Historical events always have some impact on the subject matter of popular songs, wars most prominent among them. But no war seems to have been as immediately influential on pop music as World War I. Especially in the U.S., where the country's attitude toward the war evolved over time, it inspired a range of sentiments in song through the years leading up to and following American involvement. Patriotic isolationism characterized the immediate response to the European declaration of war in August 1914. Gradually, however, American indifference and neutrality gave way to the conviction that the U.S. should enter the war on the side of the Allies, and after it did so in April 1917 there was an outpouring of popular songs extolling the effort, led by George M. Cohan's composition "Over There." The American sense of humor wasn't lost, however, especially after the tide had turned. By the mid-1920s, the war fervor had long since given way to doubts about the value of the enterprise, creating an interwar mood of renewed pacifism. The selections on Songs of WWI are presented roughly chronologically, and the 40-track album contains many of the most popular war-related songs; 30 songs were chart hits, and of those, 20 of the versions here were the most popular ones (including 13 number one hits). Major recording stars of the day, such as the Peerless Quartet, Billy Murray, the American Quartet, Henry Burr, and John McCormack, are represented, as are such stage stars as Nora Bayes, Al Jolson, and Van and Schenck. That said, the song selection can be second-guessed on two grounds: first, several of the songs, while contemporary with the war period, do not relate to it in their lyrics. Second, there are quite a few obscure war songs here, while some that were more popular at the time and are better remembered are missing. The lack of availability of all popular music from the first three decades of the 20th century is so dire that almost any collection is welcome, and this one, focused on a particular aspect of that music, contains much valuable work by important artists that deserves to be heard. It isn't perfect by any means, but it represents the kind of compilation that should be undertaken much more frequently.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2