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Sheet Music Spotlight: Red Cross Women in World War I

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“The Red Cross Nurse,” words and music by Harry G. Walsh. Milwau-kee : Harry G. Walsh, 1917. Music Division, Library of Congress.

The following is a guest post from retired cataloger Sharon McKinley. 

May 8 is World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. Founded in 1881, the American Red Cross organization was still rather small when the United States entered World War I. But services multiplied, millions helped collect supplies and money, and many served overseas, particularly in France. There were hundreds of stations there, including hospitals run with the US Army, convalescent homes, and 130 canteens for recreation and food service. The process of becoming a Red Cross volunteer overseas was tedious and difficult, but large numbers of women persevered and served abroad. Women served as nurses, secretarial staff, motor pool workers and drivers, and canteen workers.

Naturally, in a world where there were hundreds, or even thousands of men to every woman, the presence of these workers, both volunteer and paid, was keenly appreciated, and the “Red Cross girl” was idolized as an angel from home.  The many songs in the Library’s collections featuring these women highlight this over and over. Illustrations are idealized and dramatic, but the music, regardless of the composer, is in the catchy style of the day. Here are a few of my favorites:

Harry G. Walsh self-published “The Red Cross Nurse,” in Milwaukee, but it’s a better-quality production than many of the thousands of similar World War I-era publications. With a well-drawn cover illustration depicting a heroic nurse tending to a wounded soldier right on the battlefield, it was deposited for copyright in July of 1917, shortly after the U.S. entered the war. This is also a bit unusual; much of the flood of patriotic music was copyrighted in 1918 or even 1919.

Better-known composers than Walsh also got in on the theme. The highly successful songwriting team of Lou Klein and Harry von Tilzer produced the laudatory. “The Little Good for Nothing’s Good for Something After All,”  in which a young woman with a bad reputation redeems herself by joining the Red Cross and serving “over there.” Published in 1918, the song was a sure-fire hit: its cover illustration of a beautiful nurse was “specially posed by Laurette Taylor, America’s greatest actress.” Taylor was a stage and silent film star, and the combination of the famous songwriting team with the famous actress was guaranteed to sell thousands of copies to patriotic fans.

The famous songwriting team of Edgar Leslie, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby produced “I’ve got a Red Cross Rosie” in 1917. Everyone is happy in this little number, with the protagonist marrying his Red Cross girl after the war. On the other hand,  other numbers were a bit more realistic. Published in Boston in 1918, “The Red Cross Girl,” with words by Edward R. Greenlaw and music by Gilfillan Scott, mentions battle, pain, and death, then sings the praises of the heroine, serving in the midst of the fray. The music? Still up-tempo and following every convention of the day. The creators wanted to sell their work to everyone, after all.

Artists of all kinds contributed in different media. This Red Cross recruiting poster is both dramatic and compelling. One hundred years later, the American Red Cross is still serving at home and abroad. But the popular music of World War I caught our patriotic sentiments in a unique way that will probably never be equaled.

If I fail he dies Work for the Red Cross / / Rev. S.A. Iciek & Arthur G. McCoy.Duluth : J.J. LeTourneau Printing Co., c1918.

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