The Muse Dons Khaki: American Songs and Music of World War I

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1963

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Abstract

During the years 1917 and 1918 the United States participated in a "war to end all wars." During the conflict the government deliberately enlisted the power of song both at home and on the fighting front to help in the great task of winning the war. The idea of organized singing in the training of the U. S. Army was comparatively new at the time America entered World War I, but it soon came to be recognized as an integral part of the training itself. The government encouraged singing in the army both on marches and in leisure-time groups because it contributed substantially to the enjoyment, contentment and efficiency of the soldier. The ballads, however, that eased tired muscles after a long days march and boosted morale after a day of heavy fighting were not government sponsored songs, but parodies and GI folk songs that the Sammies themselves composed. These ditties gave glimpses of the real army, the friendly rivalry between the various branches and the traditional humor of the service. Such songs, though lusty and bawdy, preserved for posterity the spirit of the A.E.F. Then, too, songs and music proved to be of great value to the "stay-at-homes" during World War I. Our "army of the interior" responded readily to the stimulus of music. It participated in "Liberty Sings," "Bond Singing," and "Four-minute Singing" in the nation's theaters. The civilian community wanted to sing popular patriotic songs because it then felt a closer relationship to loved ones who were in service. In addition, song fests satisfied man's natural craving for security and inspiration. During the American period of the war, Tin Pan Alley rushed to the fore and supplied the country with no less than nine thousand songs from 1917 to 1919. Such ditties buoyed up sunken spirits, boosted morale, and made for a united force on the home front. Songs are usually a yardstick of the times and give us a clue as to what the entire populace is thinking or how it feels about certain issues. The songs and music of our country from 1914 to 1919 reflected not only the history but moods, manners and impulses that constituted the American way of life. In 1914 and 1915 our songs exhibited a staunch pacifism and a fervent desire to remain aloof from the political entanglements in Europe. However, in 1916, 1917 and 1918 the pacifism which had been exhibited earlier in our songs gave way to a surging pride and a firm determination to win the war. Then in 1919 our songs reflected the relief and happiness that came when the task of war was over. Music during World War I was not a luxury or a gift but a necessity. Songs were indispensable to our armed forces, but they were also a necessity for those who had to remain behind, to hope, to pray and to wait.

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