Dumbells in Stereo

On June 15th, Jason Wilson, an award-winning Canadian reggae artist and musician/composer extraordinaire, put together a performance called “The Dumbells: Soldiers of Song” at Hugh’s Room here in Toronto. The show was based on the research he did for his book about Canadian military concert parties: entertainment units formed to boost soldier morale amid the mud, trenches, and cannon fire of the Great War.

From Library and Archives Canada: “‘The Dumbells’ Concert Party. Formed from 3rd Canadian Division in France. The entire company in their closing number of the show.”

As the narrator, local storyteller Lorne Brown said, the reason most of the audience had never heard of the Dumbells was because they were “Canadian legends”. The joke is we’re good at forgetting our own heroes and stars in this country. The Dumbells, having been on active duty, and experiencing poison gas, debilitating muck, and shrapnel wounds, provided a respite to the troops from the horrors of war while possessing a deep understanding of what their brothers-in-arms faced. Though keenly aware that their audience may not survive the next battle, the Dumbells boosted morale by skewering superior officers, injecting gallows humour into jaunty songs, and providing much needed vaudevillian comedy through sketches and female impersonators. In watching some of their songs and sketches come to life at Hugh’s Room, one could sense not only the humanity of the soldier/performers and the distance they must’ve felt from home, but also their very youth. One could imagine how desperate the need for such entertainment was when not set in a cozy neighborhood bar, but in a distant, unfamiliar and dangerous battlefield. Something about re-animating comedy from WWI, with what we know now of the battles of attrition and the huge casualties, added a layer of pathos to the words being spoken or sung.

Some who were part of the Dumbells (or other concert parties) returned to active duty and died overseas. Those who survived the war, however, continued to perform for the following decade. The Dumbells were hugely popular in Canada upon their return, and played London (Ontario), London (England), Brussels, and Broadway. They completed 12 cross-Canada tours, and made some of the earliest Canadian recordings for His Majesty’s Voice.

The same week we were introduced to the Dumbells’ story, however, we came across another piece of WWI history. We happened upon A Nerd’s World, a new gallery/camera sanctuary/design studio on Bathurst Street. (How can you not enter a place called A Nerd’s World?) On the counter, they had an original French WWI Verascope stereo camera and slides.

Soldiers in the trenches. (photo: Chris and Grace Hughes)

Soldiers in the trenches at Laffaux, along the Chemins-de-Dames, where the French suffered severe losses as part of the Nivelle Offensive. (photo: Chris and Grace Hughes, A Nerd’s World)

The slides were not taken to be art, they were to document the war.  But the stereoscopic images which have survived also bring aspects of WWI to life in a startling way. (Some of the slides have been rendered in 3D online here.) Like much documentary and journalistic photography, there is a sense of composition and timing to the slides. To photographers Chris and Grace (co-founders of A Nerd’s World), there was an obvious emotional value to both the slides and the camera used to take them. Their valuation of the images allowed the slides to reach a wider audience, just as Jason Wilson’s evaluation of the Dumbell’s place in Canadian and theatre history has allowed their story to reach a new generation.

It is simplistic to say that art helps people survive, but in the sense that the creation of art is an expression of emotion and an observation of one’s external and internal world, there is some truth to the statement. Creating or experiencing art can sometimes allow us to better understand the emotions or observations we struggle with, or provide distraction, catharsis, morale or comfort. Looking at and listening to art from WWI lets us gain an understanding of what the art originally expressed, creating an immersion of experience we don’t always get from history books.


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