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Songs of the Great War, Vol. 1

Rich Beil

World War One was a watershed event in the development of American (and European) popular and patriotic music. In 2000-1, we wrote a full set of articles that review the music of the period and if you've not read the articles, see the link at the end of this page to read them, see more music of the War and listen to other songs of the times.

As with all wars we have been involved in, there were differing opinions as to the righteousness of the war. Those opinions were reflected in the beliefs of various composers through their music. Though the overwhelming majority of songs were supportive of the war and extolled the virtues of our troops and our country, some composers protested the war with songs that depicted their disagreement with our involvement. No where is this difference more apparent in a pair of songs written on the same subject but from very different points of view. In 1915, while the fighting was confined to Europe, Al Piantadosi and Alfred Bryan penned the song I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier, a clear protest to the idea of sacrificing our youth to someone else’s war. By 1917 attitudes had changed. The lyricist of that song, Alfred Bryan, teamed with Harry Tierney to write an "answer" song It's Time For Every Boy To Be a Soldier.


Rich Beil, February, 2012


About the WW I Songs on Vol. 1

1. Over There (w/m George M. Cohan-1917)

The most famous and recognizable song of WW I. In 1936, Congress authorized a special medal for Cohan in recognition of all his patriotic songs and, in particular, this one. Given Cohan’s penchant for self-promotion, in his mind Cohan turned this into the Congressional Medal of Honor and it was portrayed as such in the 1942 bio-pic Yankee Doodle Dandy. However, there is no record or citation among the records of Medal of Honor recipients. This duet is a “reprise” of the one done by James Cagney and Frances Langford in that movie. As you can see, this famous painting by Rockwell (only two or three were painted by him) has been used as the cover image for our CD set.


2. Where Do We Go From Here (m. Percy Wenrich, w. Howard Johnson–1917)

A song of Percy's that made a lot of dough for him and yet is scarcely recalled today. "Curious thing about that one",Percy recalled, "Feist called me over to his office one day. Says, 'Percy, all the war tunes the boys sang in the past were just rum-ti-tum gags having nothing to do with fighting. Take 'Hot Time in the Old Town,' which was the hit of the Spanish-American War. Go ahead and knock one out and beat the rest of 'em to it.' So I asked Howard Johnson to do me a lyric. The next day he brought down a verse and chorus. 'It's lousy, Percy,' he said, 'But you can use it for a dummy, and I'll give you something better later.' It was 'Where Do We Go From Here?' a screwy lyric if ever there was one about a Broadway cabby who sang the refrain to his fares: 'Oh, joy, oh, boy, where do we go from here?' We never changed a line of it..


3. How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On the Farm (m. Walter Donaldson, w. Sam Lewis and Joe Young-1918)

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the population was still rural. Many of the “doughboys” had never been outside their home county when they were called up to serve. This song speaks to their transformation after seeing the “outside world” for the first time. This song, addresses a reality of life that was not only faced by individual soldiers, but to our country as well. Prior to the war, though we were involved in a number of conflicts, our country was quite isolated and we tried to stay out of the war. The war changed this country and our fighting men in ways that would never allow us to go back to the "old days." The sentiment here is that once your world opens up, it will never be the same. Once the boy sees the lights and sights of Paris, how can you ever expect them to want to go back to hauling hay bales.


4. Hello Central, Give Me No Man’s Land (m. Jean Schwartz, w. Sam Lewis and Joe Young-1918)

Another great song by this lyrics team. The effect of war on children and family played a huge part in the music of the war. The bewilderment and simple understanding of children makes for great musical story telling. This song was introduced by the great Al Jolson in the stage play Sinbad at the Winter Garden in New York. This same show also spawned the mega-hit Swanee by George Gershwin. Though Sinbad was a war oriented production, it managed to balance the war issues with plenty of other sentiments. The song tells the story of a child trying to contact her father at the war's front, unfortunately she has not yet been told, her father has been killed.


5. We’re Going Over (m. Bernie Grossman, w. Art Lange and Andrew Sterling-1917)

As we pointed out in our 2004 essay "Music as Propaganda", many of the songs written for the war use "we" in the lyrics, an effective strategy that allows direct participation by those singing the song. Plus the word "we" creates a group effort, a solidarity of thought and action, all goals of effective propaganda. This was a tune first recorded by the Peerless Quartet. Andrew Sterling was also the lyricist for “Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines Nellie”. The excitement generated by our entry into the war resulted in a number of "going over" songs that were meant to depict the positive attitude and belief that the war would be a quick one with few casualties. Later, reality proved otherwise.


6. Send Me Away With a Smile (m. Al Piantadosi, w. Louis Weslyn-1917)

Although Piantadosi would go on to write a number of patriotic numbers during the war, he was decidedly anti-war prior to U.S. entry in 1917. Although it’s unclear whether the young man in this tune has enlisted or been drafted, here we have the story of a young man who’s off to the war, explaining to his girl that it’s something he must do. He implores her to understand that he considers it his duty to go, asking “you would not have me stay behind” and wanting a smile from her as the last thing he sees so that he’ll have it to remember once he gets to the battlefield.


