Parlor Songs in search of popular American Song


Songs of the Great War, Vol. 2

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. 2

1. Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts For Soldiers (m. Hermann Darewski, w. R.P. Weston-1914)

An enjoyable novelty song made famous by Al Jolson. During the war, knitting socks, sweaters, gloves, hats and scarves for the boys over there was an important home bound women's contribution to the war. A number of other songs during this time focused on the issue of knitting (or in this case, sewing shirts) were written but few other than this one reached hit status. In many of his shows, Jolson would offer $50 to anyone in the audience who could sing this song without a mistake. By prearrangement, he would have the orchestra speed up the tempo through the song, making it impossible for anyone to win the money.

2. Somewhere In France Is Daddy (w/m Great Howard-1917)

As with songs here, such as Bring Back My Daddy To Me and Oh, How I Wish I Could Sleep Until My Daddy Comes Home, some songwriters chose to tell the story from the point of view of the children who find it difficult to understand why daddy is away.  Although many of those songs fit the “tear jerker' category, this is a rousing march tempo in which the mother is telling her son that daddy is “fighting for home and country. Fighting my lad for liberty”. The sheet music attributes the song to “Great Howard”, which is a rather strange name; however, research shows that the composer was none other than Joseph Edgar Howard (1867 - 1961) a Broadway composer who wrote lyrics for a number of shows including Show Boat. Why he resorted to this odd pseudonym however is undiscovered by us.

3. Three Wonderful Letters From Home (m. James F. Hanley, w. Joe Goodwin and Ballard McDonald-1918)

Here we have a wonderful song about family and home. Having been in the service, we can attest to the importance of letters from home. It gets lonesome out there, even in peace time and I can only imagine how much more important it would be if I were sitting in a muddy trench with nothing but death and destruction around me. This song tells us about a soldier who receives three letters of love and support from home, one each from his mother, wife and daughter. It is another touching and well written ballad from the golden age of song.

4. Would You Rather Be a Colonel With an Eagle on Your Shoulder (m. Archie Gottlier, w. Sidney Mitchell-1918)

In the military, there is a big difference between officers and enlisted men, both in what is expected and what is allowed. These differences are summarized in this delightful novelty tune that has a father asking his son why he hasn't advanced in rank like other soldiers. The son replies that he'd much prefer remaining a Private because the officers must act with so much dignity that they can't get the girls. You'll notice on the sheet music cover that this tune was performed by Eddie Cantor. For those who remember him, it is quite easy to picture those rolling eyes as he sings this song.

5. We Don’t Want the Bacon (What We Want Is a Piece of the Rhine) (w/m Howard “Kid” Carr, Harry Russell and Jimmy Havens-1918)

Even back in 1918, before the creation of Madison Avenue, songwriters knew about marketing. As we chronicled in our 2008 article Where Does Music Come From, it's difficult to tell which came first, the melody or the lyrics. But, back in 1918, before radio and the widespread use of the phonograph, unless you went to the theater, you would not have heard many of the songs. It was when you went into the music store that someone would sit down and play a selection for you. Of course, the songwriter wanted to catch the eye of a potential buyer. Sometimes the attraction would be the beautiful art work of the covers. In this case, as with the previous song, it's the title that jumps out and grabs you. Imagine browsing the sheet music counter and seeing this song. The immediate reaction would probably be, “I've just GOT to hear this!”

6. Roses of Picardy (m. Haydn Wood, w. Frederick E. Weatherley-1916)

Picardy refers to the region in France just north of Paris. Weatherly wrote the lyrics while he was an army officer stationed in France in 1916. He reportedly wrote it after falling for a French widow in whose home he had sought protection. Among the earliest commercial recordings were those by Ernest Pike in 1917 and John McCormack in 1919. As late as 1967, Vince Hill had a top 20 hit with the song. There was also speculation that during World War II, the Germans were singing it in their own language, including the Bavarian Corps, Hitler’s rifle regiment.

7. When I Send You a Picture of Berlin (m. Dave Dreyer, w. Frank Fay-1918)

Born as Francis Anthony Donner in San Francisco, California, Fay was an American film and stage actor, emcee, comedian, best-known as an actor for having played “Elwood P. Dowd" in the play Harvey.  Jimmy Stewart played the role in the film version. Jack Benny stated that he modeled his early stage character on Fay. Dave Dreyer was a composer and pianist born on September 22, 1894 in Brooklyn, New York. He died on March 2, 1967 in New York City. He started off as a pianist with vaudeville greats such as Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Belle Baker, and Frank Fay. In 1923 he worked for the Irving Berlin Music Company. While there, he worked numerous film scores. He later became the head of the music department of RKO Radio. He left the Music Company in 1949.

8. When Yankee Doodle Learns To Parlez-vous Francais (m. Will Hart, w. Ed Nelson-1917)

One of the greatest novelty songs to ever come out of the First World War is this lilting and gay song about the difficulties and ultimate benefits of learning the French language. The music and lyrics to this song are absolutely perfect. The music, in a military quick time march style combines familiar melodies (Yankee Doodle) with new ones to create an outstandingly memorable melody; the kind that sticks in your head and just won't go away! The lyrics are humorous and fit the melody so well we can't imagine that two minds created the lyrics and melody rather than one. Sometimes a song writing team strikes gold and Nelson and Hart absolutely did so with this one.

9. I Don’t Want To Get Well (m. Harry Jentes, w. Howard Johnson and Harry Pease-1917)

Of course the boys over there were all enthused about coming home..or were they? Here is one guy who not only wasn't ready to come home, but he didn't want to get well either. At least until his “beautiful nurse” was ready to go. This is a great novelty song from the war that makes light of being wounded and adds some humor to an otherwise worrisome situation. Here we have a wounded soldier who has fallen in love with his nurse and is enjoying all the pampering she gives him. He says to a friend back home in a letter “She holds my hand and begs me not to leave her, Then all at once I get so full of fever, I don't want to get well”. We know you will enjoy this cute and original song. Another great duet by Rich and Debbie, based on a performance by Arthur Fields and Grace Woods.

10. You Keep Sending Them Over and We’ll Keep Knocking Them Down (m. Harry Ruby, w. Sidney Mitchell-1918)

Another aspect of the World War I song was that they were written not from the “high” vantage point of the Generals, but from the “worm’s eye” view of the ordinary soldier. Of course, the songwriters back in the U.S. did not actually see the death and carnage. It was easy for them to depict the soldiers as both supremely confident, calling for the Kaiser to “send on ev’ry Hun, no matter how tall. The bigger they are, the harder they fall”. One has to wonder how many of these “send 'em at us” songs the soldiers heard while slogging through the trenches and their reaction. Seeing all the death and destruction in their own trenches would probably cause them to want to say, “please stop sending 'em over!”

11. Just a Baby’s Prayer At Twilight (m. M.K. Jerome, w. Sam Lewis and Joe Young-1918)

The kids at home were important and many songs were written addressing that, like the fourth song on Volume 1, Hello Central Give Me No Man's Land, by the same songwriters as this one. Here we have the story of how prayers can touch you but this child's prayer for their daddy made them cry. It is a sweet ballad that we're sure touched many a heart. The number of heart rending songs about kids and their loss makes one wonder whether or not these songs were a subtle anti-war statement reflecting the suppressed anti-war feelings of a number of composers.

12. K-K-K Katy (w/m Geoffrey O’Hara-1918)

Another of the very memorable songs of the Great War, but one whose verses are largely forgotten. Canadian-born Geoffrey O'Hara was a multi-talented musician who, during the course of his life, was a songwriter, composer, singer, teacher, lecturer, army singing instructor, ethnomusicologist, pianist and guild organizer. His lengthy career began in the first decade of the 1900s with minstrelsy, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, and he continued to entertain audiences and arrange music as late as the 1960s. There are conflicting stories of how this tune came to be written. O'Hara himself, writing in Maclean's magazine in 1921, said he wrote the melody while stationed at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, teaching the American troops patriotic songs. However, the family of the Katy of the song's title (Katherine Craig Richardson) remembers it as being written in their living room in Kingston, Ontario, in 1917, and indeed this version of events is the best known. Katy was a friend of O'Hara's sister and O'Hara was particularly fond of her even after she married. Yet another version of events has O'Hara writing the song while visiting his grandfather in Kingston. In any case, K-K-K-Katy became an instant wartime hit and one that is still associated with Kingston. It was especially popular with American, Canadian and British servicemen and their families, so much so that the sheet music sold over one million copies.

13. It’s a Long Way To Tipperary (w/m Jack Judge-1912)

A British music hall and marching song. It is co-credited to, but not co-written by Henry James “Harry” Williams. It was allegedly written for a 5 shilling bet in Stalybridge, England on 30 January 1912 and performed the next night at the local music hall. Judge's parents were Irish, and his grandparents came from Tipperary. During the First World War the Irish regiment, the Connaught Rangers, were witnessed singing this song as they marched through Boulogne on 13 August 1914 by the Daily Mail correspondent George Curnock, who reported the event in that newspaper on 18 August 1914. The song was then picked up by other units of the British Army. In November 1914 it was recorded by the well-known tenor John McCormack, which helped contribute to its worldwide popularity.

14. Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag (m. Felix Powell, w. George Henry Powell-1915)

Written in London by George Henry Powell under the pseudonym of “George Asaf”, and set to music by his brother Felix Powell. The song was entered in a music contest for “best morale-building song”. It won first prize. Felix Powell served as a staff sergeant in the British Army. His brother George was a pacifist and became a conscientious objector when Britain imposed conscription in 1916. The song was recalled in the title of the 1932 Laurel and Hardy film Pack Up Your Troubles, where the duo are drafted and make a friend who dies during the war, then in its aftermath try to reunite his orphaned baby daughter with her family.

15. When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band To France (m. Edgar Leslie, w. Alfred Bryan and Cliff Hess-1918)

A clear “take off” on Alexander’s Ragtime Band, this tune even uses one of Irving Berlin’s musical phrases from the earlier song. If you try to Google any phrase that includes Alexander's Ragtime Band you'll get a return of thousands of pages about the 1911 Irving Berlin song represented by those words. The song was all the rage in 1911 and you can see in this song that the caché of the song lasted for many years after. A number of songs were written that capitalized on the fame of ARTB and this is but one of them.

16. Keep The Home Fires Burning (m. Ivor Novello, w. Lena Ford-1914)

The song was first published as Til the Boys Come Home on October 8, 1914 by Ascherberg, Hopwood, and Crew Ltd. in London. A new edition was printed in 1915 under the name Keep the Home-Fires Burning. The song became very popular in the United Kingdom during the war, along with It's a Long Way to Tipperary. James F. Harrison recorded Keep the Home-Fires Burning in 1915, as did Stanley Kirkby  in 1916. Another popular recording was sung by tenor John McCormack in 1917, who was also the first to record It's a Long Way to Tipperary in 1914. The song was included in the 1969 musical Oh What a Lovely War and in the 1970 musical film Darling Lili.

17. It’s a Long Way To Berlin But We’ll Get There (m. Leon Flatow, w. Arthur Fields-1917)

This song achieved instant success when published by Leo Feist, Inc in 1917. The title is reminiscent of the hugely popular British wartime anthem It's a Long Way to Tipperary, written in 1912. Unlike that song, which is still familiar today, this one has faded from our musical consciousness as have most songs of the war save the most impressive such as Tipperary and Over There. Flatow and Fields are also little known today however they were important songwriters in the early years of America's music. Flatow was a pioneer of film music,and played piano in Loew's first movie house. He composed theme songs for a number of silent films for Paramount. Fields was best known as a singer who recorded a number of songs after some success as a songwriter. His 1919 recordings with bandleader Ford Dabney may be the very first recordings of a white singer backed by a black band.

18. Somewhere In France Is the Lily (m. Joseph E. Howard, w. Philander Johnson-1917)

A beautiful juxtaposition by the songwriters that uses the symbology of the national flowers of France and England to describe the close ties between those countries during the war. The song was quite popular and recorded by many of the great singers of the period. The lyricist, Philander Johnson stepped far from his usual role as a journalist, humorist, poet, and dramatic editor to collaborate on this song. Aside from being saddled with what may be the worst first name of anyone, Philander's humor generated a number of humorous quotes, some of which are still used and most as true today as they were 100 years ago including, “Cheer up, the worst is yet to come”, “Don't throw a monkey-wrench into the machinery” and “Politics is the art of turning influence into affluence”.

19. So Long Mother (m. Egbert Van Alstyne, w. Gus Kahn, Ray Egan-1917)

Van Alstyne, Kahn, and Egan published this great war song for one of America's greatest performers, Al Jolson. The song expressed the sentiments of many a young man of the day and who better to belt this one out than Jolson. According to the sheet music this work was one of Jolson's greatest hits and seems to fit his style like a glove. Interestingly, though the sheet music shows Jolson as the performer and states it is “Al Jolson's Mother Song”,we are unable to find when and where it might have been first performed by Jolson or any record of him ever recording the song.  Perhaps he only sang it in live performances.

20. America, I Love You (m. Archie Gottlier, w. Edgar Leslie-1915)

Inspired by an early spirit of pro-war enthusiasm, Americans eagerly accepted patriotic messages portrayed in songs, allowing them to serve as strong vehicles for propaganda. Anti-war messages were replaced with songs such as I Did Not Raise My Boy to Be a Coward, and I'd Be Proud to Be the Mother of a Soldier.  Americans heard, responded enthusiastically to, and sang this tune. The song appeared in the 1940 film Tin Pan Alley in it's original form and it emerged again early in the Second World War, featured in a 1942 Castle soundie short. The 1942 version was done in the jazzy style of the early 40's and is no where nearly as inspiring. This was one of the most popular songs of its day. Here, Rich and Debbie are joined by two additional vocalists, Peggy Wooden of Anderson, Missouri and Phyllis Lippay of Coal Township, Pennsylvania. Our thanks to those two wonderful singers for participating in this project. This is a perfect rousing end to this two disc set.

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