Popular Music During World War II
by Stephen Holden
WHAT TERM COULD BE more oxymoronic than 'wartime nostalgia'? Does anyone really want a return to the days of Hitler, Hiroshima and Auschwitz? Yet in America, where no bombs fell and no storm troopers landed during World War II, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley created a seductive wartime dream world of heroics and hearts and flowers that grows more appealing as the decades slip away.
Fifty years after the end of the World War II, the music that wafted through our national dream life in the early 1940's is regarded by many as the country's finest pop moment. Nostalgia for the 40's dates back to the early 1970's when Bette Midler scored a top 10 single with 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,' a 1941 Andrews Sisters hit. More recently, cabaret singers like Maureen McGovern, Andrea Marcovicci and Mary Cleere Haran have devoted entire programs to the 1940's, and Barry Manilow has recorded an album of big-band standards. Harry Connick Jr. presents himself as a born-in-New- Orleans reincarnation of Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes.
Discussing his passion for 40's pop, Mr. Connick has used words like 'clean' to describe its charm. He doesn't just mean its lack of sexual explicitness but its simplicity, integrity and upbeat attitude.
When America declared war on Japan in 1941, the swing era was already in full flower, with the most popular band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, defining the optimum musical balance between the visceral and the romantic.
As America went to war, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, crooned by Bing Crosby in a voice rich with reassurance and faith, projected a Currier and Ives vision of a pristine, snow-christened America to soldiers abroad and their loved ones at home. Crosby, who was 40 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, reigned as the vocal embodiment of American benevolence, while Mr. Sinatra, who was 13 1/2 years younger, brought a new current of erotic tenderness and vulnerability into pop singing. Hits like 'I Dream of You,' 'If You Are But a Dream,' 'Dream' and 'Put Your Dreams Away' were sugarcoated valentines counseling patience and delayed gratification to the wives and girlfriends of American soldiers.
Few sounds are more compellingly wistful than the youthful Sinatra's ardent murmurings. 'Night and Day,' Mr. Sinatra's first hit after leaving the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, brought the harmonic vocabulary of Puccini and Rachmaninoff into the pop arena, defined Mr. Sinatra's war-years sound.
Just as they are today, pop music's sound, structure and technology during the war years were a populist esthetic mirror of their time and place. With the birth of swing in the late 1930's, American pop achieved a blend of sophistication and utopian optimisim that prevailed for nearly a decade. But if the ascendance of swing expressed a remarkable unanimity of spirit in America, that communal feeling coincided with shared adversity: a Depression followed by a world war.
The music of the early-40's may have been better made and more wholesome than much of today's pop, but the social and economic climate was in many ways harsher. The standard of living was much lower, and individual opportunities for self-fulfillment were relatively limited. Feminism had subsided after women won the vote in 1920, the civil rights and gay liberation movements were still years away, and there was little in the way of teen-age culture.
In this puritanical climate, the more pop-oriented swing bands like those of Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers made music that presented the ensemble as a model community ruled by a strong (often dictatorial) male leader surrounded by deferential henchmen and largely anonymous instrumentalists. Although technical expertise within one's assigned role was respected, teamwork was valued above everything, and obedience to authority obligatory.
While the voices of leading swing band vocalists like Bob Eberly, Ray Eberle, Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton and Helen O'Connell had their distinctive traits, they were ultimately homogenous with the ensemble. Their rhythmic and timbral inflections and freedom of interpretative expression were limited by rigid, preset musical formats.
The smoothness of the ensemble blend reflected an unquestioned belief in social decorum, in being 'nice,' at all costs. The band arrangements emphasized neat, orderly patterns and a group harmony that was emotional as well as musical. Among vocal groups like the Pied Pipers, the Modernaires and the Andrews Sisters, individual styles were subordinated to a scrupulously homogenized sound, accented by synchronized movements and invariably cheery smiles. This team spirit mirrored a society in which it was assumed that every able-bodied man would gladly serve his country or risk social ostracism.
