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Soundtrack of America's Conflicts
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Soundtrack of America's Conflicts

Soundtrack of America’s Conflicts

Every war has a musical soundtrack — familiar songs and melodies that Americans associate with these important periods. Early in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the song “I’m Already There” became the unofficial anthem of the soldiers and their families, describing how it feels to remain close at heart even when far away. In the Gulf War, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” brought the whole nation together as we hoped the troops would come home safely and soon. “The Age of Aquarius” will forever be tied to the war in Vietnam, during which the nation’s innocence was at once celebrated and shattered. The Korean War is associated with several familiar tunes, including “How High The Moon.” And World War II had “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” as its soundtrack.

Although sentiments change over time, revisiting the popular culture during America’s conflicts helps provide a window into the past. For those who lived through those challenging times, the music conjures up deep feelings and vivid memories; for others, it adds a vibrant dimension to our understanding of American history. For instance, in what was known as the Great War, World War I, the anthem of the time was a George M. Cohan song titled “Over There.”

"Over There"
Music and lyrics by George M. Cohan

Listen to this historic recording featuring Billy Murray and Chorus, produced in 1917 and transferred from an original Edison magnetic cylinder (Edison recording #50443). Original provided by Records Revisited, New York, NY.

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About the Times: The year 1917 was a still a time of innocence in America. It was the age of the Victrola, the Model T, silent movies, streetcars, and flying machines. The average salary was $750 a year and the national debt was $1.15 billion. Whiskey cost $3.50 a gallon and milk $.32 a gallon. Women were striving for equality, and the nation was becoming the most industrialized in the world.

America’s longstanding policy of isolationism made it reluctant to involve itself in a foreign war. But that all changed forever on April 2, when President Woodrow Wilson appeared before a joint session of Congress asking for a declaration of war to make the world “safe for democracy.”

Once America became engaged in the Allied cause, the war dominated American minds and hearts. Families were altered by the departure of many men across the Atlantic. In a population of just over 100 million, 24 million men were registered for the draft and 3 million put on uniforms.

Throughout World War I, music was a prominent feature on both the home front and the battlefield. Most homes had a piano, providing a common form of entertainment and socialization, and stirring patriotic songs helped to galvanize a spirit of American confidence that the troops would end the war and return home safely.


Photo credit: Duke University

George M. Cohan composed America’s most popular wartime song in 1917 while traveling by train from New Rochelle, NY to New York City. Inspired by the newspaper headlines, he recalled, “I got to thinking and humming to myself, and for a minute I thought I was going to dance. I was all finished with both the chorus and the verse by the time I got to town, and I also had a title.”

The song — “Over There” — stressing patriotism and a sense of national identity, soon became a phenomenal hit. The doughboys were eager to march to war, but had not yet experienced its reality. The success of “Over There” reflected the enthusiasm for the war effort and served as a powerful tool for those organizing the U.S. Army Recruitment Drive.

The call to contribute was sounded throughout the song in lyrics such as:

"Hear them calling, you and me,
Every son of liberty.
Hurry right away, No delay, no delay,
Make your daddy glad
To have had such a lad."

"Over There" was recorded dozens of times, notably by vaudeville star Billy Murray as well as by the popular singer Nora Bayes and the famous tenor Enrico Caruso

Photo Of George M. Cohan
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection

About the Composer: George M. Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1878 (he claimed on July 4, though his baptismal certificate says July 3). His family were traveling Vaudeville performers, and George joined them on stage at an early age, touring with his parents and sister as a member of The Four Cohans.

He became known as one of Vaudeville’s best male dancers, and also began writing original skits and songs for the family act. Soon he was writing professionally. Cohan’s first Broadway hit in 1904, Little Johnny Jones, introduced his tunes “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.”

Cohan became one of the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters, publishing several hundred original songs, known for their catchy melodies and clever lyrics. “You’re A Grand Old Flag” was another of his patriotic hits. Cohan continued to write and star in numerous Broadway shows throughout his career.

George M. Cohan died in 1942. In 1936, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of his contribution to the war effort through his music. In the 1960s, a statue of Cohan was erected at Broadway and 47th Street in Manhattan.

Photo Of Billy Murray

About the Singer: Bill Murray was one of the most popular American singers — and probably the best-selling recording artist — of the early 20th century. Born in Philadelphia in 1877, the son of Irish immigrants, he spent his early career performing in a traveling vaudeville troupe and minstrel shows. With the advent of the phonograph, Murray entertained millions with his prolific and versatile talent — which lent itself to such varying styles as jazz, ragtime, patriotic tunes, love songs and Broadway hits.

Known in his heyday as “The Denver Nightingale” (his family had relocated to Denver in his youth), Murray’s career spanned five decades and included recordings for almost every label of the era. Many of his hits — including “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Casey Jones,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and, of course, “Over There” — are now considered classics. Murray was the primary interpreter of the songs of George M. Cohan.

Over There
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, no delay,
Make your daddy glad
To have had such a lad.
Tell your sweetheart not 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
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
Who's a son of a gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly,
Yankee Doodle do or die.
Pack your little kit,
Show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee Doodle fill the ranks,
From the towns and the tanks.
Make your mother proud of you,
And the old Red, White and Blue.

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Sights & Sounds from the ConcertPhoto of U.S. Army Snare Drummer Thomas Dell'Omo playing John Williams' 'Hymn to the Fallen' from the film Saving Private Ryan.

U.S. Army Snare Drummer Thomas Dell'Omo playing John Williams' "Hymn to the Fallen" from the film Saving Private Ryan.

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"Through our 17th year in 1943, Lester Zazuly, Alfie Ross, Bobby Ogur, Wallie O'Donnell and I were friends who thought and argued and dreamed about ... the Dodgers and Giants, girls, teachers ... In '44, after turning 18, we did what everyone else was doing: entered the Army. I returned in '46; they all fell in France."

Gus Antell

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