-Christina Mirza

My paper will illustrate the importance of music to the war effort in America by connecting the popular music of the war years with what has often been described as the first unofficial anthem of the United States: ‘Yankee Doodle’. What this paper will explore is how national and cultural signifiers embedded in music and song lyrics helped create an attitude and build the spirit that would win the war. The discourse of the war song was the discourse of victory.

Coinciding with a boom in the production of popular music the Great War provided a catalyst that spurred song writers and composers on to even greater creativity and energy. Banishing the idea of America’s much vaunted ‘Neutrality’ (to use a song title from an early phase of the war) once President Wilson had announced America’s entry into hostilities in April 1917, these popular war songs fed the patriotic fervor of public opinion and in an important sense for a country to so geographically removed from the war created the public’s experience of war. While lyrics spoke confidently of America’s role in the Great War or incited Americans to do their ‘duty’ the illustrated covers of song sheets dramatically reinforced their theme. Almost all song sheet backs carried some sort of patriotic or war related message. Between 1914 and 1919, 35,600 American patriotic songs were copyrighted, and 7,300 were published. (Watkins, 265) In an age when the gramophone was a new phenomenon, the low cost of sheet music made it suitable for fund-raising and an effective way to promote support of the war through patriotic music.

In fact publishers like Leo Feist Inc. went to so far as to declare that ‘Music Will Help Win the War’. The article by ‘A Patriot’ declared that ‘A Nation that sings can never be beaten’ The song was to a nation’s spirit what ammunition was to a nation’s army so that the producer of songs was an ammunition maker. Nothing, the publisher averred, could raise a soldier’s spirits like a good, catchy marching tune. While acknowledgement of the role of music in creating the heroic temper of an army can be traced back to the Greeks – Plato for instance remarks how modes of music affect behaviour and action, and advocates the Dorian and Phrygian modes for the soldier – Feist makes some very strong claims indeed. Interestingly, however, Feist’s sales pitch resonates with the politics of the war effort and the training policy formulated by the army.

In the intensive mobilization that followed the declaration of war America managed to recruit and train, within the matter of a few months, April to June 1917,over a million soldiers many of whom were raw farm hands, labourers, factory workers, students – a motley crew of diverse backgrounds without any military experience. The military adopted music as an integral part of the politics of the war effort; war songs functioned not only as propaganda and recruitment aids they helped to shape the idea of the soldier and form an attitude that would win the war. Singing was one of the training practices devised by the CTCA (Commission on Training Camp Activities), to form the American soldier. Major-General Leonard Wood, one of the pioneers in US military training declared: ‘It is just as essential that the soldiers should know how to sing as that they should carry rifles and learn how to shoot them’ (Allen, 69). In the Special Statement attached to the CTCA volume, Keeping Our Fighters Fit (1918), President Wilson declared that the objective of CTCA activities, of which the ‘sing’ was an important adjunct, was the ‘protection and stimulation’ of the ‘mental, moral and physical manhood’ of the army. The author, Edward Frank Allen, asserted the ‘value of music as a factor in increasing a man’s fighting efficiency’ (Allen, 82) providing a detailed summary of the various benefits, mental (Memory, Observation, Initiative, Definiteness, Concentration, Accuracy, Punctual attack and action) and physical, to the individual soldier and to the unit (team work and concerted action). The conclusion to his chapter, ‘The Fighters that Sing’ is the ringing statement:

“Patriotism is no hollow, empty thing. It wins battles. And the music, be it instrumental or vocal that awakens it and feels it is scarcely less potent than high explosives . . . A singing army is invincible.”
(Allen 82-83)

In popular and military parlance music was the discourse of victory. Song was crucial to the shaping of the military experience and performance of the soldier as subject. It was crucial to the formation of the ‘invincible army’. The first song book of the CTCA, Songs of the Soldiers and Sailors (1917), contained a variety of songs calculated to build the patriotic and nationalistic spirit: from the national Anthem and revived Civil War songs to contemporary popular war-themed songs like ‘Good Morning Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip’ and ‘Over There’ as well as typically American favourites like ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’, ‘Old Black Joe’, ‘Dixie’, a few of the best-known hymns and old Irish and Scots ballads. The selection of songs was designed not merely to create the patriotic spirit but to forge a sense of national identity that would transcend roots, class, ethnic diversity and the divisions of north south, urban and rural in the idea of what it meant to be an American soldier.

