World War I: Wartime Sheet Music

The following post was written by Cait Miller of the Music Division and originally appeared on the In the Muse: Performing Arts Blog.

"The Beast of Berlin," by  John Clayton Calhoun, 1918. Music Division.

“The Beast of Berlin,” by John Clayton Calhoun, 1918. Music Division.

Piano transcriptions of large-scale works, marches, sentimental ballads, and other examples of parlor music are well documented in the Music Division’s sheet music holdings; and from the late 19th century through the early 20th century, sheet music not only served to disseminate music for home recreation but contributed to documenting what events, issues, and cultural themes were significant to the American public as well as how those topics were perceived. Our published sheet music collections cover just about every historic event in American history, including World War I.

Frederick G. Vogel wrote in the preface to his reference book, “World War I Songs: A History and Dictionary of Popular American Patriotic Tunes, with Over 300 Complete Lyrics,” that “With the exception of World War II, no episode in American history has stimulated the nation’s songwriters into action more than World War I…” Vogel asserts that more than 35,000 marches, ballads, and anthems related to the “war to end all wars” were copyrighted between 1914 and 1919 by established composers and no-name amateurs alike. The Library of Congress acquired over 14,000 pieces of published sheet music relating to the “Great War,” with the greatest number coming from the years of the United States’ active involvement (1917-1918) and the immediate postwar period.

The Shrapnel Blues," by Marion Lee Bell and   Marcus F. Slayter, 1919. Music Division.

The Shrapnel Blues,” by Marion Lee Bell and Marcus F. Slayter, 1919. Music Division.

In the collection, you’ll come across recognizable names such as American favorite George M. Cohan, Leo Friedman (best remembered for the sentimental  “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”), and Gus Edwards (to name just a few), and you’ll discover new names that you’ve likely never heard of before. In fact, half of the approximately 14,000 pieces of newly digitized sheet music consists of vanity press publications or manuscript amateur copyright deposits, representing the music of the American public itself. You will also notice a significant presence of early jazz in this online collection, heralding the approaching jazz age of the 1920s. Whether cheering on our soldiers, longing for their return, or mourning their loss, songwriters found an outlet for our country’s anxiety and emotional investment through music.

You can read more about the Library’s World War I sheet music collection in this blog post, as well as take a closer look at how African Americans were represented in the music of the time.

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.

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