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Canadian Sheet Music of the First World War

The First World War is often described as the crucible in which Canada came of age, in which a colony became a nation. The performance of Canadian troops, particularly Sir Arthur Currie's Canadian Corps, a unified Canadian unit operating extremely effectively under Canadian command, certainly helped to validate the idea of Canadian nationhood in the eyes of the world.

Much has been written about this pivotal time in our history. After extensive study of military and political issues, Canadian writers and historians have increasingly turned their attention to the social history of the Canada that entered the War and the country that emerged four years later. Personal memoirs, newspapers, and the popular arts are among the sources that help to describe the personality of the nation. The music of the War is one such resource.

There are various types of music that accompany war. The military produces official music such as regimental marches and songs as well as utilitarian bugle calls. The soldiers have a repertoire of their own, largely consisting of new, often ribald, lyrics to older tunes. There has been some study of such First World War soldiers' songs and many have been collected by interested parties such as John Brophy. The evidence of letters, contemporary writings and the later recollections of veterans suggest that the songs soldiers actually sang were primarily from this repertoire, reflecting their daily privations and frustrations, along with a few popular items heard by the soldiers on leave in London or introduced by the various touring concert parties - British or American hits such as It's a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles.

There exists, however, a less-familiar body of First World War music - a repertoire that was slightly self-conscious and more genteel, but nonetheless sincere. This was the music that was written for the home front.

By the end of the 19th century, songwriting had become a favoured means of personal expression. In a society in which most middle-class families owned a piano, and standard education included at least the rudiments of music, when the creative muse stirred the housewife, banker, or private soldier, the result was often a song. Such stirrings frequently occurred in response to noteworthy events, and few local or national excitements were allowed to pass without some musical comment.

The enduring product of this repertoire was sheet music - a fragile, inexpensive, rapidly-produced format that allowed lyrics and tunes to circulate quickly, producing profits for the disseminators (if not the creators) and providing an excellent medium for advertising. A solid infrastructure of music printers prepared to publish "for the composer," and professional musicians prepared to polish or "arrange" any rough diamond, made such creations available to the public.

With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914, war became a major theme in professional and amateur composition. Possibilities for propaganda and fund-raising were not overlooked. Songs were overwhelmingly patriotic, heroic, jingoistic or "pathetic" and, predictably, many songs were written glorifying the navy, the army and the new flying corps. Individual units were often recognized in songs, official or otherwise. The American Legion, the Canadian 97th Battalion made up of American volunteers anxious to serve even before the United States entered the War, was singled out for particular encouragement. Praise was heaped upon the Empire, Great Britain and "plucky little Belgium." Ireland's initial commitment to abandon, for the duration, the internal struggle for Home Rule was greeted with choruses of approval. The requisite instrumental marches, recruiting songs, flag songs, songs of parting and of anticipated reunion resound throughout the repertoire. Songwriters, even the serving soldiers, lauded women's efforts on the home front. Never before had the humble act of knitting been so celebrated.

Composers and lyricists could be amateur or professional, female or male, civilian or military. Mrs. Florence Ballantyne was the daughter of the Speaker of the Ontario Legislature and the wife of a university professor. As described in The Canada Weekly, January 5, 1918, she wrote her song The Call We Must Obey when recruiting lagged, to hearten her sons already overseas. Jean Munro Mulloy from Kingston, Ontario, was the wife of Trooper Mulloy who had served in South Africa. She recycled her Trooper Mulloy March and incorporated her daughter's activities into new songs to encourage Canadians. The pugnacious-looking Rev. J.D. Morrow ("the athletic pastor of Dale Church, Toronto") declared You Bet Your Life We All Will Go and, true to his word, on the cover of his third song, Memories of Home, he appears in uniform and is described as Chaplain to our Canadian Overseas Forces. Sadly, he died in 1921, at the age of 47, possibly as a result of war wounds www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/. His name is recorded in the first of the Books of Remembrance www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/sub.cfm?source=collections/books, which lie in the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

Professional songwriters certainly still plied their trade. Arrangers Jules Brazil and Arthur Wellesley Hughes did their bit by giving a final gloss to dozens of amateur creations as well as by composing, spontaneously or to order. Lieut. N. Fraser Allan was a professional musician who performed in the famous Dumbells troupe. Lieut. Gitz Rice, wounded in 1917 at Vimy Ridge, became the officer in charge of military entertainments for the Army. Rice's portrayal of the life of the soldier has a compelling ring of truth. Although he did not write the lyrics of his greatest hit Dear Old Pal of Mine, he was the lyricist and composer of He Will Always Remember the Little Things You Do (encouraging women in their war effort) and Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy.

Gordon V. Thompson, one of the most prolific composers of the war years, was also the owner of the long-lived Thompson Publishing Co. With an acute sense for popular taste, he quickly shifted his compositional themes from the evangelical and religious to the patriotic and sentimental, all with lavishly illustrated covers. The frequent appearance of the song I Want to Kiss Daddy Good-night on present-day sale lists, and the evident heavy use of the surviving copies, indicate that this sentimental ballad was one of the best-selling and most frequently played items in the Canadian repertoire.

Not all songs were newly written. A Handful of Maple Leaves by William Westbrook, a very popular song from the South African War (1898-1902), was rejuvenated by substituting "Belgium" for "South Africa" in the second verse with a minor musical adjustment.

Another example of textual adjustment, although for different reasons, can be found in Herbert Ivey's extremely successful song Somewhere in France. According to the printer's copies from the Whaley, Royce & Company files, held at Library and Archives Canada, this piece was reprinted at least nine times. As the War ground on, alternative lyrics were included for the last verse - "... for he doesn't advertise and God bless him where he lies Somewhere in France" became "for he doesn't make a fuss, pray God send him back to us from Somewhere in France". In its final printings, the original lyrics were omitted entirely.

Recruiting was a dominant theme, reflecting the intense pressure exerted by government and society to enlist. The powerful role of the mother as recruiting agent is well represented in these songs. The sense of stigma attached to non-serving young men can be witnessed in the following declaration which composer John C. McFadden felt compelled to attach to his song Liberty -- "Being unfit for the Fighting Front as my certificate shows, ...." Those who were not enlisted were urged to contribute money -- in the words of Walter St. J. Miller "If we cannot do the fighting we can pay" (lyric from He's Doing His Bit - Are You? ). Conscription was addressed obliquely, one of the few examples being O.P. Cochrane's The Call for Soldiers: "My men sign now for your King and country call. Don't wait to be forced to answer it, But step up one and all." In her sheet music, Canada preferred to volunteer.

Reading accounts of the War, it is hard to reconcile the cynical, disrespectful and often bawdy soldier presented as typical, with the patriotic, upright and faithful young man portrayed in these songs, some of them written by soldiers themselves. In Grace Morris Craig's book But This Is Our War, she quotes a Canadian soldier writing home: "One sees some rather dreadful sights in this place which it pays to forget about as quickly as possible and not to write about at all...." The sensibilities of the audience at home were indeed respected, but a basic decency and perhaps even some patriotism seems to have survived among many fighting men. Attempts to appear to be "one of the boys" -- like Morris Manley's somewhat precious What the Deuce Do We Care for Kaiser Bill? -- are rare.

Few songs opposing the Great War appear in Library and Archives Canada's collection. The most famous Canadian example for the period, I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (lyrics by Alfred Bryan), was written not against the war in Europe but to oppose the establishing of a cadet corps in New York schools. In Song of Freedom by T.A. Simpson, lyricist Alex. W. Grant, wishing for a better world, presents a policy of forgiveness: "Come men awake the dawn is near, Forget the night of strife and fear, Lift up your voice in mighty song, Forget the frightful wrong." Pacifism might have been present but not often in public. By contrast, even previously pacifist suffragette women rallied 'round the flag and pressed their sons into service.

Among Library and Archives Canada's approximately 500 pieces of Canadian sheet music relating to the First World War, there is a noticeable shortage of material in French. That the War did not have the support in Quebec that it enjoyed in other parts of Canada is an historical fact, but French-Canadian troops did participate, and composers like Alexis Contant wrote marches in praise of the Allies, while songwriters portrayed the plight of sweethearts, wives and mothers left behind. Many songs about the War were published in periodicals such as Le Passe Temps and are therefore not represented in this database. In addition, many items published in Quebec in the early part of the century were not dated, and those without explicit wartime subject matter might have been missed. By and large, songs produced in Quebec represented the same themes and concerns as those from English Canada, with perhaps a reduced emphasis on the defence of the British Empire.

