Popular Music of World War I: A Living Archive



I could begin this narrative with an unspecified day in—I think—spring of 1964. I was in my junior year at Wesleyan University, and I had enrolled in a course in art song being taught by Ray Rendall, an extraordinary teacher and pianist. His method of teaching was simply to play the piano while the four students sang the song—usually several times. By the end of the semester we had made it into the twentieth century, and he devoted one class period to songs by Charles Ives—among them “He Is There!”. I was hooked: I borrowed the library’s copy of the 114 Songs and devoured every one. But it was the three war songs that lodged in my head, particularly Ives’s setting of “In Flanders Fields.” Seven years later, when I began teaching at the University of Illinois, I seized every opportunity to revisit those songs. My obsession with Ives and the music he wrote has never really waned.

But a more reasonable beginning would be early spring in—I think—2001. I had recently taken up my post at the University of York, and I was asked to offer a research seminar on a topic of my choice. I chose Ives; and I chose to look at the war songs in more depth, particularly with respect to material they quote and reference, and to its cultural and political implications. I continued work on my analysis over the next few years, and at some point I suddenly recalled that John Philip Sousa had also set McCrae’s iconic text. And I wondered: just how many settings had that text been given?

The British Library’s main offsite repository was at Boston Spa, a short drive from York. In fact, the university provided a shuttle service once a week, enabling researchers to use the facilities on site. In 2003—I think—I began to avail myself of that, spending most of each day literally turning the pages of the bound volumes that contained American copyright records. (Sometime later these were digitized and made available—for instance, on HathiTrust—and even now I use the digitized resource at least three or four times a week.) In  June 2004 I assembled the first spreadsheet—by now there are dozens and dozens—of what would become, eventually, a much more comprehensive study of World War I songs. That contained a modest list of forty-three settings of “In Flanders Fields,” only a few of which I had actually seen. Work continued: I visited the British Library’s music copyright collection in London, where I viewed and copied some of these; I continued digging into library catalogues and other already-digitized sources to discover additional settings; and on August 28, 2005 I gave a paper on my findings—by then I had identified fifty-eight settings composed between 1917 and 1922—at the grandly titled Fourth Biennial International Conference on 20th-century Music, at the University of Sussex.

Initial resources

In the meantime I had applied for research leave from the University of York, with matching funds provided by what was then the British Arts and Humanities Research Board. My first application, in autumn 2004, was unsuccessful, but I reapplied the following year and was granted funding for a leave from early October 2005 through late April 2006. Those applications were focused on the “Flanders Fields” settings; but over the course of the past few years I had acquired a very undisciplined knowledge of the war years and had become especially interested in the transformations of American politics that took place between 1915 and 1920. I had begun to wonder if there were analogous transformations in popular music and the music industry, and I felt that I needed to broaden the scope of my research. And since I am more musician than scholar, I chose to pursue sheet music rather than labor history or the economics of music production.

Hence I applied for and received a Mendel Fellowship to spend two weeks at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, which housed an extensive sheet music collection assembled by Saul Starr. Starr, like Driscoll, organized his material by topic, so the Starr collection provided an excellent mechanism for extending my knowledge to the entire range of sheet music produced during the war years. In addition, the Lilly Library held a smaller collection assembled by Sam DeVincent, which I also incorporated into my research. Nearly concurrently I applied for a short-term fellowship at the Newberry Library, since I knew that the Driscoll collection would also be a fruitful resource to study. That application was also successful, and I was able to combine the two residencies into a single extended research trip during my leave in the spring of 2006.

