Written by Kelly Morgan, N-YHS Intern, Ph.D. candidate, Drew University
Propaganda posters weren’t the only means of transmitting popular sentiment to the American public during World War I. Sheet music, both for popular songs and songs never even recorded, were ubiquitous in American homes. In the early 20th century, even the most popular songs sold far more copies of sheet music than recordings, and often recordings were released only in order to boost the sales of the corresponding sheet music. The burgeoning publishing industry—headquarters for which were located in New York City’s Tin Pan Alley—capitalized on the increasing popularity of music, both in recorded and printed forms. In the 1910s, ragtime, blues, and jazz all coalesced and contributed to a new sound that reverberated on the streets and in the home, accessible to anyone who could play the piano or purchase a recording. Sheet music echoed national sentiments, as seen through its evolution over the course of the war, from antiwar songs to supporting our soldiers “over there.” When selecting posters for our exhibition World War I Beyond the Trenches, we also examined a wide collection of sheet music from the era, of which eight selections are now on display in the gallery.
As we examined in a previous blog post, the Committee on Public Information was formed in order to convince Americans of the importance of supporting the war effort. After longstanding neutrality, many Americans were not only ambivalent to engaging in Europe’s war, they were openly hostile to it. While the CPI commissioned propaganda posters and sought to communicate support for the war effort through film and music, the publishing industry was mostly regulated by popular demand. As a result, several songs were published that established a clear, anti-war message and evoked the maternal image, so frequently utilized in pro-war propaganda posters, in order to convey opposition to the war. In “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” a mother mourns the impending draft and the inevitability of her son going to war. The chorus chimes, “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier/I brought him up to be my pride and joy/Who dares to place a musket on his soldier/to shoot some other mother’s darling boy?” Written to be played like a march, the song— written by Alfred Bryan—not only conveyed the image of America’s sons dying at war but also humanized the German soldiers that the CPI sought to villainize through the posters.
Shortly after America’s declaration of war, Tin Pan Alley responded to the new demand created by the widespread dissemination of pro-war propaganda and published songs that supported the war effort. One of the most iconic pieces of music to come out of this era, “Over There” resonated deeply with the American public and advocated rapid mobilization of men to join the ranks of the Armed Forces. “Johnnie, get your gun,” the song begins, and continues, “Make your daddy glad, to have had such a lad/Tell your sweetheart not to pine, to be proud her boy’s in line.” The chorus cheers, “Over there! Over there, Send the word, send the word over there! That the Yanks are coming!” Subsequent stanzas highlight the mother’s pride at sending her son to fight, and the song ends with the soldiers collectively cheering, “We’ll be over, we’re coming over, and we won’t come back till it’s over over there!”
“Over There,” written by George M. Cohan in 1917, gained so much popularity that it spent 11 months on the top twenty list, including five months at number one. More than two million copies of this song were sold, and it is still widely known today. The song was so popular that multiple versions of the sheet music were released. One highlights a chorus line of dancing soldiers, while the other pulled the iconic image from Life magazine—the infamous group of soldiers singing painted by Norman Rockwell.
Once the boys were “over there,” songs addressed the longing—and the uncertainty—that their loved ones experienced while they served. In “There’s A Little Blue Star in the Window (And It Means All the World to Me),” a mother contemplates the service flag hanging in the window, a symbol still used today to represent when a loved one is on active duty. The lyrics state, “there are stars in the high heavens shining/With a promise of Hope in their light/There are stars in the field of Old Glory/The emblem of honor and right/But no star ever shone with more brightness, I know/Than the one for my boy o’er the sea/There’s a little blue star in the window/And it means all the world to me.”
The technological warfare that American soldiers were faced with “over there” inspired songs as well. With visually compelling sheet music such as “Battle in the Sky,” “The Yanks with the Tanks (Will Go Through the German Ranks),”and “Trench! Trench! Trench!” the new methods of warfare resonated wit and piqued the interest of many soldiers who had not yet enlisted. Corporal Jimmie Shea wrote the official song for the U.S. Tank Corps: “We’ll go over the top, and we’re not going to stop/Until we’ve made those Boches all give in/When the captain gives the command, Come on, ‘Treat ‘Em Rough’ Gee won’t it be grand for the Yanks with their tanks/Will go thru the German ranks/and roll right through Berlin.”
