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Vol. 07, No. 2


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All's fair in song and war

All's fair in song and war

Bob Groves looks exactly like you want a beloved music professor to look. He is a laid-back guy with kind eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, a generous mustache and a fondness for comfy cardigan sweaters. He carries a cup of coffee with him everywhere. It's easy to imagine him patiently guiding students through the rigors of college-level piano lessons or music history.

Groves also seems more content in the background, guiding others toward greatness. He talks about outstanding graduates who have gone on to bigger things, promising could-be students who are eyeing North Dakota State University, colleagues who are great teachers. He doesn't seem all that comfortable being in the spotlight

When it comes to his historical collection of sheet music, though, Groves is more forward. He'll walk around a conference table, spread with dozens of brightly illustrated sheet music covers from his own collection, and enthusiastically point out the different trends and composers. See this one? It's a suffragist piece dating back to 1838. Or this? A number that spoofs the Scopes Monkey Trial, the notorious court case in which a Tennessee teacher was tried for teaching evolution in school. And this one? So rare Groves has never met another person who has a copy.

He isn't bragging. That isn't in his DNA. He simply loves his collection, which weighs in at 50,000 pieces, and he loves to share it with anyone who is interested. The typical collector searches out mint-condition pieces because they are the most valuable. Groves likes well-worn music. To him, wear and tear means quality. It means the person who first bought the music played it again and again. Maybe memorized the words. Liked it enough to keep it propped on the piano for a long time. If they never played it? Well, it probably wasn't a good piece to begin with.

Groves collects pieces for their age and character, and for the history behind them. Early on, the historian in him noticed something fascinating about sheet music: It was like a cultural barometer. It echoed what people worried about, what their lives were like, what they valued. War, love, politics, fashion. No topic seemed too big or too small. Sheet music could tell you amazing things about American cultural history.

This was history from the masses. Most of it was written by professional songwriters looking to tap into popular opinion. Less often, it was written by everyday people who felt so strongly about a topic or their musical gifts that they paid to have songs published. They were known as "vanity publications." The messages could be paranoid and racist, or uplifting and inspiring. It was perfectly democratic. As such, it was as imperfect as the people who wrote it.

As he collected more and more, Groves received a crash course in women's history. He saw free-thinking women portrayed as home wreckers, and 1920s flappers depicted as vamps and heartless gold diggers. He collected songs that championed the ideal woman as a rosy-cheeked milkmaid who never left the farm.

He found songs that predicted women would destroy modern civilization if given the vote. He was especially fascinated to see how women were depicted during wartime. The woman in uniform. The young wife back home. The little daughter waiting for her soldier father. He also noticed what a difference two decades made. The images of women in the first world war were radically different from female images in World War II. He visited with Larry Peterson, chair of the history department, to get some historical perspective. Together they identified trends in how women were depicted in song when America was at war.

WWI: 'My Mother, My Flag and You'

To better understand the music of World War I, you have to get a feel for where it came from. Most of the country's popular tunes came from a row of grubby Manhattan brownstones, better known as Tin Pan Alley. The Alley could be ruthless. Once in a while it produced a great songwriter like Irving Berlin. But the average Alley composer was no genius. He was a hard-living cynic. He had few delusions about making art. He feverishly cranked out songs to pay gambling debts, bar tabs or rent. And if that meant he ground out musical sausage that shamelessly pandered to popular tastes, well, so be it.

The Alley's songwriters found it profitable to poke fun at suffragists before the first world war. Some people resented free-thinking females in those days. Women wanted to vote and get jobs. They weren't content to get married, have children and keep house. They seemed to threaten the very foundation of the traditional American family.

But a funny thing happened when the country entered World War I. All that negativity toward women evaporated. The songwriters praised women. Or at least they praised old-fashioned, one-dimensional stereotypes of women. It was like they'd cranked back the clock 50 years to focus on some Victorian ideal of femininity:

Poor, old mother: The mother from these songs was white-haired and bent over from a lifetime of hard work. She was often shown waiting by the window for her beloved boy to return. Songs in this genre served two purposes: They honored women who sacrificed their sons, and they encouraged other mothers to send off their songs to the trenches.
On very rare occasions, the mother figure was used to protest the war, as in the song, A Mother's Plea for Peace: I Didn't Raise My Son to be a Soldier.

