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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Songs of War

Thousands of songs were written during WW II, many reflecting the struggles of both military and civilians.

Frank Losser's Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition was the first major hit of WW II.

Taken from a Walt Disney award-winning cartoon and recorded by Spike Jones, this song became a national craze in 1942.

Kate Smith will long be remember for her performance of Irving Berlin's God Bless America. This was a major part of her bond drive appearances.

Originally printed on April 23, 2008
Journal Opinion

In America’s culture, popular songs fill the life of the nation with lyrics that express the people’s loves, set the pace of work, spread news, entertain, solidify culture and express creativity. In the intensity of war, songs often take on a whole new meaning and purpose.

Patriotic war songs that emerged prior to 1939, but have remained well known, are The Star- Spangled Banner, Battle Hymn of the Republic and America the Beautiful. Songs that spread news of the war and its heroes, ridiculed the enemy and encouraged recruits are found in all earlier wars. One of the earliest songs was Bunker Hill written about that Revolutionary War battle by Nathaniel Niles of West Fairlee.

Soldiers’ camp songs helped combat the rigors of the march, relieved boredom and homesickness, provided an outlet for gripes and gave courage when faced with injury or death. Examples include Yankee Doodle and O, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning. The Yellow Rose of Texas, popular in the South during the Civil War, was one of many that expressed love of an absent sweetheart. These songs were often played by regimental bands including musicians who had been members of our local town bands.

Composers made money from the sale of sheet music, with many songs being shared by both civilians and military personnel. The emotions felt by those on the home front were reflected in songs as The Empty Chair, Hello Central! Give Me No-Man’s Land and Just Before the Battle, Mother. As wars come to a close, songs of relief and recollection become more popular. Tenting Tonight was one sung both during the Civil War and at reunions.

There were also songs that protested a specific war and war itself. Americans tend to tire quickly of war, especially if there is no constant threat, clear goals, or encouraging signs of victory. High casualties encourage criticism in otherwise supportive songs. The Civil War’s high casualty rate was reflected in Drummerboy of Shiloh and When this Cruel War is Over. The civilian and military authorities tried to silence protests, usually without success.

By the 1930’s, most Americans were listening to music from the radio, on records or in films. The Lucky Strike Hit Parade radio program had an estimated audience of 46 million adults per month. The standard formula for success was summed up by one industry leader as follows: “You’ve got to have sentiment or romance or happiness or be funny. When you try to get smart and put in other emotions, you find out it’s not smart!”

After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, songwriters began to dust off World War I favorites. Irving Berlin’s 1917 song God Bless America, sung by Kate Smith, and George M. Cohan’s Yankee Doodle Dandy both became hits. Sympathy for the embattled English was reflected in There Will Always Be An England. The White Cliffs of Dover made number one on the hit parade and sold over two million records. As the government instituted the draft in preparation for war, the film Buck Private introduced the song Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy .This was just one of many songs about military life, the need for preparation and growing spirits of both nationalism and dread.

Significant among these pre-Pearl Harbor songs were those of protest, generally from folksingers such as Pete Seeger and, Woody Guthrie, both of whom were members of The Almanacs. They released the album Songs for John Doe with lyrics that many considered inflammatory.

Despite the fact that their message became more supportive as America entered the war, their anti-war stance was held against them. Folk singers did not have the large public following that main stream music (Tin Pan Alley) or “hillbilly” had. Both these provided a constant diet of traditional popular music with “strong overtones of morality and loyalty.”

The spirit of fear, revenge and enthusiasm that swept the nation in the weeks following December 7, 1941, was reflected in many new songs. By April, 1942, dozens were composed as songwriters tried to write the song that would be identified with this war, as Over There had been for World War I. Goodbye Mama, I’m Off to Yokohama and Remember Pearl Harbor were among the few that achieved hit parade status.

Frank Loesser’s Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition was the first major hit of the war. Supposed to contain the words of a chaplain spoken during the attack on Pearl Harbor, it sold over two million records and one million sheets. Both John Roden and Russell Page of North Haverhill recall the song. Roden, a Pearl Harbor survivor, said that it “swept the South Pacific, encouraging the boys and giving them spirit.” Page was stationed in Libya on the crew of a B-24 and heard the song on Armed Forces Radio.

Another popular song that year was Der Fuehrer’s Face from the award-winning Disney cartoon Donald Duck in Nutziland. The recording by Spike Jones sold over a million and a half records, but because it included a “razzberry,” was considered too vulgar for much radio play.

This was the first war reported through film and radio and the producers felt both economic and government pressure to support it. Anti-war music was no longer heard. Even without that pressure, it is unlikely that any anti-war recording would have gotten playtime. The government hired songwriters to produce songs on specific subjects, including bond drives and rationing.

