Musically, the British have always oppressed the hapless Irish

November 30, 1993|By Terry Ross

IRISH-AMERICAN members of the Baltimore City Council want to prevent "Royal Regiments on Parade," a British military band, from appearing at the Baltimore Arena. As these politicians realize, Northern Ireland is British not because the people there despise the IRA and want to remain in the United Kingdom, but because British bands march and play in violation of the Geneva Accords on Music.

The British have long oppressed the Irish musically. From the Battle of the Boyne to the 1916 Easter Uprising, the British played stirring tunes like "The Campbells Are Coming." The Irish were determined and courageous, but their bands could manage only "Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder." The result was centuries of musical imperialism.

There are great Irish love songs and drinking songs, but Irish war songs celebrate defeat, not victory. Ireland has produced as many great military victories as it has great operas. "The Minstrel Boy to the War Is Gone," but he's coming home in a box. Against the British, who have won most of their wars, Irish musicians had no chance.

Like Britain, America has won most of its wars, and our history should inspire those who would free Northern Ireland from the power of British music. During the Revolution, British troops marched in formation to "Rule Britannia." The Americans hid behind trees and sang:

"Yankee Doodle went to town,

"Riding on a pony.

"Stuck a feather in his hat

"And called it 'macaroni.'"

The British were baffled. They didn't know whether "macaroni" was the name of the hat, the feather, the pony or the town. Inthe ensuing chaos, America won its independence.

The British learned a valuable lesson, and they nearly won the War of 1812. When their band played "God Save the King," the Americans thought it was "My Country 'Tis of Thee." The British burned the White House, and they would have sacked Baltimore if not for Francis Scott Key, who gave us an anthem too difficult for the British to sing. Never again did foreign musicians sully American soil with their alien horns.

During the Civil War, the Confederates enjoyed early success because of their strategic singing of "Dixie." Unfortunately for the South, General Lee insisted that it be sung at Gettysburg. The rebels sang, "I wish I was in the land of cotton," and then noticed that they were in Pennsylvania, hundreds of miles from the nearest cotton. They turned south, and the Union was saved. Later in the war, General Sherman heard the song "Marching Through Georgia" and said to himself, "Now there's an idea." The South never recovered.

Musical warfare grew more sophisticated in the 20th century. Hitler conquered most of Europe using Wagner. His best troops were the Siegfried Division, which sang much louder than its enemies. The Poles, trained in Chopin, found their pianos a hindrance on the battlefield, while the vaunted French "Maurice Chevalier Brigade" only waved straw hats at the Nazis before surrendering. Hitler knew the Allies would invade Normandy in ,, June of 1944. To embolden his troops, he had them listen to the entire "Ring of the Nibelung." However, after 17 hours of Wagner, the Germans suffered "opera shock" and the Allies gained a beachhead. Less than a year later, the war was over, but not before an appalling toll of deaths, injuries and sore throats.

Past musical success made America overconfident in Vietnam. We didn't realize that the Russians were secretly supplying our enemy with stirring music. Just before the Tet offensive of 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers were inspired by the "1812 Overture," while Americans heard "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I Got Love in My Tummy." We lost that war, but we resolved never again to commit troops without a clearly defined military objective and an overwhelming musical superiority.

The Persian Gulf War tested our musical resolve. The Iraqi army rolled through Kuwait to the sound of Saddam Hussein's own renditions of songs from the Broadway musical "Kismet." General Schwarzkopf knew that Americans disagree about music. Those who love rap hate country, and vice versa. Military intelligence persuaded Ice T to create a rap version of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." When the American attack began, Saddam Hussein inspired his troops by singing, "Take my hand, I'm a stranger in paradise," but when they heard Ice T scream, "Yo, bitch, I'm a m------------ country boy," Iraqis surrendered by the thousands.

Let the IRA learn from America. British power reached its zenith in the 19th century, to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan. America surpassed Britain when Ellington, Berlin and Porter overwhelmed Noel Coward. Northern Ireland will remain in the United Kingdom as long as the British overpower the Irish musically.

The recent "troubles" in Northern Ireland began in the late 1960s when the Beatles broke up. Alas, the Beatles remain popular to this day, while the Irish deploy Sinead O'Connor.

It's an uneven struggle. As Clausewitz said, "Four hairy guys beat a bald chick any day, even if one of them's dead."

Terry Ross is a Baltimore writer. The performance of "Royal Regiments on Parade" is scheduled for Dec. 8.

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