The brave, little girl: Angelic little girls in white nighties decorated covers for songs like, Hello Central, Give Me France: We Want Our Daddy Dear Back Home. To really ratchet up the sentimentality, the artists would give the child an extra pale complexion, as if -- cough, cough -- she might just have a touch of the consumption.

The little missus: The condescending lyrics in My Mother, My Flag and You showed all the things the soldier's wife had to endure in the early 1900s, from her young husband risking his life to, worst of all, the knowledge she ranked behind her mother-in-law in her husband's priority list.

The patriotic icon. A few years earlier, women were hell on heels. Now they were practically heaven sent. Females became symbols for peace, purity and all that was right with the world. Sheet music illustrators produced gorgeous, saint-like images of women leading troops on to victory.

The woman in uniform. Women who wore uniforms back then were caretakers, but even so, many Red Cross workers and Salvation Army volunteers risked life and limb to help out the boys on the front lines. These songs gave them their due. One particular hit, The Rose of No Man's Land, saluted the Red Cross worker, even if its lyrics were sticky sweet.

The 'hot' woman overseas. American men could still lust after sexy women -- as long as those hoochie mamas lived thousands of miles away from America's vestal virgins. French women especially were the cat's pajamas, as suggested in the number, Come Play Wiz Me, My Sweet Babee.

WWII: 'We Oughta Have the Girls'

The American woman changed a whole lot by 1940. Unlike her mother or grandmother, she was more likely to have graduated from high school, to have lived in a city and to have worked outside of the home. She had been exposed to so much more outside of her hometown. Her views of what to wear, how to act and what to expect from life were shaped by movies and radio. She was much worldlier than the women born decades before her.

As for the war effort itself, she was essential to it. In the first war, a scant 5 percent of the labor force consisted of females working outside of the home for the first time. But the number of working women shot up 57 percent in the second world war. The home front would have ground to a halt without female labor. Women staffed the offices, manned the factories and drove tractors to help farmers. They ran salvage drives, planted victory gardens and entertained the troops on USO tours.

This time around, Tin Pan Alley's music makers gave women respect. They weren't so ready to reduce women to simplistic, old-fashioned cliches. But all was not perfect. The male (and female) songwriters still got in their digs:

The fun-loving girl: Taking its cues from Hollywood, popular music showed women as young, upbeat and full of life. These high-spirited dames weren't overly prim. Although songs and movies never mentioned the "s" word outright, they found every possible way to hint at hopping hormones. Take the lyrics for Oh! How She Lied to Me: "She took me to the park, introduced me to the dark. She knew ev'ry star way up in the skies, Knew them too well, but I wasn't wise."

The military woman. The second time around, women did everything but actual combat. They joined military auxiliaries, operated communication centers and flew planes overseas for use by fighter pilots. With cover art of dignified women in uniform, songs like the March of the Women Marines or WAVES in Navy Blue inspire a surge of pride. This is American womanhood at its best and brightest.
   A few stubborn notions still persisted. At first glance the song, The Army and Navy Say Yes! We Oughta Have the Girls! seems practically Gloria Steinem-esque. A song recommending women in combat in the '40s? Pretty progressive stuff. Then you realize the cover art shows women parachuting into combat in hot pants. And you read the lyrics: "Then we'd take a bunch of cuties, send 'em up in parachuties, And just think of all the things that they could do!"

Rosie and Co. Some songs patted the backs of non-military war workers. One number, Rosie, the Riveter, took its title from the era's top cultural icon. But unlike the powerful feminist image from J. Howard Miller's famous "We Can Do It" poster, the sheet music Rosie was a silly caricature. She wears tailored overalls, lipstick and one photogenic grease smudge. Appealing, if not entirely accurate. By the end of the war, the average war worker was married and more than 45 years old.

In a pinch, women workers could withhold their wiles to keep the male slacker in line. A female worker at a Portland shipyard supposedly launched the "No Work-No Woo" movement" in 1943. "NWNW" members had to take a pledge: They would not date men who made a habit of calling in sick to work.

After Collier's magazine picked up the story, aspiring songwriters at the shipyard banged out a song to drive the message home: "Let me see your time card honey, Work and soon the world will be sunny, Even though I love you true, It's No Work! No Woo!" Now that's patriotism.

--T. Swift

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.