Music, World War I

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World War I had a significant impact on U.S. music-making and its reception, different from other wars in the challenge posed to a U.S. symphonic and operatic musical culture that was so deeply rooted in Austro-Germanic music as to be considered a musical colony of the Central Powers. At the same time, as with all wars, music performed important functions such as the bolstering of morale, military recruiting, and the assertion of at least the illusion of a unified national identity. Ironically, a conflict that was promoted as one that would preserve freedom led to domestic censorship of German music and the internment and deportation of orchestral musicians. Fueled by the Committee on Public Information—the federal government's information ministry, led by George Creel—many citizens of the United States demonstrated their loyalty to the country in ways that both embraced the culture of the Allies and simultaneously denounced anything related to the culture of the Central Powers. Creel's volunteer corps, the Four-Minute Men, gave lectures explaining the motives and purposes of the war, and beginning in September 1918 they augmented their speeches with music, leading audiences at movie theaters to sing along with projected stills that had the song lyrics and related images.

popular music

Between the European outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the point at which the United States joined the Allies in April 1917, musical sentiments reflected popular anxieties over U.S. involvement. The burgeoning sheet music industry that had prospered around the region called Tin Pan Alley in New York City since the 1890s offered up songs like "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier"; brisk sales of the sheet music were followed by a recording, released in March 1915, which was popular until it was withdrawn in April 1917. With the U.S. entry into the war, song titles quickly shifted to ones like "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Coward" and "America Needs You," reflecting the need to persuade young men to enlist in the military and providing a musical equivalent to recruiting posters such as James Montgomery Flagg's famous "I Want You for U.S. Army."

Some popular songs from England that were originally associated with British soldiers entering into the war became hits in the United States, including "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag" and "Keep the Home Fires Burning." War themes were reflected in many other songs, including "You're In the Army Now" and "K-K-K-Katy," billed as "The Sensational Stammering Song Success Sung by the Soldiers and Sailors." Perhaps the single most famous U.S. song to originate from World War I, George M. Cohan's "Over There" was first performed publicly at a Red Cross benefit concert in New York City in the fall of 1917. Cohan said that the memorable three-note melodic hook ("O-ver there") was a dramatization of a bugle call; the disjunct, triadic melody suggests a militaristic optimism that diminished as the war progressed. Soldiers on the front entertained themselves with topical songs like "Hinky-Dinky, Parley-Voo?" and "Hail! Hail! The Gang's All Here," as well as songs like "My Old Kentucky Home" or "I Want to Go Back to Michigan," which simply reminded them of home.

classical music and censorship

Censorship began to affect many things associated in the popular mind with the Central Powers. Sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage," dachshunds became "liberty pups," and the triple meter dance rhythm so popular at the turn of the century in Viennese operettas and Tin Pan Alley waltz songs was replaced with the strong duple patterns of the march and the foxtrot. Educators and politicians in many cases prevented the teaching of the German language in public schools. In California, the State Council for National Defense attempted to purge all public school music books of any songs derived from German sources; as a result, the music books of countless schoolchildren had pages torn out, rendering them largely unusable.

The reaction of professional music companies in larger urban areas varied. Although there were no official policies restricting the performance of German music, there were laws restricting the activities of "enemy aliens"—individuals not born or naturalized as U.S. citizens. A ban on alien employment in Washington, D.C., meant that many major orchestras could not perform in the nation's capital. In Pittsburgh, the symphony banned all German music from its programs, while orchestras in New York City restricted their bans to living German composers. The Metropolitan Opera Company, also in New York City, banned all German music from its repertoire following the U.S. entry into the war, a harsher measure than was taken in England, where operas by Mozart and Wagner were still performed, although in English translations. The famous Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler took a hiatus from concertizing after being banned in Jersey City and Pittsburgh. Frederick Stock, the German-born conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and several of his players also opted for a voluntary wartime retirement (before the war, rehearsals had typically been held in German). Geraldine Farrar, a famous opera singer born in Massachusetts, was alleged to have pro-German sentiments, and when she starred in Cecil B. DeMille's film Joan the Woman in 1917 she eliminated any doubts about her loyalty by wrapping a U.S. flag around her body and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in the lobby of a Boston theater.

