Listening to 1918: Popular Songs on Canada’s Home Front

As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War’s final year and attempt to better understand Canadian wartime views and experiences, music offers us a way of ‘hearing’ the past. The lyrics, music, and cover art of popular songs reflected the changing attitudes of Anglo-Canadians on the home front between 1914 and 1918. In the beginning, composers focused on martial songs with patriotic lyrics that encouraged enlistment and support for ‘king and country.’ Later in the war, sentimental songs were more common because there was an increasing need to comfort sad or grieving women and children on the home front. This post examines popular songs composed in 1918, providing a sense of the messages and melodies heard by Canadians one hundred years ago. 

[Image]: Take Me Back to Dear Old Canada, words & music Will J. White (Toronto: Musgrave Brothers, 1918)

The songs considered here express a longing for a reunion between soldiers and their families and lament the Canadian losses in battle. Due to their storytelling nature and somber tone, sentimental songs were not marches but ballads, sometimes composed as waltzes. The song lyrics assume different perspectives, from the soldier thinking about home, to mothers and children waiting for the return of loved ones, and even songs composed in honour of those who would not return from war. Through a closer examination of sentimental songs, it becomes clear that by 1918 Canadians were more aware of the realities of war.

There are songs composed in the later stages of the war that consider the perspective of a soldier, or in some cases nurses. In 1918, songs about active service were no longer upbeat marches that emphasized the adventure of war. Instead, they depicted the melancholy soldier who missed home. In the song “Take Me Back to Dear Old Canada,” composed by Will J. White and arranged by Jules Brazil in Toronto, a soldier or nurse dreams about their prewar days and those they left behind in Canada. [1] Although the cover image depicts a nurse in uniform, the lyrics do not specify whose experience the song presents. The references to nature and the landscapes back home, including the night stars and gardens full of flowers, paint a picture of tranquility that contrasts the wartime situation. It is clear that the soldier or nurse longs to see their “loving mother” again, envisioning her waiting in an armchair at home. Throughout the chorus, the line “take me back” is repeated to emphasize the soldier or nurse’s strong desire to return home. As heard in the recording below, the sentimental lyrics are fittingly accompanied by a flowing melody.

Video: //www.cbc.ca/i/caffeine/syndicate/?mediaId=915513411644

By 1918, the prolonged distance between family members experienced during the war became a source of inspiration for many popular songs. One of the most common elements of sentimental songs is the mention of mothers in relation to their sons fighting overseas. While some were written from the perspective of the mother who waits for her son to return home safely, “There’s Nobody Just Like My Mother,” composed by Bertie Aiken Green in Hamilton, expresses the soldier’s thoughts about his mother back home. [2] The cover art includes an insert of a motherly figure surrounded by pink flowers, illustrating the main theme of the song. The soldier recounts the day he left his mother to sail overseas and promised “I’ll come back some day.” He remembers his mother fondly, describing her voice as “loving and tender” and calling her “mother dear.” The expressive music and lyrics of this waltz were likely intended to provide the mothers who played and listened to these songs with a sense of comfort that their sons were thinking of them while overseas.

The voice of a child longing for the return of their father was also common in Canadian wartime sentimental songs. They were primarily composed in the later years of the war, when many children had not seen their fathers in years or in some cases had never met their father at all. The song “God Protect My Daddy,” composed by John D. Curran and arranged by Jules Brazil in Toronto, was written from the perspective of a soldier’s daughter. [3] The cover art features an image of a young girl kneeling beside her bed in prayer. The lyrics reveal that the girl is praying for her father’s safe return from “far across the sea,” and this message is repeated throughout. In the first verse, the girl says, “Dear Lord hear my pray’r for my Daddy out there, And bring him home safe some day.” Even though she receives letters from her father, as stated in the second verse, the girl wishes to see her father soon because she feels “sad and lonely, Since he went away.” The soothing waltz melody, heard in the recording below, includes phrasing that complements the storytelling style of the lyrics. The song would be comforting to children, particularly girls, who were struggling with the reality of being separated from their fathers as a result of the war. The emotional lyrics of songs of this nature remind us of the war’s impact on Canadian children.

Video:        http://digitalcollections.mcmaster.ca/sites/default/files/song5godprotectmydaddy17.mp3

As the war continued and the death toll rose, sentimental songs began to acknowledge that there would be men who would not return to Canada. “Sacrifice,” a song composed by Lillian Lundy Green and published in Winnipeg, expressed feelings of sadness and grief that were commonplace by 1918. [4] The song is played with feeling and at a slow tempo, as heard in the instrumental recording, and the lyrics tell the story of a mother and father who have a son fighting overseas. While the parents do not yet know the fate of their son, they are aware that “Somewhere in France! Our brave boys lie.” The second verse describes how the mother is visibly worried about her son’s return: “The gath’ring tear, told of her anguish, Her longing, her fear.” The coda offers a message of peace for the future, in order to avoid the deaths of more young men: “Oh! God in Heaven is it not enough, Remove the strife, change Hate into Love. Then will their sacrifice be complete, And grant us Peace Peace Peace.” Sentimental songs such as this were likely composed for an audience of Anglo-Canadians in mourning.

These popular songs offer an idea of the types of messages and sounds that composers and publishers believed would resonate with their Anglo-Canadian audience in 1918. The themes of homesick soldiers, worried women and children, and mourning losses reveal a greater sense of the realities of war among Canadians during what would become the final year of the war. As demonstrated by the instrumental recordings and accompanying lyrics, we can gain insight into wartime Canada by ‘listening’ to 1918.

Sara Karn holds a Master of Arts in History degree from Wilfrid Laurier University, where she researched popular songs composed on the home front in Canada during the First World War (sarakarn.wixsite.com/songsofwar). She previously earned both a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Education degree in the Concurrent Education program at Nipissing University. Sara is currently working for the Vimy Foundation as a student battlefield tour chaperone, combining her interest in the history of the World Wars with her passion for teaching. You can follow her on Twitter @sara_karn.

References

[1] Will J. White, “Take Me Back to Dear Old Canada” (Toronto: Musgrave Brothers, 1918), sheet music, wartimecanada.ca.

[2] Bertie Aiken Green, “There’s Nobody Just Like My Mother” (Hamilton: Mrs. David Green, 1918), sheet music, library.mcmaster.ca.

[3] John D. Curran and Jules Brazil, “God Protect My Daddy” (Toronto: Ideal Music, 1918), sheet music, library.mcmaster.ca.

[4] Lillian Lundy Green, “Sacrifice” (Winnipeg: Whaley, Royce & Co., 1918), sheet music, library.mcmaster.ca.

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3 thoughts on “Listening to 1918: Popular Songs on Canada’s Home Front

  1. Well done. I am always impressed with items on the CCGW and this essay is another example of the carefully researched and well written work that serves to evoke the experience of WW1 from many and unique perspectives. Please keep up the tremendous work. I am fascinated that there are so many Canadian produced titles. I put a virtual gramaphone on my site https://wjgrummettphotosandhistoryww1.blog some time ago to provide mood music for the reader, but it contains largely British and American “hits” from the era 1914-1919.

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