In April 1917 President Wilson plunged America into the long-running and senseless Great War – as much for sound business reasons as for high moral ones. He knew there was as much hard work ahead on the home front as in the murderous mud of France.
It was all very well to set the young republic on a European crusade to make ‘the world safe for democracy’ but left behind was a bewildered majority. For, only a year before, Americans had re-elected their President on his campaign slogan: ‘He Kept Us Out of War’.
A turn-around campaign was needed at once. Something radical was required to massage hearts and persuade minds that the country was united in one mighty body shaking with the vim and vigour of freedom on the march.
There would be no problem with the East Coast élite. Bankers and businessmen were thriving off the Allies’ appetite for money and munitions. Nor would there be trouble from the well-to-do Ivy League college boys. Full of old-fashioned valour and chivalry, they had learned from British poets and writers like Sir Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling and had been volunteering for private flying outfits and ambulance brigades ‘over there’ and celebrating noble deaths like knights of yore.
The problem lay with millions of ordinary unlettered Americans of the hinterland and far west. Those folks had no time for a decadent and dying Old World, and in particular despised those haughty and effete Englishmen. German-Americans, a powerful group, had lots to say about the matter in their newspapers.
Now it so happened that Woodrow Wilson was an ardent fan of vaudeville. He liked nothing better than singing along to the latest pop hits, sittingupright with the crowd – no grand box for him – in the very back row. ‘It’s the perfect relaxation,’ he told a friend in 1914. ‘All the acts are short, sharp and to the point … there’s constant participation … but there’s also someone leading the audience, someone in charge – like politics ought to be!’
So when it came to solving the problem of the nation’s hearts and minds Wilson turned to show business for help. The men who made the songs were ready, willing and able. Tin Pan Alley would go to war on the vaudeville stage. The Alleymen knew all about mass psychology even if they didn’t know Freud from fried onions.
Tin Pan Alley, the song factory of New York, had been centralised and organised in the 1890s as a pop music publishing industry, creating (or maybe manufacturing would be more apt) marketable compositions especially geared to fit the mood of the people. In the 1890s it was little lost children and dishonoured women, all set in waltz time. In the 1910s it was ragtime, the syncopated sound of the clanging city.
Often the song product was no more than banality in motion, but sometimes the Alley actually made art, albeit for an unwashed public, but art nevertheless: we still publicly sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame; our hearts still pulse to Melancholy Baby.
By 1914 Tin Pan Alley was far better organised to cope with the new masses than the Federal government. The Alleymen knew that rugged individualism was settling into myth and that instead there was growing a swirl of folks, cursed as ‘the horde’ by nativist Americans, classified later by sociologists as the ‘lonely crowd’. The aim was to catch these people and make them buy sheet music and sing like a mixed chorus of geese and crows. As Europe went madly into war, peace-loving America was equally madly turkey-trotting, bunny-hugging, lynching, striking, growing shriller.
Here we had, then, a seething mob (a word employed by new hot-shot rag writer Irving Berlin) and a well-organised music business capable of tackling any topic from honey-babes to Dixie. And the Alleymen looked – in those days of ideals – for some noble cause, something bigger than babes.
Tin Pan Alley had all the machinery for the making of a super piece of propaganda artillery.
The song men would be just one part of a government movement to sway public opinion in favour of the war by enlisting the support of the media – movies, vaudeville, newspapers, posters – rather than waving the big stick of censorship. Government agencies led the way, irising in on the main threat to democracy: anything German. The enemy dehumanised. Thus Wagner was banned, German measles became Liberty measles and poor sauerkraut was now Liberty cabbage. The authorities swooped on anybody opposed to the war.
America was, for the first time, experiencing Big Government. Agencies took over every aspect of life. On the propaganda front, ‘The Committee on Public Information’ – an agency headed by muckraking journalist George Creel – was determined to weld Americans into ‘one white hot mass instinct’ by use of ‘controlled information’ for the ‘essence of a democratic society is the engineering of consent’. No crude violent repression like barbaric Teutonic nations. Creel’s slogan was simply, ‘Beat the Hun’.
To this end the agency printed millions of pamphlets, planted fabricated stories in a (willing) press about bayoneted Belgian babies, and sent out thousands of ‘Four Minute Speakers’ – based on an estimate of the average American attention span. Bear in mind, too, that at least a quarter of the country was illiterate. Pictures, music and posters would do the trick of welding the American Mind into one glorious whole.
The media obliged without any need for duress. Here is that organ of middlebrow literates, The Saturday Evening Post: ‘The scum of the melting pot must be scrubbed away. Lovers of German music must be either radicals or dreamers’. Soon the desired anti-German mood was whipping up nicely.
Creel’s men entered into an arrangement with Tin Pan Alley for songs full of the correct war spirit. Song leaders with songbooks spread the spirit all over the country at community sing-outs. In vaudeville theatres song contests were held, the material supplied by publishers and presented by their pluggers, many with the advantage of being in uniform. The central Quartermasters Stores ran out of stock arrangements of the latest hits for military bands. The War Industries Board, recognising that music was ‘essential to win the war’, allowed for increased supplies of paper for the publishers.
