World War One As Illustrated On Sheet Music

The pace of life in the second decade of the 20th century was one that was decidedly faster than those before. The automobile was already an established part of life and the airplane was finding a place in transportation beyond that of a novelty. Motion pictures were becoming competitive with the stage and advertising was becoming more inclined to send out modern, go get 'em messages. Popular music stayed right in step with this speed increase, Ragtime leading the way with syncopated, more complex rhythms and new musical directions that led to jazz and swing.

In spite of that, we were still a relatively naive and simple society. By the end of the decade, we found ourselves in a world war and when it was all over, we had lost our naïveté and simplicity, perhaps never to be found again. Popular music was in what we at ParlorSongs like to call the "golden age", a period when some of the greatest and most lasting musical ideas were put forth and where songs were churned out at a rate that made your head swim. Though it seems that popular musical creativity was at an all time high with an avalanche of hits such as Alexander's Ragtime Band, A Perfect Day, I Love You Truly, It's A Long Way To Tipperary, Moonlight Bay, Memphis Blues, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, By The Sea, I need to go on? You would think that no creative impetus was needed. Yet, the "War To End All Wars," W.W.I provided a catalyst that spurred on even greater creativity and energy than could be imagined. From that spark came a plethora of incredible music and art that some people say, actually helped win the war. This month and for the following two editions, ParlorSongs explores the development of American Popular Music during W.W.I and how it contributed to the war effort through patriotic means and how it helped people deal with the horrors and fears of war. As a part of this series, we will draw on a number of sources including an article written by Ann Pfeiffer Latella in 1988 for the organization, "Remember That Song" in Glendale, Arizona. We want to thank Ms. Latella and Lois of Remember That Song for their gracious permission to reprint parts from that article.

Of course, the war began in August of 1914 as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Heir to the imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenburg. From September to November of that year, Russia, Turkey, Britain and France were in the war. In early 1915, the war escalated and the submarine war began. In April of 1915, President Wilson declared he will keep America out of the war. At this stage, American popular music is still not consumed with the war but songs of other nations begin to focus on the war. The sinking of the Lusitania in May of 1915 with a loss of life of many civilians including Americans brings the war closer to home and though Wilson rattles a few swords, he still pledges to keep us out of the war.

By this time, American composers began to think about the war and a few songs began to appear that referred to the war. In many cases, perhaps most, the songs were romantic or even anti war in their sentiment (see Don't Take My Darling Boy Away in our feature this month). In 1914, very few American songs related to the war were issued. Some typical songs from 1914 were; Fido Is A Hot Dog Now, Missouri Waltz, Rebecca Of Sunny-Brook Farm, St. Louis Blues, and Twelfth Street Rag. However, a few songs did relate to the war.Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers and Good-bye Little Girl Good-bye by Cobb and Edwards even dared to contemplate the possibility of a soldier going off to war. You can hear the song and read the lyrics in our scorch format by clicking on the cover seen here ( Web-TV viewers, click here for MID version).

In 1914, Chas. K. Harris wrote When Angels Weep in which the lyrics remind everyone that we are brothers and that we should pray for peace. At this stage, Americans were divided into two schools of thought. Those backing Wilson's neutrality policy and those who believed we should help our friends with the fight. Songwriters are people too and their own positions can clearly be seen through the music they write,

By 1915, the war was more in the consciousness of America and more songs related to the war began to emerge. Still most were anti war such as the Bryan and Piantadosi song, I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier or even neutral, yet a few patriotic songs began to emerge. This is the year that Archie Gottler wrote the great patriotic march, America, I Love You and Chas. K. Harris wrote, When It Strikes Home. Frank Hudson wrote a response to I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier with his song, I Tried To Raise My Boy To Be A Hero. In spite of the escalating war, we still have the vast majority of our music ignoring the fact that hundreds of thousands are dying and suffering in Europe. Surprisingly, there are still German language titled songs appearing such as the 1914 issue Wien, Du Stadt meiner Traume and 1915's Auf Wiedersehn by Sigmund Romberg and Herbert Reynolds. Later, any name or thing German would not be very popular in America.

