Monday, August 4, 2014

Looking back on WWI: Sting's "Children's Crusade"

Today, August 4, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the United Kingdom entering World War I. While I've blogged recently about World War I music written during the war here and here, today I thought I'd mention a slightly more contemporary song about World War I: Sting's "Children's Crusade."

Written in 1985 for Sting's first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles, "Children's Crusade" has several guiding allusions. First, the allusion from the title: a reference to a (perhaps apocryphal) medieval event in which children were recruited to fight or be missionaries in the Middle East and instead were sold into slavery. Using this as a reference point, Sting cleverly compares this event of cultural memory to the millions who died in World War I, arguing that those soldiers in World Ward I also were young children sent to a horrible end only to benefit rich men ("pawns in the game are not victims of chance," "corpulent generals safe behind lines"). The second allusion is the poppy flower ("poppies for young men") which has become a symbol for the close of World War I and the remembrance of the dead. Sting, however, also uses the poppy as a symbol for rampant opium addiction in 1980s, which can also be characterized as a campaign for rich people that valued personal wealth over human life.

Musically, the song broadcasts its tone starting with a verse in a minor key. The highlight, however, is the major-key chorus. The chorus bursts into being with a three-note descending motive taken from the verse (now translated into a minor key), accompanied by a saxophone imitating a triumphant military bugle call. While initially this change of musical tone corresponds with the lyrics ("the children of England would never be slaves"), the triumphant tone turns into sarcasm as the chorus wears on ("they're trapped on the wire, and dying in waves / the flower of England face down in the mud"). The children of England would never be slaves, yet they have been made slaves and are suffering.

Curiously, however, Sting does not make the modern opium addiction connection until late in the song. While I think that the lengthy saxophone solo in the middle captures the anxiety of war with its long crescendo and build-up, the final verse about the opium seems almost an afterthought instead of the point of the song, especially as the song ends strangely on the verse instead of the chorus. Perhaps Sting finishes the song with the unsettling minor key and not the triumphant, sarcastic chorus on purpose, however, to leave the listeners thinking about the problematic cases presented.

Thirty years after it was written, I think "Children's Crusade" continues to be an effective tool to cast light on the root causes of some of the atrocities that still  happen today. From the drug cartels in Mexico and South America to rampant corruption in India to continued use of slaves (especially in the sex industry) to low minimum wages here in the U.S., there are still many things in the world that are mostly about rich people getting richer at the expense of people who aren't them and don't have much choice in the matter. And sometimes, as in the chorus of "Children's Crusade," these things are trumpeted and spun as positive, which makes them even harder to spot and correct.

Vocab: minor, major, chorus, verse, motive, crescendo


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  3. Bravo!Well written! I just left the theater after watching, They Shall Not Grow Old. Beautifully done, Peter Jackson, bringing to the giant screen a glimpse of that chapter in history. Young men, as young as 16,were allowed to join the Royal Army as events developed towards England's involvement in WWI.