This was not an insidious conspiracy. The Alley was naturally a ready and agreeable ally in the propaganda war. The song men were at once doing their patriotic bit for the war while also doing good business. They buckled down to the task tirelessly, producing more songs between April 1917 and November 1918 than at any time before or since in this the most music-ful of wars.
War aims were compressed into handy phrases: ‘Just like Washington crossed the Delaware, General Pershing will cross the Rhine’. But more popular were the songs that saw the war not from the loftiness of a General but from the worm’s-eye-view of the regular Joe. ‘Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning’ was Sergeant Irving Berlin’s complaint about his new life in a barracks. All the pop characters and styles were called up into service: the babe waved her Johnnie off to war in ragtime; in Hello Central Give Me No-Man’s Land a real baby puts the telephone to good use by calling up her daddy who is fighting over there.
Sometimes the writers got carried away and strayed, picturing the war as a vaudeville comedy routine rather than a task full of nobility of purpose. I Don’t Want to Get Well – I’m in Love with a Beautiful Nurse was frowned on by the Creel Committee as subversive. A directive was issued: ‘No song shall have any kind of anti-draft or peace message’. The authorities preferred the simple directness of performers strutting around the stage wrapped in Old Glory and warning:
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 everywhere …
(Legend has it that George M. Cohan, the king of Broadway, wrote this on a napkin at breakfast within moments of Wilson’s war declaration).
Martial stuff like Over There was just the job for sending the doughboys off to France in the correct jingo-positive mood. A tiny pre-war army had, in a few months, swelled to four million. What it lacked in battle-blooding it made up for in optimism and pep, swinging into France with good cheer ringing in its well-crafted music. Doughboys roared Send Me Away with a Smile, by Al Piantadosi who, only a few years earlier, had hit the jackpot with his mother’s plea for peace, I Didn’t Raise my Boy to Be a Soldier. The Alleymen were expert at trimming their sails to the requirements of the moment.
Just in time to the trenches came the Yanks. Britain was only a few weeks from starvation. She was already bankrupt, leaving American bankers owed millions. Commander-in-Chief Haig had been praying for victory ‘before the Americans arrive’. The German generals hoped for the same thing.
As Pershing’s army swept into the battleground, bands blazing and soldiers singing, this gorgeous sight astounded the war-weary allies – and boosted their drooping spirits. Unlike the swaggering ebullience of such (Alley-supplied) doughboy songs as We Don’t Want the Bacon – What We Want is a Piece of the Rhine, the British Tommy had lately been chanting a nihilistic ditty, We’re ‘ere becoz we’re ‘ere becoz we’re ‘ere becoz … and so on ad infinitum. Or this bit of well-turned cynicism:
If you want to know where the whole battalion is
We know where they is, we know where they is.
If you want to know where the whole battalion is –
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire.
Note the use of ‘old’ to describe barbed wire as if it were an old friend. For the Tommies, witnesses to thousands of their mates being mowed down by machine guns in one day alone, it was an endless war in which the only life was in death, in which the darkness of irony and sarcasm blotted out any hopes for tomorrow.
American pop music, forever stuck in the present moment, brought back the sunshine. The US Army juggernaut marched to ragtime, a not-so- secret weapon of mass delight. Its cockiness worked wonders against the gloom. Here are the Yanks offering a ready-made solution for finishing off this business, brought all the way from Broadway in a neat package:
When Alexander takes his ragtime band to France
He’ll capture every Hun, and take them one by one.
Those ragtime tunes will put the Germans in a trance;
They’ll throw their guns away, Hip Hooray! And start right in to dance.
They’ll get so excited they’ll come over the top,
Two-step back to Berlin with a skip and a hop.
Old Hindenburg will know he has no chance
When Alexander takes his ragtime band to France.
In fact, ragtime’s days as the fashionable sound were over. By 1918 jazz and blues were taking over – even here in France. American military bands and smaller dance units (ranging as far as Italy) were amazing the Allies with displays of this jazz. The seemingly novel sound, crazy and sloppy yet peppy and tingly, made women go ape and tear at their dresses, while ‘serious’ modern European composers, tired of living in the shadow of nineteenth-century harmonic lushness and smooth, rut-running melodies – the sensibility of the sensible – embraced jazz as their saviour. It was a musical cacophony that broke the rules, that was surreal, that summed up the chaos and irrationality of a world gone mad.
They were wrong, of course. Dixieland jazz, a tightly-run ensemble music, was just a new kind of counterpoint, treading with syncopated steps in the footprints of Bach.
The Alleymen would deal with jazz, would codify the blue notes and find words for the chaos. But in the meantime they had to deal with a new situation. American intervention had tipped the balance in favour of the Allies and in November 1918 the Central Powers surrendered. Returning doughboys, it was noticed, had a wise-weary look. They had seen Paris, they had tasted an exotic life; they were no longer stick-whittling hicks.