In his special preface to the volume President Wilson had urged that ‘the moral and spiritual resources of the nation should be mobilized behind the troops’ who were fighting in defence of democracy. Nation and nationalism are key organizing categories used to construct identities, narratives and meanings. As sociologist Anthony Smith remarks ‘the myths, memories, symbols and ceremonies of nationalism provide the sole basis for such social cohesion and political action as modern societies, with their often heterogeneous and ethnic composition can muster.’ (Smith, 155). Popular war songs encoded images, symbols, folklore, musical phrases and melodies which belonged to a collective and distinctively American memory and which, by the halo of association that surrounds them as cultural and political signifiers, evoked a historically conditioned contemporary response to war.

It is in this context that I explore the role of one such cultural and political signifier: Yankee Doodle – the folk icon and his song.

Yankee Doodle appeared in the American colonies in the latter half of the 18th century, the earliest and most enduring of a new set of folk heroes that represented liberty and freedom for the people (Yankee Doodle, Uncle Sam, Brother Jonathan and Miss Liberty). There are many legends surrounding his origin, including one which identifies him with Oliver Cromwell, but as a historian notes, ‘He was not a corporeal being. Yankee Doodle was a song, a puff of wind, a creature of the air. Nobody recognized his face, but every American knew him at a distance, with a feather in his cap, riding on a pony.’( Fischer 215) More likely than not this most American of songs was composed around 1759-60 by Richard Shuckburgh an English surgeon during the French and Indian War when the colonial militia fought alongside the British redcoats. The Yankee militia with their quaint attire and odd manners were the object of much British humour. Anecdote narrates that Schuckburg, ‘a gentleman of … infinite jest and humour’, dashed off a satirical song about the Yankee soldiers setting it to the tune of a British song called ‘Fisher’s Jig.’ (Fischer, 216) The original may have included the opening verse by which the song is best known today:

Yankee Doodle came to town
Upon a little pony
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni


The ‘Yankee Doodle song’ was often played by the British troops as an expression of contempt for the colonial. It was sung by both sides during the War of Independence and, with the constant addition of verses, became a kind of ballad history of the American Revolution. The heroes of the song were ordinary people and even great leaders like Washington received scant respect.

And there was Captain Washington,
And gentlefolks about him,
They say he’s grown so tarnal proud,
He will not ride without ’em.

American troops laughed at the satire and became very fond of the song. In defeat it raised American spirits and in victory General Washington turned the song into a triumphantly mocking piece: as the British army laid down their arms American fifes and drums played ‘Yankee Doodle’.

Played often during the Civil War it seemed the appeal of the song was universal. New immigrants entering the country oddly enough claimed the song as their own: the Germans, Irish, Spanish, Dutch and Hungarians were all sure that it had been invented in their own country. (Fischer, 219) It is now the state song of Connecticut and is played as a military march on national occasions.

The song changed with time and circumstance but always retained its original spirit. Yankee Doodle remained an ordinary American, rather awkward and clumsy, but good natured and full of life and laughter. Never a great warrior he was nonetheless fiercely independent and ready to fight for his freedom. The song satirized his manners but celebrated in him an idea of liberty for the ordinary American. Unique among national songs ‘Yankee Doodle’, neither solemn nor portentous, is at once comic, satiric and inspiring:

Sing Yankee Doodle, that fine tune
Americans delight in
It suits for feasts, it suits for fun;
And just as well for fightin’.

Yankee Doodle continued to live in the popular imagination and his figure surfaced again when the country needed an all American hero. In the 20th century it was George M. Cohan, vaudeville and Broadway star and composer, who resurrected him as the voice of youthful America. In 1904, in what is arguably the first example of the modern Broadway musical comedy, Cohan created the character of the jockey, Little Johnnie Jones, in the hit song ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’:


I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy
A Yankee Doodle do or die
A real life nephew of my Uncle Sam’s
Born on the fourth of July

I’ve got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart
She’s my Yankee Doodle joy
Yankee Doodle came to London
Just to ride the ponies
I am that Yankee Doodle boy

Yankee Doodle’s patriotic pedigree and his American-ness are emphasized – for if Yankee is US slang for the northern New Englander Yankee Doodle loves the Dixie strain, the anthem of the Confederate South. In a kind of musical pastiche Cohan stiches together musical phrases from ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘I wish I was in Dixie’. The very American attitude he embodies is ‘Yankee Doodle do or die’. Cohan’s Yankee Doodle was brash and cocky, with the assurance and colloquial ease of young America and ‘The Yankee Doodle Song’ was given a contemporary upbeat character. Cohan, who declared he was born on the 4th July (records show 3rd July), often played the role he had scripted, pacing the stage wrapped in the American flag to the cheers of the stirred audience.

