Sheet Music Spotlight: Remembering the Lusitania in World War I

“Remember the Lusitania,” by Jess Secrhist. Harrisburg, PA,: Sanpan Music, 1917

The following is by retired cataloger Sharon McKinley.

The sinking of the Lusitania was one of many rallying events of WWI. Interestingly, the ship was sunk two years before the United Sates entered the war: on May 7, 1915. She was a civilian ship of the Cunard line, but was carrying some war materiel along with passengers. This led to arguments over whether that made the ship a legitimate wartime target. It is a debate that continues to this day.

Submarine warfare was still relatively new, and the Lusitania fell to the Germans, who were flexing their new sea muscles. Warnings were made to potential sea voyagers that they would be sailing in a war zone, but it doesn’t mitigate the fact that 1198 people, mostly passengers, went down with the ship.

As is so often the case when horrible events unfold, songs are created, copyrighted, published, and delivered into the eager public’s hands within weeks. The ship was sunk on May 7, and “The Loss of Lusitania” was registered for copyright on July 12. Composer Harold Wall self-published the song (New Bedford, Mass. : Harold Wall, 1915).  Although they rail against “This act of neutral’s foes,” W. Bibby’s lyrics and Wall’s music have an overall feel of a typical ballad bewailing a tragedy and massive loss of life.

Among the dead were 128 Americans, and the incident led to vigorous protest from President Woodrow Wilson and helped change the attitude of Americans towards our neutrality in the war. The Germans were far from apologetic, and U.S. demands that civilian shipping should not be attacked were rebuffed, because such ships could easily be transporting munitions. It took two more years for the U.S. to enter the war, but by then it was far more strongly supported by the average American. By the time unrestricted German submarine warfare escalated in 1917, the U.S. public as well the government was spoiling for a fight.

There were plenty of composers and lyricists waiting to lend their voices to the struggle. On June 27, 1917, just 2 months after we entered the war on April 6, Jess Sechrist copyrighted “Remember the Lusitania” (Harrisburg, PA: Sanpan Music, 1917), which is in many ways very different from Wall’s composition. Its very title a rallying cry, this is all about the U.S. going to war to crush the foe who perpetrated the terrible deed two years earlier. Sechrist has a lot to say, and he doesn’t do it particularly well, but chances are his work sold briskly, at least in his hometown. No Tin Pan Alley master he, but he knew how to tune in to a nation’s newly outraged sentiments and pen a song that would attract attention and hopefully sell some copies. Once again, popular music followed directly behind the latest events, giving an immediate feel in the days before instantaneous news.