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The Carletonian

Exhibition in Gould Library celebrates music during World War I

<r marks the 90th anniversary of the armistice that, in effect, ended World War I. According to Roger Paas, the coordinator of an exhibit in the McKinley-Gould Library about World War I, this is “one of the most important events in the 20th century.”

The exhibit in the Gould Library studies the war songs created from 1914 through 1919 in New York City’s Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley consisted of a group of music publishers from the late 19th and early 20th century who controlled the popular music scene of the time.

“If one looks carefully at the sheet music and reads some of the lyrics, one can readily see how the attitude of the American public toward the war evolved over time,” Paas said in an interview.

The music often served as propaganda for the war. However, according to Paas, the role of popular music in World War I has been greatly underestimated.

“Popular music is not something that has been studied by historians interested in the First World War, and that is unfortunate,” Paas said, “for these songs give us a unique opportunity to see how Americans at the time felt about the war and about America’s involvement in it.”

According to the exhibit, the songs symbolize the feelings of the time: from pacifism at the outbreak of the war in Europe, to patriotism as the US entered the war, to relief at its end. The exhibit, organized chronologically, shows the progression of these emotions through the lyrics and illustrations of these songs, as well as a compilation of books, postcards, posters and other artifacts of the time.

One song, written in 1914, takes the stance of a devil talking to his son. The devil tells his child, “Kings up there are bigger devils than your dad, / They’re breaking the hearts of mothers, / Making butchers out of brothers, / You’ll find more hell up there, / Than there is down below.”

This song illustrates the sentiments of many of the other songs, the pain of a mother losing a child to war, the damage that war inflicts upon its soldiers. The idea of a mother’s sacrifice in the war recurs throughout the years in many of the songs on display.

In one song, written in 1915, a mother asks, “Who dares to place a musket on [my son’s] shoulder, / To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?”
That same year, another song was published entitled, “I’d be proud to be the Mother of a Soldier.”

The conflicting views represented by each of these songs shows a slight change in sentiment from 1914. In 1914, the songs in the exhibition were all pacifist. In 1915, a side that is more open to war, and certainly more patriotic, begins to emerge.

In 1916, the songs begin to advocate war even more strongly. As one song says, “America will always be a land of peace, / Americans will always pray that war will cease, / But if the time should ever come to stand for right, / America will not be found afraid to fight.”

This song also shows the implicit belief that the United States was right. Some of the songs associated World War I with a sort of “holy war.” For instance, one of the songs called the soldiers “crusaders.”

In 1917, as the United States entered the war for the first time, the need to instill confidence in American citizens became even greater and the songs reflect that confidence. “It won’t take us long,” says one song.

However, as the reality of war set in, the images also reflected the destruction of war. A song called “War Babies” tells of the children left orphaned by the war. Another song, called “Break the News to Mother,” tells of the death of a soldier.

By 1918, the desire for peace shows in the songs. “When the flowers bloom on No Man’s Land, / Bringing a message of peace and love,” says one song, later adding, “What a blessing from above.”

While the exhibit is about the early 20th century, a current Carleton student will be able to draw close ties from many of the images to future wars, including the one in Iraq. The exhibition is very relevant today, Paas pointed out, because “if one studies the lyrics closely, one can see that the same patriotic ideas have been expressed at times during the present war in Iraq.”

The wealth of cultures present in the United States also profoundly affected the country’s stance in 1914. The United States, as a country of immigrants, had people who supported both sides. As a song called “The Fatherland, the Motherland, the Land of my Best Girl” says, “My mother comes from sunny France, / My daddy from Berlin.”

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