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Strike Up the Band

Written: 1927, 1929

Music by: George Gershwin

Words by: Ira Gershwin

Written for: Strike Up the Band
(show, 1927, 1929, 1930)

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On the Main Stage at Cafe Songbook

Two Performances of "Strike Up the Band"
(just about a half century apart)

Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland,
Orchestra, Chorus and Dancers


"Strike Up the Band" (1940)

in the 1940 movie Strike Up the Band.
The lyrics to "Strike Up the Band" were altered by Ira Gershwin several times to please the powers that be in Hollywood. They used some of Ira's words and some of their own. Most of the music is George's, but the plot of the movie has nothing to do with the original stage production in any of its forms; still, the Hollywood showmanship and the talent of the stars makes it worth a look and listen. George himself never got a chance to experience it, having died three years before its release.


Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow


"Strike Up the Band" (1988)

with Joe Byrd, Bass and Chuck Redd, drums
at ZDF Jazz Club, Leonberg, Germany, 1988.
As far as we know, this duet has not been recorded. Click the links below for individual recordings of the song by Kessel (iTunes) and Farlow (Amazon).

Amazon iTunes
More Performances of "Strike Up the Band"in the Cafe Songbook Record/Video Cabinet (Video credit)
(Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)

Cafe Songbook Reading Room

"Strike Up the Band"

Critics Corner || Lyrics Lounge

About the Show Strike Up the Band / Origins of the Song

Howard Pollack

George Gershwin: His Life and Work
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press

book cover: Edward Jablonskie, "Gershwin A Biography"
Edward Jablonski
A Biography,

New York: Doubleday, 1987
(paper bound edition shown)


book Cover: Ira Gershwin, "Lyrics on Several Occasions"
Ira Gershwin,
Lyrics on Several Occasions,
New York: Limelight Editions, 1997
(originally published by Knoph, 1959)


Other songs written for Strike Up the Band currently included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook:

1. Soon

2. I've Got a Crush on You (first used in this show, but not written for it)


For a complete listing of songs used in the original Broadway production of Strike Up the Band, see IBDB song list.


Walter Rimler, A Gershwin Companion: A Critical Inventory & Discography, 1916-1984,
Popular Culture Ink, 1991

According to George Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack (pp. 396-397), the idea for the show Strike Up the Band came about when producer Edgar Selwyn heard, in 1926, that George S. Kaufman was at work on an anti-war satire and wanted the Gershwins to put it to music: "'We can all be grateful to Edgar Selwyn,' remarked Morrie Ryskind, for having the foresight to match their [The Gershwins'] genius with that of George Kaufman's.' The Gershwins were delighted at the prospect of working with Kaufman whom they considered 'the funniest and most intelligent playwright in America'." And, as it turned out, Ryskind, himself an anti-war type during his younger years, wound up rewriting Kaufman's bookafter the 1927 production failed even to make it as far as Broadway, closing in Philadelphia after only two weeks.

Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski recounts the Philadelphia experience when he writes that "the failure [of the run in Philadelphia] "is generally attributed to the bite of Kaufman's unmusical-comedy-like book.":

Strike Up the Band was definitely not an Aarons-Freedly or a Ziegfeld musical. It underscored man's often trivial and venal rationale for going to war; Kaufman scourged profiteering, jingoism, diplomacy, business manipulations--it was not a conventional song and dance show . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Political satire, apparently, was not the stuff of a successful musical comedy. Though the show was critically acclaimed, audiences did not grasp its theme and were not amused by its long expository musical sequences . . . (Jablonski, p. 143).

It was the rewrite by Ryskind that finally became a hit in 1930, and without it there would be a good chance we would know little about the show Strike Up the Band.

