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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
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.