Article World War I

Popular American songs that dealt directly or indirectly with World War I were on the market soon after hostilities erupted in Europe, and they trace the developing attitudes toward the war among Americans of many ethnic backgrounds, as well as the experiences of American soldiers and those they left behind.

The war quickly turned into a grim stalemate, and many Americans were probably glad to have had no part in it, though the U.S. was providing material support to the Allied cause. The war could be seen humorously from a safe distance, as in October of 1914, when Billy Murray recorded the comic "War in Snider's Grocery Store," a humorous description of a grocer's nightmare of a war that breaks out in his store among various European specialties from the Allied Forces and Central Powers. In "I'm Glad My Wife's in Europe," recorded by William Halley in December of 1914, a gleeful American husband gloats that his wife has been trapped in Europe by the war.

It's a long, long way to Tipperary
"It's a long, long way to Tipperary" by Jack Judge and Harry Williams. New York: Chappell and Co., [1912].

The most popular song of the early days of World War I, and one of the songs indelibly linked to it, was "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary." The song was a recent hit of the British music halls at the outbreak of the war, and was being sung by marching soldiers from the first weeks of the conflict. The song has nothing to do with war and is actually a comic account of a homesick Irishman adrift in London, but somehow it fit, and was picked up by English speaking soldiers throughout Europe. It quickly crossed the Atlantic, and the American Quartet recorded the song on September 15, 1914. Other versions followed, and even a sequel of sorts called "Tip-Top Tipperary Mary," recorded by the Peerless Quartet in November of that year.

Other recordings in the early days of the war speak to deeper feelings. In September, 1914, the Victor Military band recorded national airs of Belgium, Serbia, and Montenegro. The same group also recorded German martial music in the early days of the war, including a "German-Austrian Military Potpurri" in April of 1915. That same month, Emil Muench recorded "Watch on the Rhine," a still popular German song of the Franco-Prussian War from more than forty years earlier. Another popular British song, "Keep the Home Fires Burning (Until the Boys Come Home)," was published in October of 1914, and soon crossed the ocean, though no one in the U.S. was yet waiting for soldiers to come home. American singer Frederick Wheeler recorded one of several American versions the following year. By 1915, when the Powell Brothers won a British marching song competition with "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!," many tough battles had already been fought that cost both sides dearly, but the song caught on and, like others, crossed the Atlantic, where Edward Hamilton recorded it in December 1916.

The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine on May 7, 1915 was a turning point for American opinion about the war. One hundred and twenty four Americans were among the more than 1,000 dead aboard the passenger liner. Within a month, the busy Victor Military band recorded "National Airs of the Allies," a medley of anthems and national songs of France, Belgium, England, and Russia. The sinking itself was soon memorialized in song in Charles McCarron and Nat Vincent's "When the Lusitania Went Down," published within weeks of the event. In February of 1916, Frederick Wheeler recorded "Wake Up, America," which urged Americans to stand ready to join the fight.

R.M.S. Lusitania, hit by torpedos off Kinsale Head, Ireland
Detail from R.M.S. Lusitania, hit by torpedos off Kinsale Head, Ireland. Photograph of drawing, made for the New York Herald and the London Sphere, c1915. Reproduction number LC-USZC4-13285 . Prints and Photographs Division.

The U.S.'s position of neutrality was frustrating for some Americans who would have liked to aid the countries of theirs' or their family's origins. Recording companies had already been serving the foreign language markets within the United States for many years when war broke out, and war songs were recorded in most of the languages of the conflict. When Italy entered the war on the Allied side in 1915, many Italian immigrants journeyed home to enlist, and in July, 1916 Amelia Bruno recorded "Nu Riservista d'America (The American Reservist)." In June of 1918, Italian forces under General Armando Diaz, supported with American coal and steel, won a major victory over Austro-Hungarian forces, an event commemorated in a folksong recorded many years later by an Italian immigrant for the Library of Congress, "La Piave" (The Battle of the Piave River) . The last days of the war saw Italian forces commanded by Diaz defeat the Austro-Hungarian Army in northern Italy hastening the end of the war and enabling them to take Trieste. A few weeks after the Armistice, these events were commemorated for Italian Americans in two recordings that presented short dramatic scenes that mixed speech, song and sound effects: "Il primo sbarco delle truppe Italiani a Trieste (The Landing of the Italian Troops at Trieste)" and "Il plauso di Diaz ai vincitori (Diaz's Address to the Victorious Troops)"