As for the song "Strike Up the Band," Ira Gershwin wrote in his memoir Lyrics on Several Occasions that the final (or fifth) version of the music for the song "Strike Up the Band" was written by his brother George lying in bed during the middle of the night. It was the spring of 1927 and the brothers were in Atlantic City for a meeting with Edgar Selwyn, the producer of their show in progress, also titled Strike Up the Band. Ira had gone out to get the Sunday paper and upon returning to their adjoining rooms and seeing no light under the door assumed George was asleep; however, the door opened and the pajama clad composer informed his lyricist brother that he'd got it. When Ira pressed him to explain the "it," he replied, "Why the march of course, I think I've finally got it. Come on in." Apparently George had thought he'd gotten it on four previous occasions but this time he assured Ira this was it, even though the first four were written while he was at the piano, this one in his head while he was in bed. George sat down at the piano (He always had a piano in his hotel room.) and played it almost exactly as the song is now known. Ira pressed his brother that this would indeed be "it," that there would be no more "maybe I'll come up with something better[s]." The fifth try did, in fact, turn out to be "it." Ira went ahead and "wrote it up" (Lyrics on Several Occasions, pp. 224-227, paperback Ed.)

The script, the lyric for the song and the show itself seemed to have been destined for endless revision: As Walter Rimler explains in his Gershwin Companion, and as referred to above, Gershwin had come up with four other melodies before settling on the one we all know and Ira kept revising his lyric to suit the mood of a rapidly and chaotically changing world:

In a series of revisions over the years, the original intent of the lyric was totally changed. "Strike up the Band" began as a sarcastic anti-war song ("We're in a bigger, better war for your patriotic pastime. We don't know what we're fighting for but we didn't know the last time!") But in 1940, with war in Europe spreading, Ira changed it ("We hope there'll be no other war but if we're forced into one, the flag we'll be fighting for is the red and white and blue one!"). Then after America's entry into World War II, he altered the lyric again and this time he was in a fighting mood, putting in a line about turning the Hun away from the gate (Rimler, Companion, p. 172).

Perhaps the revisions that have had the most lasting effect on the song are those put in place over succeeding decades by recordings and live performances by jazz musicians. It is not news that the richest source of material for jazz musicians, outside of their own compositions, has been The Songbook, but "Strike up the Band" is one of the few marches that has provided such inspiration. Howard Pollack suggests it was the song's ironic humor that explains this, noting that performances by such jazz greats as Charlie Parker (1950) and Oscar Peterson (1952) best capture this quality. Certainly the number of jazz performances of this "patriotic" march featured on this page would seem to confirm this. (See the Performer/Recording Index in the Cafe Songbook Record/Video Cabinet, right hand column, this page.)


Historic 1929 film of George Gershwin playing songs from Strike Up The Band during rehearsals at the Times Square Theatre, New York City shortly before the opening of the 1930 version of the show (the version Ira Gershwin called "the fifth try") on January 14, 1930. The film begins with George bantering with the show's comedic stars Clark and McCullough. The songs, in abbreviated rehearsal renditions, are "Hangin' Around with You," "Strike Up The Band" (buck dance), "Mademoiselle in New Rochelle" and "Strike Up The Band" (piano solo). (Footage courtesy of Edward Jablonski, video and adapted text by Jack Gibbons)

Victor Arden and Phil Ohman, dual pianists, and their Orchestra, made this recording (Victor 22308) on January 31, 1930, two weeks after Strike Up the Band opened on Broadway, January 14, at the Times Square Theater. The vocal refrain on the record is by the Revelers Quartet. Arden and Ohman frequently appeared in the pit for Gershwin shows of the era, but in the pit for Strike up the Band was Red Nichols and His Strike Up the Band Orchestra.

The 1930 pit orchestra for Strike Up the Band included at every performance, along with Red Nichols leader/coronet, some, to say the least, now familiar names, in fact a Who's Who of the swing era that was just getting under-way: Benny Goodman on clarinet, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Gene Krupa on drums, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto sax, and Charlie Teagarden on trumpet. The track on the video just above was recorded in New York, January 17, 1930, three days after the show opened. (We are currently uncertain about who the vocalist is on the recording, but it has been suggested that it might be Jim Townsend who played Jerry Goff in the 1930 Broadway production of Strike Up the Band and was the featured singer in the show on "Strike Up the Band." The album includes 51 Gershwin songs (on two discs) performed by various artists -- also available as singles.

Amazon iTunes


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Critics Corner

Isaac Goldberg: George Gershwin A Study in American Music
Issac Goldberg
George Gershwin: A Study in American Music
Originally published, 1931 by Simon and Schuster, New York,
reprinted and supplemented by Edith Garson, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1958.

