Fifty years ago America went into World War I—singing. Irving Berlin, who put some of the songs upon our lips, recalls for American Heritage those gallant and somehow marvelously innocent days.
At the beginning of 1917 the air in America was vibrant with a strong, unfocused, and oddly unwarlike patriotism. The war in Europe was fascinating and it closely touched American interests, but it was a long way off and it seemed like a good war to stay out of. One of the country’s most popular songs was a little number that carried its message in its title—“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” Woodrow Wilson had won re-election at least partly because “he kept us out of war.” He wrote stiff notes to the warring nations when American rights were trodden on, but he seemed unlikely to go any further than that. A musical show in 1916 drew a round of appreciative laughter with a skit showing a soldier marching along with a typewriter on his shoulder—the typewriter, it was explained, was “a Wilson machine gun.”
Then came Germany’s announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson’s April message to Congress, the declaration of war—and America was in it. Now the powerful patriotic impulse had something to focus on, and there was an abrupt reorientation of the nation’s emotions.
The songs spoke for the time and for the confusing, conflicting emotions that possessed it. Some of the songs frankly undertook to stir enthusiasm for the country and its cause, and drums and bugle calls echoed through them. Some had a brash self-confidence, lightly announcing the victories American soldiers would unquestionably win. Others were deeply sentimental, aimed at the tear ducts and the heartstrings; there was “Just a Baby’s Prayer at Twilight,” for instance, and “Hello, Central, Give Me No Man’s Land.” Some were simple, lighthearted nonsense jingles, like the popular song of the stuttering doughboy, “K-K-K-Katy.” And many songs tried to express the wry humor with which the nation adjusted itself to the strange ways of military life.
Berlin had already begun to devote his considerable talents to helping his country sing its way to war. He remembers that “somebody in Washington” had suggested that he write a song that would spur recruiting, and he produced “For Your Country and My Country” in response. Then he had set the whole nation chuckling and singing with a song that is still remembered—”They Were All Out of Step but Jim.” When he got into the Army the War Department promptly realized that in this doughboy it possessed an uncommon asset, and it set to work to make use of him.
Berlin was assigned to duty at Camp Upton, at Yaphank on Long Island, a staging area for Army units bound for France, and he was instructed to see to it that the soldiers in this camp had songs to sing and singers to listen to while they awaited the long voyage overseas.
The song, of course, was “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” Berlin took his distaste for reveille, for the bugler who sounded the call, and for the leap out of bed that immediately followed and gave it a gaily tuneful expression, with the opening bars of the bugle call itself worked brightly into the middle—“You’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up this morning!” Since every living soldier felt exactly the way he felt about it, the song was an immediate success at Camp Upton, and when the men there accepted it as a good song, they also concluded—if they had really had any doubts on the point—that Berlin was a Good Joe. In a few months this became one of the most popular of all war songs. Probably every American soldier and sailor sang it, over and over, before the war ended, and it still rings a bell with men in the armed forces.
Berlin was just getting started. To provide entertainment for the troops he got various Broadway performers to come out to Camp Upton—the whole Follies cast showed up, one time—but presently he felt that “this was running a little thin” and he cast about for something better.
“About that time the Navy did a show called Boom Boom,” he says. “I read about it in Variety, and I thought: Hmm, this is my chance. So I went to a Colonel Martin, I think it was, who was on the staff of the commanding officer, General J. Franklin Bell, and asked him, ‘Why can’t we do a show here at Camp Upton?’ ”
To this day Berlin remembers General Bell as one of the finest soldiers he ever met. (Years later, in World War II, when he was preparing another soldier show, This is the Army—which followed exactly the formula used in 1918—Berlin had lunch in Washington with General George C. Marshall, and was pleased to find a plaque of General Bell on the wall in Marshall’s office; Marshall explained that Bell had once occupied that office himself.) Anyway, when General Bell learned that the Navy had gone into the musical-show business, he approved Berlin’s suggestion and told him to get started. As each new unit came to camp it was combed over to see if it contained any people who could dance, sing, act, or do other entertaining things, and before long a company of about 350 men had been assembled. Then, with Berlin as general organizer and director, song writer and guiding spirit, there was constructed a musical comedy, Yip Yip Yaphank, which quickly became famous.
Another trouble with this song was that it didn't quite fit the spot Berlin had written it for. He wanted a grand finale for the show, with soldiers marching to a stirring tune, and when he ran over “God Bless America,” he saw that it was not exactly what he needed. “It was—well, just a little sticky,” he says. “I couldn’t visualize soldiers marching to it. So I laid it aside and tried other things.”
