Manchester’s Zo Elliott served stateside in World War I in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Although Zo didn’t fight in the war, the song he had composed with college friend Stoddard King, “There’s a Long, Long Trail,” made a bigger contribution to the Allied cause than he could have made as a soldier.
The sentimental song was a morale booster that was sung and played just about everywhere in both military and civilian life.
The tune was adapted into a parade march for armies on the go, and for amusement American soldiers created a revised version that replaced the song’s genteel lyrics with fighting words. The chorus, which had referred to nightingales singing, now became, “There’s a long, long trail a-winding into no man’s land in France, where the shrapnel shells are bursting, but we must advance. There’ll be lots of drills and hiking until our dreams all come true, but we’re going to show the Kaiser how the Yankee boys come through.”
Homer A. “Rodey” Rodeheaver, music director for the famous Christian evangelist Billy Sunday, performed the song in American barracks and camps throughout France. He sang the original version in a heartfelt manner, and then accompanied the men on trombone while they repeated the chorus. When the song was finished, he led the soldiers in prayer. His presentation was especially popular with the black troops.
“There’s a Long, Long Trail” was a staple at Liberty Bond rallies in the U.S. and it was immortalized in recordings by celebrated singers including Italian operatic baritone Ricardo Stacciari; German soprano Frieda Hempel; and Irish tenor John Francis McCormack.
In Britain and in the U.S. the words “long, long trail” became synonymous with the war effort. One striking example of this occurred in December 1918, just a few weeks after the war officially ended with the Armistice of November 11. Winston Churchill, then British Minister of Munitions, stated in a speech that it was “too early to appraise the events of this great war … But the war was won. All our dreams had come true after all. We had reached the end of a long, long trail.”
After his discharge from the Army at the end of 1918 as a corporal, Zo and a group of former Signal Corps men performed his song at several speeches given by Lt. Col. Charles White Whittlesey, recipient of the Medal of Honor. Whittlesey had led the ill-fated “lost battalion” that had suffered tremendous casualties in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that took place near the end of the war.
Zo returned to Manchester and lived for a time at Brookhurst, his family’s estate on River Road. By 1934 he had taken up residence in a house nearby on Monroe Street, which served as his home base until 1951. He listed his occupation in the city directories as “music composer.”
During these years Zo composed a few popular songs, but these have now been forgotten. In 1934 he wrote a song for the U.S. Navy, “The Midshipman,” that was well-received. In 1944 he composed the “British Eighth Army March” as a tribute to Gen. Bernard Montgomery who pronounced it “quite first class.”
John Masefield, poet laureate of the United Kingdom, added words to the piece, which is still widely performed.
Zo spent decades composing operas that he never quite completed. One of these ambitious projects was an adaption of the 1924 Broadway play and 1926 silent film, “What Price Glory?” a comedy-drama about U.S. Marines in World War I.
After 1951 Zo spent much of his time traveling in the United States and Europe and studying music at universities in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. He was a charming person, who was a popular guest at various affairs. No matter what he was engaged in, news reports always identified him first and foremost as the composer of the famous World War I song.
In 1929 Zo wrote, “I am a bit bewildered…But the tune marches on. Once it was mine. Now it seems to be the other way. I seem to belong to it.”
Alonzo “Zo” Elliott, Jr. died in Wallingford, Conn., on June 24, 1964, at the age of 73. He is buried at Manchester’s Pine Grove Cemetery.
Next week: Another Manchester composer pens a song for World War I.