The song “Keep the Home Fires Burning” played a key role in maintaining the morale of soldiers’ loved ones back in Great Britain. The opening lines of the song describe how young men answered the call to arms and the sense of urgency with which they answered this call. “They were summoned from the hillside / They were called in from the glen.” Because the majority of the song is about wives and sweethearts on the home front, the opening lines present a nice contrast between the experience of the soldiers and their loved ones. The soldiers are performing their patriotic duty and their spouses and girlfriends are giving their men up for King and country. The lyrics even instruct the women on the home front with the words “let no tears add to their hardships.” The soldiers are marching off to war, and the song asks them to conceal their sadness while saying good bye.
It is extremely difficult to say good bye to a loved one, especially when it is uncertain if he will return. The song’s instruction to sing a lively song offers a great way to deal with the pain of separation. The true brilliance of the song is displayed in the following two lines—the beginning of this lively song. “Keep the home fires burning / while your hearts are yearning.” These lines encourage lonely sweethearts to devote their emotions to the hope that the soldiers will return. At the time, the metaphorical lyrics would have had a clear meaning: do not despair but keep the “fire” of hope alive.
The song’s powerful lyrics are enhanced by the harmonic elements of Ivor Novello’s music. When, in the verse, the lyrics discuss a breaking heart, an important musical moment occurs. One can hear the heart breaking as an unexpected high note suddenly draws the listener’s attention. Another harmonic phenomenon takes place upon the uttering of the word yearning that, although different in technique, yields a similar result. Here, the notes create a harmonic dissonance over the first syllable that resolves over the second. Again, the usual harmonic flow is interrupted, and you can hear the emotional tug of the loved ones yearning for the return of their young men. Yet a third harmonic point of interest greets the listener’s ears as the lyrics describe the young men’s distance from home. The notes over the words “far away” form an arpeggio, meaning that they break a large note interval into smaller groups. This effectively draws the listener’s attention to the distance between notes. The soldiers are far away and so, too, are the notes.