280. ‘Two Little Boys’, by Rolf Harris

And so the 1960s, the decade that’s given us so much fine, fine pop music, so much invention, so much sonic expansion, comes to an end. With Rolf effing Harris.

Rolf-Harris-21

Two Little Boys, by Rolf Harris (his 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 14th December 1969 – 25th January 1970

Though in some ways, having a convicted sex-offender at #1 is actually a very appropriate introduction to the 1970s… Yes, let’s get this out the way at the start. Rolf Harris is currently serving a lengthy jail sentence for indecently assaulting several underage girls. (Of course, he’s not the last sex-offender that we’ll meet on our journey through the charts.) I won’t make light of it, because it’s not something to make light of.

To the song, then. Is it a novelty? Is it a ballad? Is it traditional pop? Music hall? All of these things? It’s a tale, as the title suggests, of two little boys. We open on a summer’s day, a back garden somewhere in suburban Australia. (Harris sounds extremely Australian here, especially given that he doesn’t really sing the song as much as he talks us through it.) Two little boys had two little toys, Each had a wooden horse… One boy, Jack, breaks his toy, and starts crying, upon which his little buddy, Joe, offers him a go of his own horse. When we grow up we’ll both be soldiers, And our horses will not be toys… If this were a movie we’d be rolling our eyes at some pretty heavy-handed signposting…

Fast-forward many years. The boys are now soldiers, at war. Cannon roared loud, And in the mad crowd, Wounded and dying lay… One of the little boys. But what’s that? From the fray dashes a horse. Yep, little boy number two… Did you think I would leave you dying, When there’s room on my horse for two…? The roles are reversed: Joe is now in peril, and Jack comes to his rescue.

It’s utter sentimental crap, perfect for the grannies at Christmas. But at the same time, goddamit, it tugs at something. It hits you right in the feels, for want of a better expression, when the marching drums and trumpets fall away, and Harris near-whispers: Can you feel Joe, I’m all a tremble… Perhaps it’s the battle’s noise? But I think it’s because I remember, When we were two little boys… Then we end with what sounds like ‘The Last Post’. It’s a celebration of male friendship, of non-romantic love, even if it does play to the very outdated idea that men can only express affection to one another on the battle, or sports, field.

‘Two Little Boys’ was written many years before, way way back in 1902. The lyrics about ranks so blue make me think it’s set in the US Civil War. Which automatically puts it high up the table of the ‘oldest’ chart-toppers. You’ve got ‘It’s All in the Game’, originally from the 1910s, ‘Lily the Pink’ from the 1870s, ‘Cumberland Gap’ from the mid-eighteen hundreds, and ‘I See the Moon’, parts of which date from the 1780s.

rolf-harris-little-boys-single-1969_360_a3e772a5f9b69012000b1851dcbd378a

It’s a song that brings about conflicting feelings. Cheesy; but somehow touching. Familiar, but also not a song you can play in public these days… In fact, it’s odd to look back at Rolf Harris’s career from a 2020 vantage point. Growing up in the nineties he was still a constant figure on TV – he sketched, he sang, he cracked jokes, he did his weird wobble board and played his didgeridoo. He was as Australian as Lamingtons (his biggest hit in the UK prior to his sole chart-topper was the Top Ten ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.’) And then he was disgraced and, to be honest, erased from history…

I was half-expecting to not find ‘Two Little Boys’ on Spotify, remembering the furore that R Kelly’s music caused when they reinstated it, as if he was the first pop star with a seedy past. But it’s there; and that’s only right. Harris is a convicted child molester, but his music was, and in some circles probably still is, popular. If people feel uncomfortable listening to it – completely understandable – they can choose not to. But the decision not to listen should be ours, not Spotify’s or HMV’s. That’s my tuppence-worth, anyway…

But enough of that, we should be focusing on the positives! We’re about to jump into the 1970s, the decade of glam, of disco, of punk and new-wave. I’m excited. You should be excited. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!

Listen to every number one from the 1960s (and the 1950s) here!

17 thoughts on “280. ‘Two Little Boys’, by Rolf Harris

  1. badfinger20

    This I never heard…terrible backstory.
    Now just for the song…This was number 1?

