Music played a very important part in maintaining morale not only on the home front, but also at the front. In The Boys We Knew, Johnny writes a letter to Command Performance, a radio program created by the military for GIs based on their own requests. American troops all over the world listened to Ruth Hay and her Reveille with Beverly radio program, and Glenn Miller joined the Army for the express purpose of forming a military band that would play “modern music” for the young men and women in the armed forces. Music was a way of connecting one front to the other.
Ironically, some songs that we now associate with World War II actually hit the charts before the war. “In the Mood” topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1940, while “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” debuted early in 1941. This got me to thinking about the many songs that came out during the war that were actually about the war and its effect on the home front. Perhaps because they were so in tune with the time, these songs are largely forgotten now, unless, of course, you listen to Sirius XM radio’s 40s Junction on channel 6073. To understand any time period, however, you have to see it from a contemporary perspective and not from a perspective that continues to develop 75 years later.
Therefore, I give you five songs that truly speak to the experience of the time. I have excluded songs such as “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Sentimental Journey” because although they had a deep contextual meaning for those who experienced the war, their lyrics speak to other contexts as well. The songs on the following list, however, are firmly rooted in the war experience and I invite you to click on the links and listen:
- Many songs were written in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor including “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” The 1942 song was based on an actual event aboard the S. S. New Orleans during the attack. With inoperative hoists to take ammunition to the decks, the crew formed a “bucket brigade.” Chaplain Howell M. Forgy uttered the remark to encourage the men, a remark that he may have heard in the 1939 movie Guns Along the Mohawk.
- “This Is the Army Mr. Jones” humorously addresses the shock experienced by millions of men who suddenly found themselves in the service. Written by none other than Irving Berlin in 1942, the song was featured in a Broadway review entitled, This Is the Army, which was also written by Berlin with the express approval of General George C. Marshall, as a way to raise money for the Army. Wildly popular, it was turned into a movie of the same name in 1943. (Shenandoah Valley Dancers might recognize this song as part of Jump Alley’s repertoire.)
- “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” was introduced in the 1943 movie musical/fundraiser Thank Your Lucky Stars and was sung by Bette Davis. The song laments the fact that the only men seemingly left at home represent slim pickings: Tomorrow I’ll go hiking with that Eagle Scout unless I get a call from grandpa for a snappy game of chess.
- There was actually a song entitled “Rosie the Riveter” that appeared early in 1943. In fact, the term appeared in the song before it appeared in any artwork. Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover appeared on May 29, 1943. The song featured here is the original by the Four Vagabonds.
- My personal favorite on this list is an Ella Mae Morse song entitled, “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet.” The song appeared in the 1944 film, Broadway Rhythm and is sung by a night shift factory worker who is headed to bed when the rest of the world is rising:
Been knocking out a fast tank, all day
Working on a bomber okay
Boy you blast my wig with those clinks
And I got to catch my forty winks.
To truly understand what everyday life was like from Pearl Harbor through V-J Day it is important to listen to the everyday songs and watch the everyday movies that folks were consuming, and not just the ones that we remember as being representative of the time. (Which isn’t always accurate. See my post from May 11, 2018.)
Post script: History on the Net’s WWII In American Music page is an excellent and thorough source for songs that were popular from 1939-1945 and I would encourage you to explore the site.