When I was a kid, my mother played wartime tunes on the piano as I was falling asleep. So I think my fascination with that era first began with its wonderful, evocative music: lilting love songs, morale-boosting melodies, big band swing and sweet songs of separation that wring your heartstrings. Here are ten of my favourites.
Click on the blue song title to hear each piece, and a separate window will open on your computer. Some pieces have video; others are just sound recordings. You may have to suffer through a few advertisements. That’s the price we pay for having access to all this wonderful music.
During the darkest days of war, Vera Lynn had her own BBC radio program called “Sincerely Yours,” broadcasting to the British troops abroad, and she soon became known as the Sweetheart of the Forces. That’s her above. (Photo Credit: PA Photos).
This morale-boosting song was written before the Americans entered the war, when things were looking pretty grim. In this clip, you see the famous chalky cliffs, and imagine how the British forces wept when they came home victorious, and saw their iconic cliffs again. Vera Lynn is still living, and much revered by veterans everywhere.
Glenn Miller had so many wartime hits that it was hard to choose just one. But surely there could not be a better dance tune than this. Don’t you love those brass instruments!
Here’s a clip of the real band starring as themselves in the 1954 movie The Glenn Miller Story (starring Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller). Sadly, the bespectacled band leader, played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie, was already dead. While he was on his way to entertain the troops in France in 1944, his aircraft went down over the English Channel. He was just forty years old.
Both the melody and the lyrics have deep emotional power in this song of farewell, which became an anthem for departing servicemen. The final words are: “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.” One can imagine men and women all over the world, looking at the moon and longing for their loved ones far away.
Although she was more popular in the 1950s, the deep, rich voice of Rosemary Clooney, this famous gal singer from Kentucky, does the song justice. Nephew George Clooney was one of the pall-bearers at her 2002 funeral. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).
I admire women in uniform, so I couldn’t resist this clip of the Andrews sisters wearing uniforms while they sing and dance. Laverne, Maxine and Patty from Minnesota had lightning-quick vocal harmony. They were the most popular female group in wartime and performed with all the big bands. They also volunteered tirelessly to entertain the troops in America, Africa and Italy.
Yes, we hear it every year, but listen carefully to the lovely lyrics and imagine how our boys overseas (especially the ones from Canada who were serving in tropical countries) must have dreamed of a snowy white Christmas.
This clip from the original 1942 movie called Holiday Inn, sung by Bing Crosby with lovely Martha Mears, followed by Bing’s last performance in 1977.
My mother said this catchy tune was a favourite at every wartime dance. Dancers would form groups of three – either two girls with a guy in the middle, or two guys with a girl in the middle.
First performed in the musical Me and My Gal, it’s about a man from the working-class district of Lambeth who inherits a fortune and starts to mingle with the upper classes.
I apologize for the quality of this 1984 video, but it shows Robert Lindsay and a much younger Emma Thompson live on the London stage. (Photo Credit: Doug McKenzie.)
Warning: You will not be able to get this tune out of your head! OY!
Doris Day (a singer and actress that we sadly don’t hear much about these days) started her career singing for a big band, namely Les Brown and His Band of Renown. She later went on to become a major movie star in the 1950s. Doris Day still lives in California where she is an animal rights activist.
Here she lends her vocals to one of the most popular songs of wartime, written by Les Brown himself, who is with her in the above photo. (Photo Credit: U.S. Library of Congress).
Not surprisingly, it became the homecoming theme for returning veterans.
This song was written by the unbelievably talented Cole Porter in 1935. The melody was considered too long and too hard to remember until bandleader Artie Shaw performed a swing version, and it caught on.
In 1940 Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell even turned it into a tap dance in this movie “Broadway Melody.” It was then peformed by every band and became a wartime classic.
This is one of the stranger stories of the war – how a German love song called “The Girl Under the Lantern” became popular with servicemen everywhere. It was broadcast by Radio Belgrade in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to entertain the German troops, and captured radio listeners on both sides of the conflict, proving that music is indeed the universal language.
This German-born, American singer and actress was a frontline performer during the war. Marlene Dietrich’s husky, sensual voice was perfect for this 1944 rendition. (Photo Credit: Getty Images.)
To conclude, the greatest wartime tune ever written. I challenge you to listen to this classic, and not feel the tears spring into your eyes!
This isn’t the original Vera Lynn version, but a contemporary artist from New Zealand named Hayley Westenra, singing at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009.
Watch the whole thing, because there is a BIG surprise at the end!
* * * * *
STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration appeared on the cover each week with a wartime theme. This image dated May 3, 1941 shows an English air raid warden guiding a woman and child into a bomb shelter.
To see my complete collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.