Starting in April, 1915, Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire, one of the Central Powers, were subjected to systematic extermination and deportation by government forces. Some survivors found their way to the United States, and years later, their music, including songs dealing with this experience, were recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell for the Library of Congress, including "Derzor chollerenda." She also recorded "De le yaman," which was originally an old folk song and love song of yearning, but which today is associated by the diaspora of Armenians with the events of WWI and instead connotes a yearning for their lost homeland.

There had been no independent nation of Poland since the 18th century, and Polish land was under the control of both the Allied and Central Powers at the beginning of the war. Many Polish-Americans favored the Allies, and prior to US entry into the war, many Polish Americans traveled to Canada to volunteer there for the Allied powers. Some Poles in lands controlled by the Central Powers felt loyal to those governments, however. In May, 1918, Polish-American baritone Józef Kallini recorded: "Dumka żolnierza (A Soldier's Dream)" and "Piosnka Wojenna," which describes the experiences of young Polish man in the serving in the Uhlans, a Polish branch of the Austro-Hungarian army.

In March, 1916, Lewis J. Howell recorded "The Canadian Guns," a tribute to the large force sent to Europe by Canada. The line "they're saying in the trenches that we saved the British line" may be a reference to the Second Battle of Ypres the year before, when soldiers of the 1st Canadian Division were the only Allied fighters able to hold the line during the war's first poison gas attack.

In 1916, Jacob Silbert, a Jewish actor and singer active in the Yiddish theater in Europe and America, recorded "Back From War," a song in Yiddish about the travails of a Jewish soldier in Europe, fighting on "while all the world is stained with blood." Several years after the war, Shloimele Rothstein recorded "Der Judische ligionerie," a Yiddish song that paid tribute to the volunteer Jewish Legion that fought in the Middle East.

Irving Berlin, soldier in World War I, does a realistic rendition of Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning
"Irving Berlin, soldier in World War I, does a realistic rendition of "Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning. " 1943. Acme Newspictures, Inc. photo. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

Norway remained officially neutral throughout the war, but favored the Allies, and her ships were a target of the German Navy, which sank almost 900 of them, killing more than 1,000 sailors. In June, 1917, Inga Orner, a Norwegian-born soprano based in New York recorded "Naar jeg kommer hjem," a version of "Keep the Home Fires Burning." On the other side of the disc she sang "Dengang jeg drog af sted (The Valiant Soldier)," Norwegian composer Edvard Greig's setting of a 19th century anti-German war song from Denmark.

President Wilson narrowly won re-election in 1916, campaigning on the slogan "he kept us out of the war." Though public sentiment was turning against the Central Powers in 1916, songs sympathetic to Germany were still being recorded. In August of that year, Julius Salay recorded "Vorposten an der italienischen Grenze (Outpost on the Italian Frontier)," which depicted a homesick German soldier on the Italian front; and "Nach der einnahme von Warschau (After the Taking of the City of Warsaw)," which celebrated the deeds of German soldiers in Poland and concluded with a round of "Deutschland Uber Alles," Germany's national anthem. Both were subtitled "Das Leben im Schützengraben und im Felde (Life in the trench and in the field)."

In April of 1917, the United States entered the war, and pro-war songs quickly proliferated. These included sentimental, humorous, patriotic and idealistic songs. Though it was not yet the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was recorded several times in 1917, with Irish-born tenor John McCormack's version being the most popular. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was revived. "Over There," by George M. Cohan, was the most popular and enduring American song of World War I. Nora Bayes' version may have been the best seller, but there were many versions, including one by Enrico Caruso who sang it in English and French. The Peerless Quartet cheerfully sang "I Don't Know Where I'm Going but I'm on My Way," while the more sure-footed American Quartet sang "It's a Long Way to Berlin, But We'll Get There."

