Gentle Men is Robb Johnson's contribution to the Vredesconcerten Passendale project, performed and recorded in 1997. The project is an annual event, whereby a singer/group is asked to create a work in memory of Passendale (Passchendaele). The album is a joint recording by Vredesconcerten Passendale and Irregular Records.
The two-CD set focuses on Johnson's grandfathers, Ernest Isaac Johnson and Henry (Harry) Robert Jenner, both of whom served in the war of 1914-1918 ("We'll all be home by Christmas, 1914", as Johnson comments in The Day Before the War).
Most of the songs are actually sung by Roy Bailey, a veteran folk singer who covers a lot of Johnson's work. Johnson sings a few, including The German Exchange, Noni and his Golden Serenaders and Nobody's Enemy. The ones from a female perspective - whether wives or the Unknown Sweetheart - are sung by Vera Coomans, a French woman with a delightful deep voice. The backing music, barring Johnson's guitar, is provided by Koen de Cauter and the Golden Serenaders, presumably a tribute group to Noni and his Golden Serenaders.
While there are a few duds (RSM Schofield is my Shepherd, for instance), this album is mostly amazing, veering between the hysterical and the heartbreaking (often in one song, such as When Harry took me to see Ypres).
Seeing an abridged version performed by Johnson and Bailey was a beautiful experience; by the end, Johnson and half the audience were in tears.
The last word on the project should go to Johnson:
"I wanted to present my grandfathers as people with lives either side of the war, not just as victims in uniform. They had aspirations, expectations, different lives, sunnier lives perhaps, before 1914, and although both survived the war, both men were, I believe, perpetually in its shadow. And I wanted to state, in solidarity with all the Erns and Harries who never came back, that each one of the dead was equally a unique individual, with an own story worth the telling, and as much to offer, and as much to lose... I believe we are not necessarily condemned to repeat the mistakes of history. I hope these songs are a small contribution to the process of remembering, understanding and learning."