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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
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.
Into this show went “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up,” sung by Berlin himself; the song was still fairly new. Into it also went a number of songs written especially for the occasion. Berlin used to work up a song and then play and sing it for an informal audience of soldiers, watching their reactions, fitting it to their spirit. He wrote one song that failed to pass this test—a serious, slow-paced patriotic song called “God Bless America.”
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 no American needs to be told, “God Bless America” didn’t stay on the shelf forever. In 1938 Berlin got it out and revised the words just a little, and Kate Smith introduced it on the air. It became almost a substitute for the national anthem, and people used to stand up when they sang it; with another war visibly approaching, this song said something everybody wanted to say, and if it wasn’t quite a song for marching soldiers to sing, it was sung over and over by everybody else, and it is as familiar now as it was a quarter of a century ago.
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”—