7. Oh, How I Wish I Could Sleep Until My Daddy Comes Home (m. Pete Wendling, w. Sam Lewis and Joe Young-1918)

One of the many “tear-jerkers” written during the war. The song was a hit for Al Jolson who was deeply affected by the First World War and sang a number of songs that spoke to the pain of loss and futility of war. His soulful singing style lent itself to this kind of doleful song and Jolson could play it up like few others could. This particular song is typical of his wartime efforts and speaks to the loss a child feels for a daddy who is "over there."


8. I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier (m. Al Piantadosi, w. Alfred Bryan-1915)

An example of the anti-war sentiment of Piantadosi mentioned earlier. This sentiment was not confined to this songwriter, however. Based on the horrific casualty figures coming out of Europe in 1914, American public opinion was in favor of strict neutrality. Many anti-war songs used the appeal of "the voice of motherhood, such as Don't Take My Darling Boy Away. The message came through loud and clear in the title of this song, which is subtitled "A Mothers Plea for Peace, respectfully dedicated to every Mother - everywhere". The lyrics preached to mothers worldwide that if they united in the cause, they could put an end to the fighting and save the lives of millions of young soldiers. This is especially noteworthy in this excerpt from the lyrics: "There'd be no war today, If mothers all would say, 'I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier'." The cover of the sheet music portrays exploding shells bursting around an old gray-haired woman protecting her son. This song adapted easily to a ragtime form (popular music style then) played by popular pianists, which enabled it to become widely disseminated, an important aspect of effective propaganda. In fact, the publisher Leo Feist boasted that more than 700,000 copies were sold in the first eight weeks.


9. It’s Time For Every Boy To Be a Soldier (m. Harry Tierney, w. Alfred Bryan-1917)

This song is an “answer” to the previous song and interestingly the lyricist, Alfred Bryan, has completely changed his mind about the war. The cover depicts Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, suggesting that America's decision to fight in World War I was morally and ethically equal to that of our own Civil War. Of course, it would take historians years to fully describe the subterfuges employed by Wilson to change public opinion and get us into that war. Note that the lyricist here is the same one who wrote the lyrics for the previous anti-war song. In some cases, these apparent changes of heart may have been driven more by the desire to sell songs and avoid censure than a true heartfelt change in political views. Perhaps political correctness began much earlier than we think.


10. Bring Back My Daddy To Me (m. Geo. W. Meyer, w. William Tracy and Howard Johnson-1917)

Another example of the wartime “tear jerker” . Here we have a beautiful song about a child who is about to experience another birthday but rather than conventional presents, she naively asks mother to bring daddy back home from the war for her birthday. The simplicity of a child's world comes through well in this tender ballad. If only it were so simple! The beautiful child on the cover is Madge Evans, "Famous Child Star - - World Pictures." Madge Evans was born in 1909 which would have made her all of eight years old when this song was published. The effect of the war on children as you can see, was a prolific source of music during this war.


11. Goodbye Broadway, Hello France (m. Billy Baskette, w. Benny Davis and C. Francis Reisner-1917)

Although there is no love lost between the U.S and France today, the lyrics here represent the deeply held conviction at the time that America owed its independence to the help given by France against the British. Many of the songs of the period focused on France and the comradeship that America and France shared. There seemed to be a bond that was further felt in W.W.II and has since faded. Nonetheless,there were plenty of heart felt good feelings towards France in appreciation for help France always gave us in our wars so we were happy to go help out at last. This song was one of the more successful "good-bye songs" and was performed as a part of The Passing Show of 1917.


12. And He’d Say Oo-la-la, Wee Wee (m. Harry Ruby, w. George Jessel – 1919)

This is charming comic song about a French lady and American soldier overcoming their language barrier in a delightful way! The lyricist, George Jessel had a long career stretching from vaudeville to motion pictures. A great comedian, in his later life he became known as "Toastmaster General of the United States" for his frequent role as master of ceremonies at political and entertainment events. This is a charming, comic song about a French lady and American soldier overcoming their language barrier in a delightful way! There were many such songs written during the war, almost all of them novelty songs. On volume 2, you'll hear one of the best,When Yankee Doodle Learns to Parlez Vous Francais.


13. I’m Going To Follow The Boys (m. James Monaco, w. Howard Rogers-1917)

These years were the pre-suffrage years in America and not only could women not vote but their participation in military affairs were severely restricted. As a result, their role and the subject of songs about them were focused on support and wishes to join them. THis is one of many outstanding songs on the subject. During the vaudeville era, there were many great male/female teams, such as the husband and wife team of Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes. Other performers would team with different partners at different times. There were two duets done of this tune that we could find, one between Billy Murray and Rachel Grant and another done by Henry Burr and Elizabeth Spencer.


