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.

World War I: Online Offerings

(The following was written for the March/April 2017 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read editions of past issues here.) With the most comprehensive World War I collections in the nation, we are uniquely equipped to tell the story of America’s involvement in the Great War through our website. Today we launched a […]

World War I: From Red Glare to Debonair

(The following post is by Jennifer Gavin, senior public affairs specialist at the Library of Congress.) With its more than 90-year history, most Americans are aware of the military-based newspaper “The Stars and Stripes.” But many don’t know that it came into existence as a morale-builder after Americans surged into France during World War I […]

World War I: Understanding the War at Sea Through Maps

(The following guest post is by Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division.) Soldiers leaping from trenches and charging into an apocalyptic no man’s land dominate the imagination when it comes to World War I. However, an equally dangerous and strategically critical war at sea was waged between the Central Powers […]

World War I: Lubok Posters in the World Digital Library

(The following guest post is by John Van Oudenaren, director for scholarly and educational programs at the Library of Congress.) By the time the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the European powers had been fighting for more than two-and-a-half years. U.S. troops joined their British, French and Belgian allies in battles […]

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(The following post was written by Mike Mashon of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division and originally appeared on the Now See Hear! blog.) During the centenary observance of World War I, we’ve been prioritizing the preservation of films in our collection pertaining to the conflict. Foremost among these is a film called “On […]

World War I: “Trench Blues” — An African American Song of the War

(The following is a guest post written by Stephanie Hall of the American Folklife Center.) In 1934, folklorist John Lomax and his 19-year-old son Alan went to southern Louisiana to collect folksongs and music in many styles from several ethnic groups in English and French. Among the songs in the resulting collection is “Trench Blues,” a […]

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(The following is a guest post by Beverly Brannan, curator of photography in the Prints and Photographs Division. Helen Johns Kirtland must have been a very persuasive person because only a few U.S. women obtained credentials to report in countries actively fighting in World War I. Both she and her husband Lucien Swift Kirtland secured […]

World War I: “Kim,” the Life Saver

(The following is a guest blog post by Mark Diminution, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and Elizabeth Gettins, Library of Congress digital library specialist.) There are the occasional stories that one hears about a book saving a life due to an informational or even spiritual message, but how many people can claim a […]