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Songs and Music of Refugees of the First World War

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A poster promoting a relief effort for Middle Eastern refugees of the World War I by the American Committee for relief in the Near East. Posters: World War I Posters collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Select the link for more information and a larger image.

War disrupts populations, and refugees fleeing the conflict may leave their country permanently to settle elsewhere. The first World War caused such disruptions throughout Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Crossing one border was no longer an escape for many of these people on the move. Refugees fled to countries distant from their own, including the United States. The U.S. was already a destination for emigrants, with record numbers arriving from Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century. Now, something the world had never seen before, a world war, was bringing more. And, of course, they brought their cultures with them. Sidney Robertson Cowell sought out first generation immigrant musicians and singers and recorded several refugees from WWI in California in the 1930s. Immigrant songs and music from that era can be found in other AFC collections as well.


Armenians once lived in a large area in the Caucasus mountains and what is now western Turkey. By the twentieth century much of this area had been taken over by the Ottoman Empire. Armenians had experienced purges and seizures of their lands by the Turkish empire that caused many to emigrate to other countries in the nineteenth century. The United States was already a destination for Armenian immigrants before WWI. As Turkey entered the war allied with Germany, a new Turkish government was targeting Christian minorities. Germany asked them to stop, but although the Turkish government said it would comply, the persecutions continued. Armenians were considered subversives, sympathizing with Russia, and many were killed outright or “deported” — which meant various things including internment in concentration camps outside of Turkey where many died. A terrible loss of life occurred in concentration camps in the Deir ez-Zor desert in Syria. In the spring of 1915 — exactly one hundred years ago — American newspapers were printing articles about what they termed the “Armenian Holocaust” and calling for aid. Funds were raised and the Red Cross mounted a relief effort, but many died before these efforts could be mobilized. Today these events are referred to as the Armenian Genocide.

Some Armenians who survived came to the United States, bringing songs of these times. A lament for those who suffered and died in Deir ez-Zor was sung by Vartan S. Shapazian and recorded by Cowell in 1939. Some of these songs and tunes took on entirely different meanings than they had had before the war. Songs of places in Turkey and Armenia had profound meaning for the people of the diaspora following WWI as they knew that they might never return. “Alagaz Bartzer Sare” (Mount Aragats), sung by Ruben J. Baboyan, is about an important landmark and religious site in Armenia, so it is an example of a song sung to retain the memories of Armenian history and culture.1

Ruben J. Baboyan who came to the United States in 1913 at the age of 16 sang Armenian and Armenian-Turkish songs for collector Sidney Robertson Cowell on April 16, 1939 in Fresno, California.  The WPA California Folk Music Project, AFC 1940/001: P053.

An Armenian priest and folksong collector, Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), wrote down the words and tunes of Armenian folksongs and those of a few other ethnic groups as well. He wrote new choral arrangements for some of them for more formal singing. He also wrote original compositions based on the traditional music that he studied. He was imprisoned during WWI and, although he was released, he never fully recovered from what he had suffered. Some of the songs he wrote or arranged have become symbolically tied to that period. For example, “Andouni,” a song of longing for the homeland that predates WWI, is a folksong that Komitas arranged for voice. This version, sung by Ruben J. Baboyan, may be Komitas’s arrangement of the original tune. Today the song is sung to a different tune, usually in an operatic style, as it has become emblematic of the Armenian diaspora and loss of life during WWI. A love song collected by Komitas, “De Le Yaman,” also sung by Baboyan, is today sung as an expression of longing for the Armenian homeland, rather than one of yearning for a lost love.2

Vartan Shapazian, recorded singing Armenian songs by Sidney Robertson Cowell, October 30, 1939, in Fowler, California. The WPA California Folk Music Project AFC 1940/001: P085.

There are a number of songs addressing cranes in Armenian, as the crane is seen as a messenger that might provide news from home to travelers or carry messages home. For Armenians that could not return home, and sometimes did not know the fate of friends and loved ones, these songs to cranes took on a new meaning — which has continued to the present generation. This is “Groong Jan” sung by Vartan S. Shapazian in 1939.

Armenians in America could also celebrate their survival, and Cowell collected dance songs and love songs among Armenians in California. Mary Goshtigian and Aslanian’s Armenian Orchestra provide some good examples of Armenian dance songs and tunes. A couple of examples of tunes with a message are “Song of Freedom,” played as an instrumental piece by Aslanian’s Armenian Orchestra, and a version of “Yankee Doodle,” played by Joe Bedrosian on the Zurna.

Songs and their history continue to color Armenian cultural sensibilities. In looking for information about the lament for those who died in Deir ez-Zor, I came across a poignant use of Cowell’s recording of the song by Vartan S. Shapazian by the group NOUR, performing at Columbia University, New York, NY, in March 2007. They memorialized Armenian Newspaper editor and activist Hrant Dink, who was murdered in Istanbul in January of that year. He had been working for acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish government. The archival version of the tribute is played in the first half of the video with images of Dink’s life, and NOUR plays their version in the second half. Clearly these songs continue to have powerful meanings for the Armenian diaspora, one hundred years after the genocide.

Many more refugees of WWI began their migrations as the war ended and Europe was profoundly changed. Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, the German Empire, and the Russian Empire all ceased to exist and new governments needed to be formed. For peoples on both sides of the conflict, economic hardship as a result of the war set people moving.


