Perfect Sound Forever

National Opinion in song

Photo courtesy of The Parlor Songs Association, Inc.

American Popular Music, 1914-1918
by Mike Wood
(February 2007)

Would it be right to call some pop songs from the World War I era 'subversive,' or is the larger question one of whether pop music has the ability to speak certain truths? Certainly America’s entry into World War I, and even before when discussions were made about our involvement, caused an introspection that the country had not really engaged in since the Civil War.

There being no "underground" or "alternative" music to express the broad range of emotions at work in these debates, it was left to the popular tune to speak for the public. This, of course, ignores the more raw and risky blues, jazz and country music available in certain areas, but the majority of the country did not have access to such growing genres. How did pop composers respond to such a calamitous event? Was there room in the popular song for both patriotism and caution? How would other emotions, such as fear, pacifism, even cynicism, be expressed on the hit parade?

Surprisingly, there is a wide range on sentiment expressed in popular songs during the period from 1914 through the end of the first World War. Off-to-war songs, waiting at home songs, soldiers songs, patriotic songs did allow for dissent and grief (or fear) to be addressed. However, as is natural, as America entered the war and its young men began to die, dissent and anger were overpowered by patriotism, to the point where dissent, in song as well as in daily life, was demonized as 'treasonous.' So what effects, then, did popular music have on public opinion and the perception of the war during the brief period of debate over America’s role?

In 1914, the mood of the country was mainly isolationist. The feeling was among most Americans was that the growing conflict in Europe was a local problem only, and that America should remain neutral. With a large immigrant population consisting of people from all of the belligerent powers, that stance was understandable. This diversity would prove a lightning rod for patriots and opportunists alike as the decade moved forward. But at this point, no one’s loyalty to America was questioned. During 1914, several hit songs reflected the sense of keeping to ourselves, and maybe helping out where we could with the war effort. Tunes such as "Don’t Take My Darling Boy Away" by Albert Von Tilzer and Cobb and Edwards’ "Goodbye Little Girl Goodbye" reflect the growing anxiety in some quarters, while songs like "Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers" served to acknowledge how America could play some part in the war effort. Isolationism did not mean a disregard for suffering though. The mood of the country at large was perhaps best expressed by Chas. K. Harris, whose hit "When Angels Weep" called for prayers and for peace.

By 1915, the calls for a more explicit American involvement were growing. Yet the moral conflict among the public was also coming to head. This was explored by the fascinating call and response tunes by Bryan and Piantadosi and Frank Hudson. A song from the former pair, "I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier," reflected the isolationist side, and spoke for those who, becoming more aware of the carnage and stalemate in Europe, did want to commit American lives in an increasingly senseless conflict.

In a direct rebuttal, Hudson’s "I Tried to Raise My Boy to be a Hero" stressed the need for America to assert itself into the war, to use our growing power and influence as a nation to resolve the conflict. Such call and response songs were common in the blues, and it is interesting to see the device used to debate national policy by writers who most likely hadn't much blues or were aware of its prowess in personal commentary. As the debate heated, and reactions on both sides became more volatile, it was only a matter of time before music publishers, sensing an opportunity to influence opinion through hit songs, stepped out with their own rhetoric.

Leo Feist was the first publisher to wear the flag on his sleeve. A firm believer in intervention, he began, in 1916, to print the legend "Music Will Win The War" on the back of the sheet music to his company’s releases. In addition, he also included a long essay urging the nation to sing in unison, and unite for a common and moral cause. He believed that American popular music, if used to spread positive, patriotic messages, could be inspirational to other nations. This overlooked the fact that rabid patriotism was, at this point, one of the driving forces behind the continuation of the quagmire in Europe. Yet, this was increasingly becoming the majority opinion in the nation, further fueled by President Wilson’s legislation restricting free speech and dissent, and figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Rev. Billy Sunday urging massive military intervention. By 1917, debate had largely been silenced and Andino and Bedard’s hit "Everybody Do Your Bit" was the official line in discourse. Americans were soon leaving their homes to board ships bound for the fighting.

Perhaps as a way to comprehend the coming losses and sacrifices, or perhaps because patriotism is fueled by it, melodramatic and rousing, as well as maudlin, ballads and marches dominated the charts. A short but representative list of such hits includes "Where Do We Go From Here?" by Johnson and Weinrich; Mohr and Goodwin’s "Liberty Bell (It’s Time to Ring Again)", and "Long Boy" by Walker and Herschell. Cheerily sending the youth of America off into what had become a meat grinder overseas were "America Here’s My Boy" by Lange and Sterling, and "Goodbye Broadway, Hello France" by Baskette, Reisner and Davis, to say nothing of the classics like "Over There" and "Tipperary." It was at this time that another publisher, Jos. W. Stern would also begin to put patriotic messages on the covers of his sheet music to rally support for the war effort. His most famous was "Food will win the war, don’t waste it!"

That American entry in the war helped end it and most likely prevented a German victory is fact. The less certain question of whether or not American lives should have been sacrificed for an immoral war between royal siblings is another matter. In popular music, 1917 and 1918 were almost exclusively patriotic:

Even "The Kiss That Made Me Cry" by Gottler, Burns and Fields, an ode to the trauma of saying goodbye to one’s children, did not question the motives behind such a sacrifice. The commitment was made and, in light of America’s role in winning the war and its subsequent emergence as a world power, all questions of dissent and morality regarding the war were supplanted by national optimism and sense of destiny. Yet it is clear that there was a short time during America’s buildup to the war, that other voices were heard. Such a rigid conservative genre as the American pop song, in the birth of its glory days of dominance on the charts, still allowed for dissenting voices, however feeble when compared to the majority opinion. This reflects not only the power of democracy as it was then practiced in America, but also serves to raise the same questions of how dissenting voices are treated in reaction to current national policies.

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