Irving Berlin, soldier in World War I, does a realistic rendition of Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning
"Good-bye Broadway, hello France!"Words by C. Francis Reisner and Benny Davis, music by Billy Baskette. New York: Leo Feist, Inc., 1917.

With Americans of every background heading off to war, songwriters Irving Berlin and George W. Meyer published "Let's All Be Americans Now." In 1918, Berlin wrote the humorous "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," the lament of a weary soldier in training camp.

Many songs mentioned France, the destination of most American soldiers. Lambert Murphy declared "France (We Have Not Forgotten You)," which invoked France's contribution to American independence: "we know what we owe to you." The American Quartet recorded "Goodbye Broadway, Hello France," as the first American draftees sailed for Europe. Charles Hart sang of two lovers separated by war in "Somewhere in France is the Lily," while Elizabeth sang "My Sweetheart's in France."One of the most popular songs among American soldiers was "K-K-K-Katy," which told of a stuttering soldier who sings a serenade to the girl he left behind as he marches through France. Near the end of the war, Reinald Werrenrath recorded "The Americans Come," which depicted a blind Frenchman's joy when the sight of the American flag is described to him. Earlier, Werrenrath had recorded "Lafayette (We Hear You Calling)," and "Freedom for All Forever," an idealistic song based on the winning entry in a nationwide war slogan contest.

Marion Harris updated one of Irving Berlin's signature songs in 1918 with "When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band to France," which predicted that American ragtime music would make German troops dance instead of fight. Ragtime also figured in two songs that noted the contributions of African-American troops to the effort, though in a stereotypical fashion. Both "When Uncle Joe Steps into France" by Collins and Harlan and "The Ragtime Volunteers are off to War" (5960) by Van and Schenck depicted black troops marching to a syncopated beat as they headed off to war. Years later, a genuine African-American veteran of the war named John Bray got to record a song about his own experiences for the Library of Congress called "Trench Blues."

K-K-K--Katy by Geoffrey O'Hara
"K-K-K-Katy, " by Geoffrey O'Hara. New York: Leo Feist, 1918.

"I Don't Want to Get Well" told the story of a hospitalized soldier in love with his nurse. The Red Cross received a more serious tribute in "The Rose of No Man's Land," recorded by Elliot Shaw and Charles Hart near the end of the war.

The Austrian-born soprano Ernestine Schumann-Heink had been an American citizen for many years when war broke out, and strongly supported the American war effort with performances for troops and other charity work. In September of 1917, she revived the Civil War standard "Just before the Battle Mother" In the summer of 1918, she recorded "When the Boys Come Home,"as well as a vocal version of "Taps."

After the end of hostilities in November, 1918, the songs kept coming, some funny, some triumphant, some sorrowful. The Peerless Quartet now sang "Goodbye France," and on the other side of the same record declared "The Navy Will Bring Them Back." Arthur Fields wondered "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)." In "I've Got My Captain Working for Me Now," another Irving Berlin composition, a former private turns the tables on his commanding office. Henry Burr sang of "The Boys Who Won't Come Home." Harry Lauder, often a purveyor of comic songs, said, "Don't Let Us Sing Anymore about War, Just Let Us Sing of Love."

In 1920, more than a year after the end of the war, Lambert Murphy released two striking songs with strong religious overtones. "There Is No Death" was written by Geoffrey O'Hara, author of "K-K-K-Katy,"and admonished listeners not to think of the "poppied sod" of Flanders, Belgium where fallen soldiers lay, but of the glorified eternal life that was now theirs. The song was coupled with "Christ in Flanders," which described a religious vision on the former battlefield, another example of the varied and complex musical legacy of World War I.

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