Pride and Patriotism: An Analysis of American Sheet Music Throughout the Great War

by Charlotte Allan

The World War One era song America Here’s My Boy was published by the Joe Morris Music Company of New York on 16 February 1917, and quickly became one of the most popular songs in the United States. The song was written by composer Arthur Lange and served as a form of propaganda, with dutiful lyrics from Andrew B. Sterling. Lange was a very popular Tin Pan Alley composer during the twentieth century and was known for composing music for up to 120 films, Broadway shows and a handful of war songs. His highly notable tune America Here’s My Boy featured patriotic lyrics and was written at the pinnacle of the Preparedness Movement in the United States. From 1915, this movement, designed by President Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, sought to mobilise and bolster the American army and featured the development of many summer camps to help train the American troops for war. Lange’s memorable tune echoed throughout the camps and later at war. As the historian Christina Gier has argued, “singing songs helped allay soldiers’ fears and comforted families by painting the violent war as a positive experience, often both redefining and obscuring realities.” Fundamentally, Lange’s sheet music was intended to rally troops for war by appealing to elements such as patriotism and allegiance to one’s country. It also tapped into “the sentiment of every mother” with anxieties over sending her son to war. As a result, this piece of music appealed to a target audience of mainly American mothers with sons, yet also to young American men thinking of enlisting. 

The main themes represented in this source depict the celebration of patriotism, loyalty and duty. The lyrics for America Here’s My Boy honour these particular themes and were evidently carefully designed to be clear and repetitive. The song resembles other US WWI songs which, as the historian Glen Watkins has shown, featured “concise lyrics, and simple melodies.” The songs served not only to entertain and bring people together, but also to support the war effort and make men desire to enlist. 

The United States desperately needed troops when they entered the war on 6 April 1917. As a result, they now moved to eradicate the older anti-conscription tunes such as If They Want to Fight, All Right, but Neutral Is My Middle Name (1915), and to pen fresh new lyrics that would encourage enlistment. The lyrics for America Here’s My Boy emphasised how young men and boys should be “ready to die or do” for the sake of America.

This song also suggested to all mothers that their boys should be raised to fight for their country and celebrate all that it has to offer. As the historian Glen Watkins has argued, “[t]hroughout the war one of the most potent and enduring symbols of womanhood was understandably that of the home-front Mother,” and these lyrics aimed to ease women into letting their sons commit to the war. The song includes these lines: “there’s a million mothers knocking at the nation’s door, a million mothers, yes and there’ll be millions more”—this is repeated twice in the course of the song. The aim is clearly to unite American mothers together and to assuage their fears about sending their young boys to war. The sheet music is framed with the phrase: “The sentiment of every American Mother.” This is designed to suggest that every other American mother is doing this too, thus encouraging conformity. 

Listening to the song enables further analysis. This is a lively marching song, featuring elements such as a constant trumpet, lending it a martial feel. Gier has argued that the popular appeal of such songs derived in part from the “irrepressible energy of the repetition of a song, that caught people’s attention and created excitement” – this statement certainly applies to this song. The martial feel is further enhanced by the addition of many voices present throughout the chorus, thus working to band everyone together and nourish the idea of patriotism and allegiance to America. 

Finally, the front cover of the sheet music features a propaganda image of a mother and her son standing in front of a large and looming America in the background, exemplifying the ways in which “songbooks and sheet music [aimed to] project ideas of identity, often within images of patriotism.” The boy is depicted as ready for the army with his uniform and gun. The mother looks immensely proud of her son. She is also directly facing the audience, perhaps making eye contact with other mothers who might be reluctant to let their sons sign up.

Image source: https://www.loc.gov/item/2013568887/

Bibliography 

Grier, Christina. Singing, Soldiering, and Sheet Music in America during the First World War. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2017. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=4o4xDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA1&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q=%20here’s%20my%20boy&f=false

Mullen, John. “World War One: Wartime popular music.” The British Library. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/wartime-popular-music

Sterling, Andrew B; Lange, Arthur. America Here’s My Boy. New York: Joe Morris Music Co, 1917, http://www.firstworldwar.amdigital.co.uk.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/Documents/SearchDetails/82.122.4

Watkins, Glenn. “Part 6: The United States of America.” In Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War, 250-268. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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