Dunkirk Despatch Rider – Original Song on Baritone Resonator Ukulele

This song is based on the memories of my father, who was a Despatch Rider at Dunkirk, and on my memories of the effect that it had on him every day of his life for the next 54 years.

I am posting this here on 31st May 2017, so here is an account of events on 31st May 1940, Day 274 of World War II:

Day 274 May 31, 1940

Operation Dynamo. After the carnage of German bombing of the last 2 days, cloudy weather restricts Luftwaffe activity & the Admiralty returns the modern destroyers to Dunkirk. Despite the clouds, French destroyer Leopard and British destroyers HMS Express, Icarus, Keith & Winchelsea are damaged by German bombing. The evacuation continues in full swing embarking 68,014 Allied troops including General Lord Gort, commander of the BEF (45,072 from Dunkirk harbour & 22,942 off the beaches). http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk/10169745.stm

In addition to the British small craft, 39 Dutch coasters (that escaped the German occupation) assist the evacuation, saving a total of 22,698 men during the whole operation.

French destroyer Sirocco and Cyclone are torpedoed by German Schnellboote. Sirocco is then sunk by German bombing with 180 crew and 700 men of the 92nd French Infantry Regiment on board (59 crew and over 600 French troops die). Sirocco goes down flying the 92nd Regiment’s colours.

14 miles Southeast of Lowestoft, England, Sloop HMS Weston sinks U-13 with depth charges (all 26 crew, are rescued and taken prisoner).

At 2 PM, U-101 attacks convoy HG-31F and sinks British SS Orangemoor carrying 8150 tons of iron ore 25 miles West of Guernsey (18 crew lost). 22 survivors are rescued by the Brandenburg and landed at London. U-101 is then attacked for 8 hours with 41 depth charges by the convoy escorts, but survives.

Source: http://worldwar2daybyday.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/day-274-may-31-1940.html

Songwriting and Instrument:

I started writing this song in April 2014 and kept getting completely stuck with it. At the time, I had a Tenor Banjo that I tuned DGBE (“Chicago Tuning”). I liked playing around with the sounds that I could make on it.  Be thankful that I am not going to inflict any recordings of that on you!

There was a sort of “sound effect” that, to me, sounded like a motor bike being started and revving up. That and the rather sad, spooky sound of the banjo is what started me off writing this song. It made me think of the stories that my father told about his experiences as a Despatch Rider during the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Somehow I could not quite get the song right.  I also felt that the sound of the banjo was not quite right either, not just that I could not play it well enough.

In April 2014, I was still very ill, recovering from a severe bout of Sepsis in late 2013. I had been too unwell to return to the weekly ukulele sessions that I enjoyed so much and was feeling very depressed.

Around that time I bumped into Kevin Parsons a couple of times in the street. He asked after my health and said that he supposed that I was at least enjoying myself at the ukulele sessions. I explained how unwell I still was and also that I missed playing ukulele at home and writing songs with Rita Morrison, who had died in 2011.

I think Kevin realised how depressed I was and he invited me to come around to his Guitar Workshop whenever I liked, to play ukulele with him. He said he had retired and had time on his hands.

It was a few weeks before I felt well enough to go around to see Kevin. I did not know him very well so I was not sure how it would work out. George Welch had introduced us in late 2007 or early 2008, when I was interested in having a ukulele made like the “heart hole” one that Kevin had made for him.  Although he lives only a few doors from me, we had not bumped into each other very often but, from the occasional chat, he seemed a nice enough guy.

Something that I did know until I started to visit him was that Kevin wrote songs. He was interested in the songs that I was writing and helped me out with a few of them. Nothing dramatic, the odd word change in lyrics or a chord change, but small changes that made a significant improvement.

Then I asked him if he would help me with Dunkirk. I explained that I had tried repeatedly to get it finished.  I had also borrowed different instruments from Kevin and other friends, not happy that the Tenor Banjo was the right instrument for this song, but had not thought to mention that my search for the “right sound” was in relation to “Dunkirk”.

So Kevin helped me in two ways. Firstly, he took my lyrics, rearranged them, edited them and added some of his own. He also took the “spirit” of the sound I was trying to get and came up with music that was far better. We worked on the song together by email and when we met for a few weeks.

