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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

War and Conflict

War has played no small part in the history of American song. Some of the nation's oldest folk and pop songs celebrate important victories, the experiences of soldiers and sailors, or the loss of loved ones.

The songs sung by soldiers themselves do not always deal directly with war. Often, they are popular or folk songs of the day that struck a chord with them, sounded good on a march, and encouraged participation. "The Girl I Left Behind Me" was sung by both sides during the War of 1812, and possibly the American Revolution, and remained popular with soldiers through at least the First World War, and is still sung today in other settings. The melody works well as a march or a dance tune, and is in the repertoire of many traditional musicians, such as the Virginia fiddler Henry Reed.

"Yankee Doodle" is easily the best known song that survives from the Revolution. It originated among British troops in the colonies in the mid-18th century before becoming closely identified with the cause of independence. For years before the American Revolution, it was common to set revolutionary lyrics to well known British melodies, and "Yankee Doodle" eventually acquired many verses that celebrated Americans and mocked the British. It was common practice to set new lyrics to familiar melodies in those days, and "The British Grenadiers," an early 18th century song that celebrates the deeds of British soldiers, underwent a similar transformation in the 1770s, when Dr. Joseph Warren, a Minuteman, set the words of his poem "Free America," to the tune of "British Grenadiers."

"The star spangled banner." Lyrics by Francis Scott Key, Music by John Stafford Smith. Philadelphia: A. Bacon and Co., [ca. 1815].

"The Star Spangled Banner," our national anthem, is easily the most enduring song from the War of 1812, but not the only one. "Jackson's Victory," also known as "The 8th of January," was a rousing fiddle tune composed in honor of the Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans. This tune remains a favorite with traditional fiddlers. In 1936, James Morris, later known as Jimmy Driftwood, used it as the melody for his song "The Battle of New Orleans." His original intent was to entertain and educate high school students, but in 1959, his song became a number one hit for Johnny Horton. "Hunters of Kentucky, or Half Horse and Half Alligator," a song from the War of 1812 that is much less well known than any of the above, may give us more of the flavor of the popular songwriting of the time.

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, distinctive American musical styles had emerged, and a burgeoning music publishing business was busily serving consumers with sheet music. The songs of the Civil War are many and varied, and some are still quite well known today. Daniel Emmett published "Dixie" in 1859, and in its original form was not a war song, though Confederate soldiers often sang that they would "live and die 'for' Dixie," rather than 'in' "Dixie." "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" from 1862 remains a popular patriotic song today. Author Julia Ward Howe set her words to the melody of "John Brown's Body, "a well known abolitionist song from just before the war. Several other songs of the Civil War remained popular well into the 20th century, such as "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and "Marching Through Georgia." Most popular of all, though, was Henry Bishop and John Howard Payne's "Home, Sweet Home," written nearly forty years before the war and widely known throughout the North and South. Long after the war, Civil War songs were still being sung. In 1938, Sidney Roberston Cowell recorded "The Battle of Antietam Creek" from Warde H. Ford of Central Valley, California for the Library of Congress. The song tells of two brothers fighting on opposite sides of the war.

The brief Spanish-American War inspired only a few songs. "The Battle of Santiago" commemorated the decisive battle in Cuba in the summer of 1898. The most popular song among American soldiers is said to have been "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," a major hit on sheet music just before the war. Recording pioneer Dan W. Quinn sang this version in 1897.

"Over there." Music and lyrics by George M. Cohan. London: Herman Darewski Music Publishing Co., 1917.

American songs of World War I are many and varied. The United States was neutral for the first 2 ½ years of the war, and many songs reflect American ambivalence towards it and opposition to entering it. The recording industry was serving the country's many immigrant groups by this time, some of whose members supported the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and songs reflecting a wide range of opinion were recorded in different languages. "Over There" is the best remembered American song of the war, and was revived during World War II. "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary," a song from England with no overt war content but which expressed a longing for home, was sung by English speaking soldiers throughout the war, and remains well known. Read more about the songs of World War I.

As in World War I, the United States remained officially neutral for more than two years after war broke out in Europe in 1939, though it provided material support to the Allies during this period. This time, there were fewer published musical expressions of ambivalence about the war, or support for the Axis powers. It is worth noting that in its first published form, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" began with the words,"While the storm clouds gather across the sea …" a reference to the worsening political situation in Europe. This verse, which is rarely, if ever, sung today, and tells listeners to appreciate the freedom of the United States. In this form, the song was occasionally sung by isolationists who opposed American entry into the war. After the U.S. entered the war in 1941, the verse was usually omitted, and the song took on its more familiar form.

World War II inspired American songs in every style, and many were national hits. The most popular songs tended to be comic, like Spike Jones' "Der Fuhrer's Face," or sentimental, like Dinah Shore's "I'll Walk Alone." Glenn Miller and other bandleaders played familiar marches such as "The American Patrol" in jazzy swing arrangements. "The Martins and the Coys" was a hit of the 1930s about an imaginary country feud based on the real-life Canfield and McCoy clans. Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, a young Pete Seeger re-imagined the song, and had the two families forgetting their differences to fight the Axis. "When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World" was a major hit in 1943. The image was both poetic and pragmatic: when people no longer had to endure wartime black outs, it would be a sign that peace had come.

The Korean War was viewed with ambivalence by many Americans. There were few comic songs. Many dealt with the feelings of soldiers so far from their homes. Some hailed General Douglas MacArthur in the wake of his dismissal by President Truman. The war inspired many anti-communist songs, as well as songs that dealt with nuclear weapons.

The lengthy Vietnam War inspired many songs that either supported it or protested against it. Barry McGuire's hit "Eve of Destruction" contemplated nuclear annihilation as one outcome of the war. Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" was an even bigger hit. Sadler co-wrote the song while serving in Vietnam. Many other soldiers wrote about their experiences. "Da Nang Lullaby" is one soldier's account of "Operation Rolling Thunder," the beginning of direct combat between the United States and North Vietnam. "Jolly Green" deals with helicopter warfare. In "Tcepone," a young bomber pilot describes a mission in Laos that went awry. These soldiers wrote and sang mainly for other soldiers, and none had the success that Sadler did, but their compositions are a vital legacy of the war.