The Songs That Fought the War; Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945 by John Bush Jones. Brandeis University Press, 2006.
In 1941, just before our entry into World War II, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, on behalf of its membership, attempted to double its licensing fees. Nightclubs, theaters, dance halls, and radio stations that featured live musical performances paid a licensing fee for the songs they performed. Radio broadcasters – NBC, CBS, and their affiliates – responded with a boycott of all songs that ASCAP controlled, and the agency and its composers lost the battle.
Less than a year later the American Federation of Musicians barred its members from making recordings of popular songs to be replayed in these venues. AFM hoped to preserve the jobs of the thousands of musicians employed by radio stations and did help keep live performance alive and well.
Meanwhile song writers kept writing new songs.
Local radio stations of any size had a band that “plugged” popular songs, playing their own arrangements. Numerous bands and vocalists performed in nightclubs, and those live performances were often broadcast over the radio networks. There were numerous network variety shows as well, the most popular being ‘Your Hit Parade’. Broadway musicals of the day incorporated popular songs. Films were an important opportunity for song writers, musicians, and singers. Sheet music sales were still a measure of a song’s popularity. The recording industry and the thousands of juke boxes around the country that played those records were, of course, also a major part of any record’s success.
John Bush Jones’s entertaining book explains this enormous achievement of wartime popular music. He contends that the war years were “happy” times despite the carnage abroad. The country was remarkably united and prosperous. There was a mood of cultural excitement and participation. Oddly Jones also shows that a good portion of the songs which had wartime themes were about loneliness and separation. “I’ll Walk Alone,” “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” and “You’ll Never Know” are three of many. Christmas brought out this mood. Hence Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” was the most popular of all the songs that fought the war. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry, Merry Christmas” had similar themes.
Sixteen million American men and women served in the armed forces, out of a population of 130 million. And millions more moved to find work in defense industries. The social angst that would seemly have been the result of both displacements was eased with lighted-hearted, up-beat songs. Thus “Mairzy Doats” and “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.”
Some of the jobs in the defense industries were held by African-Americans. And they also made their contribution to Tin Pan Alley. “Ain’t Misbehaven,’” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and ”Shoo-Shoo Baby” were three. The Andrew Sisters made a big hit out of “Shoo-Shoo Baby.”
Concerned about the country’s morale, the Office of War Information wanted songs with patriotic themes. It welcomed those about boot camp and army life that were amusing without being critical. Songs about combat deaths and men who would never return, were taboo, of course. There was little formal censorship, however. Most of this restraint was self-imposed. Country-western song writers, Jones contends, were the more likely to venture into proscribed themes.
The OWI was looking for a one single war song that would match the great success of “Over There” in World War I. WWII never produced one, although two songs came close: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and the service song “The Army Air Corps.” “God Bless America,” all about American exceptionalism, surprisingly never did.
Axis-bashing was common, though generally good-natured. Jones quotes Carson Robison’s “Hitler’s Last Letter to Hirohito;” Hitler is offering Hirohito some tips that would help him have a good day. “Why don’t you review your great navy? / ‘Twill boost your morale, I am sure. / Just borrow a suit from a diver, / and you’ll have an int’resting tour.” Japan’s navy had largely been sunk in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.
Only six when the war ended, I have been puzzled about why I know so many of these songs so well. It turns out that school children in Garwin, Iowa at least continued to sing the songs that fought the war well into the 1950s. I wish my music teacher had played some good boogie-woogie on the school piano. She could have led us in “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B).”
The war years had a rich popular culture, and they seem to have been blessed with more than their share of memorable tunes.