I cannot tell now exactly which parts are Kevin’s and which are mine, because of the way that the final version evolved. There are some things that I know that I contributed, some that I know that he contributed but a lot more that were a joint effort.

This was my first experience of writing a song with someone else.  It really surprised me that the end product was not, as I expected, something where our different threads would always be distinct. Instead, it is for the most part more like a river formed by different streams, where the waters merge into one.

Where there is a distinct difference is that Kevin composed the music on Guitar and I needed to play the song on an instrument with four strings. The song needs an instrument with a low 4th string, ie. Linear rather than Re-entrant tuning.  We decided early on to “translate” the music to an instrument tuned DGBE rather than GCEA, which is where we come back to the Tenor Banjo.

In the course of writing the song, I explained to Kevin that I was not happy with the sound of the Tenor Banjo for this song.  I had tried a Ukulele, a Tenor Guitar, a Baritone Ukulele and a Tiple and none of them was quite right. We talked about it a bit more and Kevin said that the sound he thought I was looking for might be that of a steel strung, wooden resonator instrument with a Baritone Ukulele scale length, and that he liked the idea of experimenting with making one.

So he did. And that is how I ended up with this song and the sound that you hear on this recording.

"Dunkirk Despatch Rider" North Terrace Acoustic Session 13 March 2016. Liz Panton. Baritone Resonator made by Kevin Parsons

“Dunkirk Despatch Rider” North Terrace Acoustic Session 13 March 2016


This recording:

Played on Baritone Scale Steel String Resonator Ukulele tuned DGBE. Live at The North Terrace Acoustic Session 222 on 13 March 2016. Recorded and broadcast by http://www.chatandspinradio.com

Chords and Lyrics:

(Easy Ab: Capo 1st fret, play chord shapes for Key of G).

{t:Dunkirk (Ab – DGBE – Simple Version)}
{st:Words and music copyright Liz Panton and Kevin Parsons 2016. For Harold Panton 1918-1994, Despatch Rider, Dunkirk}
{c:Easy Ab: Capo Fret 1, play as if in G.}
{gc:EADGBE: play riff on EADG strings.}
{c:GCEA: Play in C or C# for same riff pattern.}

{c:INTRO – RIFF x 4:}

{c:VERSE 1:}

[Ab] . You [Db]trust the [Ab]messenger [Db]
[Ab] . Who points the [Db]way to the rescue [Ab]boats [Db]
[Ab] . You [Db]trust the [Ab]messenger [Db]
[Ab] . Who points the [Db]way to the bloody [Ab]beach [Db]
[Bbm] . You’ll never [Ab]know . . .
[Bbm] . Why you were sent which [Ab]way
[C7] . When you run for your [Db]life you don’t stop
[Ab] . You [Db]trust the [Ab]messenger [Db]

{c: RIFF X 1}

{c:VERSE 2:}

[Ab] . You [Db]trust the [Ab]messenger [Db]
[Ab] . You [Db]trust him with your [Ab]life [Db]
[Ab] . You [Db]trust the [Ab]messenger [Db]
[Ab] . But you don’t [Db]know the [Ab]price [Db]
[Bbm] . Maybe you’ll be [Ab]saved . . .
[Bbm] . but there’ll be a [Ab]cost . . .
[C7] . In mother’s [Db]sons born to be lost
[Ab] . You [Db]trust the [Ab]messenger [Db]

{c: RIFF X 1}

{c:BRIDGE 1:}

[F#] . And the [Fm]Despatch [Db]Rider . . .
[F#] . He’s got [Fm]tears in his [Db]eyes . . .
[F#] . Is he saving [Bbm]souls or is he buying [Ab]time? . . .
[F#] . And the [Fm]Despatch [Db]Rider . . .
[F#] . sees [Fm]death in the [Db]wheels . . .
[F#] . He can’t out[Bbm]ride the fear at his [Ab]heels . . . . .
[Db] . Muddy angel with [Ab]blast-torn wings
[Db] . Broken for his [Ab]country and King
[F#] . He can’t out[Db]ride the darkening [Ab]skies
[Ab] [x 8]

