You're a Trifle, Mr. ISIL

There's nothing like a terror attack to inspire American songwriters.

By John Strausbaugh

The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center inspired a host of response songs, from the gung-ho to the emo, from Charlie Daniels's predictable "This Ain't No Rag It's a Flag" to Neil Young's more surprising "Let's Roll."

But that was nothing like the barrage of responses to the attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier, December 7 1941. By December 20, just two weeks later, TheBillboard was already reporting that the Tin Pan Alley music publishers in the Brill Building had received more than one thousand songsubmissions, from professionals as well as amateurs.

The first two by professional songwriters were actually written on December 7. Hearing the news from Hawaii, Lew Pollack and Ned Washington whipped out "We'll Knock the Japs Right Into the Laps of the Nazis" that afternoon and rushed it to Bert Wheeler, of the comedy duo Wheeler & Woolsey, who apparently introduced it in his club act that very night. (Woolsey had died a few years earlier.)

That same day another Tin Pan Alley duo, Charles Tobias and Cliff Friend, knocked out "We Did It Before (and We Can Do It Again)." Friend is best known for writing the theme song for Looney Tunes in 1937, while Tobias' long list of credits includes "Merrily We Roll Along" -- which he co-wrote with his brother-in-law Eddie Cantor, and which Warner Bros. adapted for its Merrie Melodies theme song -- and a huge hit during the war, "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)." Cantor introduced "We Did It Before" on his weekly radio show on Wednesday, December 10. In 1943 Warner Bros. would use the song in a Merrie Melodies cartoon, Fifth Column Mouse, in which the mice mobilize for war against a dictatorial cat.

By Monday morning December 8 the trio of lyricist James Cavanaugh (best known for "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You"), John Redmond and Nat Simon had written the upbeat "You're a Sap, Mr. Jap." It was released as a single before the month was out. In 1942 it also found its way into a cartoon, the first Popeye cartoon of the war, with caricatures of Japanese that were so extreme it was removed from circulation after the war -- along with a number of other patriotically racist cartoons -- and rarely seen again until the birth of the Internet.

By the week of January 11 TheBillboard counted twenty-four war singles released since December 7. There was the catchy "Good-Bye Mama, I'm Off to Yokohama,"  written by J. Fred Coots, better known for writing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" in 1934. The Billboard listed three different recordings of the inevitable "Remember Pearl Harbor", plus the cleverer "Let's Put the Axe to the Axis" and the swinging "The Sun Will Soon Be Setting (for the Land of the Rising Sun)."

The list also included two interesting "hillbilly" songs, as country music was then called. One was Fred Rose's "Cowards Over Pearl Harbor," a mournful, guitar-strumming folk ballad. The other was by Bob Miller and Carson Robison, who both came to Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s. Miller worked for a while as Irving Berlin's arranger, while Robison specialized in country and cowboy songs that humorously treated topical themes, like one on the Scopes trial in 1925. Their response to Pearl Harbor was the outrageous "We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap," written by Miller and recorded by Robison to a silly, quick-time oompah melody:

We're gonna have to slap the dirty little Jap

And Uncle Sam's the guy who can do it

We'll skin the streak of yellow from this sneaky little fellow

And he'll think a cyclone hit him when he's through it

Robison went on to record nine more war songs, including "Mussolini's Letter to Hitler"  and its flipside "Hitler's Reply to Mussolini,"  "Get Your Gun and Come Along (We're Fixin to Kill a Skunk)," and "Who's Gonna Bury Hitler (When the Ornery Cuss is Dead)?"

For more examples, see The Songs That Fought the War by John Bush Jones (Brandeis University Press).

Published December 24th, 2015


John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.