In a large market, the cheap price of sheet music made it suitable for fund-raising. Patriotic individuals wrote and published their compositions to be sold for patriotic causes. How seriously the sentiments expressed in these items were taken is a matter for conjecture. In Library and Archives Canada's collection, one item (whose proceeds were promised for patriotic purposes) includes the handwritten note "Gordon: Picked this up at last night's meeting. As I have no use for it, it is yours." Many publications specify the charity they support -- often the Red Cross or a regimental fund -- but many simply promise that proceeds will be used "for patriotic purposes." Judging from the numbers of copies that appear in collections periodically offered for sale, these must have sold fairly well. Several items have stickers indicating that they were being sold by returned wounded soldiers as a means of livelihood. Some stickers insist that the seller was not asking for charity, but one can infer that support was considered a matter of duty.

The covers of Canadian sheet music present an interesting study in themselves. Few of the illustrations are signed, and internal evidence suggests that fewer were produced by professional artists. Artists Lou Skuce (We'll Love You More When You Come Back Than When You Went Away by Harry Taylor) and J. Glynn (There's a Fight Going On, Are You In It? by Herbert Kohler) are two obvious exceptions. Among the unsigned examples, the figure drawing is often stiff and sometimes bizarre (Good Bye Lad composed by John Stewart, Will Daddy Come Home Tonight? by Edwin J. Pull). Uniforms and equipment are treated in an imaginative way with little attempt at accuracy. Even one of the best drawings, the unsigned cover of Kiss Your Soldier Boy Good Bye by Sam Marks, includes a rifle far too short for the standard-issue weapon. The visual impact of the wonderful colours on Harry R. Pearse's Men o' the North is negated by the peculiar positioning of the eye of the moose. Other animal drawings are of widely varying quality. The splendidly active horse on Art Benet's Then We'll Sheath Our Sword of Justice and the unabashedly rodent-like beavers on Chas. O'Neill's The Land of the Maple and Beaver stand in stark contrast to the strange menagerie on C.A. Yates's Forward the Union Jack.

It cannot be claimed that sheet music either influenced Canadian reaction to the War or accurately reflected the reality in which most Canadians lived. This collection, however, gives a good idea of how Canadian society probably wanted to be seen. This was Canada's public face. Perhaps Canada, in her sheet music written by ordinary Canadians, was advertising herself.

Barbara Norman,
Music Division,
Library and Archives Canada


Selected Readings

Brophy, John; Partridge, Eric, eds. The long trail : what the British soldier sang and said in the Great War of 1914-18. [London]: A. Deutsch, 1965 (a revision and rewriting of the same authors' Songs and slang of the British soldier, 1914-1918. London: E. Partridge, 1931)

Craig, Grace Morris. But this is our war. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c1981

Fussell, Paul. "The fate of chivalry and the assault upon Mother". Thank God for the atom bomb, and other essays. New York: Ballantyne Books, c1988

Encyclopedia of music in Canada, 2nd ed. Kallmann, Helmut; Miller, Mark; Potvin, Gilles; Winters, Kenneth, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c1992, "Wars, rebellions and uprisings," "Patriotic Songs" and other articles about individuals or groups

Moogk, Edward B. Roll Back the Years: History of Recorded Sound and its Legacy (Genesis to 1930). Ottawa: National Library of Canada, 1975

Morton, Desmond. Album of the Great War. Toronto: Grolier, c1986

"The Pedlars Pack: The call we must obey". Canada Weekly. Vol. XXIV, No. 1 (January 5, 1918), 11

Read, Daphne, ed.; Richardson, Gus, comp. The Great War and Canadian society : an oral history. Toronto: New Hogtown Press, c1978

Rutherford, John E. "Some Canadian sheet music of World War I (1914-1918)". Antique Phonograph News. (March - April 1994), 6-7

Swettenham, John. Canada and the First World War. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1969, 1973