The following is a guest post by Matt Barton, Recorded Sound Curator, National Audio-Visual Conservation CenterThis Monday marked the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Songs relating to World War I are very well documented in the Library’s National Jukebox, which provides over 10,000 78-rpm discs recorded in the 1920s and before. For more on the intersection between music, popular song, folk traditions and American history see the Library’s Songs of America pages.
The most popular song of the early days of World War I, and one of the songs indelibly linked to it, was “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary.” The song was a recent hit of the British music halls at the outbreak of the war, and was being sung by marching soldiers from the first weeks of the conflict. The song has nothing to do with war and is actually a comic account of a homesick Irishman adrift in London, but somehow it fit, and was picked up by English speaking soldiers throughout Europe. It quickly crossed the Atlantic, and the American Quartet recorded the song on September 15, 1914. Other versions followed, and there was even a sequel of sorts called “Tip -Top Tipperary Mary,” recorded by the Peerless Quartet in November of that year.
Other popular British songs to cross the Atlantic and engender popular recordings were “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!,” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning (Until the Boys Come Home).”
Many recordings in the early days of the war spoke to deeper feelings. The Victor Military band recorded German martial music in the early days of the war, including a “German-Austrian Military Potpurri” in April of 1915. In November, 1914, Emil Muench recorded “Watch on the Rhine,” a still popular German song of the Franco-Prussian War from more than forty years earlier.
The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine on May 7, 1915 was a turning point for American opinion about the war. One hundred and twenty four Americans were among the more than 1,000 dead aboard the passenger liner. Within a month, the busy Victor Military band recorded “National Airs of the Allies,” a medley of anthems and national songs of France, Belgium, England and Russia. The sinking itself was soon memorialized in song in Charles McCarron and Nat Vincent’s “When the Lusitania Went Down,” published within weeks of the event. In February of 1916, Frederick Wheeler recorded “Wake Up, America,” which urged Americans to stand ready to join the fight.
The U.S. position of neutrality was frustrating for some Americans who would have liked to aid the countries of theirs or their family’s origins. Recording companies had already been serving the foreign language markets within the United States for many years when war broke out, and war songs were recorded in most of the languages of the conflict. When Italy entered the war on the Allied side in 1915, many Italian immigrants journeyed home to enlist, and in July, 1916 Amelia Bruno recorded “Nu Riservista d’America (The American Reservist).”
While many Polish-Americans favored the Allies, some Poles in lands controlled by the Central Powers felt loyal to those governments. In May 1918, Polish-American baritone Józef Kallini recorded “Dumka žolnierza (A Soldier’s Dream),” as well as “Piosnka Wojenna,” which describes the experiences of young Polish man in the serving in the Uhlans, a Polish branch of the Austro-Hungarian army.
Norway remained officially neutral throughout the war, but favored the Allies. Her ships were a target of the German Navy, which sank almost 900 of them, killing more than 1,000 sailors. In June 1917, Inga rner, a Norwegian-born soprano based in New York recorded “Naar jeg kommer hjem,” a version of “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” On the other side of the disc she sang “Dengang jeg drog af sted (The Valiant Soldier),” Norwegian composer Edvard Greig’s setting of a 19th century anti-German war song from Denmark.
In April of 1917, the United States entered the war, and pro-war songs quickly proliferated. These included sentimental, humorous, patriotic and idealistic songs. Though it was not yet the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was recorded several times in 1917, with Irish-born tenor John McCormack’s version being the most popular. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was revived. “Over There,” by George M. Cohan, was the most popular and enduring American song of World War I. Nora Bayes’ version may have been the best seller, but there were many versions, including one by Enrico Caruso who sang it in English and French. The Peerless Quartet cheerfully sang “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going but I’m on My Way,” while the more sure-footed American Quartet sang “It’s a Long Way to Berlin, But We’ll Get There.”
With Americans of every background heading off to war, songwriters Irving Berlin and George W. Meyer published “Let’s All Be Americans Now.” In 1918, Berlin wrote the humorous “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” the lament of a weary soldier in training camp.
Marion Harris updated one of Irving Berlin’s signature songs in 1918 with “When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band to France,” which predicted that American ragtime music would make German troops dance instead of fight. Ragtime also figured in two songs that noted the contributions of African-American troops to the effort, though in a stereotypical fashion. Both “When Uncle Joe Steps into France” by Collins and Harlan and “The Ragtime Volunteers are off to War” by Van and Schenck depicted black troops marching to a syncopated beat as they headed off to war. Years later, a genuine African-American veteran of the war named John Bray got to record a song about his own experiences for the Library of Congress called “Trench Blues.”
“I Don’t Want to Get Well” told the story of a hospitalized soldier in love with his nurse. The Red Cross received a more serious tribute in “The Rose of No Man’s Land,” recorded by Elliot Shaw and Charles Hart near the end of the war.
The Austrian-born soprano Ernestine Schumann-Heink had been an American citizen for many years when war broke out, and strongly supported the American war effort with performances for troops and other charity work. In September 1917, she revived the Civil War standard “Just before the Battle Mother.” In the summer of 1918, she recorded “When the Boys Come Home” as well as a vocal version of “Taps.”
After the end of hostilities in November 1918, the songs kept coming, some funny, some triumphant, some sorrowful. The Peerless Quartet now sang “Goodbye France,” and on the other side of the same record declared “The Navy Will Bring Them Back.” Arthur Collins wondered “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?).” In “I’ve Got My Captain Working for Me Now,” another Irving Berlin composition performed by Billy Murray, a former private turns the tables on his commanding officer. Henry Burr sang of “The Boys Who Won’t Come Home.” Harry Lauder, often a purveyor of comic songs, said, “Don’t Let Us Sing Anymore about War, Just Let Us Sing of Love.”
In 1920, more than a year after the end of the war, Lambert Murphy released two striking songs with strong religious overtones. “There Is No Death” was written by Geoffrey O’Hara and admonished listeners not to think of the “poppied sod” of Flanders, Belgium where fallen soldiers lay, but of the glorified eternal life that was now theirs. The song was coupled with “Christ in Flanders,” which described a religious vision on the former battlefield, another example of the varied and complex musical legacy of World War I.