Some were filled with a heightened awareness of the possibilities of life beyond the drabness of field and farm. The Alley responded: ‘They’ll never want to see a rake or plough – and how the deuce d’you parlez vous a cow?’; the 1919 hit, How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm?, was a real bit of sociology.
One thing was clear: people were tired of great issues. ‘No More Moral Attention Songs’, said the sign backstage in vaudeville houses. War was out. Love songs, together with the new ‘blue flame’ stuff like A Good Man is Hard to Find, were in again.
But peace could not suddenly shut off the steam of righteous energy heated up by Wilson’s propaganda experts. Americans had been carefully taught to hate all things German. Now their passion sought out new subjects. A Red Scare swept the country, although there were precious few communists in the republic. Justice was done summarily, by lynch mobs. In New York bands of soldiers and sailors roamed the streets seeking out radicals, reds, socialists – or just those they didn’t like the look of. Leo Feist Inc., chief publisher of war songs, responded to this new enemy within by encouraging citizens to follow the example of the armed forces in their latest publication number, Let’s Knock the Bull out of the Bolsheviki:
With anarchy and bloodshed, our freedom is at stake.
So let’s wipe out each cause of it and trample on the snake.
Irving Berlin, back in civilian life, joined the hue and cry with Look Out for the Bolsheviki Man and The Revolutionary Rag which told how the red flag could put the fear of God into kings and queens.
For the music industry, then, it was business as usual; the war was a thing of the past, the long ago past. Now it was jazz with the occasional waltz thrown into the pot.
For George Creel, however, the return to normalcy (a word coined by President Harding, the man who succeeded Wilson) was a time for explaining his people-persuasion skills. He published many books. The first, How We Advertised America did well, but the subsequent, How the War Came to America sold in the millions worldwide. He boasted of how
he and his men had manipulated the Great American Mind. Ex-President Wilson, a self-described ‘broken piece of machinery’, was too sick to see the latest work of his friend, the man who had had him in stitches during the war with vaudevillian impressions of political foes. But even as he had laughed Wilson warned that the propaganda they had unleashed would make the nation ‘forget that there was ever such a thing as tolerance and the spirit of ruthless brutality would enter into the very fibre of national life’.
Creel’s fellow war workers took note of this brutishness and coarseness inherent in twentieth-century America: Walter Lippmann, later to be a respected political pundit, wrote about how he had learned from his war work that Americans were a ‘bewildered herd’ who could never comprehend the complexities of modern society and therefore must be regimented as much ‘as an army regiments bodies and toughens them’. People in general, he concluded, were ‘mentally children who understood only stereotypes’ or ‘pictures in their heads’.
Another old Creel war worker, Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and a Broadway press agent before the war, re-directed the energy he had recently spent portraying Germans as barbarians into a national campaign promoting bacon and eggs as the ‘All-American’ proper breakfast. After the success of this job for the pork industry he was hired by tobacco companies to persuade women to smoke heavily and often.
The Jazz Age was to be a cacophony of over-heated ‘modernity’. This was reflected in the war-inspired techniques employed by tabloid newspapers with screaming headlines and sensational subject matter. Murderous wives and sex-crazed film stars took the place of monstrous Huns and Joan of Arc in jeopardy. The Alley just followed the crowd.
But at least the music business had done its wartime duty and, as always, had created some lasting music amidst the clamour of the war effort. God Bless America, written by Irving Berlin for his all-soldier revue – but cut at the time for being too patriotic, too over the top – was revived as new war clouds hung over the Old World in the 1930s. Soon it would become an alternate National Anthem.
And there were waltzes like Till We Meet Again and cheery foxtrots like Smiles that have shaken off their war origins to take their place as evergreens, as even standards.
British songs had made a last stand in the war before being defeated by the onslaught of All-American jazz: Roses of Picardy and Keep the Home Fires Burning were as popular in America as in Britain.
However, it has to be admitted that the bulk of the masses of war songs churned out were, however moving or amusing, of their time – perishable goods with a short shelf-life: The Rose of No-Man’s Land, If He Can Fight like He Can Love, Goodnight Germany!, We’re Going to Take the Sword Away from William.
All this music though, however quotidian, was skilfully arranged for parlour piano. Within the most banal number you find felicitous fills and cunning chord changes utilising such delights as creamy ninths and poignant half-diminisheds – the work of Alley arrangers like Milton Ager (who taught the kid George Gershwin). These craftsmen had not tossed away nineteenth-century romanticism as had so many of the iconoclastic modernists of art music.
On the contrary, the Alley piano professors had saved classical music by setting it aboard a rip-roaring vehicle that could dance down the road in foxtrot, one step, or waltz tempo. The Charleston was just around the corner. So too were the flapper and the collegian, itchy kids with little patience for concentrated learning.
Sadly, from the 1920s onwards, piano sheet music grew simpler and simpler as amateur home pianists grew fewer and fewer due to the attraction of passive music making – winding the handle and turning the knob of phonograph and radio. And, much as I hate to admit it, the ukulele usurped the piano’s position as the instrument of choice for the age-old wooing of the ladies. The war, then, had been the piano’s finest hour.