Top of page

Collection World War I Sheet Music

Major Themes

Cause, the Enemy and Ideals

Although the United States' ultimate reason for entering the war was Germany's declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, and although the single incident that most turned American popular opinion toward France and Britain was the sinking of the Lusitania, the manner in which submarine or U-boat warfare is depicted and the relatively few Lusitania songs in the collection may be somewhat surprising. Of the many songs about U-boats and submarine warfare, most characterize U-boats as malevolent mischief makers rather than as a plague responsible for the deaths of innocents on the high seas. Songs like "Oh, you U-boat!", "We'll Knock that Little U-boat High and Dry" and "We'll Seize their Boats That Sees Beneath the Seas" treat their subjects lightly, as a nuisance to be swept away. This flippant, sarcastic tone toward the enemy is, in fact, a motif that runs throughout the collection.

13. Old Satan Gets the Hun. The devil appears with Kaiser Wilhelm II in several songs. Religious and supernatural references are not uncommon in the collection.

"The world must be made safe for democracy", Wilson's famous quote from his April 2 war address, elicited negative responses from some Congressional opponents who decried ideology at the core of America's war message; however, it resonated deeply with the public. "Democracy Shall Live Forever", "The Yankee Spirit: Democracy Forever" and "Doom of Autocracy" are but a few of the songs, mostly self-published, vanity press or manuscript deposit that reflect favorable responses to Wilson's call. There seems always to have been a distrust of government in American culture. The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was born of resentment for being subject to legislation in which the British colonies had no representation. During the American Civil War the average Confederate soldier and citizen maintained that they fought to preserve their rights and way of life against the intrusive agenda of a "foreign" (northern) government. That America in 1917 was now at war to protect democracy at home and in Europe from Germany's autocratic, militaristic government perhaps stirred the American anti-government sentiment; it certainly provided something more direct and emotional than the condemning of violations of maritime law.

14. Lafayette (We Hear You Calling). The great hero of the American Revolution's memory helped rally support for sending troops to France in her hour of need.

Pressing the war against autocracy further, songwriters personified Kaiser Wilhelm II as the chief provocateur, villain and embodiment of the evil "Hun". He was satirized and ridiculed in all manner of scenarios describing his ultimate comeuppance in songs that uniformly display the combination of confidence and boastfulness that in modern parlance is called "swagger". Songs range from several humorous variations on "getting the Kaiser's goat" and "kick the Kaiser", to the damnation of "Old Satan Gets the Hun", to the blunt "We're Going to Hang the Kaiser".

One of propaganda's tools is the fear of a threat to national security and one's way of life, and perhaps the strongest tactic is to extend a perceived threat to the most elemental human unit, the home and family. This posed a particularly difficult challenge as the probability of a German invasion of mainland United States was remote. In fact, the distance between the North American continent and the war front strongly affected public opinion during the years of neutrality. The British were in a similar situation in 1914 and found that the "Bleeding Belgium" appeal brought them the first wave of volunteers. The threat to home and family, they discovered, could be successfully communicated through a proxy nation, a smaller one with similar culture and values that desperately needed help. At the time, "Bleeding Belgium" certainly found sympathy and publicity in America, but the amount of sheet music from 1917-1918 dedicated to Belgian orphans, the savage and brutal Hun and the destruction left in his wake, suggests that American songwriters seized on the British success and appropriated the sympathetic appeal in hopes of duplicating that success at home.

15. It Takes Your Uncle Sammy to Finish Up the Scrap. Once committed to war, it did not take long for American songwriters to promote the idea of a crusade-of-destiny.

The fact that France, being similarly invaded, was subjected to the destruction of the war's western front and was also the destination of American soldiers led to France as the setting for songs devoted to a noble and just cause: namely, the repayment of a long-held debt. The Marquis de Lafayette (Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, 1757-1834) had served with distinction as a major-general in George Washington's Continental Army, had negotiated for increased French support and was instrumental in securing Washington's critical victory at Yorktown. To say the United States would not exist if not for him, is generally not considered an exaggeration. It is difficult to find an account of America's involvement in WWI where his name does not appear (i.e., Lafayette Escadrille, Pershing – "Lafayette, we are here"), and the sheet music collection is no exception. The invocation of his name and the debt every American citizen owed his memory and his homeland was a powerful, emotional appeal.

