by a pair of soldiers, one British, one German. I found this poignant piece by the Oklahoma five-piece, Other Lives that fit the bill perfectly. “Solitary motion, in the wake of an avalanche. Deer in the headlights,” they sing. That is Joey. And certainly the war machines of World War I, made up of armed men, were “just tamer animals” in the most pejorative sense.
8. THUNDER CLATTER by Wild Cub from the album Youth
“Thunder Clatter” takes the sad tale of “Tamer Animals” and turns it into a celebration since Joey is finally reunited with Albert after being rescued from no-mans-land. Albert had been serving in the Veterinary Corp for most of the war, always searching for Joey. At first they barely recognize each other’s war-beaten exterior – they were “waiting on love to call” as Nashville-based quintet Wild Cub would say – but, when Joey comes to Albert’s owl call the reunion is realized. Albert saves Joey from a case of tetanus brought on by the barbed wire in no-mans-land, and they serve out the war together.
This song also captures a particularly enjoyable twist to the War Horse story, added in the stage adaptation. In the play, we follow the parallel experiences of Albert and Joey throughout the war. Albert is teased for carrying around a drawing of Joey in the same manner other soldiers carry photos of their girlfriends and wives. So I think it is only right that this reunion song should end with an exclamation “You are the love of my life!” As for the book, Albert is said to have a girlfriend, and later wife, who never particularly warms to Joey. Naturally I hate her. Then again, the difficulty of being in a relationship with a horse lover is not an unfamiliar topic. Stay tuned for a full analysis in another 100% Sound playlist!
9. LUMP SUM by Bon Iver from the album For Emma, Forever Ago
There is one finale sad chapter in the Albert and Joey saga. Indeed, it is a sad chapter for the majority of British horses that served in the First World War. The British had no need for such a large number of horses outside of wartime, so the decision was made to leave most of them behind on the continent. Horse auctions were held, resulting in many of the loyal mounts being sold to French butchers. Joey was set for sale in such an auction despite the protests and failed plans of many soldiers.
So this song comes in on a somber note. The lyrics of “Lump Sum” are almost dead on: “Sold my red horse for a venture home; to vanish on the bow, settling slow. Fit it all, fit it in the doldrums or so the story goes.” Most say that these lines are intended metaphorically, with the red horse representing a car, but I don’t think singer-songwriter Justin Vernon would mind a literal interpretation this time, since he asks us to “color the era, film it. It’s historical.” “Lump Sum” ends with an attitude of “We’ll see.” Thankfully, in this case, Joey is sold to Emilie’s grandfather, and in her honor, he allows Joey to make the journey home with Albert.
10. ON MY WAY by Ivan & Alyosha from the album Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
At last the war is won, Albert and Joey are headed home, and Morpurgo’s novel reaches it final page. “On My Way” by Ivan & Alyosha celebrates all these things. And it does so while also addressing the bittersweet nature of it all: “Well, I gave my best or so it seemed, and with God I have made peace.” I hope that is true for Albert and Joey. But to know for sure, I guess I’ll have to dive into the sequel! For now, I’ll settle for giving the duo a proper send off by singing “I’m on my way back home” at the top of my lungs like a happy soldier.
Just for fun, here is one more from my old buddy Conan O’Brien. This happens to be my favorite scene in the War Horse film, and this new score is the closest thing we’ll get to soldiers singing in this movie!