16 May 2018
It is always a great pleasure when you find your research coinciding with that of your colleagues. There has been a recent spike in discussions around American music and World War I in the Eccles Centre as Jean Petrovic is currently developing an online exhibition showcasing the British Library’s excellent collection of American sheet music, whilst I am researching American musicals of the early 1940s which looked back at World War I and vaudeville.
As part of her project, Jean has been focusing on World War I, which saw an explosion in printed music. At the turn of the twentieth century – prior to the rise of radio and the phonograph – pianos were still the main source of home entertainment. Recent innovations in production had bought about a sharp decline in prices and an inevitable rise in demand. Not surprisingly, this was a boom-time for song-writers and music publishers. Print runs of top-selling songs frequently exceeded hundreds of thousands and between 1900 and 1910 more than 100 songs sold over one million copies.
More than 10,000 songs about World War I were published in the United States during 1914-18. In the early days, many of these songs echoed the non-interventionist stance of President Woodrow Wilson and most Americans.
Within days of the US declaration of war in 1917, George M Cohan, already one of the country’s most successful songwriters, penned ‘Over There’. With its patriotic call to arms, its optimism and its references to liberty and the American flag it went on to become the nation’s favourite war song. It was performed and recorded by many artists and eventually sold more than two million copies.
Above: George Michael Cohan. Over There. New York: Wm Jerome Publishing Corp., c1917. British Library shelfmark a.318.(5) (other versions, h.3825.z.(52); h.1562; H.1860.i.(8); h.3825.ff.(7)); image courtesy of the Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010518
In 1936, President Franklin D Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his contribution to US morale during World War I. He was the first person in an artistic field to receive this honour.
And this is where I come in. During America’s participation in World War II, a notable body of musical films were produced which reflected on the current crisis through the historical metaphor of America’s role in World War I. By binding these wartime stories with settings concerned with vaudeville and performance, these films conveyed patriotic messages and made entertainment culture central to American values.
Above: promotional poster for Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner Brothers)
In 1942, director Michael Curtiz made Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic about Cohan’s life. The narrative is framed by Cohan, in the present day, going to visit President Roosevelt at the White House where he discusses his career and receives the Congressional Gold Medal (despite the award actually being made 6 years previously). In the urgent context of World War II the film places Cohan (but also by extension Hollywood itself) as vital agents in America’s cultural mythmaking: the inclusion of his famous, popular songs (‘Over There’, ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’, ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’) and production numbers involving a lot (and I mean A LOT) of flags, allow the fictional President Roosevelt to comment to Cohan that “your songs were weapons as strong as cannons and rifles in World War I."
Interesting, whilst the film was certainly an important part of Warner Brothers Studio’s commitment to the war effort, aimed partially at legitimizing their own work in the context of the war, the unashamedly patriotic film also served an interesting purpose for its star, James Cagney, who had personally struggled to deny Communist links.
Cagney had initially been opposed to making a Cohan biopic as he’d disliked Cohan since the Actor’s Equity Strike in 1919 when Cohan had sided with the producers. However, during the late 1930s and early 1940s Cagney had run-ins with the Dies Committee (the House Un-American Activities Committee): in 1940 he was named along with 15 other Hollywood figures in the testimony of John R Leech (an LA Communist Party leader) and the New York Times printed the allegation that Cagney was a Communist on its front page (August 15, 1940).
Although Cagney refuted the allegations and Martin Dies made a statement to the press clearing him, his brother, William Cagney, who managed his business affairs is reported to have said that “we’re going to have to make the [most] goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made. I think it’s the Cohan story.” The film certainly achieves this aim: Cagney went on to win an Oscar for the role (and the film was a huge box office success for Warners).
For those interested in learning more about the American sheet music collection at the British Library, Jean’s web exhibition will go live later this summer. In the meantime, an older incarnation of the project can be found here.
I will be discussing ‘American Film Musicals and the Reimagining of World War I’ as part of the British Library’s Feed the Mind series on Monday 21 May at 12.30 in the Knowledge Centre. I can promise clips of Gene Kelly, which must rate as one of the best ways to pass a lunch break. I hope you’ll be able to join me.
