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Interpreting the Evidence

"Johnny's In Town," Sheet Music, 1919

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School

  • Topics:

    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load "Johnny's In Town," Sheet Music, 1919 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

New York State Library, NYSL_SCO420

Document Description
Cover for Sheet Music, "Johnny's In Town," 1919.

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.

Jack Yellen was a Polish immigrant that moved to the United States with his family when he was five years old.  He became a songwriter and wrote scores for several Broadway plays.  He later became a screenwriter/lyricist for 20th Century Fox.  He wrote over 200 popular songs in the early 20th century including “Happy Days Are Here Again,” the famous song used for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign.  

Arthur Fields, a well-known singer of the day, helped popularize the tune after it was released. His singing of the song stands out because, previously, black singers like Bert Williams had sung with white accompaniment, but this seems to be the first time a white artist sang in a recording studio with black musicians accompanying. It is also one of the first dance records to have a vocal refrain. 

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

Check for Understanding
Explain the message being sent by the writer using evidence from the song.

Historical Challenges
Find other WWI sheet music that has the same theme found here. How do the songs compare? How are they different?

Interdisciplinary Connections
Music: Sing the song with piano accompaniment.

Art: Design a new cover for this song.

Gracyk, Tim and Frank W. Hoffmann. Popular American recording pioneers, 1895-1925. 2000.
Internet Movie Data Base. “Jack Yellen.” Retrieved from:

The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. “Jack Yellen.” 2002-2010. Retrieved from:

Wells K. A. “Music as War Propaganda: Did Music Help Win The First World War?,” 1997-2010. Retrieved from: