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Over There or Bust

Image of George McKay in Sam Mendes's 1917.

Last night I finally watched the film 1917. The film was allegedly based on an experience of the director's, Sam Mendes, grandfather during World War I. While that may be true, and I enjoyed the film for what it was, I did not find it terribly representative of what I know of the WWI experience. What it did accomplish for me, however, was to put me in the mood to look into the most iconic song from that war, "Over There," by George M. Cohan.

Ever since the war in Europe broke out in 1914, the United States had been torn between neutrality and entering the war. There were vehement supporters for both sides. Former President Teddy Roosevelt even created a voluntary training camp to prepare officers in his ideal of a gentleman soldier. But President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the campaign slogan of "He Kept Us Out of the War." There was enough desire to stay out of Europe's mess that an otherwise lackluster first term turned into a second.

Most histories point to the sinking of the Lusitania as a cause of America's entry into the war, but that happened almost two years to the day before the United States entered the war and, though still present in memory, was not sufficient incitement to commit hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to a distant war. When the Zimmerman Telegram--outlining a plot of German support for a Mexican attack on the United States--emerged in the spring of 1917, spirits ran high and disgust with Germany reached a new peak. Even then America might have stayed out of the war, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that the belligerents on the ground were nearing a point of exhaustion. Wilson, and certain members of Congress, wanted to be part of the peace that would eventually come, and so--with self-interest perhaps more important than national outrage--declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

George M. Cohan

It wasn't until the next morning that papers in New Rochelle, New York, carried the headline announcing the official declaration of war. Why care about New Rochelle? That's where theater giant George M. Cohan happened to live with his wife and children.

By 1917, Cohan had become largely responsible for much of the content of New York City's Broadway theaters. Starting as a child performer with his sister and parents as "The Four Cohans," he became famous for the curtain closing phrase, "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you." But he did more than thank the audience. Active in writing sketches and songs for the family troupe, he would write, direct, and produce his first Broadway musical in 1901 at the age of twenty-three. By 1920, he had written fifty musicals, plays, and revues and his shows were frequently produced in multiple Broadway theaters simultaneously. The mid-1910s saw him labeled "the man who owned Broadway."

It was this prodigious talent who, on the morning of April 7, 1917, opened his newspaper and read the headline that the United States had declared war and that the Yankee troops would be going "over there." According to Ward Morehouse, who knew Cohan, he immediately began working a tune in his head and soon began to worry over words to go with it. By the time he finished breakfast, he'd written the chorus to a new anthem on a scrap of paper. He took it with him out the door and another piece of paper beside to catch his train into his offices in New York's Tin Pan Alley. By the time the train reached Manhattan, he finished writing the lyrics on that second page.

He didn't say much about it that day, but the next day he performed the song for his family wearing a pot on his head and marching with a broomstick as a rifle. The performance reportedly frightened his children. He shared the song with Morehouse and other friends and they all responded positively, though a reported early performance for some troops in New York by Cohan purportedly left the soldiers unimpressed. It didn't matter, though, as he published the sheet music in early June and followed that with the first recording of the song on the Victor label by popular singer Nora Bayes (who would later be immortalized in her own biopic Shine On, Harvest Moon).

Nora Bayes

Released on July 13, 1917, the song would go on to sell over a million and a half copies--an astronomical number considering most bestsellers sold between 300,000 to 400,000 records. It was quickly recorded by other artists, including Billy Murray and Enrico Caruso. The last spent hours with his American wife practicing his pronunciation of every syllable so as not to sound like an Italian when he sang the obviously American patriotic song.

The lyrics of the song "Over There" that Cohan wrote on April 7, 1917, are as follows:

Johnnie, get your gun Get your gun, get your gun Take it on the run On the run, on the run Hear them calling, you and me Every son of liberty Hurry right away No delay, go today Make your daddy glad To have had such a lad Tell your sweetheart not to pine To be proud her boy's in line 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 So prepare, say a prayer 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 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 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 So prepare, say a prayer 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.

The music combined African American ragtime rhythms with John Philip Sousa type marches and just a bit of Broadway. It was distinctly American and added to the language of the lyrics that were openly propagandistic. It was immediately picked up by the American public as a song to perk up flailing spirits and to represent the superior nature of American young men over their aging, and ailing, European brothers. It was even adopted by some Europeans in the hope that its lyrics might just be more than bluster and that the Americans would actually deliver on its promise. Some called it the "Allies victory anthem."

During the year and a half of America's belligerency, it was easily the most well-known song about the war. Sung on the homefront and on the Western Front, it was America's anthem to prove to the world that they were strong and capable and willing to stay in the fight until it was over--something they ultimately did, if not with the same optimistic performance that "Over There" proposed.

According to Cary O'Dell who wrote the Library of Congress's essay commemorating the addition of Nora Bayes' recording of "Over There" to the National Registry in 2005, the song

is one of the most enduring of these purposeful, popular battle hymns, still as likely as any to be invoked and revived in times of need, national unity or simply nostalgia.

Indeed so. Cohan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor--not to be confused with the actual Medal of Honor--in 1936 for writing the song. It would re-emerge during WWII and again after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. It is America's quintessential war song, as much a part of our history now as "Yankee Doodle Dandy" or Cohan's other famous patriotic tune "It's a Grand Old Flag."

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