October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated The question is, Do you mean song specifically about war or just plain song that affected folks’ emotions during hostilities? Let’s tackle both.
The trouble with specific war songs is that they generally expire when peace comes. I mean, who sings “We Don’t Want the Bacon—What We Want Is a Piece of the Rhine” any more? That was a World War I hit. But even World War IFs smashes aren’t around today—for example, Frank Loesser’s rousing “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
No, the songs from the wars that we still cling to tend to be timeless ballads such as “Smiles” (1918) and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” (1941—with Loesser back on the evergreen track again). Of course the biggest war song of all is “White Christmas” (1942), which is actually set in Beverly Hills.
My selection for most overrated war song is “Over There.” George M. Cohan tossed it off after breakfast within minutes of President Wilson’s war declaration. The tedious tune is no more than a bugle call, and the words boast of hordes of Yanks stomping staid old Europe into abject submission. The enemy isn’t mentioned.
The enemy could be anybody who’s not All-American. “Say a prayer!” warns Cohan, because “we won’t come back till it’s over, Over There!” And, of course, the Americans never did come back. They stayed on to spread their insidious culture all over the world whether it be ragtime, jazz, hamburgers, Michael Jackson, or rap. This was a friendly invasion that continues to infuriate guardians of native cultures.
Underrated The most underrated war song also comes from World War I: “When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band to France.” The clever conceit is that if American ragtime is blasted at the enemy, “they’ll throw their guns away—hip hooray!—and start right in to dance,” then “come over the top” and “two-step back to Berlin with a skip and a hop.” Alexander’s music did conquer Germany, and when it became jazz, the Nazis were so upset that they outlawed it as alien propaganda (so did the Soviets). The tune to “Alexander” is a rollicking raggy one, full of cunning little blue notes and rhythmic tricks. This work was assembled by a trio of veteran Tin Pan Alleymen—Al Bryan, Cliff Hess, and Edgar Leslie—under the publishing umbrella of Irving Berlin, the man who had created Alexander back in 1911.
In the late 1960s I got to know Edgar Leslie, and I used to corner him in his booth at Jack Dempsey’s Bar while he was sipping bouillon. When I asked about this song, he barked that he had no memory of it, dismissing me with his spoon. I persisted until he finally growled, “The title’s too long for today! I got a better number for you right here in my pocket. . . .” He fished out a piece of crumpled paper. “See? This one you could revive—‘Me and Jane in a Plane.’”
“But that was in the 1920s, when planes were new.”
He grabbed me by the collar. “See, I’ve rewritten it in an astronaut version!”