In her 1958 supplement to Issac Goldberg's 1931 lifetime biography of his friend George Gershwin, Edith Garson notes that the 1927 production of Strike up the Band (although it failed even to reach Broadway until it was later revised in 1930) was the first of three "political operettas" with scores by the Gershwins. Strike up the Band lampooned war. (In that same year of 1927, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein had a much greater success with a seriously themed musical, Show Boat.) The other two Gershwin productions were Of Thee I Sing (1931) which won the Pulitzer Prize for its satire of American politics, and Let Them Eat Cake (1933), which took as its subject, revolution. Garson writes of the Gershwin trilogy of topical operettas:

It was this beginning, in 1927, that marked a turning point in the American lyric theater. The operettas, with their satirical topical themes, their songs that were tightly woven into the plot, and their sophisticated production (not just the usual line of chorus girls against lavish backdrops) pioneered the tradition of the " integratedscore" that has been the heart of the contemporary musical from Oklahoma! to My Fair Lady (Goldberg/Garson, pp. 297-298, paperbound Ed.).

book cover: George Gershwin: "An Intimate Portrait" by Walter Rimler
Walter Rimler
George Gershwin:
An Intimate Portrait

Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 2009


For Walter Rimler, Strike Up the Band was clearly a show in the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan, the British operetta writers of the last half of the 19th century.

For Ira, this was an opportunity to write the sort of satirical, intricate rhymes that W. S. Gilbert, his hero, had created fifty years earlier. For George, it was the chance to construct lengthy musical scenes advancing them, as his biographer Howard Pollack has noted, with "various archetypes--the solemn hymn, the patriotic march, the recited pledge, the military drill, the folk song, the romantic waltz." But [George S.] Kaufman's script--in which hostilities erupt between the United States and Switzerland because of an argument about Swiss cheese--was second rate, as Kaufman himself later admitted. "A composer of musical comedy is so horribly dependent on the quality of the book," he added, explaining [the 1927] show's failure at the box office [Pollack, 399-400].

To listen to the satirical 1927 verse, play the video at the 1990 Studio Cast recording in the Record/Video Cabinet which recreates the original 1927 production.



book cover: Ira Gershwin The Art of the Lyricist by Philip Furia
Philip Furia
Ira Gershwin:
The Art of the Lyricist

New York, Oxford Univ. Press

It was producer Edgar Selwyn, who was as devoted to Gilbert and Sullivan as antecedent and model as were the Gershwins, who pushed to make sure the influence of the British team remained strong in the revised versions of Strike Up the Band. Ira's satirical lyric for the verseof the title song "mocked jingoism":

We're in a bigger, better war
for your patriotic pastime.
We don't know what we're fighting for--
but we didn't know the last time.

Philip Furia points out, however, that Ira's lyric, when it got to George's stirring chorus, "got caught up in the very martial fever" the song was meant to mock:

Let the drums roll out,
let the trumpets call,
while the people shout
strike up the band!

Furia explains, "George had managed to cram a Sousa-like march into the confines ofTin Pan Alley's thirty-two bar AABA structure, and Ira gave in completely to the music's spirit creating an inspiring yet thoroughly vernacular, call to arms":

There is work to be done to be done!
There's a war to be won, to be won!
Come you son of a son of a gun!
Take your stand!

The patriotic power of the melody wedded to the no longer satirical lyric is probably more responsible for the continued success of the song and its being taken up by performers and movie producers like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the MGM World War II Era movie that bears the title of the song and the earlier anti-war stage show, but otherwise reveals no relation to the original. (View the Rooney/Garland version above on the Cafe Songbook Main Stage.) (See Furia pp. 85-86 (hardcover Ed.).

No doubt it is also George's stirring melody that resulted in the request in 1936 by The University of California at Los Angeles for Ira to compose a new lyric that would enable the University to use the piece as its fight song, which indeed it did.

A 1937 recording of Strike Up the Band for UCLA, music by George Gershwin and words by Ira Gershwin, played by Jimmy Grier and His Orchestra with a vocal octet. (In 1936, when Ira wrote this lyric, the Gershwins lived in Beverly Hills not far from the UCLA campus. At the time the brothers were working for RKO Radio Pictures writing some of their greatest songs for movies such as Shall We Dance? starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.


