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Two little boys, but in which war?

Rolf Harris performs Two Little Boys, in 1969 and in 2008
Harris sings Two Little Boys on Top of the Pops in 1969, and again 39 years on

Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine

Rolf Harris has re-recorded his 1969 number one Two Little Boys with a Welsh male voice choir to mark the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. But the song has roots stretching back to Nelson's death.

Rock legend has it that John Lennon sent Rolf Harris a telegram to congratulate him on getting an anti-Vietnam song to the top of the Christmas hit parade.

But in 1969, as in its forthcoming remake, the song seems to be set in the cavalries of World War I. So which war is it that Jack and Joe, the song's protagonists, are fighting in?

The song is a charmingly simple two-act story. In act one, the two little boys play war games on wooden horses - Jack's horse breaks, but Joe "rescues" his friend, saying "there's room on my horse for two".

Then, act two, after "long years had passed" and "war came so fast", the pair are in an actual war. Joe lies injured on the battlefield, but this time it is Jack who rescues him for real, trembling and explaining: "I think it's that I remember / When we were two little boys."

But Harris's initial response to hearing the song back in the 1960s was far from positive. "I thought it was really namby-pamby and awful," he said.

In the liner notes to The Definitive Rolf Harris, the singer recalls Australian folkie Ted Egan singing it to him, keeping rhythm by bashing his table.

Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport (#9, 1960)
Sun Arise (#3, 1962)
Bluer Than Blue (#30, 1969)
Two Little Boys (#1, 1969)
Stairway To Heaven (#7, 1993)
Fine Day (#24, 2000)
Source: Guinness British Hit Singles

"I was sitting there feeling uncomfortable and wondering what I was going to say to him about the song when he had finished, because he was such a nice bloke and it was such an awful song.

"Suddenly he was singing the line, 'Did you think I would leave you dying?' and all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and arms."

Harris then performed the song on his British TV variety show and recorded it as a single - "we had one spare track after take three, so we asked the trumpeter to re-record his bit and it gave the song a ghostly feel."

Thatcher's favourite

But Two Little Boys was not Egan's own composition - he'd learned it as a child from his mother, who knew the original music hall version, credited to Madden/Morse, turn of the century songwriters to Al Jolson. And since Madden and Morse were both American, this would seem to place the story in the American Civil War - better fitting the horses than Vietnam.

Splodgenessabounds' punk version (#26, 1980)
Billy Connolly's police brutality skit Two Little Boys In Blue
Sung by Spud following a funeral in Trainspotting (1996)
Country version by John Denver
A capella version by Sinéad O'Connor
Hartlepool United terrace anthem

And so it was that Harris had the last number one of the 1960s - a typically incongruous highlight of a career that has included musical experimentation with Kate Bush, fronting "hip" TV show The Young Generation With Rolf Harris, painting the Queen's portrait and overseeing the operations in Animal Hospital.

To some, the most unexpected highlight of all was Margaret Thatcher choosing Two Little Boys as a personal favourite, when she appeared on a radio show in 1979.

But it perhaps makes more sense than some other politicians' desert island picks - it's much more like a fondly remembered children's story than a normal pop song. And in fact, the tale of Jack and Joe bears a striking resemblance to an actual children's story - from 1884.

Male voice choirs do it for me every time. It reminds me of my proud Welsh grandfather
David R, Pontivy, France

In Jackanapes, by Juliana Horatia Ewing, childhood chums Jackanapes and Tony play on hobby horses at a fair.

Later, on a Napoleonic battlefield, Tony loses control of his horse ("Tony Johnson was always unlucky with horses, from the days of the giddy-go-round onwards"), but is saved by Jack ("Leave you? To save my skin? No, Tony, not to save my soul!")

And if the Peninsular War of 1807-1814 is also present in the song, then so too is an earlier battle: JH Ewing's grandfather was the chaplain on HMS Victory and had held the dying Nelson in his arms.

Nelson dying
Nelson's death. Is the man holding him the real inspiration for Two Little Boys?

The new version - conceived of while Harris was recording a documentary about his father's experience at Ypres - brings it firmly back to World War I, but it's the childish simplicity of the lyric - its namby-pambyness, if you like - that makes the tale of wartime compassion applicable to any conflict.

One thing is for sure - the combination of a male voice choir and battlefield bravery makes the new recording a prime contender for Things That Make Blokes Cry.


Thatcher: 'Did you think I'd leave you dying?'

Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor

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