By: Dr Cara Rodway, Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, with thanks to Jean Petrovic, Bibliographical Editor.
 Patrick McGilligan, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur (New York & London: Tantivy Press, 1975), pp145-8 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.981/20794]
23 April 2015
Above: the cover of 'Fighting Australasia' [BL: 9081.h.9]. From the BL-Europeana learning resource.
This week sees the beginning of two distinct commemoration events for nations who supported Britain in the First World War. While last year saw a number of events to mark and reflect upon 100 years since the start of the war, for Australia, New Zealand and Canada this year marks a century since two of their most famous battles. Indeed, that description falls somewhat short as the battles in question are understood to have an enduring effect on the national identities of these countries.
For Australia and New Zealand, Saturday's ANZAC Day marks 100 years since the Gallipoli landings. While ANZAC Day now serves as a more general commemoration for those who fell in both world wars and an opportunity to reflect on all soldiers lost in conflict, it was initially intended to commemorate Gallipoli specifically. Given the enduring political and social legacy of ANZAC involvement in those landings and the continued significance of ANZAC day in general this Saturday is therefore an important moment of reflection.
Above: 'Letter of appreciation for the assistance given to the Australian Medical Corps by Indian ambulance men at Gallipoli' [BL: IOR/L/MIL/7/18921]. From the BL-Europeana learning resource.
In Canada this week has also marked a century since the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres. Perhaps less well known that Gallipoli, the battle saw Canadian forces play a significant role in stemming German attempts to break through a strategically vulnerable point on the Allied line. During over a month of action the Canadian forces showed mental strength and tactical prowess to form a central part of the effort to repulse the Central Powers, even defeating a German force at the Battle of Kitchener's Wood.
Above: a map of the medical provisions at Ypres, one day before the battle began. Found in, 'The War Story of the Canadian Army Medical Corps' [BL: 9084.b.21], from the BL-Europeana learning site.
While Gallipoli is marked by tragedy and Ypres a sense of martial pride, there is a common thread in these battles that links Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Through sacrifice and success the soldiers from these dominions demonstrated an ability to 'hold their own' on the world stage. For all three nations these battles are viewed as crucial points, where a bridge between dependency and independence was irrevocably crossed. As a result, what is remembered this week is not just the fallen but what they are understood to have built.
Last year the Library took part in an international project to digitise the material history of the First World War. This material is now available online via the Europeana 1914-18 website and provides sources to analyse and research the enduring impact of this conflict. There is also a learning site, put together by the British Library Learning team that provides an introduction to many of the war's key events and consequences.
15 September 2014
Running on a mainframe at a firm working on the US military's contribution to the internet, ARPANET, the world's first text-based adventure game, Adventure (c1975), let the player wander around an underground cave system (supposedly based on the Mammoth cave system in Kentucky). Issuing typed instructions ("Go North", etc.), the player explored a world described in text and contained within 300kb; it was a world that would become very familiar to any players of similar games in the 1980s, or indeed viewers of Game of Thrones: swords, magic spells and strange creatures.
A bit nerdy, kind of old fashioned, and almost completely replaced by graphically expansive first-person simulations, text-based adventure games now only live on as a kind of retro-chic, or as a small sliver of popular culture (a line from a Australian game, The Hobbit, has just about made it out into the wider world: 'Thorin sits on the floor and starts to sing about gold'). As such, they may provide the fodder for artistic reinvention, or at least a fresh way to approach something you think you know.
The Unbuilt Room does this. I've just returned from a dummy run with the artist Seth Kriebel. He has performed a similar show at the Battersea Arts Centre, and now is offering a limited run of visits (if that is the word) to the room at the British Library for our Enduring War exhibition, a show that I helped to curate. I can't give too much away, but it's part seance (think lights in a darkened room), part theatrical performance, and part (in a non-terrible way) team-building exercise, like a art-school version of the Crystal Maze or the Adventure Game.
