Sunday, May 08, 2005

VE Day: 'We'll Meet Again'

Who knew that Dame Vera Lynn was still alive? I'm ashamed to say that I did not, until hearing reports of today's VE Day commemoration activities in London, where the World War II-era singing sensation was a featured performer at a concert in Trafalgar Square.

Writing in yesterday's Telegraph, W.F. Deedes describes the singer's impact on the war effort:

Early in the Second World War, the BBC found Vera Lynn a tremendously hard pill to swallow. Her Sincerely Yours radio programme worried Broadcasting House. Music in war, they felt, should be martial. The chasm between crooners and Churchill's calls for valour (some of them also included in this anniversary album) seemed too wide.

It took the BBC time to discover that, in Briggs's words, "Vera Lynn was exceptionally successful in the art of appealing not only to soldiers as a group but to the individual soldier, lonely in the midst of battle, homesick before the battle began."

She worked hard for her living, often rising from bed in the small hours to broadcast to soldiers at the other end of the earth. They loved her, but she also caught the hearts of those left behind. When the Lights Go On Again, You'll Never Know, We'll Meet Again and I'll Be Seeing You helped the woman being bombed at home as well as the man in battle. Many of the others featured here, such as Ann Shelton, the Andrews Sisters and Harry Roy and his band helped to keep this flame of hope inside us all alive.
Another Telegraph writer, a few days earlier, noted the importance of popular culture in general in assisting the war effort. His musings were sparked by reading an obituary of orchestral arranger Robert Farnon, who worked for Vera Lynn as well as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Lena Horne. Mark Steyn (whose columns are also carried in various American newspapers) wrote:
One of the reasons why it's effortlessly easy to "commemorate" the Second World War is that popular culture had signed up for the duration. It was the war that brought Robert Farnon to Britain, to lead the Allied Expeditionary Force's Canadian band, as Glenn Miller and George Melachrino led the American and British bands.

By contrast, nearly four years after September 11, I can't think of any big pop star in uniform except Madonna, who on her world tour last year cavorted in a blue burqa and, when she disrobed, as she inevitably does, was revealed to be wearing a US army uniform underneath.

This was in order to make the highly original point that the Taliban and the Bush Administration are both equally oppressive. Well, I never. The herd mentality of celebrity "dissent". Would it kill 'em once in a while to dissent from their dissent and try something other than the stultifying orthodoxy of Hollywood cardboard courage?

Other than that, popular culture has pretty much skipped the Vera Lynn phase and cut straight to Basil Fawlty: don't mention the war. They'd rather talk about anything other than Islamic terrorism. The Sean Penn thriller, The Interpreter, was originally about Muslim terrorists blowing up a bus in New York. So, naturally, Hollywood called rewrite. Now the bus gets blown up by African terrorists from the little-known republic of Matobo. "We didn't want to encumber the film in politics in any way," said Kevin Misher, the producer.
It's not as though Vera Lynn's music is so earnest that it cannot, itself, be used satirically. "We'll Meet Again," after all, is the musical accompaniment to total world destruction at the end of Dr. Strangelove, perhaps the greatest anti-war movie of all time (at least until Sir Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven opened this weekend [note to readers who take things literally: this is meant sarcastically]).

You'll notice that the popular songs of World War II, specifically the ones associated with undergirding the war effort, are not martial in nature. There is nothing warlike or jingoistic about "We'll Meet Again" or "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" aside from the context in which they became popular.

There were efforts to write inspiring, anthemic, march-like songs to rally the troops. (The example always given is George M. Cohan's "Over There," from the Great War of 1917-18.) In her 2003 book God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War, Kathleen E.R. Smith writes:
Tin Pan Alley composers, publishers, authors, and music-related trade papers quickly took up the debate. Variety demanded that American publishers "Sift English War Songs for America Now" and questioned "Show Biz's Role in the War." The Variety article "Paeans in Praise of America" compared the strength and morale boosting power of popular Revolutionary War music to the musical output of the first month of World War II and found the latter wanting. Publishers, demanding to know "Where Are the War Songs?," lamented that there were "Too Few Good War Tunes." Tin Pan Alley proposed that the "First Steps [Be] Taken for Fighting Songs." Billboard's headlines echoed Variety's: "Old Timers Doom New War Songs," "Droopy War Ballads Out -- In Theory," "All Out for Uncle Sam: Demand for Patriotic Records Soars," and "Tin Pan Alley Fires Song Salvo at Axis."

Yet publishers stayed away from war songs, claiming the public's interest was in romantic or novelty songs, not battle hymns. Escapism seemed to be a high priority for music listeners, and the composers of Tin Pan Alley struggled to write a war song that would appeal both to civilians and the armed forces.
In lamenting the lack of a "Vera Lynn for our war," Mark Steyn really misses the point. Two points, actually.

First, as the experience of World War II demonstrates, "inspirational" or "morale-boosting" music (and popular culture in general) is not handed down from the generals and politicians. It comes from artists who have the pulse of the people and who know instinctively what will resonate with consumers of culture. What takes root in popular culture is unpredictable. What was the report from New Haven about Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!? "No legs, no jokes, no chance!" And yet that musical play became the most popular of the Second World War era, in large part because it reminded soldiers and sailors on leave in New York (cf. On the Town) of what they were fighting for.

Successful manifestations of popular culture emerge spontaneously, without (or despite) the direction of political decisionmakers. What is most memorable about the 1940s (as a recent retrospective at the Kennedy Center made clear) is not the government propaganda, which had a limited shelf-life, but the art, music, drama, and cinema that arose from the broader culture. The artists and writers and composers understood the context in in which they were working, of course; they were not unaware of politics and world events. But ultimately what they produced belonged to them as creators and to the public-at-large as consumers. It was not, could not be, stamped "Property of U.S. Government" or "Property of H.M. Government."

Second, pace Mr. Steyn, we are not fighting a total war. The war on global terror is being fought by professionals. Both the UK and U.S. armed forces are all-volunteer. There are no sacrifices on the home front -- no ration cards, no black-out curtains, no war-bond drives -- that require "war songs" to inspire us. We might disagree with Madonna's and her ex-husband's views of the war, but we don't view such dissension as equivalent to Tokyo Rose or Ezra Pound. Patriots can brush it off because they know that words of disagreement do not undermine the fundamental war effort. (In retrospect, dissenters in World War II had no deleterious effect, either, but we did not know it at the time.)

Come to think of it, wasn't the best commentary on this whole subject offered by Tom Lehrer forty years ago?
This year we've been celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War and the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of World War I and the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War II so all in all it's been a good year for the war buffs and a number of LPs and television specials have come out capitalizing on all this "nostalgia" with particular emphasis on the songs of the various wars. I feel that if any songs are going to come out of World War III we'd better start writing them now. I have one here. You might call it a bit of pre-nostalgia. This is the song that some of the boys sang as they went bravely of to World War III.
He went on to sing (this was on his album, That Was the Year That Was, still classic and still funny after all these years), "So long Mom/I'm off to drop the bomb" and so on and so forth. George S. Kaufman was wrong: Satire is not what closes on Saturday night. It lives on and on long after it's presumed use-by date.


Tim said...

That government propaganda had a longer shelf life than you'd think. Frank Capra's Why We Fight series was a major part of my high-school World History class (you can still find it in Wal-Mart bargain bins), and of course Hollywood's own propaganda efforts, like Sergeant York and Casablanca, rank among the most popular films of all time. (Some WWII government films, like Huston's Battle of San Pietro or the Dr. Seuss/Chuck Jones "Private Snafu" cartoons, are little-known masterpieces.)

For the most part, the fate of WWII government propaganda is due to "the tragedy of the commons," not to any lack of merit. Since no one actually owns these films, they've gone unrestored and are now all but unwatchable. They're seldom shown in their entirety, but you can see bits and pieces in any number of WWII specials.

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