“Kabul town’s by Kabul river”, and they’re both an awful long way away from the England where Kipling’s audience lived. Plus ça change eh?
This song commemorates a real military disaster from 1879, in which a cavalry squadron lost its way while fording the Kabul river at night and got swept away; 46 men were lost, and only 19 bodies were found. Kipling’s poem takes a few liberties with the story, suggesting that it took place just outside Kabul and in the course of a campaign to take the city; in fact it happened near Jalalabad, seventy miles away, and the cavalry in question had been sent out to put on a show of strength and intimidate rebellious locals.
What’s particularly striking about Kipling’s poem, and gives it far more power than the rather grubby story it’s based on, is the personal framing: it’s spoken by a man who lost his best friend in the river and is now beside himself with grief. After a while, the refrain’s cheery repetitions -
Ford, ford, ford!
Ford o’ Kabul River,
Ford o’ Kabul River in the dark!
take on an oppressive, nightmarish quality: in his mind, you feel, the speaker is still at the ford of Kabul river in the dark, and perhaps always will be.
Peter Bellamy’s arrangement of this song (on Keep on Kipling) is brisk and tuneful, with an uncluttered fiddle accompaniment from Chris Birch; Bellamy’s uncompromising, caustic delivery works well, together with the Mixolydian mode of the tune, to stop things getting too jolly. For myself I didn’t want to take any chances, so I slowed it down a bit and added some percussive noise (which may be familiar from a recent shanty).