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YYGS Music and Power: World War I

A guide for the Yale Young Global Scholars class on Music and Power.

Making a Recording in the Pre-Electric Era

Jan Kubelik recording acoustically

I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier


Al Piantadosi (music) and Alfred Bryan (words) “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (New York: Leo Feist, 1915)

Over There


George M. Cohan “Over There” (New York: William Jerome Publishing Corp., 1917)


There's a Long, Long Trail


Zo Elliott. “The Long Trail March: Founded on Zo Elliott’s famous song, ‘There’s a Long, Long Trail,’” arranged by J. Ord Hume (London: West & Co., 1916)

Let's All Be Americans Now


Irving Berlin, Edgar Leslie & Geo. W. Meyer
“Let’s All Be Americans Now”
(New York: Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co., 1917)

Google Doc for this Topic

General Introduction

 American popular sheet music from 1913-1918 reflects the changing public perspectives on the on World War I (1914-1918). Some of these songs were popular enough to have been recorded, and these early recordings can often be found online. While many popular songs about from World War I were newly composed, songs from earlier times also took on new meaning as the soldiers and their families and sweethearts sang them.

The songs below, which were composed by songwriters and published by commercial publishers, reflect widespread attitudes towards World War I, changing over time. The earliest is “There’s a Long, Long Trail.” Although it was composed in 1913, it became a wartime favorite and in intervening years has been used in film, television, and radio shows that refer to the war. From 1914 to 1916, the United States stayed out of the war, and pacifist feelings were strong. In fact, Woodrow Wilson's party used the slogan "He kept us out of the war" for his second presidential campaign in 1916. But after the declaration of war in 1917, patriotic fervor swept the country, and this was reflected in songs that called upon people to support the war effort by volunteering, registering for the draft, or buying Liberty Bonds. George M. Cohan’s “Over There” is a well-known example. There were also romantic songs of parted lovers, sad songs of soldiers who might not return to their families, comic songs or novelty songs, marches, and victory songs.

World War I (1914-1918) took place during the time before radio, when sound recordings had been commercially available for only about 20 years, and had to be recorded by singing or playing into a great horn. Sheet music (individually published songs or pieces of a few pages in length) was the way most popular music was distributed. Many homes had pianos and many people made their own music. Highly decorative sheet music covers and "song pluggers" (musicians hired by music stores to play the new songs) were primary marketing tools for the sheet music. The examples below show the illustrated covers, have links to the published music and lyrics, as well as audio examples from the still-budding recording industry. The recordings were made by popular groups and singers as well as by leading operatic and concert artists, such as the Irish tenor John McCormack, to help support the war effort.

I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier by Al Piatandosi and Alfred Bryan

This was one of the first anti-war songs and it was very popular. It helped win supporters to the pacificist cause, including women suffragettes.

Both the music and lyrics open with a quotation from “The Minstrel Boy to the War has Gone,” but the sentiment of the lyrics, like the title, are definitely against war:

Ten million soldiers to the war have gone,
Who may never return again.
Ten million mothers' hearts must break
For the ones who died in vain…

I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother's darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,
It's time to lay the sword and gun away…

The war years saw an increase in marketing and music sales, as a successful song could realize $100,000 in profits for the publisher. In addition to printing colorful sheet music covers, music publishers also paid singers to “plug” songs in vaudeville theaters, burlesque theaters, and music halls. The singers’ names and photographs were then printed on the cover. Our sheet music cover shows singer Ed (Eddie) Morton, also known as “The Singing Cop,” but there are at least nine different covers with other performers.

These marketing tactics were successful: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” was in the top 20 charts in sheet music sales from January through July 1915, reaching number one in March and April, and selling 650,000 copies. The song also provoked many responses later on, including “I’d Be Proud to Be the Mother of a Soldier” (1915), “I’m Going to Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier and a Credit to the U.S.A.” (1916), “America, Here’s My Boy” (1917), “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Slacker” (1917), and, more humorously, “I Didn’t Raise My Dog to be a Sausage” (1915).