Of the thousands of songs written during the World War II period, most were not commercially successful. Many of them were criticized as “shoddy music and tinsel sentiment.” It is difficult to determine whether the popularity of war songs was more or less than non-war-related ones. But there is no doubt that they helped Americans express the many emotions of war: a willingness to sacrifice, the pangs of separation, the urge to participate, the sense of peril, hatred for the enemy, the desire for revenge and the hope for a victory followed by a better peace. Ken Squier of WDEV said that the Vermont station played a lot of war music, “some as morale builders and some as plain old satiric material against the enemy.”

One major theme that appears in songs was the impact of war on women. Romantic ballads reflected the frustrations of long-distant and lengthy separations. Barbara and Alan Stahl of Bradford, separated by the war, chose Together, from the film Since You Went Away and have kept that song’s lyrics as a pledge in over 60 years of marriage. Similarly, Phyllis Lavelle, also of Bradford, recalls how much the Frank Sinatra hit, I’ll Be Seeing You, meant to her and her husband Bernie, who was in the Army Air Corps.

Other songs that had special meaning to couples included Good Night, Wherever You Are and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. There was an emphasis on faithfulness in ballads like I’ll Walk Alone. Songs such as Stick to Your Knittin’ Kitten and Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree had a military man singing to his love at home. There was a distinct absence of “Dear John” songs. Some about women in the military or war industry were also recorded, but rarely made the hit parade.

Prior to the war, hillbilly music, with its largely southern following, had few hits on national radio. When the war broke out this genre produced a number of songs. It experienced an increased popularity as its followers spread the music into the service and to the war industry factories. This wider audience supported singers such as Gene Autry and Roy Acuff. Juke box operators noted increased popularity of this music in northern cities such as Detroit.

There was also an increased audience and market for performers of so-called “black” music. While this music lacked some of the enthusiasm for the war found in other styles of music, performers such as the Ink Spots, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald all recorded hit songs.

The preference of those in the military was not for commercial songs that referred to the war or military life specifically. They preferred to listen to the music that had been familiar in civilian life even if it was broadcast by Tokyo Rose or Axis Sally. Les Knox, who served in both the Canadian and American armies, recalled that the Americans had much greater access to music. He recalls seeing a 1944 USO appearance by Dinah Shore in France within three months of both D-Day and her first hit song I’ll Walk Alone. Bud Eastman of Bradford recalled that one of his favorites was Lili Marleen, a German love song that became popular among troops on both sides.
As in every war, there were also the songs the fighting men composed themselves. These were the grumble songs that operate as a safety value for the many emotions of the battlefront. The ribald ballad “Dirty Gertie from Bizerte, with over 200 verses, had lyrics that made it unfit for public exposure.

As the war dragged to a successful conclusion, music responded with themes of escapism, return and reunion and the promises of a post-war world, all trying to Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive. Bruce Stever of Bradford recalls that some of the tunes were great for dancing and the bands in which he played got requests for them into the 1950’s. However, most of the songs that had helped to contribute a wartime sense of shared purpose were soon replaced in the fast evolving market. Exceptions include White Christmas, sung by Bing Crosby, and I’ll Be Home for Christmas both of which continue to be seasonal favorites. These were not originally meant to be about war, but the millions of men and women away from home made them so.
While World War II song collections have been revived as the “greatest” generation has aged, most songs have been forgotten by the general public. Having presented a program at several area senior citizen meetings, I can assure you that many of them remember these songs vividly.

NOTES: I wrote this article using material collected for my MALS Master’s thesis at Dartmouth in the early 1980’s. Because of the length of the whole piece, the Journal Opinion will not use this ending with the article:

The musical response to the wars that followed reflected a lack of national unity. In the years before and during the Vietnam War, war-related music was dominated by the music of opposition and by songs that placed the needs of the disgruntled individual above the goals of the nation. Country music was the only type that supported the war wholeheartedly, although its message gradually changed from endorsement of the war to support of the troops and criticism of the anti-war movement.

The same conflicting messages can be found in the war-related music of the wars in the Middle East. Steve Puffer of WYKR confirms that songs such as Letters from Home, Have You Forgotten and Only in America that support the troops have considerable presence on the station’s play list. Local anti-war activists mentioned a resurgence of the music of Phil Ochs, anti-war writer and performer of the Vietnam War era. They also mention performances by John Gorka of his song The Road of Good Intentions and Tracy Grammer with the anti-war ballad Travis John. In no war since 1945 has government censorship played a significant role.

Today’s war-related music is not exempt from the factors that determine success in the music industry. The recording industry is driven by profit motive. The public still continues to discriminate in their selection of the songs that they popularize. When war has little impact on the daily life of the average citizen, war conditions play only a small role in song lyrics. In the hopes of many, there will come a time when there will be no need, as well as no demand, for war-related songs.

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