I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be Soldier | 1915
Well before the first American soldier was killed in combat in World War I, the fictitious mother of the anti-war song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” warned American mothers what an intervention into the conflict might hold for them. The song expresses the grief of a mother who has lost a son in a war she believed was unnecessary and perhaps unjustified. She tells her listeners that regardless of the outcome of the war, the death of her son is something that will linger with her long into “her lonely years.” The song is primarily a plea to other mothers to recognize that wars can only bring them sorrow and to assert their influence to demand that their boys not be sent to war in the first place.
Songs are often excellent portals into a particular historical moment because of the way they weave together the various ideas, movements, and forces that were active at that time. “I Did Not Raise My Boy” is an excellent example. The song’s anti-war message depends to a great extent on an understanding of two major social movements of the early 20th century United States: the international arbitration movement and the suffragist movement. International arbitration–explicitly mentioned in the song’s lyrics–was the idea that disputes between nations should be arbitrated by professional jurists in courts with supranational jurisdiction. Boosters of this idea hoped that just as civil laws brought stability and security to domestic society, international law and arbitration would do the same for the relations between states. Although their legalist approach to international relations was overtaken by a political approach (i.e. the League of Nations and ultimately the United Nations), institutions such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court are direct offspring of these ideas.
The song’s references to the suffragist movement are more subtle, but no less clear. In their struggle to expand the right to vote to all women (women could vote in some states in 1915), suffragists used many strategies. One of them was to argue for the moral superiority of women, largely because their presence in the domestic sphere insulated them from corrupting influences. This argument was somewhat contentious, but “I Didn’t Raise My Boy” clearly makes use of it. The mother of the song clearly defines herself by her relationship to her son, who the song describes as “all she cared to call her own.” Based on the authority that she derives from such a selfless calling as motherhood, she demands that society recognize that her son belongs to her and not be sent to war. The mother of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” is undoubtedly a strong woman, who despite occupying the domestic sphere is not afraid to venture beyond to advocate for her causes. Other suffragettes and their supporters would have immediately recognized her boldness and her moral authority.
While certainly not as pleasing to contemporary ears as the protest music of the Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy” was no less of an anthem for the antiwar movement of the 1910s. Many Americans, especially throughout the Midwest, were deeply skeptical of the motivations of those who supported the war. This skepticism pervaded the war and lasted long into the 1930s, when the Nye Committee (1934-36) spent two years investigating the links between American “big business” and the United States’ entry into the war. “I Didn’t Raise My Boy” expertly captures the distance that many Americans felt towards the war. There is no sense in the song that the war poses an immediate threat to the mother, her family, or her nation.
“I Didn’t Raise My Boy” was not written by a committed pacifist . . .
The significance of the song also lies in the response it received. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies (both records and sheet music). It was likely the best selling song of 1915, though exact statistics are hard to come by. Its success was due to the historical moment it captured and not to the artistic merits of the song. Unlike later anti-war anthems, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy” was not written by a committed pacifist, but rather by Canadian lyricist Alfred Bryan who made his living writing popular music in Tin Pan Alley in New York City. The lyricists and music publishers of Tin Pan Alley were more interested in profits than political causes; Bryan no doubt wrote the song hoping it would become a hit. He would pen the lyrics to the explicitly pro-war song “Joan of Arc, They Are Calling You” in 1917 once the producers of Tin Pan Alley sensed American sentiment about the war had turned.
“I Didn’t Raise My Boy” is remarkable in the number of tributes and parodies it spawned. These ranged from critiques that referenced the masculine qualities of the warrior (“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Coward”) to the purely comedic (“I Didn’t Raise My Dog to Be a Sausage”). Other works dealt more seriously with the pacifist sentiments of the song, such as Amelia Josephine Burr’s poem His Job, which argued agricultural work should be considered as a form of national service for those who were unable or unwilling to fight. The numerous derivative works that “I Didn’t Raise My Boy” spawned indicates the cultural importance the song attained, even among those who criticized and mocked its message.
Piantadosi, Albert and Alfred Bryan. I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier. Leo Feist, 1915.
McCarron, Chas and Herman Paley. I Didn’t Raise My Dog to Be a Sausage. J.H. Remick & Co., 1915.
Van Wienen, Mark W. Partisans and Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.