[Commentary] “Widows Are Wonderful” (1917): A Musical Find from the First World War

390301547799While researching the introduction to my book on the widow in British literature and culture, I stumbled across a tune from the First World War which illustrates perfectly some of the attributes which have rendered the figure of the widowed woman a popular and loaded one here in Britain, not only since the Victorian period (which is where my book begins) but also from as early as Shakespeare’s times. Luckily for me, someone was generous enough with their time and enthusiasm to upload a YouTube video of his playing the original record, and below you can find my transcription of the lyrics (with thanks to my partner, who – like me – had nothing better to do on a Friday night, apparently). The song was first performed as part of the popular musical “Yes, Uncle!”, which premiered at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre in December 1917. If you’ve happened to read my blog posts on widows in Victorian comic songs, you’ll quickly recognise that even over half a century later, the widow clearly remains marked out as a woman with sexual and marital experience, something which the song describes as “dangerous” yet attractive during a time when Britain’s widowed women daily increased in number. The song was so popular that the Royal Air Force was able to use its tune for the purposes of a song called “In Formation”, as Leonard Miller recorded in 1919.

Yes,UncleTo make this find even more exciting, I also managed to locate a recording of one of his writers in which, several years later (probably in the 1930s), he reflects on the content of the piece before performing a short part of it: “I was young when I wrote it”, Nat D. Ayer jokingly recalls. “I now realize that it depends entirely on the age and income of the widow”. But while the remark is certainly made with some humour, Ayer must have known he was hitting the nail on the head, at least when it comes to the ways in which the widow has been represented in British literature and culture for hundreds of years. The impoverished widow, again and again, is portrayed as morally rich but financially desperate, while widows with some but limited means are often depicted as scheming and manipulative. Rich widows, however, are usually powerful and attractive, not least because they tended to have power over their own estate and over whether they wanted to remarry or not. “Widows Are Wonderful” fits … well … wonderfully with the discoveries I’ve made so far. Apart from the lyrics to the song, I’ve embedded the recordings I mentioned above, including the track in which Ayer comments on this and some of his other songs. Enjoy!

 

“Widows Are Wonderful”

Music by Nat D. Ayer
Lyrics by Clifford Grey

Boys who are fond flirting
Are cautious [?], so they say.
A game they are quite expert in
Is kiss and run away.
Girls who blush and dimple
Are timid as a rose [?]
But the widow’s not so simple
For she always knows.

Widows are wonderful
You must admit they’re wise
They’ve got the eyes
Always hand you some surprise

Widows are marvellous,
They’ve got that kind of way.
If they’re short or tall,
the men are bound to fall, that’s all.

Widows are dangerous,
They’ve had experience.
There’s just so many turtle doves,
Single girls are much to tame,
But a merry little widow knows the game.

She’s beautiful,
She’s marvellous.
It’s the wonderful way she loves.

Some boys go to college,
And some to public school.
They cram themselves with knowledge,
But still they’re mostly fools.
Girls are prepossessing,
They may be sweet and fair,
But a widow keeps you guessing
And she gets right there.

Widows are wonderful
You must admit they’re wise
They’ve got the eyes
Always hand you some surprise
Widows are marvellous,
They’ve got that kind of way.
If they’re short or tall,
the men are bound to fall, that’s all.

Widows are dangerous,
They’ve had experience.
There’s just so many turtle doves,
She’s beautiful,
She’s marvellous.
It’s the wonderful way she loves.


 

References

Nat D. Ayer, “Oh You Beautiful Doll / If You Talk In Your Sleep, Don’t Mention My Name / Moving Day In Jungle Town / Another Little Drink / Let The Great Big World Keep Turning / Widows Are Wonderful / If You Were The Only Girl In The World”, All Our Own Work (World Records, 1978)

Clifford Grey and Nat D. Ayer, “Widows Are Wonderful” (1917)

Leonard Miller, Chronicles of 55 Squadron R.F.C and R.A.F (1919)

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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2 Responses

  1. 08/02/2015

    […] The show saw 626 performances, and its songs became wildly popular, including the comic piece “Widows Are Wonderful”. At a time when the number of Britain’s widows increased by the day, the song praises their […]

  2. 31/03/2016

    […] The show saw 626 performances, and its songs became wildly popular, including the comic piece “Widows Are Wonderful”. At a time when the number of Britain’s widows increased by the day, the song praises their […]

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