{c: RIFF X 2}

{c:VERSE 3:}

[Ab] . But [Db]he doesn’t [Ab]know [Db]
[Ab] . who’s [Db]drawn the short [Ab]straw [Db]
[Ab] . He [Db]only [Ab]knows [Db]
[Ab] . there’s nothing [Db]fair in [Ab]war [Db]
[Bbm] . Just a messen[Ab]ger . . .
[Bbm] . and he fears the [Ab]worst . . .
[C7] . The earth boils a[Db]round in cannon burst
[Ab] . Who [Db]can the [Ab]messenger [Db]trust?

{c: RIFF X 1}

{c:VERSE 4:}

[Ab] . Gone [Db]on the [Ab]run [Db]
[Ab]Drinking hard and [Db]keeping [Ab]low [Db]
[Ab] . Gone [Db]on the [Ab]run [Db]
[Ab]Never wants to [Db]see another [Ab]gun [Db]
[Bbm] . But he won’t for[Ab]get . . .
[Bbm] . and he can’t [Ab]hide
[C7] . From thoughts of the [Db]men he sent to die
[Ab] . Who [Db]can the [Ab]messenger [Db]trust? . . .

{c: RIFF X 2}

{c:BRIDGE 2:}

[F#] . Now [Fm]Despatch [Db]Rider . . .
[F#] . Wipe the [Fm]tears from your [Db]eyes . . .
[F#] . You saved so [Bbm]many and you told no [Ab]lies . . .
[F#] . And [Fm]Despatch [Db]Rider . . .
[F#] . right [Fm]by your [Db]side . . .
[F#] . Every soldier [Bbm]standing in the rising [Ab]tide . . . . . .
[Db] . Muddy angel with [Ab]blast-torn wings
[Db] . Broken for your [Ab]country and King
[F#] . Peace surr[Db]ound you as you sleep to[Ab]night. . . . . .

{c: RIFF X 3}

Chords to play in Key of G (to transpose to Ab either capo at 1st fret or tune up the instrument to D#-G#-C-F):

{c:INTRO – RIFF x 4:}

{c:VERSE 1:}

[G] . You [C]trust the [G]messenger [C]
[G] . Who points the [C]way to the rescue [G]boats [C]
[G] . You [C]trust the [G]messenger [C]
[G] . Who points the [C]way to the bloody [G]beach [C]
[Am] . You’ll never [G]know . . .
[Am] . Why you were sent which [G]way
[B7] . When you run for your [C]life you don’t stop
[G] . You [C]trust the [G]messenger [C]

{c: RIFF X 1}

{c:VERSE 2:}

[G] . You [C]trust the [G]messenger [C]
[G] . You [C]trust him with your [G]life [C]
[G] . You [C]trust the [G]messenger [C]
[G] . But you don’t [C]know the [G]price [C]
[Am] . So maybe you’ll be [G]saved . . .
[Am] . but there’ll be a [G]cost . . .
[B7] . In mother’s [C]sons born to be lost
[G] . You [C]trust the [G]messenger [C]

{c: RIFF X 1}

{c:BRIDGE 1:}

[F] . And the [Em]Despatch [C]Rider . . .
[F] . He’s got [Em]tears in his [C]eyes . . .
[F] . Is he saving [Am]souls or is he buying [G]time? . . .
[F] . And the [Em]Despatch [C]Rider . . .
[F] . sees [Em]death in the [C]wheels . . .
[F] . He can’t out[Am]ride the fear at his [G]heels . . . . .
[C] . Muddy angel with [G]blast-torn wings
[C] . Broken for his [G]country and King
[F] . He can’t out[C]ride the darkening [G]skies

Singer-songwriter, music-maker, organiser and unionista, bit of a geek, life long learner - there is always room for improvement!

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Posted in Ukulele Allsorts Recordings
One comment on “Dunkirk Despatch Rider – Original Song on Baritone Resonator Ukulele
  1. […] “Dunkirk Despatch Rider” is going to be my “opener” on the set list.  Luckily, there is no mention of Dunkirk in the song, so it fits just as well as a “Great War” Song. […]


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