At Indiana I compiled an exhaustive list of titles that Starr had categorized as related to World War I, expanding my Flanders Field spreadsheet tenfold. However, by the time I went to the Newberry I had developed some quite specific interests: in memorial music (building on my study of “In Flanders Fields”) and in different types of publishers and publications. (These interests persist, and they underlie two later publications, “The Rehearsal” and “Of Stars, Soldiers, Mothers, and Mourning.”) Hence my Newberry residency was devoted to detailed study of only a fraction of the collection—about a hundred titles—rather than to the compilation of a surface-level inventory. However, I was able to return for ten days in the autumn of 2006 and again in the summer of 2007, and I extended my lists somewhat more systematically then. By the end of 2008 I had cleaned and conjoined my many spreadsheets, and over Christmas I compiled the first of many combined lists—then containing not quite six hundred titles—with a very basic set of metadata categories and entries. 

Towards digitization

In the spring of 2008 I was in the States for conferences and meetings, and I arranged to stop by the Newberry then. Indiana University was by then well on the way to creating a platform for digitized sheet music, and I had been tracking the work with considerable interest—in part because it would mean that I could continue working with the Starr and DeVincent materials even when I was in England. It seemed to me that the moment was right for the Newberry to undertake a similar project; and since the centennial of the war was only six years distant, I thought the place to begin was with the Driscoll Collection’s remarkable six boxes of World War I publications. I was introduced by email to Doug Knox, then in charge of digital initiatives, and he agreed to meet; in advance of the meeting, I drafted a brief proposal, to which he responded very positively. We both speculated about possible partners and funding, and I offered to have a conversation with the University of Illinois in about ten days’ time, when I would be on campus for a few days.

At the University I spoke with John Wagstaff, then head of the Music Library. We considered whether it would be possible to incorporate the library’s sheet music collection—which was arranged only by year of publication—into the digitization initiative that might soon be under way at the Newberry. I spent several hours making a very preliminary inventory of the boxes for the war years (1914-1919), primarily to determine whether they overlapped the Driscoll collection. The answer was mixed: since the library had aggregated many sources in building its sheet music holding, its character was less well defined than at the Newberry, where the collection clearly represented the tastes, judgments, and opportunities of a single devoted collector. On the other hand, for the same reason, the Illinois collection overall was possibly more diverse; there were, for example, a number of imprints from southern and Pacific coast states, which were largely absent from Driscoll’s holdings. I became aware that every collection was different, and that the right combination of collections would provide a rich inclusivity that collections amassed by a single personality might lack.

Over the next several months we collectively considered what collections might best complement each other. Our candidates ranged as far as the Harding Collection at the Bodelian in Oxford, but we eventually decided to construct a kind of Midwestern consortium: the Newberry, the Indiana collections that had already been digitized, the University of Illinois music library collection, and the holdings at Northwestern University. We began to investigate funding, and Newberry staff immediately thought of contacting the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), with whom they had had a productive and helpful relationship for many years. A few months later, Northwestern dropped out; but in the meantime, we had received very positive but informal feedback from the NEH. In the next round of funding, we decided, we would apply for a “Preservation and Access” grant.

An application—and again—and again

The application deadline was in mid-July 2009, so work commenced shortly after the start of the year. My contribution would be to draft or advise on most of the narrative sections; but before I could do that, we had first to firm up exactly what we were proposing. By then it was clear that incorporating the Harding collection would require funding of a different sort, perhaps from a pair of sources, one in each country. Matters became clearer in early February, when Indiana confirmed that they would happily permit us to include the sheet music they had already digitized but that they were working to capacity already and could not be an official partner in writing and implementing a new proposal. That left only the Illinois collection to consider, and so I arranged to be on the University campus for several days in April, during which time I planned to more systematically assess the importance of the holdings there. I concluded that Illinois probably had enough titles that were not found in either the Indiana or the Newberry collections to warrant building the Illinois holdings into the proposal.

However, it was impossible to confirm the necessary arrangements with the University in the time that remained; thus the proposal we submitted in July asked for funding to create “a searchable, browsable, curated virtual digital sheet music collection gathered around its focused theme of World War I” by making available “on-line digitized images of the published music associated with the Great War that is held in three major sheet music archives, the James Francis Driscoll Collection of American Sheet Music at the Newberry Library, and the Starr and Sam DeVincent Collections at Indiana University.” We noted that we anticipated “including items from Urbana in a subsequent phase of the project” and that, with the addition of those items, the collections together would contain “an estimated 3,500 distinct items—about two-fifths of the music related to the War and published during and immediately after it.”

