Tel: 203.245.4567 Email:

WWI Pop Hits

Pity the poor adman at the beginning of the 20th century. No TV. No radio. No color magazines and no recordings. No internet or pop-up ads. What’s an advertising executive supposed to do to sell his client’s music?

Since recordings were, literally, unheard of back then, people had to make their own music. Everyone could use their voice, a banjo, harmonica, guitar, or piano at home. Churches had organs and choirs, and fraternal organizations, firefighting companies, and clubs often had their own small bands. Sheet music was needed so people knew what to play or sing.

Advertisers and artists worked hard to make their music stand out from the competition at the music store or corner market. They found a great way to attract attention even before any music notes were visible — eye-catching sheet-music cover illustrations. The Madison Historical Society has on loan several examples of these colorful advertising solutions, including many from the WWI era.

One standout is “Wee, Wee, Marie (Will you do zis for me?).” The vivid blue, white, and orange graphics show a uniformed soldier talking to a flamboyantly dressed woman with an ostrich feather in her hat. This popular American song, published during the war's final year, was written by Alfred Bryan and Joe McCarthy, with music by Fred Fisher. The lyrics are as provocative as you might imagine:
Poor Johnny’s heart went pity pity pat, somewhere in sunny France
He met a girl by chance with ze naughty naughty glance
She looked just like a kity kity cat
She loved to dance and play
Tho’ he learned no French when he left the trench, he knew well enough to say,
Wee Wee Marie, will you do zis for me
Wee Wee Marie, then I’ll do zat for you….
The story continues for two verses, obviously before parental-guidance codes were established!

The cover of “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” isn’t remarkably colorful, but it has a bugling soldier on it. Irving Berlin wrote its words and music in 1918, and a thumbnail image (hmmm...did they call them “thumbnails” back then?) on the cover advertises the popular singer Eddie Cantor. A label notes that this song had been “reproduced on the following mechanical instruments” and lists the order numbers that buyers could use to purchase “disk records and word rolls.” This particular song proved a remarkable success and went on to sell 1.5 million sheet-music copies.

Judging by the covers and titles, humor must have been a big seller in the popular-song marketplace. One cartoonish cover for “Long Boy” shows a lanky recruit leaving his rural family as he trudged off to war. “Good-bye, Ma! Good-bye, Pa! Good-bye, Mule, with yer old Hee-Haw!” says the banner across the top. The music, by Barclay Walker, was published in 1917. The humorous lyrics, by William Herschell, include barnyard animal noises.

One poignant song is a 1918 ballad by Lew Wilson & Alfred Dubin, entitled “He's Got Those Big Blue Eyes Like You, Daddy Mine.” The sheet-music cover shows a mother carefully tucking her child to sleep while a photo of the father, in uniform, overlooks the scene from its perch on the bureau. Among its touching lyrics is the line, “When he smiles, he looks like you, Daddy.”

The war’s end was marked with a rousing march, “Welcome Home Laddie Boy, Welcome Home!” by Gus Edwards. This sheet-music cover must have screamed at potential buyers; it is red, white, and blue with youngsters waving flags and parents welcoming a returning troop ship festooned with banners and soldiers. The lyrics by Will D. Cobb are joyous:

What’s the noise?
That’s the boys
A-marching up the street.
Grab your bonnet Kate
Hurray, don’t be late.
You must be there your boys to greet.

So, the admen did all right. They promoted what we now know as the “entertainment industry” -which now means streaming videos and pedestrians wearing earbuds all over town. Silence isn’t golden anymore.

On Sunday, April 8, music historian Rick Spencer will present a well-researched presentation on the music of World War I, including some of the pieces referenced here. The program, beginning at 3 p.m. at Madison’s Memorial Town Hall, runs approximately one hour and is followed by a brief question-and-answer session. We hope you’ll join us and see if you can judge a song by its cover.