Every era of American history has had its own music, its own legendary songs that reveal so much about the uniqueness of their time. The Revolutionary War period had its “Yankee Doodle,” while the War of 1812 is remembered by the “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Tunes like “Oh Susanna” and “Clementine” have become emblematic of American pioneers and westward expansion. Who can think of the Civil War without being reminded of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home?”
In the 20th century, “The Charleston” epitomizes the Roaring Twenties, while the music of the Beatles and Elvis Presley conjure up images of the tumultuous 1960s, for those of us old enough to actually remember.
The music of the second World War, as one might expect, covered the gamut. There were the anticipated patriotic, war-related ballads, as well as lighthearted and fun tunes that lifted the spirit. But, most of all, there were the sentimental favorites, musical pieces about home and the girl left behind. Let’s travel down memory lane and reflect upon a few of WWII’s most memorable songs.
It was inevitable that America’s dramatic, overnight entry into the war would give birth to a host of songs written to stir the nation to action. In fact, just 10 days after Pearl Harbor, Sammy Kaye recorded the legendary “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Strongly worded and filled with patriotic fervor, it would serve as a rallying cry throughout the war.
Decades removed from the treacherous surprise attack that took the lives of over 2,400 Americans, some might find its lyrics offensive today. At the time, however, it stirred Americans to action.
“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” also became enormously popular, allegedly words uttered by a U.S. military chaplain during the fighting at Pearl Harbor. “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” was a heartwarming ballad about a badly damaged American bomber trying to make it back to home base in England after a successful bombing run. Its lyrics reflect the national mood of firm resolve and trust in God, “With our full crew aboard and our trust in the Lord, we’re coming in on a wing and a prayer...”
Although originally written many years earlier, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was sung and performed all across the nation during the war years. Kate Smith’s rendition was then, and still is today, much beloved.
There were also lots of songs that were clearly war-related, but, at the same time, fun and lighthearted. These tunes provided some sense of escape from round-the-clock war production on the home front and deadly combat on the battlefront. It was hard, virtually impossible, not to tap your toes and smile broadly when the Andrews Sisters belted out their wildly popular “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” I guarantee that you’ll find it immensely fun to listen to today.
The Andrews Sisters, real life siblings with an incredible gift for harmony, also recorded the peppy “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me.” In it, a young soldier or sailor, who is far away, pleads with his girlfriend back home not to sit under the apple tree nor go walking down Lovers’ Lane with anyone else but him, till he “comes marching home.”
Of all the songs of World War II, it is those of the “heart tugging” variety that were most popular then and best remembered today. These tunes told stories of home, family and the girl waiting back there. Big bands and vocalists performed favorites like “As Time Goes By,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and “In the Mood.” The 1942 hit “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” tells the story of a lady missing her man in uniform. “Missed the Saturday dance, heard they crowded the floor, couldn’t bear it without you, don’t get around much anymore.”
It was during the war years that Bing Crosby recorded two of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time. “White Christmas” vaulted to the top of the charts in 1942. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” did the same the next year. Homesick and often combat weary, Americans in uniform could escape for a moment through the lyrics, “I’ll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
Maybe the most popular of all were the songs that looked forward to the end of the war. “When the Lights Go on Again All Over the World” anticipated the day when “the boys are home again all over the world.” Although composed by an American who did not realize that bluebirds are not indigenous to Europe, “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover” became one of the most beloved songs of the war, especially among the British. Its powerfully moving lyrics included, “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter, and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”
Possibly the most popular song of the war was the heart-stirring “We’ll Meet Again.” It spoke, movingly, of both the sadness of saying goodbye and the hopefulness of being reunited “again some sunny day ... (when) the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.”
Reading about these songs is one thing. Actually listening to them is quite another. Why not go online, pull up YouTube, and listen to original World War II recordings and performances of these grand old songs? As you reflect upon those perilous days, I can almost guarantee that it will be a sentimental journey back in time.
One last suggestion. When you search on YouTube, or get a young friend with their smartphone or tablet to do it for you, search for the Vera Lynn versions of “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll Meet Again.” Lynn, a feisty English vocalist who traveled across the world and braved hostile war zones to entertain the troops during the war, still lives today at age 102.
As you listen to Vera Lynn and others sing the great songs of World War II, never forget the generation which gave so much to secure the freedom we enjoy today ... 75 years ago.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” — Ronald Reagan