Most songs, either implicitly or explicitly, incorporated images of the mother, sweetheart, or family waiting for their soldier to come home. Yet some songs addressed the women who sacrificed for the Red Cross. In “There’s an Angel Missing From Heaven (She’ll Be Found Somewhere Over There)” the lyrics paint a grim image:
“Picture the maimed and the dying/Picture the crushing of youth/Picture the blackness of fear, the doubt of virtue and right and of truth…There’s a Cross and it stands for Atonement /Bringing Hope to both you and me…There’s an Angel missing from Heaven/She’ll be found somewhere over there.”
The Red Cross nurses, assisting in the most devastating components of the war, are acknowledged in this song. Evoking the maternal image so prevalent in the propaganda posters we looked at in a previous blog, this sheet music not only recognizes the sacrifices that these women made but also brings the brutality of war into the home.
Just as propaganda posters reminded immigrants of their newfound “liberty,” sheet music called on specific immigrant groups, while also reminding them that their American identity supersedes all other identities. In “Welcome Home Laddie Boy, Welcome Home” a camouflaged ship arrives in the port, with cheering crowds greeting their soldiers while waving American flags. While “laddie” clearly refers to Irish Americans, and the imagery is reminiscent of welcome new immigrants to the New York port, the lyrics emphasize the innate American qualities that this soldier embodies: “for you’ve upheld his [Uncle Sam’s] starry banner/In the well known Yankee manner, You’ve shown all the world who’s who! Welcome home, Laddie Boy, welcome home/To the arms you left for arms across the foam.”
Several songs were directed specifically to the Irish American population. With an ongoing war for Irish independence occurring simultaneously to World War I, Americans felt it necessary to galvanize Irish American support for fear they may not want to fight alongside the British Army, against whom their families were fighting in Ireland. Recognizing their sacrifices for the American cause acknowledged the Irish population as “American” above all.
Armistice Day brought great celebrations, as seen through “Welcome Home Laddie Boy, Welcome Home,” and “Gee, What a Wonderful Time We’ll Have (When the Boys Come Home),” which both convey parades and a jubilant arrival to American soil. But the end of the war also resonated deeply for those who lost their loved ones while serving. “When God Turns the Trenches to Gardens Again,” written by Gilbert Tennant in 1918, is a devastating example of the pain and sacrifice felt by the millions of families who lost loved ones during World War I, on all sides.
“A father and mother sit close to each other, by the fire tonight/Both broken-hearted for they have just parted with one who had gone forth to fight.” The chorus rings, “When God turns the trenches to gardens again/And the bloom of the rose scents the air/When the fields are all covered with bright golden grain/Where our heroes have fought over there/Tho’ our hearts may grow heavy and lonely, for the loved one we cannot regain/Let our next generation be proud of its nation/When God turns the trenches to gardens again.”
The soldier’s sacrifice, and the family’s mourning, remind the nation to consider the price paid for the battles won.
Sheet music, both visually compelling and lyrically engaging, echoed the sentiments of the American people, both opposed to and in favor of entering the war. “Over There,” World War I’s most popular song, is still heard today in popular TV programs and can be thought of as the auditory equivalent of James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam poster. Yet while propaganda posters hung in prominent, public areas, sheet music retained the ability to push sentiments and opinions of war directly into the home. Resting on pianos, the sheet music gained a visual stronghold in the domestic sphere, and the lyrics resonated with Americans whose loved ones in some way engaged with the war effort, whether in the Armed Forces or the Red Cross. Galvanizing immigrant groups, acknowledging the technological intricacies of the war effort, and simultaneously celebrating the soldiers who came home—and mourning those who didn’t—music listened to the American people, as much as the public listened to it. Developing and responding to American demands and desires, this music would only increase in popularity during the aftermath of World War I, with the delineations among blues, jazz, and ragtime becoming more defined during the Roaring Twenties. The proliferation of music during World War I contributed to the burgeoning music industry as the 20th century marched on.