Popular Songs of the Great War: Background and Audio Resources

Article excerpt

The Great War will live vividly in the minds of Americans for the next hundred years.

--Thomas A. Edison, "Let Us Not Forget," 1919 (1)


The world entered into the second great conflict of the twentieth century in the late 1930s; it was known as the Great War, "the war to end all wars," lasting over four years (August 1914 to November 1918), and taking many millions of lives--as many as ten million or more. It proved not to be the end of wars, however, and some historians now see it as the beginning of a pervasive, century-long struggle for the hearts and wealth of nations and their citizens, a worldwide struggle that continues into the twenty-first century. (2) There are very few today who may recall at first hand the sights and sounds of that great conflict, which officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919-five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In a few years, we will observe the centenary of the beginning of the Great War; several generations have passed since then, but thanks to the sophisticated development of sound recording and cinematography, starting around the turn of the twentieth century, we can now see moving pictures of actual events taking place during World War I, and we can hear the same recordings or at least authentic echoes of the songs that provided courage to those heading east across the Atlantic or southward across the English Channel, offering a moment of diversion for those in the trenches and some comfort to the lonely and bereaved left at home. (3)

During the administration of President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), who reluctantly gave the orders for America's entry into the war in April of 1917, our citizens (about 100 million strong in those days, one-third as many as today) were making music on a large scale, large enough to support dozens of piano manufacturers, publishers of sheet music, producers of phonographs, and entrepreneurs of sound recordings. Craig H. Roell, in The Piano in America, 1890--1940, provides some eye-catching statistics:

By 1914 more than 500,000 phonographs were being produced each year, with a value of $27 million. But in 1914, a record 323,000 pianos were also produced, valued at $56 million. Piano manufacturers, who were selling unprecedented numbers of pianos, were hardly worried by the possible threat of competition. (4)

During this period, sheet music publishers thrived as well. For five full years, from the onset of hostilities until midway into 1919, they marketed as many as 7,300 popular songs that could be classified as patriotic or otherwise associated with the war. (5) Well over 200 of these songs, roughly estimated, were acoustically recorded and distributed commercially by the "big three" firms of Edison, Victor, and Columbia (6) and others in the United States, as well as Decca and Gramophone in the United Kingdom. (7) Radio broadcasting on a large scale was just around the corner. (The broadcast of the inauguration of President Warren G. Harding on 4 March 1921 has been recognized as a major event in the history of radio and the first of its kind; KDKA in Pittsburgh, the first commercial radio station in this country, began broadcasting on 2 November 1920.) (8)

The avid listener to popular songs during the Great War had no need of electricity in order to enjoy the music. At home, there would be the parlor piano--upright or grand (almost exclusively in grand households)--a "library" of sheet music (often stored in the piano bench), and a mechanical playback device (with its prominent "horn" and wind-up crank). Nearby in the household would be a collection of recordings in the platter format, which by this time had gained favor over the cylinder format. (The latter was promoted for years by Thomas A. Edison [1847-1931], who is given credit for the invention of the phonograph.) And there would be no competition from the radio, still in its infancy. …