The UCLA Marching Band plays and marches to Strike Up the Band for UCLA.

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Lyrics Lounge

To read the lyric for "Strike Up the Band," at least for the chorus without the verse, click here. To hear the original verse left off of most recordings of the song because they would have been satires of war and patriotism during periods when such fare was no longer in vogue. To listen to the original satirical verse, go to the Record/Video Cabinet (this page), and play the video associated with the 1990 Studio Cast album, which recreates the original 1927 production of the show Strike Up the Band. See also excerpts from Philip Furia's discussion in the Critics Corner in which he comments on the changes in the song's lyrics during different time periods. (this page, above).

Click here to read Cafe Songbook lyrics policy.

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Posted Comments on "Strike Up the Band":


Katestew (5/18/2016 11:58:39):You seem to have left off on your page, this song was used in the musical My One and Only also. The arrangement is quite nice too.

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("Strike Up the Band" page)


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The Cafe Songbook
Record/Video Cabinet:
Selected Recordings of

"Strike Up the Band"

(All Record/Video Cabinet entries below
include a music-video
of this page's featured song.
The year given is for when the studio
track was originally laid down
or when the live performance was given.)
Performer/Recording Index
(*indicates accompanying music-video)

George Gershwin
album: At the Piano--George Gershwin

"At the Piano" Geroge Gershwin

Notes: Aside from "Rhapsody in Blue," "Strike Up the Band" and "That Certain Feeling," most of the tracks on the album have Gershwin playing some of his lesser known songs such as "I'm A Lonesome Little Raindrop," and "Left All Alone Again Blues."
Music-Video: See the historic 1929 rehearsal footage video in center column, this page.
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video before starting another.)

Victor Arden and Phil Ohman Orchestra
Victor 78 RPM single: title

View/listen to music-video of Arden and Ohman and their orchestra on a Victor recording --center column, just below.
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video before starting another.)

Charlie Parker
album: Complete Bird in Sweden

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: Bird is backed here by what is sometimes referred to as his Swedish All Stars. "Tracks 1-4 were recorded at Amiralen Dance Hall in Malmo, Sweden on November 22, 1950. The ensemble backing Bird was comprised of Bird backed by Rolf Ericson on trumpet, Gosta Theselius on piano, Thore Jederby on bass and Jack Noren on drums.

"The remaining tracks were all recorded two days later on November 24, 1950 at Folkets Park in Helsingborg, Sweden. The same personnel who performed on the November 22 date are on tracks 5 through 11 [which include "Strike Up the Band]. However, on the last three tracks Rowland Greenberg joins Rolf Ericson on trumpet, and some personnel changes are made: Lennart Nilsson replaces Gosta Theselius on piano, and the Gosta switches to tenor sax, and Folke Holst replaces Thore Jederby on bass." (from Amazon reviewer Mike Tarrani.
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video before starting another.)

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Oscar Paterson (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Ray Brown,(bass)
album: Oscar Peterson Plays the George Gershwin Songbook

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: "In what was a giant undertaking (even for producer Norman Granz), pianist Oscar Peterson recorded ten Songbook albums during 1952-1954 and when his trio changed, nine more in 1959. Both of his George Gershwin projects (one from 1952 and the other from 1959) have been reissued in full on this single CD. The earlier date matches the brilliant Peterson with guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Brown [and includes the "Strike Up the Band" Track], while the 1959 session has Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. The Songbook series found Peterson playing concise (around three-minute) versions of tunes, and he always kept the melody in the forefront. The results are not innovative or unique, but they are tasteful and reasonably enjoyable. Since five of the songs are played by both groups, a comparison between the two units is interesting." Scott Yanow at CD Universe
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video before starting another.)

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1957 (studio) 1959 (live)
Chris Connor
album: Sings the George Gershwin Almanac of Song

Amazon iTunes

Notes: Aside from the above studio recording, there is also a live performance by Connor of "Strike Up the Band" at the Village Vanguard" in New York, 1959, backed by the Bobby Timmons Trio with Kenny Burrell sitting in (originally on an Atlantic release Chris Connor in Person Live at the Village Vanguard).