By 1916, more Americans were beginning to support the war and by May, hundreds of thousands of Americans were urging Wilson and Congress to declare war. Though Wilson threatened Germany with war in April, he still maintained neutrality for another full year. The biggest hits musically are still "neutral" songs and 1916 brought us some of America's greatest songs such as Nola, What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For, Have A Heart (Jerome Kern) and Poor Butterfly. War oriented songs start to become more popular and we see music such as Colonel Bogey, Bugle Call Rag, Mother, and Her Soldier Boy as well as a continuing anti war sentiment appearing in popular music. By 1917, it was becoming much more difficult for Wilson to keep us out of the war. The unlimited submarine war was risking American lives and despite promises to act humanely, Germany escalated the war at sea and in April asked Japan and Mexico to join her in the war. With the war consuming the rest of the world and calls for it to reach our border with Mexico, the United States finally declared war in April of 1917 and thus began a mobilization and war effort that was unparalleled in our history. In a matter of only a few months, America manages to recruit and train millions of soldiers and by June, the first American troops arrived in France.

As with most things, America dives into the war effort with a fervor and desire that consumed the nation. Composers scramble to write songs about the war and our part in it. The music industry jumps in full force and almost every song sheet back carries some sort of patriotic or war related message. Leo. Feist, Inc. is one publisher that focuses a great deal of energy on the role of music in the war, even going to the point of declaring that "Music Will Win The War". This sheet music back declares that and carries a long message about the role of music in the war. It makes fascinating reading and we are providing a link for you to a full size scan so you can read exactly why music was essential and music would win the war. To see a full size image, just click on the small image you see here. The key points of Feist's article are:

  1. A Nation that sings can never be beaten.
  2. America's war songs are spreading throughout the world and are being hailed as an omen of victory.
  3. Songs are to a nation's spirit what ammunition is to a nation's army.
  4. The producer of songs is an ammunition maker.
  5. There isn't anything in the world that will raise a soldiers spirits like a good, catchy marching tune.

Ok, so maybe they exaggerated a little bit, those are some pretty wild claims indeed!
By the way, the illustration of the soldiers singing is one of the few sheet music cover illustrations by the great American artist, Norman Rockwell. This illustration appeared on one version of the great Cohan hit Over There.

You have seen a number of "going to war" songs in this months feature, most of them relate to the soldier and saying good-bye. Just as Feist has said music is important, so too was the home front and songs began to emerge exhorting the populace to join in and do their part too. A rare and obscure such song was 1917s Everybody Do Your Bit with music by J.E. Andino and Words by Arthur Bedard. Take a moment to enjoy this song by clicking on the cover (scorch version only) WEB-TV viewers, click here for a midi version.

Feist were arguably perhaps the most aggressive publishers in expressing strong thoughts about the role of music in the war. But certainly many other publishers did the same, often devoting full pages to monographs about war music and exhorting the populace to support the war effort. The publisher, Jos. W. Stern often placed slogans and patriotic thoughts on their covers such as "Food will win the war, Don't waste it!". In addition, Stern divided the music of W.W.I into six categories.

  1. "Cheer-Up Type
  2. Ballad Type
  3. Stirring March Type
  4. Appealing Type (appealing for support)
  5. Comic Type
  6. Victory Type

Stern often used the inside spine of the music (the margin) to advertise his songs, by category. Whether or not the outcome of the war was influenced by music is questionable. The war did however, have a lasting effect on music.

That concludes our first installment about the music of World War One. Next month, we will continue with our feature focusing on music related to the war itself and what happened after we really got into the war. We will see that the nature of the music changed somewhat and that we really did not know what we were getting into. At this point, the boys are ready and heading overseas, they say their last good-byes and load up in the troop carriers to go off to war.

(Web-TV, click here for MIDI)

At this point, we really did not know what to expect. The song, Where Do We Go From Here by Percy Wenrigh & Howard Johnson expressed some of that uncertainty, in a humorous way. Let's listen to and see the lyrics and ask ourselves that question. I hope we can answer that question for you next month.

(Web-TV, click here for MIDI)

And, as promised, one of the greatest W.W.I "good-bye songs ever published; K-K-K-Katy. Enjoy!


This article is in three parts, now that you have read part one, move on to part two.

November, 2000

A major source for much of the text discussion is from Variety Music Cavalcade, A History of Popular Music in America and the aforementioned Ann Latella article. All sheet music covers and songs are from the ParlorSongs collection. See our references page for details of our complete bibliography used for research for this and other essays in this series. This article as well as all content of the ParlorsSongs site is copyrighted. We ask that you respect our work and contact us if you want to use any of this material.

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