"the star spangled banner"

Although the United States did not have an official national anthem until Congress and President Herbert Hoover declared one on March 3, 1931, "The Star-Spangled Banner" played a prominent role during World War I. Based on an English song connected to a drinking society, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was used, with different words, by both sides during the Civil War. The U.S. Service Bands needed a distinctive tune when performing with other Allied bands, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order making it the official anthem of the armed forces. The U.S. Marine Band, when conducted by the German-born William F. Santelmann, concluded all its concerts with "The Star-Spangled Banner," and a concert program from July 3, 1916, contained perhaps the first instruction that the entire audience was required to stand at attention as the anthem was played. Rising during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" became a kind of loyalty test, and on May 6, 1919, a man was shot in the back three times for refusing to stand.

Orchestras were expected to open their programs with "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a sign of loyalty. The most infamous instance involved Karl Muck, a highly regarded conductor who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra after building a distinguished career in his native Germany. In October 1917, the Boston Symphony was to perform in Providence, Rhode Island; management had refused a request to open the concert with "The Star-Spangled Banner." Although not involved in that decision, Muck was quickly branded a traitor by powerful voices, including that of Theodore Roosevelt, who was quoted in the New York Times (November 3, 1917) as saying that "any man who refuses to play the 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in this time of national crisis, should be forced to pack up and return to the country he came from." A Boston Symphony concert planned for Baltimore, the birthplace of the national anthem, was cancelled after a former Maryland governor, Edwin Warfield, volunteered to lead a violent mob in protest. Despite Muck's eventual performances of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and his offer to resign his conducting post, the charges against him continued to build, and after being arrested in March 1918 he was sent to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where he was imprisoned as an enemy alien with Ernst Kunwald, the (former) conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. An investigation by the Justice Department found Muck guilty only of "alleged pro-German sympathies and utterances" (Tischler 81) and he was deported shortly after the end of the war, in August 1919. Boston's next two conductors were French.


American singer, dancer, and songwriter George M. Cohan penned the top "hit" of World War I in 1917, during a forty-five minute commuter train ride from New Rochelle, New York to New York City. In 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Medal of Honor to acknowledge this song, which inspired listeners during both world wars.

Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run
Hear them calling you and me;
Every son of liberty.
Hurry right away, no delay, go today,
Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad.
Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
To be proud her boy's in line.


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.
So prepare, say a pray'r,
Send the word, send the word to beware.
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back till it's over over there.

Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Johnnie show the Hun, you're a son-of-a-gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly,
Like true heroes do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.
Soldiers from the ranks, from the towns and the tanks,
Make your mother proud of you,
And to liberty be true.


music in the concert hall

One consequence of the anti-Germanism within professional orchestras was that more U.S.-born musicians were hired and promoted. In September 1918, an U.S.-born violinist assumed the position of concertmaster with a major U.S. orchestra for the first time when Frederick Fradken became the concertmaster with the Boston Symphony. Although the percentage of German works programmed by orchestra and opera companies declined during 1917 through 1919, the void was not generally filled by the works of U.S. composers. The maverick U.S. composer Charles Ives, whose music was not widely heard during his lifetime, responded to the sinking of the Lusitania in his piece "From Hanover Square North at the End of a Tragic Day the People Again Arose" and to the role of the U.S. soldier in the song "He Is There!" which he revised in 1942 under the title "They Are There!" By the 1920s, German repertoire had reasserted itself within U.S. musical culture.


Arnold, Ben. Music and War: A Research and Information Guide. New York and London: Garland, 1993.

Badal, James J. "Prisoner: 1337; Occupation: Conductor, Boston Symphony Orchestra." High Fidelity/Musical America 20, no. 10 (October, 1970): 55–60.

Horowitz, Joseph. Understanding Toscanini: A Social History of American Concert Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Lowens, Irving. "L'affaire Muck: A Study in War Hysteria (1917–1918)."Musicology 1, no. 3 (1947): 265–274.

"Send Dr. Muck Back, Roosevelt Advises." New York Times, November 3, 1917.

Tischler, Barbara L. An American Music: The Search for an American Musical Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Watkins, Glenn. Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Neil W. Lerner

See also:Music, World War II; USO.

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