The European War began in July, 1914 and raged through three more years before the United States entered. Then it became known as The Great War. It is indeed a great historical and cultural marker, a border between the 19th century and the modern world, the shift from a European to American centered western world, and the beginning of the end of the reign of Kings, Kaisers, and Tsars and their colonies.
Millions of men and hundreds of thousands of women for the first time traveled farther than a few miles from the small towns, farms, and cities where they and their parents were born to face modern warfare–airplanes, tanks, and nerve gas–but also to experience a world far larger than any of their ancestors had ever done.
Here’s a Soldier’s Tale told by popular song sheet music from 1915 to 1922.
1915 Will the United States enter the War?
The United States did not enter the war until after 1917, and the debate raged as to whether our country should intervene or not. I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier, advocating pacifism, sold close to 1 million copies… until after intense propaganda made opposition to the war unpatriotic. Parodies such as I didn’t raise my boy to be a coward and others followed after the mood of the country changed. Songs about mothers and sons such as Break the News to Mother had been popular all the way back to the Civil War, and they became popular again as this new conflict became inevitable.
1917 Songs the Soldiers and Sailors Sang
Whipping up patriotism and enthusiasm for the war, songs like When the Yankees Yank the Kaiser Off His Throne often included references to “The Hun”, or “the Beast”, or worse. The dehumanizing of the enemy went further on both sides than ever before, and propaganda reached new levels of savagery.
Listen: We’re All Going Calling on the Kaiser. Sung by Arthur Fields and Chorus. Edison Blue Amberol 3568.
1918 Serving Over There
The charm of exotic French girls which in reality very few of the soldiers ever came in contact with—the men were sent to the Belgian and German border, not to Paris—nevertheless became one of the legends of the war, possibly created in songs like Wee Wee Marie to charm reluctant boys to enlist. The hemline on the mademoiselle on the cover of Wee, Wee, Marie would not have been allowed on a nice girl back home.
1919 Peace At Last
When the boys returned from the war a few may have seen “Paree”, but all of them experienced more life than their parents or grandparents had ever dreamed of. After a year or two of the filth and blood in the trenches, they were not quite ready to settle down and milk the cow as if nothing had changed. Everything had.
Listen: How Ya Gonna Keep Him Down on the Farm. Sung by Arthur Fields. Victor 18537. 1919.
1920 The Party Begins
The Roaring 20s and the Jazz Age begins, helped along by Prohibition. Alcoholic beverages became illegal in the United States in 1919, but the party went on anyway, the trick of drinking illegally making it more attractive. The abrupt change in entertainment and morals shocked many people, but songs like Do a Little This, Do a Little That turned the shock into comedy. Night clubs; new, wild dances; and dangerous Jazz music: all the work of the devil.
1922. Remembering the Fallen
Although written as a love song “My Buddy” and several other songs from the early 1920s (I wonder where my buddies are tonight? from 1926) captured a different mood of the returning soldiers. Rather than French girls, they had seen friends around them dying in the trenches. These songs expressed the love of lost comrades and the affection between males created by hardship and shared experiences.
When the flower’s bloom in No Man’s Land, bringing a message of Peace and Love,
And the cannon’s roar is heard no more, what a message from above.
When the sun shines through the clouds of war, when Peace covers all the earth and sea,
And when each Mother’s Son has laid down his gun, what a wonderful day that will be!
The sheet music on this post is all public domain and from the following sites.
Sheet Music Consortium (Indiana University, John Hopkins University, Duke University, and others).
The recordings in the public domain are from the following.
Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project (UC Santa Barbara)
The National Jukebox (Library of Congress)
Further reading on music and The Great War.
Ben Arnold. Music and War: A Research and Information Guide. New York: Garland, 1993.
(UCLA Music Library ML 128.A2A75 1993)
Bernard S. Parker. World War I Sheet Music. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 2007.
(UCLA Music Library: ML 128.W2P37 2007)
Glen Watkins. Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003
(UCLA Music Library: ML 197.W436 2003)