Soldiers then and in other wars liked patriotic songs they could march to. They also liked gay little ditties that poked fun at the minor trials of army life, and one of the items Berlin wrote for Yip Yip Yaphank was a number that discussed the ancient chore of kitchen police:
To take the place of “God Bless America,” Berlin wrote a regular marching song, “We’re on Our Way to France,” which, when it was staged, brought down the final curtain and brought down the house as well. Yip Yip Yaphank had a brief Broadway run—two weeks at the Century Theatre and two more at the old Lexington Avenue Opera House. The playbills got it off to a good start by announcing: “UNCLE SAM PRESENTS Yip Yip Yaphank—a military mess cooked up by the boys at Camp Upton.”
Anyway, for the final number the stage was full of soldiers wearing regular battle equipment. Then “We’re on Our Way to France” began to roll, and the soldiers suddenly came down a ramp from the stage and marched straight up the aisles and on out of the theatre with shouldered rifles—and nobody could help realizing that these boys weren’t just singing a patriotic song in a musical comedy, they were fighting men and they were on their way to France, and the trip was beginning right there, in the theatre, and some of them unquestionably would not be coming back. It had a certain impact.
As he originally wrote it, Berlin had these words:
“By 1938 that didn’t quite fit,” he says. “’To the right” meant fascism, and that certainly wasn’t where we wanted to be guided. So I fixed it”—
So “God Bless America,” although it was born in wartime, turned out at last to be just what was needed for the uneasy, doubting time of a prewar period, when patriotism tends to be under wraps and people hope above everything else that they can remain at peace. Berlin particularly remembers with distaste the 1915 song mentioned above, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” “Whatever the writer said after that first line made no difference,” he says. “That said it all. It was antiwar. Patriotism didn’t seem to be so strong then. The war was too far away. It was the same way in 1938. It’s pretty much the same way now.”
The way things are now bothers Berlin a good deal. It seems to him that patriotism has almost gone out of fashion, and he is outspoken in the belief that a little old-fashioned rally-round-the-flag sentiment is called for. He tried to express this in a song composed in 1963 called “This Is a Great Country.” It ends:
“It’s easy enough to kid it, now, but it’s damn serious,” he says. “I feel very deeply about it, in the face of what’s happening now. You know, I have a lot to be grateful to this country for. If my father hadn’t had guts enough to come over here from Russia in 1893 I’d never have written any songs—I probably wouldn’t even be alive today. So maybe it’s all right to laugh at patriotism and flag waving—but we do have a flag to wave, and I think we ought to wave it more.
“Antiwar? Of course I’m antiwar. Who isn’t? But I’m pro-America, People ask me, ‘But are you for America when it’s wrong?’ Well, when we start making mistakes and doing the wrong thing I’ll resist it all I can, but I’m still all for my country, and there comes a time when you have to stand up and shout about your patriotism. That’s just being practical about the country you love. So I tell people, ‘If you don’t like that particular song, okay, but if you don’t like America enough to do whatever it asks you to do —then I can’t go along with you.’ ”
Berlin remembers some of the songs of World War I with a good deal of admiration. The British “Tipperary,” for instance, a peacetime song picked up by British tommies and made into a marching song, still has a lilt to it; he remembers “Keep the Home-Fires Burning” as a very touching song; and there were “Roses of Picardy” and Walter Donaldson’s famous song, “My Buddy”—of which he remarks, “It’s still a great song; we sing it today.” But there was one song from the period that seems to him to stand alone.
“The great American war song—the only real war song—was George M. Cohan’s ‘Over There,” lie says. Here was a song that, down the years, has caused Berlin a little embarrassment, simply because so many people take it for granted that he wrote it. During World War II Berlin was in New Guinea, singing for American soldiers, and before a crowd of 15,000 G.I.’s he went through the familiar repertoire, ranging all the way from “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up” to “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones.” When he got through, the colonel commanding the camp came to the front of the platform, announced that all hands were grateful to Berlin for this music, and then said that everybody hoped he would now sing the most wonderful patriotic song he ever wrote—at which point Berlin naturally thought that he was going to be called on to sing “God Bless America.” Instead, the colonel called for “that wonderful song of his, ‘Over There.’ ”
Berlin got up, slightly taken aback, thanked the colonel for his kind words, and said he would be delighted to sing that famous song “written by my old friend, the late George M. Cohan.” Then he sang “Over There,” and the soldiers loved every minute of it. When the performance ended, Berlin went to see the colonel and explained that he had not meant to correct him in public but that he couldn’t sail under false colors. The colonel, who took this well enough, had fallen into a common error. He had simply assumed that if a good song came out of World War I it must have been written by Irving Berlin.