This blog post is by David Sager, Research Assistant in the Recorded Sound Research Center.
This post celebrates the Centennial of the signing of the Armistice and makes use of recordings in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox and images found in the Library’s Recorded Sound Research Center. These mementos are a stirring reminder of the Great War and reveal a phonograph and recording industry caught between a show of altruism and self-promotion.
Although the dubious honor of being the first “Modern War,” goes to the American Civil War, some historians give the nod to World War I, when automotive, aerial, and undersea technology were relatively new and an integral part of battle. The new weaponry, which largely consisted of repeating rifles, tanks, machine guns, bombers and aircraft carriers, supports this argument.
It was certainly the first war in which all of these technological advances came into wide and primary use. The phonograph industry maintained a high profile in the war effort. In fact, once the U.S. declared war in April 1917, the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey, was compelled to devote much of its production to manufacturing armaments including rifle stacks and aircraft parts. The recording end of Victor remained fairly untouched, despite a significant loss of personnel, who were ultimately replaced by largely untrained and inexperienced workers.[i] With justifiable irony, Victor and its competitors all publicized the hardships endured due to their noble efforts.
War related songs proliferated on recordings. Largely, these were uplifting anthem-like works that fostered optimism with steel-like resolve. One such work, was “The British Bulldog’s Watching at the Door,” composed and sung by Harry Lauder.
Sir Harry Lauder (1870–1950) is best remembered for comic songs and rambling monologues performed in an intimate and folksy manner, done with a thick Scottish brogue. Knighted in 1919, Scottish-born Lauder worked his way up from poverty to become one of the most popular entertainers of his time in Europe and America. He was also an untiring presence in the war effort. Whereas most of his recordings featured his infectious conversational humor, his wartime recordings are stirring.
A columnist in the periodical Music Trade Review mused, “We wonder how many patriotic songs written today will be popular in 2020.”[ii] As 2020 approaches, we can perhaps count, on one hand, popular WWI songs. Perhaps the best remembered was George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” But how many remember his sequel to “Over There,” titled, “When You Come Back, and You Will Come Back (There’s the Whole World Waiting for You)”? This remains, deservedly so, one of Cohan’s least remembered works. Besides its trite melody, the lyrics are troublesome, at least on the recording by Raymond Dixon and the Orpheus Quartet. Here, the phrase “and you will come back” is replaced with “if you do come back” at the beginning of the refrain. Victor withheld its release until after the Armistice, focusing on the appeal of returning soldiers. The cover of the January 1919 Victor supplement showed a picture of a returning soldier embracing his sweetheart, with the song’s title serving as a caption.
The music of the Great War era was also characterized by childish humor that poked fun at Germans and the Kaiser. This was an ironic juxtaposition with what had become the deadliest of wars. Still, these songs proliferated and sold thousands of copies of sheet music and phonograph records. Billy Murray’s recording of “The Worst is Yet to Come” pairs this sort of comedy with a child’s rhyming game. Strangely, this was recorded three weeks after the signing of the Armistice.
One of the most popular songs of the War Era was Lee Roberts and Will Callahan’s “Smiles,” which has achieved a near folksong-like status due to its popularity over the decades at sing-alongs and family outings. Although not overtly patriotic, it was a source of comfort for soldiers and civilians alike. This recording by Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra, played in the latest fox-trot style, is one of the first dance band recordings to feature a vocal refrain, in this case by Harry Macdonough.
“Smiles” also figures into a double full-page ad in the December 1918 issue of Talking Machine World. Here, the Victor Talking Machine agents, Chicago and New York Talking Machine Companies, show oval grinning portraits of their employees and proclaim, “Why Not? War’s Over. Christmas is coming – business going to be better than ever.”
Other phonograph and recording companies invoked peace time in their post-Armistice ads. Otto Heineman, founder of the General Phonograph Company and OKeh Records, had been placing full-page eye-catching advertisements in Talking Machine World. Early peacetime ads included those for OKeh’s “Victory Music,” and a July 1919 Columbia Records supplement cover. These were adorned with red, white, and blue doughboys, Uncle Sam, and a cross between a Red Cross Nurse and Lady Liberty.
One of the first patriotic post-armistice recordings was sung by Harry Lauder, deeply scarred by the death of his only son, John, a captain in the British Infantry, who was killed in battle on December 28, 1916. Harry Lauder allowed himself to be noticeably disconsolate for only three days, and – encouraged by his wife – returned to performing for the war effort.
Victor, not about to let an advertising ploy slip by, profiled Lauder in their March 1919 supplement, mawkishly stating, “Harry Lauder is neither a clown nor a Hamlet, but he is a very real human being, who can move us at will from laughter to tears.” The piece goes on to tell of Lauder’s loss and how John Lauder’s purported last words to his fighting unit, “Carry on,” inspired Harry to continue.
In fact, Lauder insisted it true that John’s last words inspired him to continue. And continue he did, with a vengeance, bringing his show to the front lines. He raised over $5 million for wounded soldiers, which resulted in his being knighted in 1919.[iii]
One month – almost to the day – after the signing, Lauder recorded his own composition, “Don’t Let Us Sing Anymore About War, Just Let Us Sing of Love.” Despite the tender title, it is a rousing, march-like work.
To some, Harry Lauder’s sentiment may seem quaint, even naïve. But it voices the hope that still reverberates today.
The Library of Congress’s National Jukebox, contains many more recordings from the WWI years, before, and beyond. The Library’s Recorded Sound Research Center offers additional on-site access to its vast recorded sound collection.
[i] Sutton, Allan, A phonograph in every home. (Denver: Mainspring Press), 2010, 266-267.
[ii] Sutton, 269.
[iii] Baker, Darrell and Larry F. Kiner, The Harry Lauder Discography. (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.), 1990, xv