There is also, following the trope set out by Adventure, a labyrinth. As such, it echoes the tunnels and darkness of the war. We managed to unlock some of its secrets, with Seth reading some startling extracts from some of the items on display in the First World War exhibition (Indian sepoys' letters home, the crash of a Zeppelin bomb under a moonlight sky, the last letter before going over the top). It's all appropriately unsettling, puzzling, and an intriguing way to set up a visit to an exhibition (which follows the performance), and which makes you read the items in a new way. The fantasy of the adventure form also echoes some of the dominant contemporary myths of the war - the belief in the honour of combat, the chivalric nature of military heroism, the search for adventure; myths which in part explain the motivations for some of those who fought.
The Unbuilt Room can be booked here (16, 23 Sept, 7 Oct).
23 June 2014
These works are free of known copyright restrictions. - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/americas/2014/06/new-exhibition-enduring-war.html#sthash.qtQ45UqO.dpuf
We opened our free Folio Gallery exhibition, Enduring War: grief, grit and humour (19 June-12 October) last week. The exhibition is international in scope, although naturally enough, its focus is British. That said, we have included a number of Canadian items, as well as West Indian material: Phil has already blogged on Squidge. We had a number of US items lined up (the United States entered the war in 1917, as you know), but the demands of the space and exhibition storyline meant that they were returned to the stacks. However, we can take advantage of this, and begin an ongoing series of items that didn't make it into the gallery.
The first of which is shown above, a programme for the Inter-Allied sports day that took place in France, 22 June–6 July 1919. It is a recent acquisition, and we also hold a volume summarizing the organisation and the results from the games at RG.2014.b.13 (a digitised copy from Cornell is available via the Internet Archive).
The games were an inclusive event, and included tug-of-war to soccer, tennis, basketball, fencing, water polo, boxing and equestrian events, as well as track and field, many of which took place at Pershing Stadium at Vincennes, France. Constructed by the US military in cooperation with the YMCA, the stadium was gifted by the Americasn people to France after the games. According to the editors of the companion volume, 'the games were played before crowds so immense that the number of spectators could not have been increased except by the use of aeroplanes or observation balloons.'
Indeed, the games were not limited to terra firma, but included an 'Aeroplane Parade' as a grand finale. The planes flew in formation, west to east over the stadium, dropping parachutes with the flag of each nation participating in the fly past (France, Italy, Belgium and the US). The five American planes included a captured Fokker, which was due to 'climb to a good altitude and engage in combat with two [US] spads].'
It didn't quite work out like that. The captured Fokker instead fell from the sky and crash landed at the nearby racetrack (with the unhurt captain displaying 'splendid airmanship in his enforced landing'). The crowd tore the plane to pieces for souvenirs. A handwritten note on the tentative programme reads, 'I saw this plane drop. This is a piece of it. don't lose it or cut it.'
The note was ignored, and the piece is not present (fear not, it wasn't there when we acquired it either).
To make up for this, if you can come to the Folio Gallery before 12 October, you can instead see a fragment of a Zeppelin, picked up in Essex, as well as progammes for other sporting events that took place during the war.
19 June 2014
Above: 'Squidge', who manages to look even more magnificent in the exhibition space.
After all the work that has gone into the Library's contribution to Europeana 1914-1918 and preparation for events to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, Team Americas are very pleased to see 'Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour' open in the Folio Society Gallery today. By focussing on how people coped with the war the exhibition inevitably shows the use of humour as a way of engaging with the conflict, providing a view of the war through soldiers' eyes (and pens).
Our own Dr Shaw was co-curator for the exhibition and he noted during the selection of items just how prolific the use of humour was in soldiers' accounts of the conflict. As Matthew points out, far from being flippant there was something about military service that, 'focussed the mind on a particular sense of humour'. One of the items on display is 'The Waitemata Wobbler' and this contains a number of examples of this sort of humour, one that frequently treats officers as the but of jokes (see below).
Above: a cartoon from 'The Waitemata Wobbler'.
We were also very pleased that Squidge has made a physical appearance in the exhibition. Since Europeana 1914-1918 and Picturing Canada started he has been something of a favourite around the Library and now he's ready for his public close up. These are just two of the many items on display that show the experiences of troops from across the Americas and Australasia - indeed, Squidge is kept company by a book on the British West Indies Regiment.
Based on this morning's activity Squidge and others will get a lot of viewers and the exhibition is going to be very popular. If you come along remember that you can track down items such as the 'Wobbler' at Europeana 1914-18 and leaf through them once you are home.