V.J. Day, on Aug. 15, 1945, burst the bubble. Within the next year and a half, eight of the country's most popular swing bands, including those of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey had broken up. (Glenn Miller had died in December 1944 when his plane was lost over the English Channel.) Led by Mr. Sinatra, the era of the model community gave way to the era of the model singer. The reign of the genteel pop crooner ended with the arrival of Elvis Presley and the comeback of Mr. Sinatra, who had reinvented himself as the new king of swing.
In the more sophisticated swing revival that Mr. Sinatra oversaw, the singer ruled, with the band arrangements custom-made to suit his moods. Although obedience to the leader was still necessary, an aura of 'niceness' was no longer a requirement.
Cooperation, teamwork and an enforced civility had brought America out of the Depression and enabled the country to triumph in a world war that almost everyone agreed had been worth fighting. It was time for an explosion of individual voices.
Here are the top 10 hits from the World War II years.
1. 'Amapola (Pretty Little Poppy),' Jimmy Dorsey
2. 'Chattanooga Choo Choo,' Glenn Miller
3. 'Piano Concerto in B Flat,' Freddy Martin
4. 'Daddy,' Sammy Kaye
5. 'Green Eyes,' Jimmy Dorsey
6. 'Maria Elena,' Jimmy Dorsey
7. 'My Sister and I,' Jimmy Dorsey
8. 'Elmer's Tune,' Glenn Miller
9. 'Blue Champagne,' Jimmy Dorsey
10. 'Song of the Volga Boatmen,' Glenn Miller
1. 'White Christmas,' Bing Crosby
2. 'Moonlight Cocktail,' Glenn Miller
3. 'Jingle Jangle Jingle,' Kay Kyser
4. '(I've Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo,' Glenn Miller
5. 'Tangerine,' Jimmy Dorsey
6. 'Sleepy Lagoon,' Harry James
7. 'A String of Pearls,' Glenn Miller
8. 'Blues in the Night,' Woody Herman
9. 'Who Wouldn't Love You,' Kay Kyser
10. 'Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,' Kay Kyser
1. 'I've Heard That Song Before,' Harry James
2. 'Paper Doll,' Mills Brothers
3. 'Sunday, Monday or Always,' Bing Crosby
4. 'There Are Such Things,' Tommy Dorsey
5. 'You'll Never Know,' Dick Haymes
6. 'In the Blue of the Evening,' Tommy Dorsey
7. 'Comin' In on a Wing and a Prayer,' the Song Spinners
8. 'Taking a Chance on Love,' Benny Goodman
9. 'I Had the Craziest Dream,' Harry James
10. 'That Old Black Magic,' Glenn Miller
1. 'Swinging on a Star,' Bing Crosby
2. 'Shoo-Shoo Baby,' Andrews Sisters
3. 'Don't Fence Me In,' Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters
4. 'Besame Mucho,' Jimmy Dorsey
5. 'I'll Get By,' Harry James
6. '(There'll Be a) Hot Time in the Town of Berlin'
Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters
7. 'You Always Hurt the One You Love,' Mills Brothers
8. 'San Fernando Valley,' Bing Crosby
9. 'My Heart Tells Me,' Glen Gray
10. 'I Love You,' Bing Crosby
1. 'Rum and Coca-Cola,' Andrews Sisters
2. 'Till the End of Time,' Perry Como
3. 'Sentimental Journey,' Les Brown
4. 'On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe,' Johnny Mercer
5. 'My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time,' Les Brown
6. 'There! I've Said It Again,' Vaughn Monroe
7. 'I Can't Begin to Tell You,' Bing Crosby with Carmen Cavallaro
8. 'Chickery Chick,' Sammy Kaye
9. 'It's Been a Long, Long Time,' Harry James
10. 'I'm Beginning to See the Light,' Harry James
(Source: 'Joel Whitburn's Pop Hits 1940-1954,' based on the Billboard charts.)
Note: This page is based on the website http://www.kcmetro.cc.mo.us/pennvalley/biology/lewis/crosby/ww 2pop.htm
To return to my description of World War II on the homefront, click here.
(Last rev. 11/25/01)