Going “Over There” for World War I

Throughout history, music has been used for celebrations and for memorial events; to sway opinion or highlight a specific point of view; or to encourage people to vote for a particular political candidate. George M. Cohan used music to rally the country behind a war effort. In the article I wrote for the March 2016 issue of Music Educators Journal, I focused on one of Cohan’s most famous compositions and one of the most popular songs of the World War I era, “Over There.”

Cohan was inspired to write “Over There” after reading the headlines of April 6, 1917, indicating that the United States was going to enter World War I. The immensely popular song was performed at live events and recorded by many notable singers of the time, including Nora Bayes and Enrico Caruso. “Over There” continued to be so popular after the end of the war that in 1936 Cohan received the Congressional Gold Metal for “Over There” and another famous composition, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Use music as a way to engage students in the study of events in history.

Students can compare different covers of sheet music for “Over There.” They might wonder: Why did they issue different sheet music covers for the same song? Encourage them to analyze the message and impact of each cover and form answers.

over there reilly over there french
over there soldiers over there bayes

Share this essay on music from World War I with your students. They can compare music from the start of the war prior to the entry of the United States, music from the time of the United States’ entry into the war, and then afterward.

  • What similarities and differences do students see in the lyrics and sheet music covers?
  • How did the music change as the United States became more involved in the war?
  • What events might account for the changes in music?

Encourage students to listen to recordings of “Over There” and other music from the World War I era on the National Jukebox from the Library of Congress. Based on hearing the recordings and looking at other sheet music why do they think that “Over There” became more popular than other songs created to support the war effort?

Students can also explore the World War I Sheet Music collection and the exhibition on art from World War I. How does the art connect with the music of the time? Does the artwork convey the emotions of the time in a different way than the music?

How will you incorporate music into the study of World War I, especially during the centennial year? Let us know in the comments.

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