Another Look at World War I Recruiting Songs

Music has always been a part of major events in history, frequently used to persuade listeners to adopt a point of view or to take action. This was certainly the case during World War I.

A year ago, we published a blog post showing how music reflected the nation’s role in the war. When the United States was neutral and wanted to sell goods to countries on both sides of the conflict, songs discouraged enlistment. However, with the United States’ entry in the war in April 1917, songs changed to encourage the country to be pro-war and to support the Allies. Songs now encouraged men to fight for their country, indicating that men who would not were slackers.

For a closer look at music and its role in World War I, we recommend this video by Paul Fraunfelter, Digital Conversion Specialist at the Library of Congress. He explains how sheet music can be surprisingly useful in exploring the history of WWI.

For more World War I resources, download the Teaching World War I with Primary Sources Idea Book for Educators from HISTORY.


World War I Recruiting Songs: Building the Military with Music

Music is one way to get a message out or to encourage support for a cause, especially during wartime. In the first years of World War I, when the United States was neutral, songs supported the country staying out of the war. After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, songs encouraged or discouraged citizens to enlist and join the battle. Others encouraged those on the home front to support those who were on the battlefield.

In the 1915 song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Solider,” the mother notes that she raised her boy to be her pride and joy, not to aim his musket at another mother’s boy. The song also states that there would be peace if all mothers stood up and stated that they didn’t raise their sons to be soldiers.

I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier. Albert Piantadosi and Alfre Bryan, 1915

I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier. Al Piantadosi and Alfred Bryan, 1915

I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Slacker. Theodore Baker, 1917

I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Slacker. Theodore Baker, 1917

Ah Didn't Raise Mah Boy to be a Slacker. Al Hart, 1917

Ah Didn’t Raise Mah Boy to be a Slacker. Al Hart, 1917

Later songs inspired citizens to support their sons, husbands, and brothers to enlist. Quite a few titles asked mothers to encourage their sons to enlist and not be considered a “slacker.” One variation notes that the mother would rather see her son dead than hanging his head because he avoided the call to war. Another, aimed at African American men, and written in African American Vernacular English, tells the story of a young man who is shamed by his mother and has his proposal of marriage rejected because he has not answered the call of Uncle Sam. One song stated that the son was answering the call of Uncle Sam to defeat the Huns, even though he was not raised to be a soldier.

  • Use the analysis tool to support study of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Slacker.” Ask students to define“slacker” and to explain why men who did not volunteer to serve were considered slackers. To what extent do they think that people who do not join the military now should be considered slackers?
  • For comparison, students can analyze “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier.” Support students as they explore ways that the two songs share similar themes and how each makes its point. What is the role of patriotism in each?
  • Provide some of the different versions of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Slacker.” What similarities and differences do students see between the different songs with the same title? Are there any benefits to being a soldier or the family of a soldier based on the songs?
  • Share the sheet music for “Ah didn’t raise mah boy to be a Slacker.” Ask students why they think it was written in African American Vernacular English.
  • Students may create a song to encourage recruitment during World War I. Ask them to explain how they selected a target audience.

Looking for more primary sources from World War I? Visit the World War I Resources page.

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Sometimes listeners are surprised to find a familiar tune lurking behind the lyrics of a new song. Songwriters may revisit and reuse existing compositions, hoping to catch a listener’s attention through something familiar. The Civil War era song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” not only resembles an earlier song, but also inspired a number of parodies.

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