Chapter and verse: The surprising story of the song 'Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag'

Gerard Gilbert tells the story of a wartime tune that's become a modern hit

Thursday 04 November 2010 01:00

"Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,
And smile, smile, smile,
While you've a lucifer to light your fag,
Smile, boys, that's the style.
What's the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile, so
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,
And smile, smile, smile."

So runs the chorus line of one of the two great marching songs (along with It's a Long Way to Tipperary) of the First World War. And indeed able to afford a smile, or three, is Aubrey Powell, the grandson of Felix Powell, its composer. This Armistice Day at the Cenotaph, as the band strikes up Pack Up Your Troubles, more pennies will drop into Powell's bank account, thanks to his grandfather's foresight in retaining the rights to his tune.

In fact it has been a good year for Aubrey – what with the worldwide Dell computer adverts that samples his grandfather's ditty, as well as R&B singer Eliza Doolittle's hit single, Pack Up. "It pays for a few dinners", he says.

Pack Up Your Troubles is a culturally durable, as well as lucrative, song, transcending its Edwardian music-hall roots to live on in movie titles (including Laurel and Hardy's 1932 comedy of the same name), pop songs (by Richard Thompson and Eliza Doolittle among others), and even children's TV shows like Rugrats. One commentator has included it, along with Rock Around the Clock, My Way and Dancing Queen as one of the "songs that defined a century".

"What amazes me is that the song was written in 1915 and here we are, 95 years later, and it has become even more part of the English language than it was before", says Powell, who lives in London when he is not touring the world in his role as a film and rock concert director. "I remember watching TV at the time of the Wayne Rooney sex scandal. I was watching the news with Rooney going off to play Switzerland, and the newsreader saying, 'There's Wayne Rooney, packing up his troubles in his old kit bag.'"

Just as interesting as the song's permeation of the English language is its colourful, and ultimately tragic, history. It is a past Aubrey Powell only discovered after he inherited the rights to Pack Up Your Troubles from his father, Harley Powell, and with it a trunk full of mementos. "My father would never discuss this issue.I didn't know any of it at all", says Powell.

"This issue" was his grandfather's suicide in 1942 – but more of that tragic denouement later. Firstly we must revisit happier times in the booming music halls of pre-First World War Britain, where brothers Felix and George Powell, along with their half-sisters, were regularly topping the bill as "The Harlequinaders". They were also writing hit tunes – "very Edwardian stuff about tulips and daffodils" according to their grandson.

And then, in 1915, George Powell wrote a fateful lyric to which his brother Felix composed a melody. "I played the tune over to George", Felix would tell a journalist later. "He, without hesitation, pronounced it piffle. Having mutually agreed it was rubbish, it was consigned to a drawer labelled 'Duds.'"

The title of the song, of course, was Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, and it was saved from oblivion the following year when "as a joke" the brothers entered it into a competition set up by a Tin Pan Alley music publisher, Francis Day & Hunter, for a stirring marching song for the troops heading to the Western Front.

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"A few months later a wire came up to us at the Grand Theatre, Birmingham: PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES FIRST PRIZE. It gave George and me the best laugh of our lives", recalled Felix. "On the following Monday we put the song into our own show at Southampton in order to 'try it on the dog' so to speak. By the middle of the week we were as amused as we were delighted to hear thousands of troops singing it en route for the docks."

The song changed their fortunes overnight, says Aubrey Powell today. "They were pretty successful in the music hall anyway – they were managed by the same agent as Charlie Chaplin – but now they became a massive success. The song was recorded by many of the big stars of the day, and the money was rolling in."

At this point the brothers went their separate ways. While George became a pacifist and conscientious objector (and ultimately a Christian Scientist), Felix decided to go and do his bit on the front line, which in his case meant entertaining the troops. Felix's initial "amusement and delight" at the way soldiers would sing Pack Up Your Troubles on their way into battle, evolved into something more conflicted as the slaughter continued.

"He found himself in an interesting predicament", says Aubrey Powell. "It meant he was earning huge amounts of money back home while other men were dying at the front. He was singing and encouraging them to fight with this song, and I think it got to him. By all accounts he had a kind of nervous breakdown in the trenches. He found it unbearable."

Indeed the idea of encouraging men with "what's the use of worrying?" and urging them to "smile, smile, smile" as they prepared to be mown down by machine-gun fire or atomised by shells, must have been horrifying to such a sensitive man as he toured the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. Aubrey Powell still has his grandfather's tambourine, inscribed with the names of the various Flanders battlefields.

Despite having the extraordinary experience of being on the Rhine immediately after the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, and hearing British "Tommies" singing Pack Up Your Troubles on one side, and German soldiers singing it in German on their side (the song had become a hit in Germany too), Powell ended the war a broken man.

"Come the end of the First World War, my grandfather was a deeply disturbed person and couldn't write very well", says Aubrey Powell. He went to live in the hopefully named Peacehaven in East Sussex, and his brother came to join him. Wealthy citizens, they ran the local Peacehaven Gazette. Felix owned an estate agent, and they opened a theatre, the Lureland, where projects were tried out before they went to Brighton and the West End.

In the mid-Thirties Felix started writing his own musicals, and at the instigation of a famous actress of the time, Anne Croft (mother of Dad's Army creator David Croft), he wrote a musical called Primrose Time. Croft's star was waning and she needed a hit. Primrose Time opened in Brighton to favourable revues, and was due to go to the West End. With another war looming, however, backing was hard to come by; Felix was introduced to one William Quilliam – a well-known confidence trickster and gangster. "This shyster lent my grandfather a whole lot of money to put the show on in the West End", says Aubrey Powell. "Rehearsals started, and then just prior to opening there were problems with money and the whole thing fell apart. William Quilliam came to my grandfather and said, 'You've got to pay me the money back' – which he couldn't." Powell desperately tried writing some hit songs, but now in his sixties, he was out of touch with popular tastes. It was then that he started steal from his own estate agency. "By this time he was a member of the Home Guard in Peacehaven," says his grandson. "One day in 1942, he dressed himself up in his uniform, took a 303 rifle, went to Lureland, locked the doors, stood on the stage and blew his heart out."

The bitter irony was that, because of the war, Pack Up Your Troubles had become a hit again. "The royalties came in and the next year my grandmother paid off William Quilliam," says Aubrey Powell. Felix had been one of the few writers who hung on to the rights of his music – Jack Judge, the writer of It's a Long Way To Tipperary, sold his for £5.

But then that's the double-edged nature of Pack Up Your Troubles – the royalties from it always peak during times of conflict. "During the Vietnam War the royalties were enormous," recalls Aubrey Powell. "Felix was a trench rock star is the only way I could describe it. And as a result of that I think the song, and the proceeds of the song, haunted him."

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