Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The NRR Project #41: 'Over There'

‘Over There’
Written by George M. Cohan
Singer: Nora Bayes
July 13, 1917

Evangelical interventionism.

This and other songs were part of a massive effort to turn a neutral U.S. population into one willing to send its sons off to die in a foreign war. It birthed the American Century, making the country a full-fledged major power. The repercussions were vast. Let’s break it down:

On November 7, 1916, Woodrow Wilson won his second term as U.S. president, in one of the closest contests in the history of the office. World War I had been raging since the summer of 1914, and Wilson’s campaign platform leaned hard on neutrality. “He kept us out of war” and “America First” were his slogans.

This was in keeping with America’s nominal isolationism. George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 famously adjured the country not to involve itself in foreign affairs: "Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?" The concept has been permanently misremembered as the “caution against entangling alliances,” but the idea is the same.

He hired George Edward Creel, a muckraking journalist, who founded the Committee on Public Information, a government-sponsored propaganda agency. It issued government press releases, produced "morale-lifting" materials, and enforced press censorship at the behest of the War Department.

The first nationwide effort to influence public opinion was massive and thorough. Instead of being presented as just another geopolitical conflict between yet another combination of nation-stats, entry into the War was portrayed as a new Crusade. It was "the War to End All Wars," the "War to Make the World Safe for Democracy." Through the press, posters, movies, radio, bond drives, public rallies, and songs, the CPI sold the war to the people.

Isolation and peace-mongering were tantamount to treason, and songs such "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" disappeared from the music-store racks.

We've met brash George M. Cohan before in this series (link here). "Over There" was his last and biggest hit, the epitome of his peppy style. Shortly after war was declared, he jotted it down. It's a perfect little marching song -- urgent, repetitious, catchy. The lyrics are a perfect evocation of the (manufactured) spirit of the day:

"Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun
Take it on the run, on the run,
Here them calling you and me, every son of liberty!
Hurry right away, don't 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 'til it's over over there!"

It makes you want to sing along, march along, join in. It gives the unwary an image of war as a lark crossed with a divinely ordained mission. Cohan asked singing star Nora Bayes ("Shine On, Harvest Moon") to be the first to record it. He clear, strong, straightforward delivery is perfect.

The number of WWI songs is profuse. "Over There" is only  the best-known; others include gems such as "Hock the Kaiser," "Hello, Central, Give Me No Man's Land," and "If He Can Fight Like He Can Love, Good Night Germany!" The mixture of martial ardor and rank sentiment is an appropriate disconnect for a war that was supposed to be fought for noble reasons, but wound up creating a "lost generation" of disabused humanity.

By June 26, 1917, th first U.S. troops arrived in Europe. Eventually, more than four million American men enlisted, and tow million served overseas. The conclusion of the war 18 months left America indisputably an international force.

Thee demonization of Germany and its culture affected many in the U.S. Steinbeck records the shunning his German-American family experienced by suspicious neighbors. My German-American grandfather joined the cavalry, and made it only as far as New York by Armistice Day. He still wound up changing the spelling of his funny-sounding name, and its pronunciation.

In terms of the nation's psyche, the repercussions were even greater. One of the CPI's young propagandists was Edward Bernays. He studied the propaganda efforts and decided that the same techniques could be applied to any situation requiring mass persuasion. He bcame the father of public relations, what he termed "regimenting the public mind." His offspring -- the advertising industry.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the early Heifetz recordings.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The NRR Project #39: The Bubble Books (1917 – 1922)

The Bubble Book
Written by Ralph Mayhew and Burges Johnson; illustrated by Rhoda Chase
Singer: unknown; perhaps Henry Burr
14 iterations, 1917 -- 1922

Multimedia. It’s ubiquitous now, but this was one of the first attempts to combine sound and image – a quite successful attempt that helped entrain young imaginations. But was it progressive or pathetic? Allow me to go on a tangential ramble . . .

I will not insult your intelligence by doing other than pointing to Cary O’Dell’s comprehensive and eloquent essay on the subject, which you should now pause and read immediately here. (Even more great information here at Little Wonder Records & Bubble Books.)

For our purposes, they were carefully crafted, sturdy little artifacts, little books containing “three 5 ½-inch discs to accompany the three nursery rhymes printed in the books.” The authors were Ralph Mayhew and Burges Johnson; Rhoda Chase did the beautiful illustrations. It is thought that the popular Henry Burr recorded the songs.

They sold millions of copies. Kids loved them. Parents loved them. Remember, until electrical motors were introduced, all gramophones were spring-driven and required cranking. Gramophone needles were cheap; they came in boxes and their frequent replacement was encouraged. This is known in parenting circles as “giving the kids something to do.” It was a welcome distraction.

There’s no doubt it was an educational aid as well. The tradition of early attempts to plow through more and more complex words by “sounding it out” is made much easier when your infant eye can match the incomprehensible spelling of a familiar word. The tricks of phonetic language, the paths phrases follow, the cadences at the base of the language, and the vast eccentricities of English, were never more well-served.

Other people might argue that it was just another step into unreality, dwelling in the metaphoric media world instead of staying grounded in direct, literally unmediated everydayness.

I don’t know. I never ran across these, but of course my generation of children had picture books wed to two-sided, 45-rpm records that told the story and made a beeping sound when it was time to turn the page. Later, Disney and many other companies made long-playing records on the same principle, and so it unfolds as each new step in technology carries it forward in some iteration.

Which makes me think it’s ubiquitous and needed. We hunger for stories, no matter the form. I crammed myself into corners, bowed with books, reading my way out from under. We played and sang along to our childhood story-records; poignant, maybe, but not pathetic.

In contrast, certain child-friending devices come off today as rather frightening. Who remembers Teddy Ruxpin? A frightening doll that could talk and had limited eye motion, a resident of the Uncanny Valley. Powered by large batteries shoved up its backside. It “read” stories on interchangeable cassettes, and it remains something I still suspect Stephen King conjured up as a practical joke.

But I digress. Hypnotized now by our digital lives, it’s educational to peruse these quaintly analog ancestors. Part of the mission of the “Harper Columbia Book that Sings” was to create a new generation of customers. It worked.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Listen to the Lambs.’

The NRR Project: Rachmaninoff and Stokowski

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff Performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano Philadelphia Symphony Orchestr...