Over There by George M. Cohan

When the United States entered the war, sheet music and recordings became a form of propaganda for the war effort. On April 7, 1917, the day following the signing of the War Declaration, George M. Cohan sat down and composed “Over There.” He took the beginning of the tune from the bugle call “Reveille” and the opening words “Johnny get your gun, get your gun” from an 1886 song title, and by the next morning the song was completed. It wasn’t registered for copyright until June of that year, but within a month the sheet music was in the Top 20 chart. It was the most successful song of World War I, rising to Number 1 in the charts from August 1917 through January 1918. More than 2 million copies of sheet music and 1 million recordings were sold. The song was originally published by William Jerome, but Leo Feist bought the copyright, advertising on sheet music and in The Saturday Evening Post that he had paid the highest price ever for a song, the sum of $25,000. In 1936 Cohan was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for this song and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Copies of the song with three different covers are preserved in the Vocal Sheet Music Collection and can be seen in the exhibition linked below. They show an original printing, with Nora Bayes (left), who first introduced the song, on the cover; an early Feist copy, with a cover by Albert Wilfred Barbelle, a prolific cover artist whose career spanned four decades; and cover art by Norman Rockwell, who was just beginning a long career as an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. Early recordings feature Enrico Caruso, Nora Bayes, The American Quartet, and the Peerless Quartet. The artist in our recording, Arthur Fields, made recordings with many bands and labels between 1918 and the early 1940s, and was also a composer and lyricist.

Optional Reading & Listening

See the boxes below

There's a Long, Long Trail by Zo Elliott and Stoddard King (1913)

 “There’s a Long, Long Trail” was composed here at Yale, in Connecticut Hall, when Zo Elliott (Yale Class of 1913) and Stoddard King (Yale Class of 1914) collaborated on it so that they might attend, all expenses paid, the Zeta Psi banquet in Boston in the spring of 1913. The “lugubrious ditty” (as King styled it) went over well—the Zetes stopped throwing bread, listened attentively, and joined in the final chorus. Elliott tried to find an American publisher, to no avail. Later, while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, he met Claude Yearsley, owner of West Publishing Co., who published it at the end of 1913, although Elliott’s mother had to pay for half the cost of publication. Elliott wrote that the song first attracted widespread attention when “a boatload of Canadian soldiers sang it coming down the Thames from a Sunday outing.” Soon it was picked up by others, and British Tommies marched off to war with it and sang it constantly, while waiting in the trenches and going “over the top.” 

Eventually, its success was such that the American publisher M. Witmark & Sons took interest. It sold well in the United States from 1915 through 1919, achieving the number 6 ranking in sheet music sales in October 1916, and number 3 in March 1918. Yale awarded it the Vernon Prize “for the best poem expressive of Yale ideals, life, and associations” in 1918, the first time a popular song had received the award.
In a recording of the service at the Albert Hall in London on the 9th anniversary of the Armistice, following a speech by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), one can hear ten thousand British veterans singing this song. The song became popular again during World War II, and performed by The King’s Men in For Me and My Gal, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, in 1942. In subsequent years, it has often been emblematic of the First World War music in television, film, and documentaries. Comments on YouTube document that people first learned this song through shows such as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (as heard by Snoopy, the WWI flying ace) and M*A*S*H. More recently, commemorative services held in Ypres, Belgium, on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, July 30, 2017, featured “There’s a Long, Long Trail.”

The piano arrangement, The Long Trail March, shows the cover used by West Publishing Co., modified to show a line of marching infantry, and with a three-color cover in khaki, black, and white. The original cover, in two colors, showed a solitary hiker. West also published The Long Trail Waltz for piano. The Zo Elliott Papers also preserve orchestral and band arrangements, published by West for the British market and by M. Witmark and Son for the American and Canadian markets.

Let's All Be Americans Now By Irving Berlin, Edgar Leslie, and George W. Meyer

Irving Berlin, Edgar Leslie, and George W. Meyer's "Let's All Be Americans Now" represents another effort to win popular support for the war by appealing to the public’s sense of patriotism. The recording is from February 28, 1917, shortly before war was declared, as can be heard in the lines “We’re not looking for any kind of war, but if fight we must….” The lyrics also appeal to Americans of origins on both sides of the war: “England or France may have your sympathy, or Germany, but you’ll agree, that now is the time to fall in line. You swore that you would, so be true to your vow, let’s all be Americans now.” After the United States entered the war, “We’re not looking for any kind of war” was changed to “Now that war’s declared, We’ll show we’re prepared” and the reference to Germany became “over the sea.”

Sheet Music From World War I: Yale Music Library Online Exhibition