Commemorating the Centenary of the End of World War I: Remarks on War by a Forgotten Songwriter

By Bob Kosovsky, Librarian
November 14, 2018
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Blanche Merrill in 1917; The New York Sun, February 11, 1917, page 7.

Upon hearing the name Fanny Brice, most people think of Barbra Streisand and her portrayal of Brice in the stage musical and film of Funny Girl. For those who know the work of the real Fanny Brice, they are probably familiar with her radio work as "Baby Snooks," her film appearances, or her recordings.
Among her most memorable recordings are the comic songs "Becky is Back in the Ballet," "I’m an Indian," and "I Don’t Know Whether To Do It Or Not." Aside from Brice’s performance, a unifying factor of these humorous songs is the lyricist, Blanche Merrill.

Though practically forgotten today, a century ago during the heyday of vaudeville, Blanche Merrill (1883-1966) was one of the most well-known lyricists and creators of vaudeville acts. Performers sought her out (and paid her dearly) for new material; in turn, she would interview the performer, see them perform, study their style and individual characteristics, and then create a song or act carefully tailored to the performer’s unique talents.

I first became aware of Blanche Merrill through Barbara Wallace Grossman’s biography Funny Woman: The Life and Times of Fanny Brice. Paraphrasing Brice, Grossman acknowledges that credit for some of Brice’s fame rests upon the songs that Merrill created for her.  
I was intrigued by this songwriter whose lyrics I had known for decades, and was so surprised and disappointed that there are almost no biographical reference works with entries about Merrill. To rectify the situation, I created a substantial Wikipedia article; modesty aside, I know there is no more comprehensive biography of Merrill than her Wikipedia page.

Blanche Merrill died in 1966. In a footnote that could elicit groans from librarians and archivists, Grossman stated:

Whatever papers and photographs [Merrill] left were destroyed following her sister's death in 1972. Sadly, there is no primary source material and remarkably little information currently available about one of America's first prolific female songwriters.

Although the materials in Merrill’s possession were destroyed, there still exists the possibility that copies of the songs and acts she created still exist in the archives of those performers for whom she wrote.

I came across one such primary source here at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It is particularly interesting because the work presents a vast and stark contrast to the comic songs which dominate Merrill’s output. In the Music Division’s collection of Sophie Tucker performance materials, there is a typed page entitled "Drum Number" by Blanche Merrill. It is not a song, but a recitation to be accompanied by a drum and occasional melodies. At times, the constant drum accompaniment is given prominence due to the content.

"Drum Number," Sophie Tucker collection of performance material, NYPL for the Performing Arts, Music Division. 

The recitation begins innocuously (I have standardized grammar here, but have otherwise reproduced Merrill’s text as she wrote it):

Once there was a little boy and Johnnie was his nameHe was a naughty little boy ‘till just before Christmas cameThen he started being good- ‘cause he knew that Santa would comeAnd one Christmas morn - sure as you’re born - he got a great big drumAnd he drove the neighbors deaf and dumbWith his bum - bum - bumbumbum

As the number continues, Johnnie grows up and becomes a drummer. He finds a girlfriend. (At this point the instructions say that the background drum should suggest the rapid beating of a heart.) The recitation then takes a fateful turn:

And then one day - war was declared  - he was one of the first to go
And mid the cheers and mid the tears - he went off to meet the foe

At this point, the World War I-era song "Over There" is heard in the background.

The years went on and the fight went on - then one day his folks got word
That brave little Johnnie had done his bit - and in their hearts they heard
At last the fight was over - there was a big parade
And watching it his mother found an error had been made...

At this point, the Civil War song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is played in the background.

But when his people saw him - with horror they were dumb
For Johnnie had come home again - but his tortured brain was numb
All he did was sit around and foolishly he smiled
For shell shocked on the battle field had left him like a child
And each day he roamed to the garrett - and it hurt his people so
For he’d take the drum - the drum that he left there many years ago
And poor little shell shocked Johnnie would take that drum and play
And play that childish little drum - in that little childish way.

In observance of the centenary of the conclusion of World War I, may Blanche Merrill’s words serve as a reminder of the costs of war.