By Karen Wills
Just as each historic period has had its particular art, wars, politics, and fashions, each has had its music. As a writer, I must remember that. References to music can so enrich novels. Think of Ann Patchett’s wonderful Bel Canto in which captives and captors develop a human connection through a shared love of opera.
Popular song lyrics provide a sense of the average listener’s attitudes at the time they heard them. Think of Jerome Kern’s wistful, yearning, and determined “The Last Time I saw Paris.” He wrote it during the Nazi’s occupation of the City of Light in WWII.
I’ve been doing research for a novel set in the years just before and after WWI. Music, especially out of New York’s Tin Pan Alley, first reflected America’s reluctance to be involved in the war in such songs as “I Didn’t Raise my Boy to be a Soldier.” Once we were in it, we sang a different tune entirely. Al Jolson’s “Over There” and “Johnny Get Your Gun” were direct and optimistic. We would save France and show the Kaiser the error of his ways. No doubt about it. After our soldiers lived through the horror of the trenches and mass slaughters came “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and “Break the News to Mother,” the last a dying soldiers words.
But young men also kept a sense of humor. Many pursued French girls when on leave, and that gave rise to the satirical “That’s not the Way to Tickle Marie” sung to the tune of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
Any of these may find their way into my WWI novel. What people hum and listen to, the songs that surround us, show emotional states and reactions and help define the times our characters inhabit.
Thanks to Richard Rubin for his fascinating book, The Last of the Doughboys. It reminded and taught me of the songs of WWI.