Songs to die for, or not

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

• “The only good thing that has ever come out of a war was a song,” Johnny Cash once said.

Through much of history, music has marched in intimate lock-step with war, first on the battlefield, then back at home. But Vietnam – the rock and roll war – was a different tune. The delivery of music, as well as munitions, fundamentally changed and the protest song became a powerful force, sounding alarms through the fog.

Music has played myriad roles in conflict. Ancient Greek and Roman armies used percussion and brass as signals, relaying messages about enemy locations and orders from leaders. In the Bible, Joshua blew a ram’s horn for seven days and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. It may have actually been a coincidental earthquake, but it struck the fear of God in the Canaanites and fired up the Israelites.

As far back as the Dark Ages, Celts went into battle, dressed as barbaric warriors playing horns, drums, and most importantly, blood curdling bagpipes, boosting their own morale while intimidating their enemies. During America’s Civil War (1861-65), Confederate hero Robert E. Lee remarked, “Without music there would have been no army.” To soothe a nation literally coming apart, as well as to uplift troops, that war produced its share of popular compositions still played today, such as The Battle Hymn of the Republic, When This Cruel War is Over, Aura Lee, Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More and Taps.

WW1, “the war to end all wars” – 1914-1918 – was a bloody and horrific struggle that forever changed the way war was fought: horses were replaced by tanks, rifles transformed into machine guns, not to mention gas. To cope, songs of this war were sung in pubs, music halls and social gatherings, as well as in tents, dugouts and trenches – as a way to never forget.

Vera Lynn
“The Forces Sweetheart” Vera Lynn (Smithsonian collection)

Sheet music was ubiquitous and publisher Leo Feist opined in the widely read Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere, “Music will help win the war. A Nation that sings can never be beaten. America’s war songs are spreading throughout the world and are being hailed as an omen of victory. Songs are to a nation’s spirit what ammunition is to a nation’s army. There isn’t anything in the world that will raise a soldier’s spirits like a good, catchy marching tune.”

Composers became soldier-like, scrambling to create songs in the fervour of the war effort on the home front, churning out, Keep the Home-Fires Burning (‘Till the Boys Come Home), Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag (and Smile, Smile, Smile) and Over There. When Johnny Comes Marching Home was re-purposed from the US Civil War and popular British marching song It’s a Long Way to Tipperary portrayed the longing for home that came home and stayed.

World War II was the first conflict in the age of centralized, electronically mass-distributed music. Sound had come to the movies, including newsreels. Most Americans now had radios and in Nazi Germany households with radios increased four-fold. The number of listeners to a single performance of a recording or broadcast skyrocketed and with it the power to determine and control who listened to what.

Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller postage stamp (Smithsonian collection)

“Entertainment is always a national asset. Invaluable in time of peace, it is indispensable in wartime,”said US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The US didn’t need a Propaganda Minister. Music automatically reflected the government’s primary interest; the desires of most people were in line with leaders.

Lili Marlene, written by Norbert Schultze, was one of the most popular songs, sung by both the Axis and the Allies and also used by each side as propaganda. Music was also censored; the American hit Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, for example, was edited at the BBC because of its almost blasphemous mix of religious words and foxtrot melody.

England’s Vera Lynn became “The Forces Sweetheart,” singing emblematic and timeless songs such as (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again. The lyrics live on and the latter song shows up in an apocalyptic scene in the movie Dr. Strangelove – “Don’t know where, don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

But the most popular music was Swing, played in large dance halls and clubs, frequented by soldiers home on leave or leaving home for the theatre of war. It was music tailor-made for the troops, USO tours and the selling of war bonds. The music was orchestral, hopeful and highly danceable, such as, When the Lights Go on Again (All Over the World), Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.

Perhaps the most popular swing band was Glenn Miller’s, with big hits such as In the Mood, Pennsylvania 6-500 and Chattanooga Choo Choo. While he was travelling to entertain US troops in France, his aircraft disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. He is listed as “Missing in Action,” but his music lives on from an age when jazz was born. Hitler hated jazz and banned it throughout Germany and occupied Europe. The world, however – including low flying German pilots on bombing missions – tuned in the uniquely American, mostly Black music, which represented a defiant hope for real liberation and freedom and in many ways the soundtrack for the war.

Aldous Huxley observed, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” The lives and the messages portrayed through music had, and still have, more impact on people than history books and newspapers.

For a musical journey well worth remembering, Google CBC Radio’s Remembrance Day playlist for WW1 and WW11.

Common Ground will celebrate the colourful and inspiring history of the anti-war song in the New Year with a list of those that had an impact and continue to live on. Got a favourite? Please email the title and a few words explaining why to:

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

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