Sentimentalism by the Score

In addition to the Great War's calamities and cataclysms, including the dissolution of empires and the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians, were the smaller, local tribulations of American families fractured by the war effort. These everyday struggles, often absent from history textbooks, were acknowledged and commemorated by popular songs of the time. These songs, sold as sheet music to the general public to perform at home or at the many glee clubs that existed across the nation (phonograph records and radio were both still in their infancy), portrayed wartime existence through a variety of themes and motifs.

But songs that dealt with children and their fathers were among the most popular.

These many songs approached their shared subject with a sentimentality typical of the popular music of the day. Their emotional range, however, was surprisingly broad.

A song like “Take a Letter to My Daddy ‘Over There’” is overtly patriotic and stirring, for though the central character is “mighty lonesome,” he is nevertheless proud of his father for “fighting for his country, like a hero ought to do.” Songs like “Please Touch My Daddy’s Star Again and Change It Back to Blue” lack the anthemic patriotism of the former, in favor of a more touching, perhaps more emotionally authentic, approach. The “star” of the latter’s title refers to the stars that appear on service flags, which were (and are) displayed by the families of service members. In the song, the child prays that the star on her family’s flag be changed from gold (which represents a service member who has died during service), back to blue. “Please Touch My Daddy’s Star” presents its subject in a heartfelt manner, and manages to communicate its message without ever explicitly stating it.

The music of World War I conveyed the concerns and desires of everyday Americans, and portrayed, with much-needed sentimentality, the era’s ideal notions of family life. With these documents in mind, the Newberry Library would like to wish you, and your family, a safe and happy Father’s Day.

This essay was written by Sam Kepp, communications intern at the Newberry Library.