On July 22, Eric Owens and members of the Young Artists Program will present “Over There,” a tribute to veterans with songs that have inspired, comforted and cheered in times of war.
George M. Cohan composed “Over There” in April 1917 on his morning commute from New Rochelle to New York City. The song debuted at a Red Cross benefit later that same year. It was immediately recorded by several singers of the day, such as the celebrated Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and vaudeville star Nora Bayes. Cohan’s piece became one of the most well-known war songs of all time and went on to sell more than 2 million copies of sheet music and thousands of phonograph records.
Cohan was a member of “Tin Pan Alley,” a group of songwriters and publishers who dominated American popular music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During World War I, these composers and lyricists wrote works for Broadway, vaudeville and Hollywood that attempted to match the national sentiment. In addition to “Over There,” popular tunes ranged from the humorous, “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?),” to the more serious “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” and its rebuttal, “I’d Be Proud to Be the Mother of a Soldier.”
Though the primary purpose of “Over There” was to galvanize American men to enlist in the armed forces, it also bolstered the war effort more broadly across American life. For instance, the Girl Scouts of America – established just five years before World War I began – printed their own version of the song in 1918, which featured modified lyrics such as, “Girlies do your bit/Show a little grit.”
In the trenches, soldiers used music to cope with the bitter realities of war. They often found pianos and other musical instruments in abandoned villages and held impromptu concerts. “Over There” was certainly well-known among the U.S. soldiers; homemade army songbooks from the era preserve the original lyrics as well as more lighthearted adaptations, such as “Underwear, Underwear.”
After the Great War ended, the song remained popular. Cohan received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Roosevelt in 1936 for the composition and other contributions to American popular music. During World War II, the song was revived and featured in several films of the era, including 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. In the second half of the 20th century, “Over There” has served as a musical symbol for both World Wars on screen, appearing in the films Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), 1941 (1979) and Leatherheads (2008), among others, as well as in television series such as Mad Men, Frasier, The Golden Girls, Tom and Jerry, The Simpsons and M*A*S*H.