Harry Barnhart Helped Soldiers Sing Their Way through World War I
By Kathy Warnes
Harry Barnhart sang in the United States Army more than he fought, but his songs lifted morale and helped the United States and its allies win World War I. Harry Barnhart believed in the power of song and he introduced the idea of camp singing in 1917. Hundreds of thousands of lonesome American soldiers without much in common were dumped together in camps and they needed a diversion.
Tall, sturdy Harry Barnhart was determined to provide the doughboys with that diversion-music they made themselves. Harry asked the commanding officers if he couldn’t help the men sing, but before the Army brass would see things Harry’s way, he had to talk rough and fight a battle with them himself.
The idea of group singing had been born in Harry’s musical mind in the sizzling heat of a steel mill, amid the din of pneumatic drills. In 1898, Harry worked as a mill hand in Carnegie’s Armor Plate Machine Shop in Pittsburgh and the power of song as a weapon hit him like the clash of a cymbal.
Harry Travels to Europe for a Music Education
Harry decided to go to Europe for a musical education. He saved his earnings, kissed his wife and child goodbye and traveled to New York to buy a round trip ticket to Europe. When he had the ticket tucked safely in his pocket, he had only forty dollars left to finance a musical education. His baggage was mostly his tools, for he planned to earn his living while he learned music by punching holes in foreign armor plate.
Harry Studies under Cortaizi, a Friend of Verdi
After he arrived in Europe, Harry found the steel industry there was small and localized, requiring few laborers and paying meager wages. He was mulling over his predicament when an elderly woman in Heidelberg, Germany, recognized his ability and offered to finance his musical education.
He accepted her offer, vowing to return every cent of her money as soon as his voice earned it. In a few years, he made good his promise. He studied in Italy under Cortaizi, an intimate friend of the composer Verdi, and enjoyed the privilege of discussing Verdi’s operatic compositions with the composer himself.
Harry Conducts His Band on the Mall in Central Park
Finally, Harry came back to the United States and put his voice to work as the baritone soloist of “The Little Church Around the Corner,” in New York City. He also sang in the streets. He started on the street with a broken down automobile and a portable organ, gathered crowds around him and led them singing.
Many people thought he was crazy, this large young man with the rich voice, sending his songs through the city streets and urging every passerby to join him. In a short few years, his reputation spread and he conducted his own band on the mall in Central Park and getting everyone in his melting pot audience to join in the singing.
Harry Presents His Singing Plan to the Camp Commander
When the United States entered World War I, Harry immediately applied his idea of community singing to the emotion of the patriotic fervor of the times. He felt music was essential to the morale of a war time nation and that a singing army would be a victorious army.
His problem was getting hard boiled Army generals to agree with him. They were preoccupied with so many war essentials that they gave little thought to what they felt was such a non-essential as singing. Harry brought himself and his idea to one of the large camp of drafted men at Yaphank, Long Island, and presented his plan to the camp commander.
Harry’s Sing-Along is Successful
Harry drew on his experience in the steel mills to convince the commander he wasn’t proposing a pink tea. Finally the commander was convinced to let him try and ordered the entire camp to assemble with six military bands, none of them in tune. The entire camp sang, many of the men for the first time. The commander was so impressed that he postponed Taps and let this men sing well into the night.
As chance would have it, among the thousands of army men singing for Harry Barnhart was General J. Franklin Bell, who was on an unofficial tour of inspection. He was so caught up in the spirit of the songfest that he too, sang heartily and loudly.
General Bell and General Bell Agree with Harry
After the men finally went to their barracks and Taps lulled them to sleep, General Bell had a conference with Harry. During that midnight talk, they formulated a plan for the entire army to sing. Harry was commandeered into the service on the spot and soon after heard Major General Leonard Wood’s views on singing in the army.
“It is just as essential that soldiers know how to sing as it is that they carry files and learn to shoot,” said Major General Leonard Wood in a talk to his command at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas. “This sounds odd to the ordinary person because the layman cannot reconcile singing with killing. But there isn’t anything in the world, even letters from home – that will raise a soldier’s spirits like a good, catchy marching tune.”
The Doughboy’s Top Ten Songs
Mademoiselle From Armentieres or Hinky Dinky Parlezvous
Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag
There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding
How Ya Gonna Keep Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?”
Goodbye Broadway, Hello France
‘Til We Meet Again
Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning
Ferguson, Niall, The Pity of War, Exploring World War I, Basic Books, 2000.
Groom, Winston, A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front, Grove Press, 2003.