And then we waited, as one does. Eventually, on March 10, 2010, we learned that our application had not been successful; and on March 30, we received the comments from the four reviewers. Two of them had given the proposal the highest rating; the others had ranked it a notch below. A recurring issue seemed to be the uncertainty regarding the Illinois collection: was Illinois a partner, or not? We resolved to resubmit the proposal in July for the 2010 competition, and a concerted effort was made to obtain a full commitment from the Music Library at the University. Separately and together, I, Doug Knox, and John Wagstaff had a series of conversations, and the upshot was that Illinois was indeed a full partner in the revised proposal—and, indeed, made a tangible commitment of funds and personnel to digitize the items in their collections. In effect, they provided a sub-proposal as part of the larger project that the Newberry would oversee.

But there was an additional consequence. In a conversation in early March, John Wagstaff remarked to me that the Myers Collection—held in a different location both administratively and geographically—had recently been accessed and conserved, and he suggested that I have a look at that as well. I wrote Scott Schwartz, the Director of the Sousa Archive and Center for American Music (which housed the collection), and in late March I began studying this new resource. It was immediately obvious not only that the war-related holdings exceeded those in the library’s collection but also that the arrangement Myers had imposed made this collection far easier to work with. By mid-June I had completed a preliminary inventory of the collection, and my spreadsheet had increased by half. We had sufficient data to include both the Myers and the library collection in the sub-project that Illinois was preparing. So, on July 15, 2010 the new, revised proposal was submitted to the NEH—but the “searchable, browsable, curated virtual digital sheet music collection” now included “an estimated 2,600 items digitized from World War I items in the Newberry Library’s Driscoll Collection, Indiana University’s DeVincent and Starr collections, and the James Edward Myers Collection and American Sheet Music Collection at the University of Illinois.”

And then we waited. While we waited, I completed the Myers inventory, in a short visit in early November. Volunteers at the Newberry filled in missing information—and the remaining titles—in the spreadsheet I had built for the Driscoll collection. And I gave a paper at the annual conference of the Society for American Music, in which I made extensive use of the data captured in my spreadsheets thus far. In 2011, the federal government had another budgetary meltdown, and March 2011 came and went without any news. And then, on April 22, we got the word: no funding for us. In May, we were sent the comments from the five panelists. Four of them had only praise and gave the application top ratings, and the fifth, though expressing some reservations about editorial criteria and policy, agreed to a top rating after discussion. Yet the panel as a whole dropped the project a single notch—just enough to sink it. However, there were consoling words about an “exceptionally competitive grant cycle,” and we already knew that funding overall had been substantially reduced, so we decided to again resubmit the proposal for the next round.

The version submitted in July 2011 was substantially augmented by illustrations of the kind of editorial data that would be captured and extracted for use by scholars. We felt we had addressed all the objections the panelists had raised, and we were cautiously optimistic about this, the third iteration. But then, in November 2011, Doug Knox accepted a new position in the Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis. Moving into his place at the Newberry would be Jennifer Thom, an excellent cataloguer and—as it proved—an exceptionally collegial collaborator. But Jennifer, unlike Doug, had as yet neither demonstrated expertise in digital scholarship nor a history of successful projects that had been funded by the NEH. I expected the project to be denied funding for a third time, and in April 2012, my expectations were fulfilled. There seemed no point in requesting the panel’s comments; clearly the project—at least in the form that had been developed over the past four years—was dead in the water.

