World War I Recruiting Songs: Building the Military with Music

Music is one way to get a message out or to encourage support for a cause, especially during wartime. In the first years of World War I, when the United States was neutral, songs supported the country staying out of the war. After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, songs encouraged or discouraged citizens to enlist and join the battle. Others encouraged those on the home front to support those who were on the battlefield.

In the 1915 song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Solider,” the mother notes that she raised her boy to be her pride and joy, not to aim his musket at another mother’s boy. The song also states that there would be peace if all mothers stood up and stated that they didn’t raise their sons to be soldiers.

I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier. Albert Piantadosi and Alfre Bryan, 1915

I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier. Al Piantadosi and Alfred Bryan, 1915

I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Slacker. Theodore Baker, 1917

I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Slacker. Theodore Baker, 1917

Ah Didn't Raise Mah Boy to be a Slacker. Al Hart, 1917

Ah Didn’t Raise Mah Boy to be a Slacker. Al Hart, 1917

Later songs inspired citizens to support their sons, husbands, and brothers to enlist. Quite a few titles asked mothers to encourage their sons to enlist and not be considered a “slacker.” One variation notes that the mother would rather see her son dead than hanging his head because he avoided the call to war. Another, aimed at African American men, and written in African American Vernacular English, tells the story of a young man who is shamed by his mother and has his proposal of marriage rejected because he has not answered the call of Uncle Sam. One song stated that the son was answering the call of Uncle Sam to defeat the Huns, even though he was not raised to be a soldier.

  • Use the analysis tool to support study of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Slacker.” Ask students to define“slacker” and to explain why men who did not volunteer to serve were considered slackers. To what extent do they think that people who do not join the military now should be considered slackers?
  • For comparison, students can analyze “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier.” Support students as they explore ways that the two songs share similar themes and how each makes its point. What is the role of patriotism in each?
  • Provide some of the different versions of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Slacker.” What similarities and differences do students see between the different songs with the same title? Are there any benefits to being a soldier or the family of a soldier based on the songs?
  • Share the sheet music for “Ah didn’t raise mah boy to be a Slacker.” Ask students why they think it was written in African American Vernacular English.
  • Students may create a song to encourage recruitment during World War I. Ask them to explain how they selected a target audience.

Looking for more primary sources from World War I? Visit the World War I Resources page.

One Comment

  1. Mary Johnson
    April 7, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    I love this idea of comparing different attitudes toward the war through sheet music. These three versions on a theme would have been difficult for any teacher to find, and you have made it so easy. I look forward to each new teaching idea from the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog. In fact, all the recent blog posts at the Library of Congress related to the U.S. entry into World War I have been incredibly helpful and interesting.

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