The New National Identity

16. We’ve Called the Kaiser’s Bluff. Many cover illustrations emphasize the United States as an equal partner with traditional European powers France and Britain.

During the first week of April, 1917 the Wilson administration had no defined war aims or plans. It was assumed the United States would send food, industrial aid, and financial aid to Europe and mobilize the U.S. Navy, but if and how its army would be deployed was in question. And certainly, nowhere in the corridors of Capitol Hill or in public consensus was it thought that America had embarked on a crusade to "rescue" the Allies. The CPI's efforts to generate patriotic enthusiasm, particularly the "Four-Minute Men's" often rousing and inflammatory speeches (accompanied by "Four-Minute Singing" of patriotic songs) did much to turn public opinion to its particular ideology and songwriters quickly found a market for songs that expressed new "internationalist" ideals.

George M. Cohan was already a successful Tin Pan Alley songwriter and Broadway composer/producer when, on the day after war was declared, he composed what became America's iconic WWI song, "Over There". His earlier work had often displayed patriotic zeal (i.e., "The Yankee Doodle Boy (I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy)", 1904 and "You're a Grand Old Flag", 1906). "Over There's" bugle call chorus and stirring lyrics rank among his best songs. The song's success1 inspired imitations and helped spur the popularity of songs about American involvement turning the tide and winning the war. It may be difficult (and perhaps unwise) to distinguish these from the general term patriotic songs, but they speak to a particular mindset or objective, that of a confident nation establishing itself in the arena of world powers.

17. On Patrol in No Man’s Land. A seminal figure in the early development of jazz, James Reese Europe's "On Patrol In No Man's Land" is based on personal experience.

Throughout the collection, in songs relating to the international community, cover illustrations often reveal a subtext of arrival, legitimacy and belonging. Perhaps the best example is in songs of support for The Allies and the multi-national war effort. A recurring theme features variations on a prominent American flag bordered by the flags of other allied nations, particularly France and Britain. Though not as numerous, similar depictions may be found of Wilson and (General) Pershing and their counterparts.

In regard to Americans themselves being suddenly thrust into the European war, there are a number of often self-deprecating songs about the culture clash of American soldiers suddenly finding themselves in France. "I Wonder What's Ze Matter Wiz My Oo-la-la?" and "When Yankee Doodle Learns to "Parlez Vous Francais"" represent songs that depict the "education" naïve Americans receive in subjects like language and "exotic" French women, the most enduring being the postwar "How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm" (after they've seen Paree?). In return, the Americans gave to Europe what is arguably the greatest musical export of the twentieth century, jazz. The ‘jazz' songs in the collection are not necessarily themselves jazz, but are mostly about jazz. Songs like "When Alexander takes his Ragtime band to France" enthusiastically anticipate jazz's effect on their hosts.2

A Quest for Unity

Wilson and the CPI's call for national unity faced a unique set of challenges. Songs like "There's No Hyphen in My Heart", "America, Land of My Adoption" and "We Are All in the Same Boat Now" made a broad appeal to all ethnicities and races, but because of America's status as a nation-of-nations, the sensibilities of particular groups were acknowledged and addressed. Ethnic songs in the collection run the gamut from "Sons of Poland – Go Free Poland – Give Her Liberty" to ""Yiddisha Army Blues", but the greatest concentration of songs deal with three segments of the population that were variously distrusted, discriminated against or disenfranchised; African-Americans, Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans.

The pre-war years saw a growing presence and influence of African-Americans in American society. The great migration that began about 1910 brought millions from the rural south to northern industrial centers in search of employment and a better quality of life. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 as an advocacy and anti-defamation society and quickly became the "preeminent center of African-American ideals and influence."3 African-American songwriters Eubie Blake, W.C Handy, Clarence Williams and James P. Johnson, among others were active in Tin Pan Alley. Indeed, African-Americans are prominent in the ragtime and jazz songs, and are portrayed as purveyors of the new music.