The Illinois initiative

Back at Illinois, Scott Schwartz expressed sympathy for the outcome of our application, but—more importantly—suggested that there might be a way to implement the concept on a much smaller scale, working only with the Myers materials and drawing on internal sources to fund the digitization. At the end of May Scott met with the Library’s Digital Content Creation Unit and outlined the scope and requirements; the response was positive, although at that point it appeared the Unit’s own funding would only cover about half of the costs. The conversations continued at a leisurely pace; both Scott and I were preoccupied with other projects, and changes in personnel and funding at higher levels in the University made consistent planning difficult. But near the beginning of 2013, Scott began to consider the ways in which the Sousa Archive and Center for America Music might mark the centennial of the war. An online exhibit drawn from the Myers collection was an obvious possibility, and so planning for digitization took on a new urgency, facilitated by a modest grant the Sousa Archive had received and by my plans to apply for external funding in 2014.

In the meantime, of course, I was still teaching at the University of York, and I too was making plans to mark the centenary. These entailed teaching an undergraduate module in spring term 2015, during which the students would plan and produce a three-day conference on music of the war years, replete with performances, student papers, and a poster competition. I approached two Illinois colleagues and friends, Gayle Magee and Christina Bashford, to see if they were willing to give keynote papers and serve as judges for the poster competition. They were delighted, and Gayle almost immediately suggested that a parallel conference take place in Illinois at roughly the same time. We quickly settled on the dates: February 26-28, 2015, at York, and March 10-11 at Illinois. Thus began a collaboration that eventually produced seven lectures at professional and public events, with Laurie Matheson, Justin Vickers, and Geoffrey Duce participating as performers, and Over Here, Over There, an edited, transatlantic collection of essays on war-related music published by the University of Illinois Press in 2019.

The Illinois launch

During the latter half of 2013, I continued checking and entering information on my Myers spreadsheet in anticipation of the digitization that would soon begin. Discussions about the metadata—what to include, how to present it, and the limitations and capacities of the platform—began in earnest at the start of 2014. At that time, all digitization at Illinois, and also at linked institutions elsewhere in the state, was managed though membership in OCLC and its content-management system, called ContentDM. I had expressed the view that including the first line of the lyrics, as is often done, is not necessarily helpful in many instances. I had proposed instead that a set of keywords be generated from the lyrics; but this was correctly met with the objection that deciding those constituted an inappropriate level of editorial intervention. The ideal solution would be to have the entire set of lyrics entered into the metadata, but ContentDM did not allow for that. As a result, we chose to provide a transcription of the lyrics that would be provided on a PDF as part of the images for each item and that would themselves be searchable. During the spring and summer of 2014, a team of students and interns directed by Scott Schwartz accomplished these transcriptions, and they were duly added to the images as the individual items were scanned.

At this time, too, I had planned to have a parallel website that would provide additional information about many of the metadata entries—short biographies for composers and lyricists, short histories of music publishers, explanations of dedicatees, places, and military units, historical background for musical styles and quotations, and so forth. That moved forward for about four months and then was derailed when staff moved on or were reassigned. In the end, that plan was abandoned, although I still hope to provide that kind of information in the future, as time and resources permit.

By the end of July the spreadsheet and the transcriptions were complete and a set of identifiers had been assigned to each item, keyed to the spreadsheet. The physical copies had been extracted and conserved, and scanning began. Scott was planning an official launch of the online collection, together with a physical exhibit of some of the titles and an inaugural lecture, all for Armistice Day (November 11), 2014. I agreed to deliver the lecture, and scanning started in earnest in late August. The lecture and the physical exhibit took place as planned, but last-minute issues with ContentDM delayed the official launch of the digitized collection until November 17. But on that day a press release went out, and Scott sent a general message to the entire University community:  “Over the past year the staff of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music have been working with William Brooks and the Library’s talented DCC, Content Access Management and Metadata crews to digitize the WWI sheet music contained in our James Edward Myers Sheet Music Collection and make it available as a new ContentDM resource. . . . The James Edward Myers World War I Sheet Music Collection can be accessed via the following URL: [http://imagesearchnew.library.illinois.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/myers].  I hope that you will take a couple of minutes to visit this site and dig deeper into the rich content of this new ContentDM resource, and if you know of others interested in learning more about how WWI was reflected through America’s music, that you will recommend this resource to them.”

