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Interpreting the Evidence

Broadway and World War I

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Regions:

    New York City
    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load "They Were All Out of Step But Jim," Sheet Music, 1918 in Main Image Viewer
  2. Load "They Were All Out of Step But Jim," Sheet Music, 1918 in Main Image Viewer
  3. Load "They Were All Out of Step But Jim," Sheet Music, 1918 in Main Image Viewer
  4. Load "They Were All Out of Step But Jim," Sheet Music, 1918 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Sheet Music for "They Were All Out of Step But Jim," 1918.

Historical Context
During the WWI years, almost every family had a piano with at least one person who knew how to play it.  For this reason, sheet music helped the American government mobilize the nation for war. The music that came out during World War I was used as a propaganda tool to help convince people to help the war effort in a variety of ways including enlistment, help with financing the war, support for the Allies, hatred of the enemy, pushing messages of hope/optimism, etc. When the U.S. first went to war, anti-war sentiment was still quite strong among the American citizens, so the government created the Committee on Public Information to help convince Americans to aid the war effort. George Creel was in charge of this committee that employed 75,000 "four-minute men" to get propaganda messages out to the American people (often using music as a tool.)  Americans were urged to sing the new patriotic songs that were written, often using the word “we” to make people feel involved in the war effort. Singing took place in the home, in theaters, during community events, and at rallies with marching bands and popular singers in attendance. Songbooks of patriotic music were given out to audiences in music halls and even to the troops. Sheet music was advertised in newspapers and samples of new songs were given out with the Sunday paper. The covers of the sheet music were also chosen to specifically help push the patriotic messages the government was trying to send to the American people.  Even though the music didn’t always have accurate data about what was going on abroad, it did inspire patriotism and hope and was very popular.  Many people in the music industry became very rich during the war years because sheet music was so well-liked.  One music publisher, Leo Feist, claimed that music would help win the war, and based on the amount of music that came out during this time and the impact that it had on the war effort, it seems as though he was right.

Irving Berlin was a very well known songwriter that produced over 1000 songs during his one hundred plus year lifetime including popular hits like, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Blue Skies,” “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” “White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and the famous American ballad, “God Bless America.”  He was a Russian immigrant who received citizenship in 1918. A few months later, Berlin was called to serve in the army and used his songs to help increase morale among the soldiers.  Berlin’s influence on American music was extreme and the popularity of many of his songs has lasted into the present day. 

Essential Question
How is music used to influence people's opinions?

Check for Understanding
Explain the message of this song using evidence from the song.

Historical Challenges
Make a list of some of the popular songs that Irving Berlin wrote and then pick 15 people to talk to. Ask each one to hum the tunes of the songs you chose. Keep track of how many songs each person knows. Look at your results at the end and write a brief essay explaining Berlin’s influence on American music.

Interdisciplinary Connections
Music: Sing the song with piano accompaniment.

Art: Design a new cover for this song.