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He Wanted To Murder The Bugler
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.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
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.
This was reflected in many ways—among them, in the new songs America began to sing.
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.
Right in the center of all this was a young man who, like a great many of his fellow Americans in 1918, suddenly found himself wearing the khaki uniform of a draftee: Irving Berlin, then (and for a half century to come) America’s best-known writer of popular songs.
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.
“I found out quickly I wasn’t much of a soldier,” Berlin recalls. “There were a lot of things about army life I didn’t like, and the thing I didn’t like most of all was reveille. I hated it. I hated it so much that I used to lie awake nights thinking about how much I hated it. To make things worse, I had this assignment that kept me working late into the evening, so I didn’t get too much sleep. But I wanted to be a good soldier, so every morning when the bugle blew I’d jump right out of bed, just as if I liked getting up early. The other soldiers thought I was a little too eager about it, and they hated me. That’s why I finally wrote a song about it.”
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?’ ”