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'Over There' At 100

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to mark an anniversary now. Exactly 100 years ago today, one of America's greatest patriotic anthems was first published.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

BILLY MURRAY: (Singing) Over there, over there, send the word, send the word over there.

MARTIN: "Over There" was an early response to America's entry into the First World War, and it became one of the biggest hits ever for the legendary George M. Cohan.

GERRY HEROUX: He was, at one point, known as the king of Broadway.

MARTIN: That's Gerry Heroux of the University of Rhode Island Department of Music.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, legend has it that George M. Cohan wrote "Over There" in a moment of inspiration on a train ride from New Rochelle to New York City after seeing a headline about the war in the newspaper. According to the accounts of his children, he first performed this song for his family, using some wartime props - a tin pan for a helmet, a broomstick for a gun, which terrified his kids.

HEROUX: He actually performed it for some soldiers in a camp. They were kind of indifferent to it. They probably had a lot more on their minds than just listening to some guy singing a song. But it seems like everyone else really liked it.

MARTIN: "Over There" was eventually published on June 1, 1917, and the sheet music sales exploded.

HEROUX: He combined lots of different things, including a little bit of African-American ragtime, march music like John Philip Sousa, Irish reels and jigs and so forth. Anything went into that melting pot. And so to have this really American-sounding song encouraging Americans to go and save the world was probably quite electric.

MARTIN: And luckily for George M. Cohan, by 1917, phonographs were a part of more and more families' homes in America.

INSKEEP: Those were like iTunes but a little bit larger...

MARTIN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...More boxy.

MARTIN: Just a bit. Again, Gerry Heroux.

HEROUX: Nora Bayes, who was a well-known singer at the time, she recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

NORA BAYES: (Singing) Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun. Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.

HEROUX: It would have been one of the earliest big hits in the phonographic era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

BAYES: (Singing) Everyone for liberty.

INSKEEP: Singers all over the country recorded their own versions, among them the leading opera star of the day, Enrico Caruso. He tried to curb his Italian accent for this most American of songs by recruiting his wife to coach him through every syllable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing) That the boys are coming, the boys are coming, the drums rum-tumming everywhere. So prepare...

MARTIN: In recognition of George M. Cohan's achievement, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made him the first entertainer ever to receive a Congressional Gold Medal in 1936.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

CARUSO: (Singing) And we won't come... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.