We’re All Americans Now!
Ethnic Unity in American Popular Song during the Great War
Intro and Vamp
During the Great War, Americanism was in, and “hyphenated Americanism” was out. People of various minority races and ethnic groups were pressured to give up overseas ties and pledge sole allegiance to American. However, many individuals found ways to show their loyalty to the United States while still expressing hints of minority identity. This essay analyzes the lyrics of popular songs that indicate this.
World War I sprung out of a broader era of nativism, racism, Jim Crow segregation, and newly established anti-immigration legislation. Racial and ethnic groups were struggling to complete in the white society for an improved existence while still maintaining their cultural identity.1 With the United States’ entry into the war, these groups suddenly found their loyalty questioned precisely because of foreign or at least different affiliations.
The most popular statement made against “ethnicity” at the time was former President Theodore Roosevelt’s words addressed to the Knights of Columbus, a “fraternal benefit society” for Roman Catholic men,2 in 1915: “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism…[A] hyphenated American is not an American at all…Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance…” Roosevelt condemned sentiment for European countries of origin as the cause of America’s inevitable “ruin” if “hyphenization” were permitted to continue.3
Anti-war, anti-assimilation, and pro-German song, although popular early in the war, soon came under direct attack.4 A new pro-war song tradition took form, promoting the unification of Americans against the German enemy.5 Propaganda of all types were seen as key to military success and convincing – even intimidating – a populace into support.6 Sheet music, heard and sung by citizens, became a part of this campaign.
As is shown below, one aspect of this musical tradition promoted unification among racial and ethnic groups in terms of particular group culture. In other words, in the midst of nativist scares, popular wartime lyrics often took an approach of “cultural pluralism” to unification.7 Rather than erasing heritage and identity in a “melting pot,” those elements became interwoven into the framework for promoting an unassimilated Americanism. The people were called to identify with America’s mission through their own racial and ethnic heritages.
The main assumption here is that the lyrics can reveal something fundamental about popular music. Simon Frith critiques the old style academic analysis that placed too much emphasis on literary content.8 He argues this on two points: First, “[s]ongs…are not mostly general statements of sociological or psychological truth…[as they are]…examples of personal rhetoric.”9 Rather that confronting this argument, it would do well to just accept it. The musical examples discussed here could be viewed easily as individual rather than community responses to wartime. Individuals were concerned about proving their loyalty to the United States, and individuals composed and performed songs. However, that would not diminish the fact that they do recognize a grand social truth: accusations of treason were a genuine fear at that time.
Second, Frith argues, it is a mistake to assume that “the ‘content’ (or ‘meaning’) of songs as revealed by the analyst is the same as their content (or meaning) for other listeners.” He argues that “[t]here is…no firm empirical evidence that song words determine or form listeners‟ beliefs and values.”10 Surely, it is possible for analysts to credit the lyrics with greater influence over the consumers than what it really possessed. However, the argument here is not about whether or not these songs successfully promoted these messages of racial and ethnic unification but about how they seemed to have done so. It would be advantageous to do an analysis of how listeners responded to Great War musical propaganda; however, that is beyond the scope of this essay.11
Here I examine of the role of popular song in American popular culture during the “Great War.” Using a small sample of sheet music, I analyze each song’s content and discuss what it reflects about American identity at that time. Central to the discussion are perceptions of American unity against hostile European powers that cross racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries. Secondary sources are used to discuss general theories about identity in popular culture, conceptions of ethnicity during the height of immigration leading up to the war, and conceptions of American culture.
At the time of the Great War, the United States population was divided by regional, racial, ethnic, and religious ties.12 The call for a unified America created what Glenn Watkins calls an “imagined idea of nationhood,” where these categories blurred to accommodate an all-encompassing pro-war rhetoric.13 Historical regional tensions had pitted North against South, East against West, and urban against rural. A successful fight against European tyranny required citizens to put an end to these divisions. “Good-Bye My Girl” is an example of the call for unification:
Our country’s call has rung out too all,
‘Tis no time to loaf or lag.
We’ve a foe to face,
Each must take his place,
As we rally ‘round the flag.