At Wilson's request, W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP journal, Crisis urged African-Americans "to join heartily in this fight" and [maintain] "absolute loyalty in arms."4 With African-Americans now becoming accepted in American mainstream culture, their active recruitment brought a new type of song with titles like "The Colored Soldier Boys of Uncle Sam", "The Brown Skin Boys Are Coming", "When They Listed Colored Soldiers in the USA", "The Black Regiments" and "The Black Yanks Did Their Share". 5

18. Faugh-A-Ballaugh. Irish-American regiments served in the tradition of their renowned Civil War units.

The importance of Irish-Americans to the war effort cannot be overstated. In 1917, as today, more people in the United States claim either Irish or German descent than any other ethnicity. Irish immigrants were among the earliest colonists and had served in all of America's wars. During the Civil War Irish born or Irish-American soldiers fought on both sides, the Union being particularly dependent on them, with over 250,000 soldiers of Irish origin and many "Irish" regiments. After its peak in the mid nineteenth century, discrimination against Irish Catholics, the association of the Irish with urban gangs or corrupt politicians and the stereotype of the drunken, violent troublemaker lessened, yet still persisted. Many Irish-Americans still maintained ties with Ireland and anti-British sentiment associated with the Irish revolutionary period of 1916-1921 was strong (as expressed in songs like "Why Should the Irish Fight the Irish Army?"). Heritage and community are the rallying themes in "They're the Sons of the Sons of Ireland", "Goodbye, Mother Machree" and "Faugh-A-Ballaugh", while eagerness to yet again answer the nation's call characterizes "Finnegan at the Front" and "See Those Irish Volunteers".

19. Toney From Mulberry Will Do His Bit. A rare, respectful example of an Italian-American in the service of his country.

As for Italian-Americans: The unification of Italy in 1871 brought hard economic times to southern Italy and Sicily which resulted in the arrival of an estimated four million immigrants from 1880-1920, the majority arriving 1900-1914. Unlike African and Irish cultures which had been on the continent since colonial times, the Italian diaspora suddenly brought a hitherto unknown culture to the nation. The new immigrants faced discrimination in housing and employment and particularly in the south, open hostility. Because their customs and mannerisms were considered ripe for stereotype and ridicule, there are few Italian-American songs in which they are not the brunt of a joke. The serious songs there are, appeal not to the U.S. war effort, but rather in support of the Italian allies, with many songs in Italian (i.e., "Vivo E Combatto Sul Carso" and "'O Primmo Reggimento").

20. If You Must Go to War Bring the Kaiser Back

Attempts to appeal to both racial/ethnic demographics and to the nation as a whole, led to a curious double standard. Vaudeville perpetuated the stereotyping and condescending humor of the "coon songs" and "Dutch acts"6 of post-Civil War music halls. Many songs continued their characterizations of African-Americans virtually unchanged since the 1870s and with the American Indian population now in submission, they too became unwilling song caricatures. The cover illustration of "Big Chief Killahun" depicts an enormous Indian in traditional battledress and wielding a tomahawk looming over a cowering German soldier, "When Rastus Johnson Cake-Walks Thru Berlin" portrays a similar scene of an African-American soldier with a straight razor. Similar depictions of "Pats" (Irish-Americans) and "Tonys" (Italian-Americans) assailing the enemy in some "characteristic" manner or adjusting to army life (i.e., "They Don't Serve Spaghetti in the Army") abound. Given that many of these songs were written for performance on the Vaudeville stage, it is an interesting yet embarrassing irony that even America's stereotypes were made to contribute to the notion of national unity.

Curiously, there is an inexplicable absence of equivalent songs, either serious or comic about German-Americans. To be sure, there are songs by authors/composers with German surnames, but no body of work, either commercial publication, vanity press or manuscript appealing directly for German-American recruits or community support. Of the very few German-American songs, there is one manuscript copyright deposit that stands out as being particularly characteristic; "Yes, I Vas A German," a comic song, written in dialect about an immigrant, now a patriotic US citizen.

