When Robert Service arrived in the Yukon in 1905, he was a lowly bank clerk. When he left in 1912 on the last boat of the season, he was a celebrated author.
In between, he penned three books of verse and a best-selling novel. His poems, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” have become standards worldwide. With royalties flowing in, he was able to quit his job at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Dawson City and move into a small log cabin on Eighth Avenue. Today, that cabin is a national shrine.
Service never came back to the Yukon. He travelled widely, eventually landing in France the following year, where he married a Parisian woman and finally established some roots. They had settled comfortably into married life, and he had published another novel when war was declared.
Service tried to enlist, but was rejected, he said, on account of both age and medical grounds. Subsequent to that, he served as a war correspondent for the Toronto Star (he was nearly shot under suspicion of being a spy), an ambulance driver, and later, and intelligence officer for the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
He volunteered to serve as a driver in the American Ambulance Corps. While doing that, he saw the harsh reality and the cold brutality of war. He witnessed the wounded and dying, the mutilated and the bleeding, first hand.
After he left the ambulance corps due to a prolific case of boils, he penned a book of poems titled “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.” This book, which remained at the top of the best selling list through 1917 and 1918, was heralded as the work of a legitimate poet who got into “the trenches, the hospital and the camp.”
Service’s wartime poems did not address the big issues of the war or dwell on jingoistic sentimentality. Nor does he write about the officer class. Instead, he focused on the ordinary soldiers in the trenches on both sides of the conflict.
According to James MacKay, a Robert Service biographer, “It is a chronicle of man facing mortal danger with dour resilience, of romantic impulses inspired now by loyalty and comradeship.” It was for this reason that this small volume of poems had such universal appeal.
“The Man from Athabaska” is about a soldier drawn away from the wilderness of northern Canada that he loves so much, and to which he dreams of returning.
“The Ballad of Soulful Sam” tells of a religious man filled with devotion, fervour and boundless copies of religious tracts he is eager to hand out to his fellow soldiers. A thick ream of these tracts stops a sniper’s bullet and saves his life, while ironically a deck of cards in the vest pocket of another soldier serves the same purpose.
“The Twins,” a poem about brothers, relates the good fortune of John, who stayed at home, took his brother’s job – and his girl, while James returned missing a limb, destined for alcoholism and an early grave.
“Jean Desprez” tells of a barefoot boy who offers water to a dying French soldier nailed to a church door by his German captors. For his kind act the little boy is forced by the German major to shoot the suffering French soldier. The poem concludes when the little boy, who even at his young age sees the glory of France, turns the gun on the Prussian major and shoots him instead.
Robert Service was not a social activist by any stretch of the imagination, yet his poetry connected with a mass audience the way no other wartime author did. The universal appeal has not faded over the decades since the poems were first written. In 1971, folk musician, Woodstock veteran and anti (Vietnam) war advocate Country Joe McDonald adapted nine of Service’s poems to music and recorded them for a solo album titled War War War.
I had not heard of his solo war album until it was shown to me by a friend in Vancouver some years ago. To hear the poems of the Bard of the Yukon adapted for music by a prominent anti-war advocate was a revelation to me.
Spurred on by my current interest in the centennial of World War I, I contacted Country Joe McDonald about this remarkable melding of poetry and music. I asked about the source of his inspiration for this musical adaptation of Service’s wartime work.
He told me that he came across “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man” quite by accident. In 1965, he was working for a small firm in Los Angeles that breaded fish sticks. On the way to catch a bus after work, he bought an old copy of the book, complete with coloured plates, that he happened to see in a small book store. Time passed and he became a folk singer; in a fit of inspiration, he put the poem “Jean Desprez” to music and performed it at local hootenannies, where it proved to be a popular selection with its dramatic surprise ending.
“The music hit me one day,” he said. “I had a melody that would really work on that [poem Jean Desprez]. In the preface of his book, Service mentioned his brother, who was killed in the war. He was also scarred by what he saw as a stretcher bearer.” It took McDonald many performances of the song before he could finish it without tears.
When performing overseas, both “Jean Desprez” and “The Man from Athabasca” resonated with audiences and both became regular numbers in his performances.
“I’m delighted he came into my life,” said Joe, who still enjoys singing his songs – and Service’s verses. After 35 years, he still gets the same response from his audiences while performing them.
I pointed out an obvious parallel between the careers of the two artists. Service was a humble man who created his masterful rhymes, but wasn’t into social activism. His rhymes exposed the essential human condition and stood on their own merit.
The same could be said about Joe, whose performances moved millions: “I’m the guy who sings the songs and points out the wrongs,” he said, “but not the guy who fixes things. I’m more of the Greek chorus.”
Yet a century after the poems were written, they are still poignant statements. In recent concerts, McDonald has compared the Athabaska tar sands with the desolation of wartime no-man’s-land. Service’s poem “The Man from Athabaska” is yet again bridging the generations and drawing attention to a contemporary issue.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org