The Newberry initiative

While the Illinois collection was being readied for digitization, I was seeking funding. To support the digitization of the Myers collection, I applied for a Hampsong Education Fellowship; to work further with the Driscoll collection, in the hope that digitization was still possible, I applied for a long-term fellowship at the Newberry Library. Both applications were successful, as I learned at the start of 2015. The Hampsong Fellowship award was matched by the Sousa Archive and applied directly to cover the Archive’s share of the digitization costs. The Newberry fellowship meant that I would spend seven months—from December 2015 through June 2016—in residence, although in practice I planned unofficially to begin work as soon as possible (during a short stay in November) and continue on through the summer months. But even before then—indeed, within days of receiving confirmation of the award—I was in contact with Jennifer Thom about the implications and costs associated with creating an online archive, parallel to the one at Illinois, from the relevant Driscoll boxes. In meetings in February 2015, the Newberry agreed to fully fund that effort, with a team headed by Jennifer Thom and Jen Wolfe.

However, since our final grant application in 2011, the Newberry had dropped its subscription to ContentDM and was using a different system altogether. One immediate question, then, was whether the metadata fields at the Newberry would be compatible with those at Illinois. Over the next two months, a series of three-way conversations produced a solution: Illinois would host the images and metadata from the Newberry collection, although the Newberry would retain the rights and would have ultimate managerial authority. Scanning then proceeded, guided by my current spreadsheet for the collection, which was still somewhat skeletal in many respects. By the end of September 2015 the job was done, and the files were loaded onto a hard drive that was then shipped to the Sousa Archive.

By then, however, Illinois had also abandoned ContentDM and built its own management system, named Archon. All the digitized collections were being gradually migrated into the new system, and it made no sense to enter the Driscoll files onto a platform that would soon be obsolete. So the hard drive was left in storage until the Myers collection had been transferred, which took nearly two years. On the other hand, Archon had important advantages over ContentDM. It provided an elegant and rich set of alternatives for viewing and downloading images, and the search mechanism was unusually powerful and inclusive. Most importantly, for this project, was its capacity for metadata: the number of fields was virtually unlimited; each field could consist of a series of separate lines; and each field could accommodate a very large number of characters. Thus, for example, the lyrics could be entered in full in a single field; thus also descriptions and historical information could be as complete as the community of scholars could make it.

Work installing the Driscoll images began in earnest in June, 2017, but two months were required before various technical matters could be resolved. In the meantime, I had somewhat updated my spreadsheet, and I used it to assign identifiers to each set of images, item by item. With these in place, the images and metadata could be transferred into the Archon environment. That proved to be a painstaking process; efforts to automate it were unsuccessful, and most material had to be entered by hand and checked by several different people. During the course of this, various problems emerged with the images themselves: pages were omitted or duplicated; incorrect orderings for pages had to be corrected by hand; and a number of titles had somehow been overlooked during the 2015 scanning process. These errors are still being discovered; a task for the immediate future is to check every item systematically for completeness and correctness. Over the summer of 2018 a series of checks and corrections were done by key people—myself, Angela Waarala, and Patricia Lampron—and on August 15, the job was done: the Driscoll collection was live.


A path through a field of research is rarely smooth, and nearly always obstacles, detours, and reversals are encountered. But the path that created this research tool—this double archive to which I’ve given the umbrella title “Popular Music of World War I”—has been especially fraught. Many ambitions have been abandoned—or, more properly, deferred—but the result is still a more powerful tool that has great potential to yield unique data about composers, publishers, cover artists, lyricists, dedicatees, historical contexts, and on and on. It is simply to sketch those potentials that this guide—and this history—have been written.