World War II America (1941-1945) produced a significant number of popular songs ranging from the patriotic to the sentimental. This was the era of Big Bands and Swing Music. Americans on the Homefront or overseas closer to the war zones, gathered to listen and dance to popular bands led by Glenn Miller, Harry James, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and countless others. Vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Haymes, the Andrews Sisters, Jo Stafford, the Mills Brothers, Peggy Lee, and Helen O'Connell sang the lyrics that helped Americans get through the war years. New musical forms such as the Boogie Woogie became extremely popular during these years. Country and Western tunes received increasing airplay on the radio and Latin-inspired rhythms were provided by Xavier Cugat and Carmen Miranda, "the Lady in the tutti-frutti hat." By the outbreak of World War II, radio and phonograph records had evolved into a mature commercial juke box culture.
Popular songs during World War II fall into a variety of categories. There were patriotic tunes such as Remember Pearl Harbor and Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. Morale boosters represented by Johnny Mercer's Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive helped lift wartime spirits. Many songs such as Bell-Bottom Trousers, A Boy in Khaki-a Girl in Lace , and First Class Private Mary Brown told the stories of soldiers, sailors, and their sweethearts. The themes of love and wartime parting and separation appeared in numerous examples: As Time Goes By, I'll Walk Alone, I'll Be Seeing You, and I Don't Want to Walk without You. As the war approached its end, there were songs about homecoming and the dreams of reunion: My Guy's ComeBack, It's Been a Long Long Time, and My Dreams are Getting Better All the Time. If sweethearts predominated as a subject, mothers ran a close second: Goodbye Mama (I'm Off to Yokohama), Dear Mom, and Ma ! I Miss Your Apple Pie.
Topical songs were popular during the war. For example, the entry of increasing numbers of women into the American workforce resulted in examples such as Rosie the Riveter and Milkman Keep those Bottles Quiet. In the latter song, vocalist Ella Mae Morse elaborated on the sleeping difficulties of women working on the swing shift in America's defense plants. Perhaps, in an attempt to relieve tension and evoke a smile, novelty and humorous songs such as Mairzy Doats and Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma also appeared and achieved commercial success.
During the Spring 2001 semester I offered a course for the Syracuse University Fine Arts Department on American popular culture of the World War II years. Music was an important component of the course. Students in the class purchased a 2CD anthology of World War II songs along with their textbooks and heard additional musical examples in lectures given throughout the semester.
As a midterm project each student was required to select a lesser known American World War II song and write an analysis of it in the broader context of the period being studied. Song selection was carried out as follows: Students were given lists of World War II songs from a database published on the World Wide Web by the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York.
The scope and contents of the Sibley Collection are described below:
"The collection contains over 500 items of popular sheet music all published during the years of World War II. In theme all relate specifically to the war or are of a general patriotic nature. The collection thus represents a very detailed overview of patriotic music during the second World War. The material bears upon the subjects of American popular music and society. It also possesses value for the study of history of the period."
Each of the twenty-two students checked a page from the Sibley collection database against the holdings of 1940s 78 rpm recordings in the Belfer Audio Archive located at Syracuse University. Twenty of the students identified songs they wanted to use for analysis from the Sibley lists. Two additional songs (not listed in the Sibley collection) were also located in the Belfer Audio Archive. Individual cassettes were made of each song and distributed to the students for their analysis. What follows are brief clips from each of these songs and some of the comments made by the students. It is my hope that this site will spark the interest of others to examine the history and culture of World War II popular music and to suggest the richness of the Belfer Collections for faculty, students, and other researchers interested in exploring the primary sources of our musical heritage and history.
Here you will find the songs organized by themes or topics.
Some songs will be listed under more than one category.
The label for each recording has been reproduced from the original.
There will be a 30 second audio sample from each recording.
Click on the song title to hear the clip.
Commentary on each song is provided by the students from FIA 400.
Thanks to the staff of The Belfer Audio Archive: