Music in Wartime: Song Composition during the First World War

by Pauline Ottaviano.

World War I was a time of great change for the American people.  They lived in a time when nearly everything was unsure.  Men were being drafted and leaving home and work.  Paper and other goods had to be saved.  Money was tight.  One thing that kept families and soldiers alike going was music.  The music of the time served multiple purposes.  It functioned as propaganda in order to keep patriotism alive in the people back home, and also was a common experience for families who were all going through the same thing.   Music was also handed out to soldiers and volunteers at forts and camps across the nation in order to bring them together and to keep morale up, even in some of the darkest times of the war.

As a musician, I have always found myself fascinated with vintage music, specifically music from wartime.   My personal collection contains more pieces than I can count most days, and has given me insight into the impact that different cultural climates have on the music.  There are trends that can be seen in the content, both lyrically and compositionally, during times of strife in the United States.

Compositionally speaking, the songs are more basic than a lot of the more complex traditional compositions heard at the time.  The point of many of these songs was to get people to sing along so that they felt as if they were still a part of one big group – one nation – even in times of trouble.  The melodies are usually not too rhythmically complex, and melodically follow a scalar pattern.  Keeping the melody from jumping around keeps it accessible, even to those who are not musically trained.  Most of the popular music of the time was published for piano, an instrument that was fairly common.  Many families of middle class and above had at least one member who could read music, if not play piano as well.  Music could be performed in the home, in restaurants, at church functions, and anywhere else there might be a piano.  This allowed it to become a common experience for the American people.

Song lyrics should also be examined when analyzing the impact of wartime culture on music.  This is best done by examining specific pieces of music.  The sheet music collection at the Filson has several excellent examples of World War I era music.  It includes music used as propaganda and morale boosters, as well as pieces meant to console families and loved ones at home waiting for their soldiers.

One such piece of popular music that was heavily impacted by the war was Good-bye Broadway, Hello France.  This piece blends the propaganda and common experience music.  It not only instilled a patriotic spirit into those listening but also provided consolation to those feeling the sorrows of wartime.   The lyrics reflect the feelings of soldiers as they ship off to France:


A piece composed by Billy Baskette with lyrics by C. Francis Reisner and Benny Davis.  It was written in order to lift the nation’s spirits and help calm worries as soldiers shipped off to war. [SM 15-695]

Good-Bye Broadway, Hello France,

We’re ten million strong,

Good-Bye Sweet-hearts wives and mothers,

It won’t take long

Don’t you worry while we’re there

It’s for you we’re fighting too

So Good-bye Broadway, Hello France

We’re going to square our debt to you



Song cards contained lyrics to popular songs on one side.  The verso of this card calls for parodies and company songs to be sent in for publishing, and also advertises quartets and “pastime theatre Sunday programmes”. [Rare Pamphlet 781.599 G851]

There is a note at the bottom of the music, saying that “Broadway” can be replaced with any city should it be desired.  This song was trying to resonate with the masses, giving a sense of community to those feeling the strain of having a loved one leave, or experiencing the worrisome feeling of being drafted and shipped off to another country when you had barely been out of your hometown.

Another important way that music played a role in the First World War was in boosting morale of the soldiers.  The Filson's Special Collections department contains a series of pamphlets from Camp Jackson, South Carolina.  These “Camp Jackson Song Cards” were designed to fit into the pocket of military uniforms and gave soldiers a series of songs to sing while marching or in their downtime.  The reverse side of this card has a “Music Notes” section, which solicited parodies of songs and company songs for publication.  It also gave the soldiers information about performances that would be held on the grounds at different times during the week.  Music brought the soldiers together and gave them a release from the seemingly never-ending battle and preparations.

Music has played a crucial role throughout American history, and World War I is no different.  Taking a look at this music gives you a chance to better understand the feelings that soldiers and their loved ones back at home had in this new and unfamiliar climate.

Pauline Ottaviano is a senior James Graham Brown Fellow at the University of Louisville, double majoring in Jazz Performance and Music Education.  Her primary instrument is upright bass, but she is also a member of the Cardinal Marching Band as trombone/baritone section leader.  A native of Manlius, NY, she has been interested in vintage sheet music since early high school, which is what inspired her to inquire about volunteering at The Filson as a part of her enrichment project through the Brown Foundation. 

Jana Meyer

Jana Meyer is an Associate Curator of Collections. She received a degree in History from the University of Louisville and a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky. Jana specializes in arranging and describing the Filson's manuscript collections. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and hiking with her husband and three-legged dog, Rascal.

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