The live performance is available as a bonus track on the album referenced above as well as on the original Atlantic release:

Amazon iTunes

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Ella Fitzgerald
album: Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook

same track as on album referenced above


Notes: Originally recorded for the 1959 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George And Ira Gershwin Song Book with Ella accompanied by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra with arrangements by Riddle. This same track is now available on multiple CD anthologies of Ella singing Gershwin. (View them at this Amazon link.

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Tony Bennett and Count Basie
album: Strike Up the Band also on
Basie Swings and Bennett Sings (See iTunes link below.)

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: "One of the best combinations in the history of jazz, presented here is superstar vocalist Tony Bennett performing with the amazing Count Basie Big Band. This historic album was recorded in 1959 and features a beautiful set of jazz standards performed with style and panache by Mr. Bennett, aided and abetted by one of the greatest bands in the history of jazz. The all-star lineup includes Tony Bennett (vocals); Count Basie (piano); Ralph Sharon (piano); Thad Jones (trumpet); Snookey Young (trumpet); Wendell Culley (trumpet); Joe Newman (trumpet); Charlie Fowlkes (baritone saxophone); Frank Foster (tenor saxophone); Billy Mitchell (tenor saxophone); Frank Wess (alto saxophone); Marshall Royal (alto saxophone); Benny Powell (trombone); Henry Coker (trombone); Al Grey (trombone); Freddie Green (guitar); Eddie Jones (bass) and Sonny Payne (drums). All selections newly remastered." (From Amazon Editorial review) --
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Rosemary Clooney
album: Rosemary Clooney Sings the Lyrics of Ira Gershwin

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: "Ira Gershwin himself approved of this record. Rosemary Clooney sings ten of his classic sets of lyrics, including eight songs written in collaboration with his brother George; the exceptions are 'Long Ago and Far Away' (music by Jerome Kern) and 'The Man That Got Away' (a later Harold Arlen song). Although not an improviser herself, Clooney excels in this swinging setting and includes occasional solos by cornetist Warren Vache, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, flutist Roger Glenn, pianist Nat Pierce, and guitarist Cal Collins. All of Clooney's Concord albums are well worth acquiring." Scott Yanow / CD Universe
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c. 1980
Count Basie
and His Orchestra
album: Basie Swings Standards

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: Great collection of the Basie band swinging standards from 1975-1983 produced by Norman Granz for Pablo Records.
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Strike Up the Band Studio Cast, Orchestra and Chorus
album: Strike Up the Band

Amazon iTunes

Notes: This recording is a 1990 studio recreation of the original 1927 score. It contains a version of "Strike up the Band" that incudes Ira Gershwin's original satirical verse. (Listen on video just above.). (The explanatory text below is excerpted from an Amazon review of the recording by Gary F. Taylor:
"Most stage musicals of the early 20th Century had trivial plots and flyweight scripts that existed as an excuse for the song and dance numbers that audiences wanted to see--but there were exceptions, and two of them occurred in 1927. The first, SHOWBOAT, was a splashy but dark play about racism and romance, and it was a huge success. The second, STRIKE UP THE BAND, was a sharp satire on American business, politics, and war, and although critics greatly admired it, and although George and Ira Gershwin were at the top of their partnership skills as songwriters, it was an absolute disaster [at the box office]. . . ."
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video before starting another.)

Sammy Nestico
and the SWR Big Band

album: No Time Like the Present


Notes: Recorded in Stuttgart, Germany, May 2003, released 2005. Born in Pittsburgh in 1924, Sammy Nestico is best known as a composer and arranger for Count Basie but has a career long history of doing big band arrangements for everyone from Frank Sinatra to the U.S. Marine and Air Force Bands. Here he conducts the Southwest German Radio Big Band.

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Vincent Herring
album: The Uptown Shuffle

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: High quality straight ahead jazz combination of standards and original compositions recorded at the jazz club Smoke (hence the label Smoke Sessions) on New York's upper west side. (Vincent Herring, alto sax; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Brandi Disterheft, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums. Album was released Jan. 7, 2008).
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