Guest Blog: Melanie Gall about the fascination of knitting songs
| Mon 4 Feb 2019
I found the first wartime knitting song by accident. I was programming a concert of historic popular music to perform overseas, and was searching an online song database for ideas. One of the songs that came up was, Knitting All the Day, a WWI-era Canadian tune, urging women to knit for their soldiers. I printed out the song, played it through on the piano, and was hooked. The song was charming and funny and as a knitter, I could instantly relate. I started to wonder: If there was one song… could there be more?
And the search began. I found the webpage of a fellow knitting historian, Karen Ballard, who had collected sheet music to several of the knitting songs and generously offered to share. I sent a London-based friend into the British Library to collect copies of several other tunes. I contacted librarians in Australia, the United States and Canada, as well as knitters around the world, several who had a song or two as part of their knitting collections. Seven years later, I had collected almost 100 songs from WWI and WWII - songs that, for the most part, were not recorded, and would otherwise be lost and forgotten.
So what were these songs about? Who wrote them and how were they used? The answer to these questions depends on the war.
In WWI, the songs were primarily written to sell sheet music. Music publishing was a huge business, both on Denmark Street in London, and on Tin Pan Alley in New York. Thousands of new songs were sold each year, and both lyricists and composers were constantly striving to come up with the newest hit. And when the Great War began, it was natural that a wide variety of related topics – including knitting – became represented in popular song. These songs were written by a mix of people: professional songwriters, church organists, even soldiers fighting overseas. The songs were primarily written for voice and piano, and were often simple enough for people to play and sing at home.
In WWII, the songs were performed on the radio and at supper clubs. They were meant to be listened-to more than sung, and were more melodically complex. These tunes were often performed by orchestras, and again, were composed by both famous musicians – such as Glenn Miller – as well as lesser-known songwriters.
Wartime songs ranged from positive propaganda (Knit Your Bit to win the war), to comic songs about overzealous (and underskilled) knitters at home and their unfortunate paramours overseas, to wistful ballads about lovers and children fighting across the sea. The songs are not just for knitters to enjoy – they represent an important and fascinating social history of the Soldier Girls at Home, knitting to help win a World War.
Internationally acclaimed vocalist Melanie Gall, from Alberta (Canada), has toured award-winning solo shows around the globe and is the host of the knitting podcast The Savvy Girls. She is the world's leading expert in historic songs about knitting and spinning. Bring your knitting to her scintillating show Stitch in Time: A Knitting Cabaret on Tue 5 Mar!