Mario Olmeda who performed “Il Piave” and other Italian songs for Sidney Robertson Cowell on February 13, 1939, in Concord, California. The WPA California Folk Music Project Collection AFC 1940/001: P138.

Italians fought to protect their country from invasions from Austria-Hungary on their northern border. A song from the war, of a soldier saying farewell to his mother, was sung by Louis Brangone and collected by Cowell in 1939, “Addio, Mamma” (Goodbye, Mama). A song about a decisive battle, one of the last of the war, is sung by Mario Olmeda, an immigrant to California. “The Battle of Piave,” (recorded in 1939 and incorrectly labeled as a May battle by the collector) is about a conflict between the Italians and Austria-Hungary at the Piave River June 15-24, 1918. Italy had suffered defeats in battles the previous fall, but in this battle, reinforced with supplies from allies including the U.S., they succeeded in defending their northern border. One more battle at Vittorio Veneto in the fall of 1918 effectively ended the war.


The new monarchy of Hungary was created by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. But many Hungarians left to find a new life elsewhere, and some of these found their way to the U.S. “Segeny Magyar Hazam” (Poor Old Hungary), sung by a chorus led by Mary Gaidos in 1939, is a song about the partition of Hungary and its troubles at the end of WWI collected by Cowell. Other songs by the same chorus of Hungarian immigrants include one expressing longing for the homeland, “Sep vagy, gyonyoru Magyar orsag” (How Beautiful is Hungary). Alan Lomax, collecting songs in Michigan in 1938, recorded a song about a seventeenth-century Hungarian hero with the title given as “Patriotic song of Nicholas Nagy Bercsenyi,” that is, Count Nicholas Bercsényi, and sung by Kalman Nemeth, Mrs. Joseph Marczis, and Nandor Berky. The song is about an earlier struggle to free Hungary from foreign rule, and perhaps it was sung at this time to invoke that spirit in the face of Hungary’s struggle at the end of WWI.


Sophia Bilides, right, performing smyrneika songs with Mike Gregian at the Library of Congress, August 24, 2011.

Greeks who had been living in the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI faced a new war with Turkey over the Treaty of Sèvres that gave Greece a portion of the Western Ottoman Empire where Greeks lived, Thrace and an area on the western coast including the city of Smyrna. Greeks on the Turkish Peninsula, like other Christian minorities, had suffered under Ottoman rule and were anxious to protect their independence from the Turks, while the new Turkish government wanted to retain these strategic regions. Greece sent troops to defend Smyrna, but were driven back by Turkish forces. This resulted in a war that lasted from 1919 until 1922. In the aftermath, Greeks living in Turkey migrated to Greece, other European countries, and the U.S. They brought with them a style of music that arose among Greeks in Turkey, called smyrneika (a name derived from the city Smyrna). At at the Library of Congress on August 24, 2011, Sophia Bilides with Mal Barsamian and Mike Gregian presented a concert of smyrneika music. (Watch for a future article in Folklife Today on the most famous of the Greek songs from Turkey, “Misirlou.”)

Refugees of many ethnic groups found their way to the U.S. during and shortly after WWI. Those discussed here reflect the collections currently online and the songs whose origins and meanings we have been able to identify.  There may be more songs not yet identified as being related to the war. But readers may know of more, and I would be very happy to hear from you.  Please leave a comment below!


1. One mark of Komitas’s arrangements are long notes at the end of verses and choruses that provide a trained singer with opportunities for embellishment. Some of the songs collected by Cowell that are known to have been collected and arranged by Komitas have this characteristic, and so the singers may be influenced by the arrangements by Komitas, or may have learned the songs from the arranged versions.

2. There are other folksongs collected by Komitas in the Cowell collection not listed here, and perhaps some not yet identified as such. Cowell did not speak Armenian and wrote the titles as best she could. Also, the transliterated Armenian titles have changed over the years, making it difficult to search for them. I do not speak Armenian either, so I welcome any help in learning more about the songs we have. I have been able to find references to a couple of others in this collection that Komitas had a role in preserving, both love songs sung by Ruben J. Baboyan: “Kele-Kele,” and “Yes Saren Kugayi,” (I Was Coming from the Mountain). Both of these continue to be recorded by Armenian singers today.


The Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings

Armenian American Song (The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America)

California Gold: Northern California Folk Music of the 1930s (The California WPA Folk Music Collection)

Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I (Library of Congress exhibition, 2017)

Greek American Song (The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America)

Hall, Stephanie. “‘Trench Blues’: An African American Song of World War I,” Folklife Today, November 23, 2016.

Hall, Stephanie. “‘When I First Got Ready For the War,’ a Song of World War I,” Folklife Today,  June 19, 2017.

Italian American Song (The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America)

Jewish Song in America includes two songs related to the WWI era (The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America)

Lule, Irene. “Postcards of World War I,” Folklife Today, September 11, 2017.

Lule, Irene. “World War I Homecomings,” Folklife Today,  July 31, 2017.

World War I, Library of Congress

World War I: The Great War (Veterans History Project)

World War I Remembered 100 Years Later (Veterans History Project)

[This article was updated October 13, 2017 to update links to items in California Gold, and add new links to the Resources section at the end.]


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