(Pictured: sheet music for one of the popular songs of World War I.)
The rise of jazz, which began in earnest shortly after World War I, is responsible for our modern conception of rhythm and how pop music should sound. Critic Gary Giddins is blunt: he credits Louis Armstrong, who first rose to fame in the 1920s, with inventing “modern time.” After Armstrong arrives, popular music of every style, not just jazz, relaxes and feels more “natural”—at least to our ears, which can’t remember a time when music didn’t have that feeling. But practically everything that precedes Armstrong’s innovations sounds bizarre to us: stiff and mannered performances, painfully sentimental lyrics and arrangements, and in the case of the “coon songs,” idiotically racist content. Add to that the primitive tech of the times, acoustic recordings reproduced on Edison cylinders, and the music of what is known as the Pioneer Era of Recording (pre-1920) sounds like it came from another planet.
That said, however, people of a century ago were about as interested in pop music as we are now, even without radio and other modern mass media to proliferate it. Popular songs would be born in the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley and make their way to vaudeville stages in New York, and from there to vaudeville stages in smaller cities. By the time a hit song reached a purchaser, it was often in the form of sheet music, which was cheaper than cylinders. And 100 years ago, the song was more important than the performance anyhow. You’d play it yourself, on your zither or your spinet or your parlor organ or whatever you had.
I’m reading a book right now called The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. Beginning in 2003, author Richard Rubin set out to interview as many surviving World War I veterans as he could find, and he found dozens, ranging in age from 101 to 113. His book tells their stories and recreates their world. One early chapter talks about the music of World War I, and how quickly Tin Pan Alley responded once the war in Europe began. Tin Pan Alley was good at that, according to Rubin. Popular songs 100 years ago were a form of news media. If something significant happened, from a political assassination to a natural disaster, songs about it would hit the stores almost immediately.
So songs about the war were plentiful. In 1914 and 1915, there was a certain ambivalence about it, expressed in songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” but after 1916, and especially after the United States formally entered the war in 1917, popular songs about the war were universally supportive of it. There were songs that promised to smash the Germans, like “When the Yankees Yank the Kaiser Off His Throne” and “It’s a Long Way to Berlin But We’ll Get There.” There were songs that promised support for France, like “France, We’ll Rebuild Your Towns for You.” There were love songs made topical by referring to the war, such as “While You’re Over There in No Man’s Land, I’m Over Here in Lonesome Land.” And there were maudlin numbers like “When a Boy Says Goodbye to His Mother (And She Gives Him to Uncle Sam)” and “He Sleeps Beneath the Soil of France.” Not to mention George M. Cohan’s famous “Over There,” and the English songs “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (a marching song actually written in 1912, before the war began) and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” And dozens of others, many with the bizarrely long titles so fashionable back then.
Just as the First World War is overshadowed in 20th century history by World War II, the cultural history of First World War pop has been overshadowed by other, later events. Archeophone Records, which has as its mission excavating and retelling the history of the Pioneer Era, is just out with a series called The Great War: An American Musical Fantasy, collecting popular songs from the World War I era. The companion website is a fabulous work of scholarship, describing the propaganda value of the songs, revealing how the American public thought—and how they were being encouraged to think—of the war in Europe, the enemy, and their fellow citizens on the homefront. It describes an era that is both quite different from and significantly similar to our own.