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Veterans Day: Remembering WWI Through Songs of the Time

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Front Page of the Times, Nov. 11, 1918

Front Page of the Times, Nov. 11, 1918

Today is Veterans Day, originally known as Armistice Day, a remembrance of the end of the 'Great War,' WWI. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919 officially marked the end of the War, but the Allied nations and Germany agreed to stop fighting on the 'eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month' in 1918. In 1954, Congress changed the name of the holiday to Veteran's Day, to recognize all war vets.

On the 80th anniversary of the first Armistice Day, we culled through the archives for popular songs that bring the era to life:

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson won a narrow election on the campaign slogan 'He Kept Us Out of War.' But America's isolationist policies couldn't endure. Soon Wilson asked Congress to pass a compulsory draft and increase taxes to pay for the war effort. The Committee of Public Information sought to boost the war effort with positive Hollywood depictions of soldiers, 'publicity' as committee chairman George Creel called it. While the the recording industry was never officially enlisted, it went along with the notion that patriotism was good business. Below are a few selections created between 1914 and 1918. (Courtesy of 'The Great War: An American Musical Fantasy.'

'Keep Your Eye on Uncle Sammy' was a song that captured Wilson's early neutrality and reluctance to enter the war, and portrayed Wilson as an everyman: 'a good old Yankee Doodle boy.' (Recorded July 8, 1914, written by Abner Greenberg)

Before Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, 'I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier' was an anti-war protest song that echoed Wilson's notion of 'peace without victory.' Before the sinking of the Lusitania, most Americans couldn't see how the war could affect them. (Recorded Jan. 8, 1915, written by Alfred Bryan and Al. Piantadosi)

'I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm on My Way' was a rallying call for recruitment that emphasized bonding, and cheerful obedience. (Recorded July 24, 1917, written by George Fairman)

Eventually the grimness of war seeped into popular music with songs about bayonets, grenades and life in the trenches. 'The Rose of No Man's Land' was a celebration of the Red Cross nurse, who gave last rites to the dead and dying. (Recorded in October 1918, written by Jack Caddigan and James A. Brennan)

Finally, we hear 'The Boys Who Won't Come Home,' a bittersweet tune that celebrates victory and laments the fallen soldiers. This is known as a 'mother song,' as it is sung from a mother's point of view.

Special thanks to WNYC's Director of Archives Andy Lanset

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