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Collection World War I Sheet Music

Observations and Conclusions

The Committee on Public Information's "war for the American mind" centered on patriotism, democracy, the assimilation of all into a unified America, and as the agency gained in influence and power, attacks on enemies and suppression of dissent. Much has been made here and elsewhere of the CPI's overreaching attempts to control information, but it was not the only stakeholder in the nation's ideological battle and a variety of influences may be found in the songs. Anti-autocracy and songs advocating internationalism (i.e., foundation of a league of nations) follow the ideology of Wilson's progressive liberals, while more virulent, aggressively militaristic songs conform to the agenda of groups like the conservative National Security League. The concerns of many types of special-interest groups may be found in examples like anti-bolshevist and Zionist Jewish songs.

29. Are They Equal In the Eyes Of the Law? Some songwriters found self-publishing the best option for production and distribution of controversial, socially-conscious songs.

If one were to count the virtual absence of German-American songs and, at least until 1919, songs that could be construed as negative or dissenting as de facto suppression, it may be said that subject matter in the sheet music collection is consistent with the CPI's objectives. It is simple to explain this conformity with commercially published music, safely playing to acceptable sensibilities that would sell. The more elusive indicator of how the message was received by the public may arguably be gauged by the extent to which popular songs like "I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Slacker" are imitated and patriotism, democracy, unity and home dominate the amateur vanity press songs, and to a slightly lesser extent, manuscript deposits.

30. A Soldiers Wife. This tale of an unfaithful wife is an example of "personal/experiential" songs to be found through thoughtful examination of manuscript deposits and vanity press publications. One can only speculate upon the source of the lyricist's inspiration.

To say that the collection displays an overall conformity to prevailing national attitudes does not mean that variances, side-topics or alternate views are not to be found. This brief survey cannot comprehensively address the breadth of topics or discuss the many vantage points from which they were addressed. Certainly there are different perspectives to be found, particularly in some of the self-published, vanity press and manuscript songs, where composers (or more accurately, lyricists) had less pressure to conform strictly to the norm.

One example of side-topics found in manuscript and vanity publications is a small collection of songs dealing with feelings of animosity surrounding the 1916-1917 Mexican Expedition (in which, Pershing pursued, but failed to apprehend Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa) and Mexico's (largely imagined) complicity in the Zimmerman Telegram. "So Long Mexico ('til we get back to you)", "On to Mexico" and their few brethren promise post-war retribution (which did not come) and a squaring of accounts.

Some non-commercially published songs can offer insight into historically significant topics, such as wartime operations of the nation's railroads. The aforementioned "The Conductorettes" documents women railroad workers, and the vanity press "We'll Keep the Tracks Safe For You" is perhaps the only known musical account of the 1917-1920 nationalization of the railroads.

Other pieces speak of personal experience and express realities of common themes other than those depicted by the mainstream. "Heaven", a manuscript written for the composer's sister, a nurse killed in the war, presents the disturbing reality that the young women serving at the front were just as susceptible to the war's violence as the soldiers they cared for. In the instance of the manuscript "A Soldiers [sic] Wife", the home-and-hearth song recounts a different sort of experience than is normally found in such songs: "All the time I've been at war my wife has drawn my pay / I was glad that I could do that little thing for her / but she had another brown1 that was always hanging round /and he spent the money that I sent to her."2

After the Armistice and the dissolution of the CPI, criticism and dissention returned; some unflattering songs like "What has Pershing Paid for Dead Man's Hill", an indictment of the causalities sustained in part of the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive, began to appear. Postwar hope and disillusionment show up in songs about the employment prospects of returning veterans and socially conscious songs, like the self-published "Are They Equal in the Eyes of the Law?" Anti-prohibition songs bemoan the approaching ratification and enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment.3

The insights to be gained from developing a familiarity with the Library of Congress World War I sheet music collection may help form a better understanding of the American people at a time when a diverse society was called upon to partake in a unified effort. The collection is a primary source for words-in-music both marketed to the public and written by the public. Its unique aspect is in the diversity of the collection itself; the commercial viability of music publishing industry songs, the sometimes agenda driven self-published songs, and the private-citizen vantage point of vanity press and amateur copyright deposits.

Most of the manuscript copyright deposits were not subsequently published and are the sole copies of these songs known to be in existence. It seems likely that the majority of vanity press songs are also probably the only extant copies, though we don't actually know how many copies of a given piece were produced or how they were distributed. These facts alone lead to the conclusion that the Library's collection contains not only the main body of the sheet music publishing industry's output during the war years, but also the world's most comprehensive collection of amateur American World War I sheet music. Any scholar who would understand the American public's attitudes and stances during the crucial years of 1917-1920 would therefore do well to take advantage of this vital collection.


  1. African-American (male). [Return to text]
  2. Carrie E. Baker and J.C. Evans, "A Soldiers Wife" (Martinsburg, WV), 1919. [Return to text]
  3. Ratified, January 16, 1919 - nationwide prohibition began January 17, 1920. [Return to text]