Second World War was the first where music provided a steady soundtrack

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While reading through one of Bill Bryson’s books, he stated that in the early to mid-1920s most people got their information from reading. Not radio (limited new technology),not television (still very much in the experimental phase).

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Certainly not social media (something being explored by sci-fi writers) – but from reading a newspaper, magazine or a book. Taking that thought a little further, you heard music because you played an instrument, attended a concert in person, or had purchased a gramophone (but until those became popular, you either made music or consumed it in a hall or pub or church).

And those lofty thoughts indirectly (although quite directly in my mind) led me along to what I really want to talk about today, based on yet another statement that made me stop and think: “The Second World War was the first conflict to take place in the age of electronically mass distributed music.”

Now, I had never really thought about that – for us (people my age and younger, that is) music has always been “there”. We carry it around with us continuously; our lives actually have a soundtrack.

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But back then, it was all quite brand new. According to the census (see – some of those questions they ask really do come in handy), in the United States, for example, 96.2 per cent of households in 1940 had a radio – Canadian figures are pretty close as well. In Germany, radio ownership rose from about 4 million at the beginning of the Third Reich, to 16 million by the middle of the war.

Music was featured in film and on the radio – all of a sudden, you had access to music right in the comfort of your own home. The mass distribution of music meant that for the first time in history, millions of people could listen to the same recording – which meant they could hum the very same tune and dance to the very same beat on a truly massive scale.

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And it also meant that many countries took it upon themselves to decide what was performed, by whom, when, and, more importantly, what was outright banned from getting out there. By the 1940s, music in its own way had gone to war.

Some of us still recognize a lot of that music from the Second World War era – and most of it has a story attached to it. Take what I consider to be the grand-daddy of Second World War songs – “The White Cliffs of Dover,” made popular in 1942 by Vera Lynn.

It was written in 1941 by Walter Kent and Nat Burton at about the same time as the Battle of Britain was being played out in the skies above those chalky cliffs. The lyrics were full of hope, looking towards a time when the war would be over and the “bluebirds” would return. Funny thing though – Kent and Burton were Americans and bluebirds featured large in many American songs. The little birdies however are native to North America, and would never have been seen flying over the cliffs. I suppose it sounded better than “There’ll be woodpigeons over, the white cliffs of Dover.”

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Another popular British tune was “We’ll Meet Again,” performed by, who else, but that Vera Lynn woman. Written by Ross Parker and Hugh Charles, the song is a sad one. It was particularly poignant for soldiers going off to war; while sounding optimistic (“we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when”). Many took it to mean they would meet up in heaven with their families and sweethearts. Cover versions were subsequently recorded by Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee, and later on by the Byrds, the Turtles, Johnny Cash and, good grief, Barry Manilow.

Enough with the sad stuff – let’s bring on the Americans. Jump blues recordings, big band swing and a few ballads were on tap. The Andrews Sisters were the American answer to Vera Lynn; their rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (of Company C), written by Don Raye and Hughie Prince was recorded before America entered the war (but around the time that the draft was first introduced). It was first performed by the sisters in an Abbott and Costello film (“Buck Privates”) and quickly became

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a favorite. Other popular pieces included “Be Careful, It’s my Heart” by Irving Berlin, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and “When the Lights Go On Again”.

The Germans were also listening to a lot of music during the war but the Third Reich had its own ideas about what was acceptable. In a bid to promote all things German, approved music included anything by Beethoven, Bruckner, and of course, that oldie but goodie, Richard Wagner. The Nazis really had a hard time with jazz. This form of music was considered to be a threat to higher forms of art and culture, and “deviant”. It was strictly forbidden “except in cases of scientific study” to listen to any of that kind of music, however, there is no doubt that some Germans were using a few of those 16 million radios to tune in to “that aberrant music” which was surreptitiously broadcasted by Allied Forces.

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There is one song however that was popular on both sides – and that was the love song “Lili Marleen.” Based on a poem written in 1915 during the First World War, it was set to music in 1938 by Norbert Schultze. It got a lot of airplay at the official German Forces Radio Station in Belgrade, two years after it was produced. It quickly became a favourite of soldiers stationed around the Mediterranean. Vera Lynn (there she is again) recorded an English version in 1944, and Marlene Dietrich sang the very popular American version in 1943 at the insistence of the Morale Operations Branch of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

And on a local note, celebrated British singer Gracie Fields performed at the McIntyre not once but twice during the war years. Her first performance was in the fall of 1940 and 4,500 people crammed into the arena to listen (where did they put them?); that little visit made over $2,500 for the war chest.

By the way, she arrived by plane, landing on Porcupine Lake. “Scoop” Evans of the South Porcupine Airport was on hand to help her disembark. Gracie would return once again in 1941 to entertain the good people of the Porcupine, performing her songs “Smile When You Say Goodbye,” “Wish Me Luck When You Wave Me Good Bye” and “The Thing-Ummy-Bob That’s Gonna Win the War.”

Karen Bachmann is the director/curator of the Timmins Museum and a writer of local history.


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