It should come as no surprise then that the greatest American song of the First World War, sung enthusiastically by the public at home and adopted by the boys ‘over there’, was a Yankee Doodle song. Though Cohan’s tune for ‘Over There’ is entirely original the song is a marching tune like ‘Yankee Doodle’ and embodies the spirit of the Yankee Doodle character he re-created: ‘Yankee Doodle do or die’ – the motto recurs in ‘Over There’:

Johnnie, get your gun,
Get your gun, get your gun,
Johnnie show the Hun
Who’s a son of a gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly,
Yankee Doodle do or die.
Pack your little kit,
Show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee to the ranks,
From the towns and the tanks.
Make your mother proud of you,
And the old Red, White and Blue.

Chorus (sung twice)

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there –
That the Yanks are coming,
The Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming
So prepare, say a pray’r,
Send the word, send the word to beware.
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over
Over there.

Composed the day after Wilson’s announcement of America’s entry into the conflict it was one of the most successful American pro-war propaganda songs, enthusiastically inspiring the in the ability of American troops to end the war and return home safely. President Wilson hailed the song as ‘a genuine inspiration to all American manhood.’ The song sold two million copies of sheet music and one million recordings by the time the war was over. The message from ‘Over There’ was so effective that Cohan was later awarded a special Congressional Medal of Honor (1940).

‘Over There’ introduces all the motifs that were henceforth used to encourage recruitment and homeland support. The battle takes place in a distant ‘over there’, the soldier is a son of liberty, who will make father, mother and his waiting sweetheart proud, and the war will be won by an army marching to music.

OVER THERE – performed by Nora Bayes (1917) , lyrics and music by George M. Cohan, published by Leo Feist Inc., (1917)

The chorus, which was printed in the CTCA songbook for soldiers and sailors, consists of repetitions of a basic three-note bugle call. The bits of syncopation, reminiscent of ragtime, and the playful and colloquial word play (“And we won’t come back till it’s over/ Over there”) make this the one of the most light-heartedly patriotic war songs ever written – a song in the spirit of the original ‘Yankee Doodle’. Cohan persuaded Nora Bayes, the most successful female vaudeville star of the day, to introduce the song. The cover presents Bayes in a patriotic 18th century style costume in ‘Red, White and Blue’ with an indirect allusion to the victory of the Revolution. A march that was easily sung and enjoyed, it boosted the morale of the troops ‘over there’ who cheerfully parodied it to ‘underwear’ (Watkins, 267). The subversive, mocking or bawdy parody of popular songs or even hymns was characteristic of ‘real’ soldier songs of the battlefield.
That the Yankee optimism of these songs did not reflect the real experience ‘over there’ is captured in the soldiers’ dark rewriting of the end: “we won’t come back, we’ll be buried over there.” Instead another cover for ‘Over There’ shows the invincible singing army that look like a line of Broadway performers.

In the wake of Cohan’s success there emerged a spate of ‘Yankee Doodle’ songs in which the character’s story underwent many developments. In these popular songs of World War I it was Yankee Doodle who went to war, who beat the Kaiser the ‘Yankee Doodle Way’ and, in another burst of self-directed humour, became the dandy the song declared him to be. The new tunes often played upon the original, capturing the spirit of the character and the song by the musical allusion, but also rewriting it to contemporary taste. In Bryan and Tierney’s ‘It’s Time for Every Boy to Be a Soldier’ (1917) which quotes both music and text from the original Yankee Doodle is a call to arms:

IT’S TIME FOR EVERY BOY TO BE A SOLDIER performed by Charles Hart (1917)

Boys of America get ready
Your motherland is calling you
Boys of America be steady
For the old Red, White and Blue
When Yankee Doodle comes to town upon his little pony
Be there staunch and true

As their titles will illustrate these Yankee Doodle songs written between 1917 and 1919 form a history of America’s involvement in the Great War . The songs create the idea of the American soldier as Yankee Doodle fighting for Uncle Sam and liberty: ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Soldier Boy’ (1918); ‘Yankee Doodle Get Your Gun’ (1918); ‘They are Yankee Doodles True’ (1918); ‘Yankee Doodle Sammies’ (1918). The image on the cover of the sheet music for ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Soldier Boy’ was used for several songs and captures the original homespun Yankee Doodle. Many of the new recruits were rustics who had left their farms or obscure villages to fight.

America is ‘Yankee Doodle Land’ but these songs also assert the American unity essential to the war effort in ‘Yankee Doodle Dixie’ (1917), ‘Dixie land and Yankee Doodle Land Are One and the Same today’ (1918).