21. When Rastus Johnson Cake-Walks Thru Berlin. Despite experiencing the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans were still often stereotyped.

Repercussions of the American Civil War, barely more than fifty years earlier, posed another obstacle to national unity. The south remained politically and culturally divided from the urban/industrial north. Resentment and pride for the "lost cause" lingered. If the grandsons of the armies that engaged in the carnage of Antietam, Gettysburg and the Wilderness were to now join forces and fight a common enemy, the former Confederates would need affirmation and the feeling of being needed and welcome in the service of a government many still distrusted. Dixie, the term most associated with the Old South appears over and over in songs meant to bestow on the south a separate identity. In several instances, reunification songs recall the patriotism of the Revolutionary War with the use of Yankee Doodle rather than Yankee, a term that still garnered antipathy (i.e., "Dixie Land and Yankee Doodle Land are One and the Same Today"). The Civil War Semi Centennial (1911-1915) saw many commemorations that included the reconciliation of Union and Confederate veterans. "Sons of the Blue and Gray", "The Boys of the Blue and Gray" and similar songs sought to heal and unite through collected experience. At least for a moment in time the south could maintain its dignity and join the greater good.

Patriotism, Home and Hearth and the Role of Women

26. Will the Angels Guard My Daddy Over There?. Wife/mother, child and service flag in the window are all common themes in home-and-hearth songs.

In spite of the breadth of subjects found in the collection, the greatest number of items is concerned with the traditional wartime staples of country, home and women. The vanity press publications and manuscript deposits are particularly rich in these themes. Common patriotic themes include the flag, the call to duty, the virtue of freedom, support of President Wilson, and admiration for General John J. Pershing. The home and family is nuclear, the place that nurtured soldiers and the place they yearn to return, the preservation of which is their reason for fighting, their memories of and contact with their link to the normal in extraordinary circumstances.

If there is one outstanding feature in the patriotic songs, it is the ubiquitous presence of and references to Uncle Sam, the character that personifies the United States government. He had appeared under various names and in different guises since the early nineteenth century, but it was in the First World War that the tall, thin, goateed man in a red, white and blue suit finally became a universal symbol. Cover illustrations depict him as both a kindly and stern father figure, sometimes brooding, sometimes animated, sometimes stately and sometimes with sleeves rolled up, delivering the Hun his due. Also prevalent is the term "Sammies", a name given to American servicemen which failed to find its way into common use; the moniker that remained with the WWI American soldier was "Doughboy" (a term of older, nineteenth century origin that was replaced by "G.I." (Government Issue) during the Second World War).

27. My Country’s Calling Me. Another combination of oft-found elements; the female archetype calling men to war and the mothers who sent them.

Also uniquely American is the frequent appearance of service flags. Beginning in the First World War (and continuing to the present day) families of servicemen displayed flags or banners bearing a blue star for each member in the service; if a member died while serving, their blue star would be replaced by a gold one. The many songs of blue stars, gold stars and blue-turned-to-gold commemorate service and sacrifice of not just the servicemen, but also their families. These songs, as many of the home and hearth songs, can range from dignified to cloyingly sentimental, as in "We Loaned the Most of All", which recounts the story of a small boy who plans to build an airplane he can fly to heaven to be with his daddy.

Central to hearth and home songs and dominating the songs about women is the figure of the mother; the mother raising her son to do his duty, who sends him off to war, whom the soldier thinks of at the front and she of him, and to whom he returns, or not. Even wives are usually portrayed as mothers, comforting the children in father's absence or explaining why he will not come home. Sweethearts provide support and exhibit patience while exotic French women offer distraction and temptation, elicit homesickness for the girl back home and sometimes, genuine affection. Female archetypes are common in cover illustrations, including Columbia, Liberty and women of regal bearing in classical Greek dress. In song, Joan of Arc is invoked.

28. I Never Believed In Angels Until I Met You. Though the Army had its own nursing corps, it is the Red Cross nurse that most often appears in song. They are routinely portrayed as cheerful, brave and compassionate, but by today's standards, some songs could be considered patronizing.