From the east and west,
We will march a-breast,
From the south and from the north,
Our battle cry Is “Win or Die”
As we go marching forth.14
This was also the message of “Where It’s Peach-Jam Makin‟ Time,” a song about “Yankee”15 comrades from Maine, the West, and the South talking about their homes.16 Although the Civil War had created a persistent riff between Northerner and Southerners, the experience of the Spanish-American War and the Great War provided a common enemy to divert attention.17 Songs such as “Forward, March! Mississippi Volunteers”18 and “The Dixie Volunteers,”19 praising the sons of “Dixie,” encouraged soldiers to fight as Americans but also as Southerners, proud of their heritage. The line “It’s a Long, Long Way to Dixie” was followed by “and the good old U.S.A.,” broadening the context of missing home.20
Particularly, “When the Boys from Dixie Eat the Melon on the Rhine” makes for an interesting study.21 Its text praises the expected victory of Southern Americans in Europe, making connections to their perceived ante-bellum heritage. What is also interesting is the cover, featuring black children eating giant watermelons. It raises questions about just who are the “boys” who will do the eating when the war is over. Although an argument could be made for the glorification of whites in the song, it could also be in part mocking the Germans, making the implication that poor little black boys will share in the victory over them.22
The “Afro-American” or “Negro” community, as did many immigrant groups, had become the target of military intelligence operations, seeking to uncover anti-American sentiment. In response, and also in hopes of gaining more respect and privileges in the white American society, many blacks joined the call to arms against Germany.23 Songs such as “When the Good Lord Makes a Record of a Hero’s Deed, He Draws No Color Line” also drew on perceptions of historical and spiritual heritage to invoke a sense of duty:
Your Granddad did his duty in the Civil war
He fell by his master’s side.
Your daddy bravely did his bit at San Juan Hill,
You know that’s where he died.
So I know that you will do your duty too,
And remember, son of mine,
When the good Lord makes a record of a hero’s deed,
He draws no color line.24
Foreigners, of course, were primary suspects of disloyalty, due to their threatening alliance with European countries. When Russian-born Irving Berlin and two cowriters quickly joined the budding the pro-war movement, they wrote a song a la Roosevelt called “Let’s All Be Americans Now”25:
It’s up to you!
What will you do?
England or France may have your sympathy,
Or Germany, But you’ll agree
That, now is the time,
To fall in line,
You swore that you would so be true to your vow,
Let’s all be Americans now.26
In this chorus, as in Roosevelt’s speech, loyalties even to allied countries were a perceived threat. However, that does not imply that non-mainstream ethnic and religious identities were excluded from participating.27
Roman Catholicism, a prime target for nativist sentiments, runs ramped in pro-war song, often as a reassuring balm to sooth wounded soldiers. Two extremely popular songs from that era, “A Soldier’s Rosary”28 and “There’s an Angel Missing from Heaven (She’ll Be Found Somewhere Over There),”29 create a universalistic representation of the Rosary.
Jewish identity is not very evident. However, it is noteworthy to mention that many of the writers, such as the famed Irving Berlin, were Jewish and promoted unification through music, hence some ethnic participation. One slight clue of ethnic promotion, however, is in the extremely popular song “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?).” The use of the Jewish name “Reuben,” although it might be meaningless, does hint at the Jewish community’s contribution to the war.30
Not to be left out of the discussion are the American Indians. Songs actually written by members of this group were not available for this study. However, the mention of them in popular songs for white audiences does indicate an assumption on the part of the creators that Indians should play a part in the war against Germany. “Indianola,” arguably a racist portrayal of these people, promotes the idea that traditional Indian terror, once aimed at whites, should be redirected towards the Kaiser.31 In contrast, the lighthearted “Green River” appeals to “rich-man, poor-man, beggar-man, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief” to support Prohibition as an anti-German campaign.32 Even as an object of ridicule and the supreme image of non-assimilation, the American Indian is portrayed as a participant in this amalgamation.33
The racial and ethnic unification was short-lived, if it could be said to have ever truly existed at all. The post-war years of 1919 and 1920 brought numerous race riots, as friction between blacks and whites increased. Nativist sentiment culminated with the successful passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, establishing quotas to restrict the arrival of undesired Eastern and Southern Europeans. However, in a sense, the musical propaganda of the Great War was not created to bring to an end conflicts that arose in the previous century. Its goal was to foster a united front for the war effort, and for that reason alone it might be labeled a success.