Numerous songs confidently look forward to ‘What the Yankee Doodle Boy Will Do’ (1919) ‘When Yankee Doodle Lands in France’ (1918) and repays America’s debt to Lafayette and ‘sunny France’.

Yankee Doodle is brashly confident: ‘We’re Goin ter git the Kaiser we Yankee Doodle Yankees’ (1917) Blurring over the reality of warfare many of these assert that ‘The Yankee Doodle Song’ will win the war: ‘Our Yankee Doodle Dandy March Song’ (1917), ‘When the Band Plays Yankee Doodle Doo’ (1918), ‘Oh the Yanks Will Yank them out with Yankee Doodle Doo’ (1918).

The Kaiser is an obvious target reduced in these songs to a comic figure. In ‘Our Yankee Doodle March Song’ Yankee Doodle teaches [Kaiser] Willy the Democratic dance:

Our Yankee Doodle Dandy is on the go in France
To teach the Kaiser’s Fritzies
The proper way to dance.
He’ll play the hornpipe for them
He’ll prod them with a lance
And put them through the foxtrot
Till tired of the dance.

Several songs envision America winning the Great War in terms of the historic moment when the American band played ‘Yankee Doodle ’to the defeated British: ‘While Uncle Sam Sings Yankee Doodle to the Kaiser’ (1917) and rub in what is seen as the inevitable German defeat with ‘When Uncle Sam Makes the German Band Play Yankee Doodle’ (1917) and ‘We’ll Make the Germans all Sing Yankee Doodle Doo’ (1918).

The nation expresses its gratitude to the victorious Yankee Doodle, ‘Yankee Doodle Doo We’re Much Obliged to You’ (1920) on his return: ‘When Yankee Doodle Sails Upon the Good Ship “Home, Sweet Home”’(1918).

Quite a different sort from the propagandist war songs so far examined is the novelty song in which Yankee Doodle also figures. A witty number that hit the top of the charts speculates how the simple ignorant Yankee Doodle, who doesn’t speak a word of French, will fare in sophisticated France: When Yankee Doodle Learns to Parlez-Vous Francais (1917).

WHEN YANKEE DOODLE LEARNS TO ‘PARLEZ-VOUS FRANCAIS’ – Performed by Arthur Fields with lyrics W. Hart and Music by E. Nelson, published by A.J. Stasny Music Co. (1917)

The song begins with a musical quote from the original Yankee Doodle which creates a context for the comic song by recalling the joke against the unsophisticated Yankee very applicable to the Johnnie Raw fighting in France. However, the song’s association with American victory also captures the brash confidence of the Yankee.

The lack of sophistication and culture of the American soldier is expressed in his inability to speak the language and to court (kiss) the pretty French girl. French was not much taught at school and the troops had to have crash training courses in French. Songs of the era repeat the idea that the soldier will learn to speak French in the trenches and that he will then break a million hearts. Thus the war is glossed over:

For every man of Uncle Sam was fighting in a trench,
between each shell, they learned quite well
to speak a little French.

Not only will young Yankee Doodle prove his manhood on the battlefield he will also acquire the elusive language/culture which will bring him success with the sophisticated Parisian women. Interspersed in the music is a snatch from the Offenbach music characteristic of the French cancan. The next picture of him is of the Yankee Doodle Dandy.

With a girl, with a curl, you can see him promenade
When Yankee Doodle learns to parlez-vous français,
“Oo-là-là, sweet Papa”
He will teach them all to say.
And thus Yankee Doodle conquers in all love and war – leaving America with the new problem of the generation that returned, wittily captured in the conversation between Farmer Reuben and his wife in ‘How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree?
How ya gonna keep ’em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin’ the town
How ya gonna keep ’em away from harm, that’s a mystery
They’ll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parley-vous a cow?
How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree?

HOW YA GONNA KEEP ’EM DOWN ON THE FARM (After they’ve seen Paree?) – Performed by Arthur Fields with lyrics by Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis and Music by Water Donaldson, published by Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co. (1919)


Allen, Edward Frank. Keeping Our Fighters Fit for War and After. New York: The Century Co., 1918

Collins, Ace. Songs Sung Red, White and Blue: The Stories behind America’s Best Loved Patriotic Songs. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Fischer, David Hackett. Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005

Smith, Anthony. Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.

Watkins, Glenn. Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Obituary, ‘George M. Cohan, 64, Dies at Home Here.’ The New York Times, 6 November 1942. (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0703.html) Accessed 5 March 2015.