As to the war effort, the number of songs about nurses eclipses all other women's war work. Although the Army and Navy each had their own nursing corps, it is the Red Cross nurse that most often appears in songs like ‘Smile of the Red Cross Nurse", "Don't Forget the Red Cross Nurses" and "The Angel of No Man's Land". Their proximity to the front and their continuous contact with combatants warranted portrayal as equal partners in the war effort. So much was their service valued that the cover illustration for "What Are You Doing for Him Now?" shows a nurse marching in step with a soldier and sailor before a phantom trio of patriots from Archibald Willard's famous painting The Spirit of '76.7 Salvation Army girls who made and dispensed coffee and doughnuts to servicemen are also commemorated in song ("Sweet Salvation Lassie: May God Bless You", "The World Will Learn to Love Her").

Despite the fact that women had gained more than a million jobs in administrative, clerical and manufacturing from 1910 to 19208, other war work or employment outside the home appears infrequently and usually only in self-published, vanity press or manuscript songs. The self-published "Uncle Sammy's Girls in Overalls" and two different manuscripts titled "The Farmerette" recount the contributions of the Woman's Land Army of America, a service organization that provided agricultural labor to replace men called to military service. A manuscript titled "The Conductorettes" and "dedicated to our soldier girls in railroad work" is an isolated tribute to the more than 100,000 women railroad workers during the war. Postwar demobilization threatened women's workplace gains as men returned to their peace time jobs and women faced workforce contraction and layoffs. A fitting response to this downturn may be found in "Why Shouldn't They Be Good Enough Now":

When our nation heard the call to arms, our men all responded as one.
They deserted factories and farms, to march against the Hun.
Our women folks got busy right away, now it's only fair that we should let them stay:

They were good enough to work upon our railways, the did ev'rything to keep our boys inspired,
They collected millions selling stamps and war bonds, they helped make the ammunition that was fired;
When called upon we always found them ready, to drive an ambulance or run a plough;
If they were good enough before to help us win the war, why shouldn't they be good enough now?

Just as long as this great world goes ‘round the women will stand ev'ry test.
When they're needed most they will be found, more than willing to do their best.
For justice and a cause they know was right, didn't mothers gladly send their sons to fight?

They were good enough to send their clothes to Belgium, and they made the mask that saved our boys from gas,
And on "No Man's Land" who served hot cakes and coffee, no one but the brave Salvation Army lass;
All humanity is thankful to our women, they were loyal, staunch and true to every vow;
We might have had a greater loss but for their work with the Red Cross, so why shouldn't they be good enough now?9


  1. "Over There" spent eleven months on the Top Twenty list, five of them at number one, and by war's end, over 2,000,000 copies had been sold. [Return to text]
  2. The differentiation between "ragtime" and "jazz", and to a lesser extent, "blues" is not as clearly defined in these songs as it has become today. [Return to text]
  3. Raymond Wolters, Du Bois and His Rivals (University of Missouri Press, 2002), p. 104. [Return to text]
  4. Crisis 14, June 1917, p, 59. - Du Bois' remarks met criticism from some of his contemporaries and he later expressed misgivings for the endorsement when the opportunities for advancement he perceived at the time failed to materialize. [Return to text]
  5. Despite these small gains, there were few African-American combat units, and African-Americans were usually assigned service/support roles until President Truman's 1948 Executive Order 9981 began desegregation of the Armed Forces. [Return to text]
  6. "Dutch" being a corruption of the word "Deutsch", acts would sing in dialect. Song subjects dealt with German-American cultural peculiarities, most often sentimentality and a predisposition for food and the opposite sex. [Return to text]
  7. The illustration is slightly incongruous with the song, as it asks the listener what they are doing to assist returning veterans, but the lyrics are all specifically masculine. [Return to text]
  8. Greenwald, Maurine W., Women, War and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p.14. [Return to text]
  9. Tracy, Elinore & Williams, "Why Shouldn't They Be Good Enough Now" (New York: Shapiro, Bernstein & Co.), 1919. [Return to text]