Given the recent study that found that 10 percent of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, it’s likely that few could identify April 6 as the day the U.S. entered World War I. George M. Cohan wrote the most famous song about that war, and biographer John McCabe remembers its origins in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):
“On April 6, 1917, Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration of war against Germany, and show business true to its traditions prepared at once for entertainment service. On that day, Cohan was in his Manhattan apartment. Contrary to a press agent’s story … of Cohan’s writing ‘Over There’ on the back of an envelope on his way into the city that morning from Great Neck, the song was actually written in New York City. April 6 was a Friday and Cohan, like most Americans, took the news of our entry to the war in a mood of spirited determination that all would eventually be well. He pondered Wilson’s announcement during his Saturday duties at the office, and that evening shut himself up in his study.
“Cohan’s daughter, Mary, to this day retains the vividest memory of the following morning. ‘Early that Sunday,’ she says, ‘Dad called us all together – we kids, and my mother. He said that he had finished a new song and he wanted to sing it for us. So we all sat down and waited expectantly because we always loved to hear him sing. He put a big tin pan from the kitchen on his head, used a broom for a gun on this shoulder, and he started to mark time like a soldier … “
As his daughter recalled it to McCabe, Cohan then sang the song that included the famous lines: “Over there, over there, / Send the word, send the word over there, / That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, / The drums rum-tumming everywhere.”
McCabe goes on:
“’Over There’ became not only the most popular song of World War I but the manifestation of a perdurable American theme as well. As Cohan often said, he had simply dramatized a bugle call, but in its incisive notes and words he had also delineated something elemental in the American character – the euphoric confidence that the coming of the Yanks was the march of the good guys to effect infamy’s overthrow.”
You can listen to three versions of Cohan’s “Over There” for free on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm, including a bilingual English-French recording by Enrico Caruso. To listen to Caruso or another artist singing “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.