Oliver's Army - rockers and Brits

There’s recently been a resurgence of popularity for Elvis Costello’s music, here at work, and this got me wondering about the behind one of my all-time favorite songs, Elvis’s Oliver’s Army . This is the song that features, among others, the infamous line “one more widow, one less white nigger”. (Note to mods: this is NOT why it’s one of my faves, nor am I advocating blowing anyone away.) Great tune; interesting lyrics.

Obviously, this is a protest song, but it isn’t clear what he was/is protesting. If I knew at the time the song was released, I’ve long since forgotten. So, the questions are; who is/was Oliver and what was so unusual about his army that it inspired this song?

Aaargh! Obviously, this was supposed to say “wondering about the STORY behind…” :smack:

It’s a bit of piss-off about mercenaries. I don’t think “Oliver” is anyone in particular.

From the FAQ pages of The Elvis Costello Home Page:

I presume the white niggers were the Irish. Cromwell is hated to the nth degree over here.


Since this is about a song, I’ll move this thread to Cafe Society.

moderator GQ

Holy crap! I thought this was about me. That would be a first.

Oliver Cromwell founded the New Model Army (the army, not the band), the original professional army in Britain. The song is about war in general, but from a UK perspective. Hence all the references to British wars and the British Empire (“Hong Kong is up for grabs”, “we could be in Palestine”, “we can send you to Johannesburg”). The general message is “wars are bad, mm’kay?”
But the world ain’t listening.

Interestingly, although not entirly relevent, Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland was the Originality of the phrase “By Hook or by Crook” as he invaded on the Hook Peninsular and was determined. Or Something.

Thanks, everyone. I looked at a site that billed itself as “the official” Elvis Costello homepage, but it was a different site than the one Kal found. All it had was the lyrics to the song. WRONG lyrics, oddly enough. I guess Elvis was saying he didn’t approve of Cromwell’s tactics and the British army hadn’t changed since Cromwell’s day. That’s pretty much what I wanted to know. :slight_smile:

I haven’t looked at the links but my feeling has always been that ‘white niggers’ is a reference to the working-class kids / soldiers in general (‘boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne …) and how they were used to further the empire, and those set to prosper from the empire.

So I assumed he was using ‘nigger’ to point up that enlisting in the army from the abject poverty of an urban existence is little different to slavery; eg. you have no vested interest or prospects but the boss will make money off your back …

How times change … errrr ….

During this part of his career, Costello was able to construct interesting songs from what appear to be almost random snippets of language.

So what’s “Moods for Moderns” all about?

From what I recall from research into my dissertation (jazz and blues influences on structure of fiction) and The Commitments, the Irish were often depicted as minstrel-style blacks in editorial cartoons earlier in the century.

To kind of quote Jimmy Rabbit (because I don’t have the book handy):

The Irish are the niggers of Europe. Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. Northsiders are the niggers of Dublin. Say it loud, "I’m black and I’m proud.