1 See Eleanor Alexander, “The Courtship Season: Love Race, and Elite African American Women at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 4 (July 2004): 17-19; Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002); Iris Chang, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (New York: Penguin Books, 2003); Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, eds. Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America (New York: Routledge, 2003); and Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1996).
2 Knights of Columbus, accessed June 13, 2008.
3 Theodore Roosevelt, Address to the Knights of Columbus in New York City (October 12, 1915), accessed June 12, 2008.
4 Glenn Watkins, Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 245-251.
5 Watkins, 251-255.
6 Regina M. Sweeney, Singing Our Way to Victory (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 2-4. There exists additional literature on home-front pessimism and military moral not consulted at this time.
7 Of course, this idea would not hold for all Great War song, but it is the argument for the small sample discussed here. Horace Kallen initially promoted this concept of “cultural pluralism.” See Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 41-47, and David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
8 Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 159.
9 Frith, 163.
10 Frith, 164.
11 Further research might delve into sales and performance records and other sources of information that would indicate popularity. Frith’s discussion about “ideas” (lyrical content) versus “expression” (performance style) is also beyond this essay, but also would be relevant.
12 Political division is obvious and not of interest here. See Watkins for a discussion of conflicting anti-war and pro-war sentiments.
13 Watkins, 282. This idea is similar to the concept of “imagined communities,” in which members create a national identity through identifying as a group. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New Edition (New York: Verso, 2006).
14 “Good-Bye My Girl,” words by Captain Paul Allister, music by Margarey McKinney (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1918).
15 Note the universal application of an originally limited identity.
16 “Where It’s Peach-Jam Makin’ Time,” by Kendis & Brockman and Nat Vincent (New York: Kendis-Brockman Music Co. Inc., 1918).
17 Watkins, 283.
18 “Forward, March! Mississippi Volunteers,” words by Robert Levenson, music by George L. Cobb (Boston: Walter Jacobs, 1917).
19 “The Dixie Volunteers,” by Edgar Leslie and Harry Ruby (New York: Waterson, Berlin, & Snyder Co., 1917).
20 “It’s a Long, Long way to Dixie,” words by Tell Taylor, music by Earl K. Smith (Chicago: Music Pub. Inc., 1917).
21 “When the Boys from Dixie Eat the Melon on the Rhine,” words by Alfred Bryan, music by Ernest Breuer, (New York: Maurice Richmond Music Co. Inc., 1918).
22 That seems to be reading too much into the purpose of the artwork, but mockery is a fundamental element of musical propaganda.
23 Wray R. Johnson, “Black American Radicalism and the First World War: The Secret Files of the Military Intelligence Division,” Armed Forces and Society 26, no. 1 (1990): 27-56.
24 “When the Good Lord Makes a Record of a Hero’s Deed, He Draws No Color Line,” words by Val Trainor, music by Harry De Costa (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1918).
25 Watkins, 251.
26 “Let’s All Be Americans Now,” by Irving Berlin, Edgar Leslie, and Geo. W. Meyer (New York: Waterson, Berlin, & Snyder Co., 1917).
27 Of those easily available for analysis in this essay, Irish-American popular songs, although there were plenty in existence in this time period, did not deal directly with the issue of war. So, unfortunately, they, as a subgroup, had to be left out of the present discussion.
28 “A Soldier’s Rosary,” lyric by J. E. Dempsey, music by Joseph A. Burke (New York: A. J. Stasny Music Co., 1918).
29 “There’s an Angel Missing from Heaven (She’ll Be Found Somewhere Over There),” lyric by Paul B. Armstrong, music by Robert Speroy (New York: Frank K. Root & Co., 1918).
30 “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?),” words by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young, music by Walter Donaldson (New York: Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co., 1919). Further research might lend itself to better examples.
31 “Indianola,” English lyric by Frank H. Warren, French lyric by C. Hélène Barker, music by S. R. Henry and D. Onivas (New York: Jos. W. Stern & Co., 1918).
32 “Green River,” words by Eddie Cantor, music by Van and Schenck, arranged by Jean Walz (Chicago: Schoenhofen Co., 1920).
33 In the most optimistic sense, this could be interpreted as an early attempt at “cultural interaction.” See Peter La Chapelle, Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, County Music, and Migration to Southern California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 44.