14. The Rose of No Man’s Land (m. James A. Brennan, w. Jack Caddigan-1918)

A tribute to the American Red Cross. On the war's front lines, a huge role was played by the Red Cross. Family and friends at home who were worrying about their loved ones were grateful to The Girl Who Wore A Red Cross On Her Sleeve; little Mary Brown who grew up as a tom boy but; "Now She's Over There, giving up her life at duty's call, and the ones who used to sneer, are the first ones now to cheer, and the little good for nothing's good for something after all." One of the greatest classic Red Cross songs is The Rose of No-Man's Land, by James A. Brennan and Jack Caddigan published by Feist in 1918.


15. Tell That To the Marines (w/m Bernard S. Barron-1918)

A scornful response to a tall and un believed story. This phrase actually originated in England. Most of the early citations give a fuller version of the phrase - "You may tell that to the marines, but the sailors will not believe it". The cover shows a re-creation of the actual recruiting poster (at right), substituting Al Jolson as the fellow removing his coat, although Jolson did not enter the military and it's somewhat curious as to why. The first round of conscription in June 1917, took men between the ages of 21 and 31. Jolson had just turned 31 years old the previous month. By contrast, Irving Berlin who was just as famous at the time as Jolson, had turned 29 in May 1917 and was drafted. Go figure.


16. When You Come Back (w/m George M. Cohan-1918)

Although not as famous as “Over There”, this is another lively number by one of America’s greatest patriotic composers. Though Cohan wrote a number of war related classic songs none ever quite rose to the level of Over There, but many were still outstanding. In 1918 Cohan, like many of the composers, focused on the war's end and the hope of every family for the safe return of their loved one's who had gone off to fight the Hun. That year he wrote the typically Cohan optimistic, When You Come Back. This song was written as a sequel of sorts toOver There, but never reached the same popularity. Perhaps it's greatest virtue is the fabulous cover photo of Cohan surrounded by a terrific patriotic and colorful background.


17. Mother, Here’s Your Boy (m. Archie Gottlier and Theodore Morse, w. Sidney Mitchell-1918)

As mentioned above about I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier and It's Time For Every Boy To Be a Soldier, sentiment about the war changed dramatically between 1915 and 1917. Here we have a tune written just after the Armistice that ended the war that is expressing thanks, both to the soldiers who fought and to the mothers who made the sacrifice. Earlier songs about mothers' sacrifices focused on them gladly giving up their sons and in some cases husbands for the good of the country. Though the songs portrayed that willingness to sacrifice for America, the pain and sorrow of mothers' losses were rarely depicted.


18. You’ll Have To Put Him To Sleep With the Marseillaise and Wake Him Up With an Oo-La-La ( m. Harry VonTilzer, w. Andrew Sterling-1918)

A great war time tune by the team that brought us Wait 'Til the Sun Shines Nellie back in 1905. During the war, many of the American soldiers used to go out with the French girls nearby. As with the other "language" songs, the soldiers learned enough French to get by and came to enjoy some of the music of France. No doubt, the extent of language learned was directly related to the need for, ah-hem, female companionship. Those of us who have taken French in school, can probably relate to the essential phrases needed then and the ones we felt compelled to learn. This song from the World War I era lets the American girls know just what will be expected of them when their soldier boys return home.


19. You Can’t Blame the Girlies At All (m. Abner Silver, w. Alex Gerber-1917)

Not really a patriotic or "war" song, this cute tune tells why "ev'ry girl wants to marry a soldier". Because of his experience in the Army, a soldier makes the perfect "catch". He knows how to peel potatoes and scrub floors. He will protect them and even ask for a pass if he wants to go out with the boys. Coming home from the war with this type of training, you certainly can't blame the girlies at all. This novelty song has some clever lyrics and a tune that will stick with you for a while. The writers of this song were some of the lesser known songwriters who contributed to the war effort but in this case, their work deserves to be heard again and again.


20. ‘Til We Meet Again (m. Richard Whiting, w. Raymond Egan-1918)

Perhaps the first point at which reality began to set in about the war was at that point when it was time to say good-bye. At this point all the bravado is of no service. Soldiers, families and sweethearts must now look themselves square in the eye and face the prospect of never seeing each other again. Song after song was written about this aspect of the war but perhaps none so poignant and touching as this one. This song has survived as one of the greatest classics of all time. It became the generic "good-bye" song for any situation; war, graduation, off to school, you name it. If it was good-bye to someone special, this was THE song to sing. The words are touching and the melody is completely unforgettable. A duet between Rich and Debbie, this is perhaps the most beautiful ballad written during the war and certainly the most beautiful on this disc. Most recognizable by the chorus, like all songs done by Rich, we have included both verses. The beautiful accompaniment was arranged and performed by Rich.



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