Wednesday, May 27, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Music of the Second World War

Fay McKenzie dancing the jitterbug with a serviceman at the Hollywood Canteen.
     One of the most popular aspects of history (and one of my favourites) is social/cultural history because it really allows us to get a glimpse of life was like for people in the time period of study. In the case of the Second World War, this aspect is of particular interest because it was the first conflict that occurred when technological advancements allowed for the popularity of media such as radio, film and music. An especially interesting component of this is the manner in which these media were used by government organizations to influence the perspectives of the people through propagandistic means. This week's post will focus on a few major elements of music during the Second World War from the various sides of the conflict.

Popular pop trio The Andrews Sisters
     The U.S just like any other country was able to utilize the exponential growth of the technological age to compose music for various reasons.
With the war brewing through the 1940s, initiatives to help the soldiers continue fighting arose. With drafting numbers reaching close to 500,000, the Army along with other Defense institutions began to make military bands which would serve the purpose of boosting morale in the Home Front, while at the same time keeping Patriotism and Nationalism at an all-time high. The first patriotic war song of WWII in the U.S was “God Bless America” written by Irving Berlin for a World War I wartime review, but was withheld and later revised and used in World War II. There were many other popular patriotic wartime songs during this time like, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” by Glenn Miller and “Arms for the Love of America” by once again Irving Berlin in 1941.
     After successful incorporation of music into the war efforts, more was needed in order to keep hopes alive and stable both back in the U.S and in the Home Front. Various times music was used as a tool for battle in the war, whether it was to entertain or to recuperate the soldiers during the war. More importantly was the impact that the music during the 1940s had on the people then and the effect that it continues to have now.

V-Disc 39A, "Moonlight Serenade", by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, November 1943
     V-Disc ("V" for Victory) was a morale-boosting initiative involving the production of several series of recordings during the World War II era by special arrangement between the United States government and various private U.S. record companies. The records were produced for the use of United States military personnel overseas. Many popular singers, big bands and orchestras of the era recorded special V-Disc records.

     One of my favourite examples of American WWII music is the song "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin" performed by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in 1944. Here's a link to the song from its Decca recording:

Dame Vera Lynn
Before the war, BBC radio had had quite an elitist approach to popular music. Jazz, swing or big band music for dancing was relegated to a few late night spots. During the war, the BBC was obliged to adapt, but not without conflict. The BBC establishment reluctantly increased the amount of dance music played, but censorship was severe. The American hit "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer" for example was censored because of its almost blasphemous mix of religious words and a foxtrot melody. BBC heads were also worried about American-style crooners undermining the virility of British men. The BBC establishment tried hard to stick to the jaunty tone which they felt had helped to win the first world war - so George Formby and Gracie Fields were very much played on the radio. Indeed, these two stars were undoubtedly more heroes to working-class people in Britain than was Winston Churchill, since they were seen to "come from the ordinary people."
     The most famous single performer was Vera Lynn who became known as "the forces' sweetheart".
She has become known for performing such songs as "(There'll be Blue Birds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover", "We'll Meet Again", and "When the Lights Go On Again".
     "We'll Meet Again" is a very powerful song which reminds us of the relationships built and torn apart during the course of the war. I've included a ling to Vera Lynn's performance of the song along with a touching video:

German composer and infamous anti-Semite Richard Wagner
     The Nazi government took a strong interest in promoting Germanic culture and music, which returned people to the folk culture of their remote ancestors, while promoting the distribution of radio to transmit propaganda. The Nazi government had an obsession with controlling culture and promoting the culture it controlled. The Nazis were determined to the concept that German Culture was the greatest in history, but as with all parts of art Hitler took an interest in suppressing the work of all those considered unfit while promoting certain composers as proper Germans. Therefore, the Government officially acknowledged certain composers as true Germans while seeking to eliminate Jazz and other styles seen as inferior.
     Even when new songs and other media were released which seemed to be free from a propagandistic message, there was still an underlying theme present which adhered to Nazi ideology. The example I've included is this catchy little clip from the 1936 film Gluckskinder with  song called "Ich wollt, ich war ein Huhn", which means "I wish I were a chicken". It's not exactly from wartime but it was released during Nazi leadership. Even if you aren't a German speaker, you can still note the traditional appearance and role of the female character. There is also a portion of the song which discussed various areas in Germany, which is in accordance with the ideas of German regionalism prevalent at the time. Here's a link:

     Overall, the music of the Second World War is one of my favourite things to study. I hope you enjoyed hearing some of the different pieces, and maybe even remember some of them!

    Thanks for reading,

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