    I see how it could be special for kids who heard it.

    1. That it was number 1 for Christmas tells who it was aimed at – kids and grandmas. I’m not sure why or when the ‘Christmas Number 1’ became a big thing in the UK – it isn’t in the US, right? – but it means a whole lot of crap will be coming up at #1 most Decembers…

      1. badfinger20

        Ok…that makes sense. This one…out of all of the odd number 1s…maybe the oddest…but it makes sense when you just explained it.

        It is a very innocent sounding song and that is nice to have…it really is…of course because of the backdrop now it’s dark….and you know what UK Guy/Stewart? It shouldn’t be. It’s like nothing can be innocent anymore.

        I loved Puff the Magic Dragon when I was a kid…then I heard it was about getting high. You can’t win.

        Sorry I will get off the soapbox.

      2. I get what you mean, I do, and I really don’t like the ‘cancel culture’ that treats us like children who can’t separate a person from their art…

        Not that I think the crime should be taken lightly, or that famous people should get away with it… But, while I can live without Rolf Harris’s music, if you cancel every rock star that has had allegations made against them then you’d have a pretty sparse record collection…

      3. badfinger20

        Separating the art from the artist…sometimes you just have to. I like Woody Allen movies…I can’t help it…that doesn’t mean I agree with what he does or what he got accused of.

        It’s funny that some rock artists get by with it. Jimmy Page dating a 13 year old for years in the mid seventies…not a word.

        Oh one question if you don’t mind. Would you mind if I linked to one of our posts? I want to cover Everlasting Love…Since I listened to that on your post…that is my favorite version and I was giving enough time so I could cover it…way after you did. You made me a big fan of that song. I didn’t know it existed…that version.

      4. I think some artists just get too big to cancel… Jimmy Page would be one. Michael Jackson would be the obvious biggest one…

        Yes absolutely – share away. It is a great version/song!

      5. badfinger20

        Yes that is true.
        Ok man…it will probably be Sunday. I don’t like doing that until I ask. I appreciate it.

  2. It’s not as old as the American Civil War, Two little boys refers to the war fought between the USA and Spain over control of the Philippines and Cuba in 1898, a conflict that lasted just short of four months with total victory for the USA

    1. The song was written by Morse & Madden in 1902. There is some indication that the song referenced an incident recounted in the book “The Record of the Mounted Infantry of the City Imperial Volunteers” by Guy H. Guillum Scott and Geoffrey L. McDonell:
      https://archive.org/details/recordmountedin00unkngoog/page/n7/mode/2up
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_London_Imperial_Volunteers
      during the Second Boer War.

      Judging by this:
      https://www.turnerdonovan.com/booksPDS.aspx?stockNo=54936&mv=2&sn=0
      The writers held rank.

      Another suggestion is that it was based on Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Jackanapes:
      http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ewing/jackanapes.html
      The lines in the song “out from the ranks so blue” & “back to the ranks so blue” sounds like the American Civil War but, actually seems to refer to:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napol%C3%A9on,_Prince_Imperial
      and the Zulu war he died in.

      Definitely not the Spanish-American war. I just did a post about it, yesterday. It was barely ten weeks long and described as “pathetically one-sided”. That war was mostly naval battles and the only mounted campaign was with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill. If this song was about mounted cavalry, Roosevelt’s name would have come up in the song….or Rough Riders.

      1. Hmm… Yes, I knew it wasn’t as old as the Civil War, but I assumed that the lyrics referred to that conflict with ‘the ranks of blue’ line. Though I admit I hadn’t gone into detailed research on the matter… 1902 would work as a date for a popular song about the Boer War.

  3. Val

    This was a bloody annoying song, like many (all?) of his others. I loved watching Rolf Harris when I was a kid – his quick sketches were a joy – just a few lines that rapidly turned into something recognisable, they seemed like magic, so I associate him with childhood happiness. His later fall from grace really didn’t change my memories of him.

    The rhythm of this particular song is mostly what does my head in… it’s like a marching tune for string puppets (though I know its origins).

    And later he had to do the dastardly deed and record stairway to heaven… hahaha!! (But it gave Plant a laugh at least.)

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