“Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word, over there!
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming everywhere!”
George M. Cohan, 1917
And, as of April 6, 1917, the Yanks finally were coming. That’s when Congress officially approved a declaration of war on the German Empire. World War I, which ended 100 years ago this month, resulted in an outpouring of patriotic expression not seen since the Civil War. This time, however, the nation joined together in facing an external enemy. Defeating that enemy called not only for military might, but also for a unified effort on the home front. Carrying the banner: American popular music.
Prior to the war, popular song themes followed predictable routes: heart-tugging love ballads, paeans to bygone days and lands, and comic turns. Now, new themes emerged, with those of the past adapted to suit present needs. Major categories included:
Recruiting songs: “If I Had a Son for Each Star in Old Glory, (Uncle Sam, I’d Give Them All to You)”.
Peppy morale boosters: “Liberty Bell, It’s Time to Ring Again”.
Romanticized looks at military life. “The Rose of No Man’s Land” (a tribute to the Red Cross nurse.)
Visions of life after wartime: “Your Lips Are No Man’s Land But Mine”.
Weepers: “Hello Central, Give Me No Man’s Land”
Comic novelties: “Would You Rather Be a Colonel with an Eagle on Your Shoulder or a Private with a Chicken On Your Knee?”
While numerous composers churned out suited-to-the-times songs during the war years, two top the list: George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin.
From the early 1900s onward, Cohan took the country by storm. His stage productions included such rousers as “Give My Regards To Broadway” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag.” But one song — 1917’s “Over There” — won him an enduring spot in the popular culture of Word War I. Energetically capturing America’s can-do spirit, it was recorded by practically everyone, including Cohan himself, and opera legend Enrico Caruso.
Irving Berlin’s major WWI contribution came after his enlistment. Stationed in Yaphank, New York, he was given an assignment right up his (Tin Pan) alley: creating a stage production as a camp fund-raiser.
Yip Yip Yaphank was an entertainment grab bag. There were acrobats, jugglers, military drills, and even a boxing demonstration. Tying it all together: an all-new Berlin score. Its most unique aspect was the cast. All were Army recruits (even the towering “Ziegfeld Girls”). Among them: Sgt. Irving Berlin himself, plaintively wailing “Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning”. (A Berlin composition not making the Yaphank cut: “God Bless America.” That one had to wait for the dawn of another war, and the vocals of Kate Smith.)
Yip Yip Yaphank concluded with “We’re On Our Way To France,” the soldier/performers marching up the theatre aisles, and back to their barracks. The final Broadway performance on September 14, 1918, however, had a different ending. This time, as the cast (led by Sgt. Berlin) exited singing “We’re On Our Way to France,” their march took them to the troop carrier destined to transport them overseas.
For today’s collectors, World War I sheet music is an attractive collectible. The artwork is generally superb, done by such illustrators as Norman Rockwell. Some collectors may want the work of a specific composer. Others may wish to collect as many cover variations of a specific song as possible. The price is certainly right: lots of 10 or so assorted pieces in acceptable condition often show up on eBay for a “buy-it-now” price of under $30; single mint copies by a specific composer or artist are in the $25-50 range.
World War I marked a tipping point in American history, as the country charged full speed ahead into the 20th century. Sheet music, its tuneful souvenir, provides a colorful, ongoing reminder of this proud heritage.
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann.
Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan sheet music courtesy of Michael Deatz
The National World War I Museum and Memorial is located in Kansas City, Missouri. Detailed information is available on the museum’s website, www.theworldwar.org
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org