Graphing trends of war-time music
The tunes of the war from "The White Cliffs of Dover" to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" have given a lasting impression of America's wartime sonic landscape. So too, the lyrics of these songs and their relative recurrence or rarity highlight changing perspectives on the war over time (Cooper 1994; Smith 2003; Jones 2006). Below is an exploration of our collection's over 200 78's of popular music reflecting on the war recorded and released during the five years of official American involvement. For this analysis singles were organized by year, their lyrics were compiled, and these corpora were analyzed for word frequency. The graphs below do not give a comprehensive overview of trends in all popular wusic of the war. Rather, these charts give a glimpse into how, in our collection, the vocabulary of the war in popular culture changed through song. Swipe through each year to see the dynamic nature of language in popular music.
The attack on Pearl Harbor led directly to the United States' formal engagement in the Second World War and loomed large in the cultural landscape of early wartime america. Many songwriters implored Americans to "remember" Pearl Harbor. In the early years of the war, Japan was seen as the primary antagonist in the United States and many lyricists played off of the "land of the rising sun" monicker as in "The Sun Will Soon be Setting." Along with casting the enemy many songwriters heavily used long-standing nationalist tropes such as a focus on "freedom" and the "country." Likewise, Uncle Sam, as solidified by the WWI illustrations of James Montgomery Flagg, proved to be a captivating icon in drumming up support for the war.[Sourced from 31 unique songs on 29 78RPM discs]
By 1942 the narrative of the war had become increasingly globally-minded in the U.S. Rather than a country songwriters frequently invoked the "world" at large. With more and more servicemembers deploying, the distance from home became a frequently-used theme in song and the sea a powerful symbol of this distance. The abbreviated "yank" was most often used by Europeans to describe Americans, and during the war Americans took "yank" and "yankee" on as general terms for citizens, with less of the regional association that the term had previously carried stateside. Included in this year are official songs of the core branches of the military as well as songs for smaller branches such as the Signal Corps and Army Coast Artillery Corps. [Sourced from 92 unique songs on 85 78RPM discs]
As the war intensified in 1943 "home" continued to hold great importance in the imaginations of songwriters. With some 150,000 new recruits attributed to the Army Air Forces propaganda film, Winning Your Wings songwriters employed the sky and planes as new symbols of the war effort. The ubiquitous jeep of the infantry also became widely-used in 1943. Lastly, in these recordings, as in the year preceeding it (and in the vast majority of popular music), love is a dominant theme in action and subject. Love would continue to be a central theme in war-time popular music through the remainder of the Second World War. [Sourced from 25 unique songs on 17 78RPM discs]
"Heart" and "love" remained common through 1944, but as the war continued on with families and couples now separated for great stretches of time, the optimism of earlier years turned into a more melancholic longing. Songs feature theme of sending messages far away, missing loved ones across the oceans, and waiting for return. Notably, this year in our collection features a number of war-themed polkas. While still somewhat on the fringes of popular music in the 1940s, polkas such as "Vict'ry Polka," "G.I. Polka," and "Furlough Polka" marshalled the accordion-heavy Bohemian sound for the war-effort. [Sourced from 32 unique songs on 24 78RPM discs]
Songwriters in 1945 continued the trend of looking forward to peace and reunification. As in the year prior, "heart" and "time" were at the top of the list as songwriters personified Americans wondering when they would see service members return home. Service flags hung in the window were a potent symbol for families stateside that had a loved one deployed. A simple white banner bordered in red, the service flag was embroidered with a blue star for every family member deployed. These blue stars would have a gold star pinned over them for every family member lost, and the gold star in the window proved to be potent imagery for many songwriters in 1945. As songwriters focused more heavily on loss and separation, the toll that the war took on mothers became a central theme. While popular music continued to look toward an end to the war, it continued to wrestle with the human cost of the conflict.[Sourced from 32 unique songs on 24 78RPM discs]
Cooper, B. Lee. “From ‘Love Letters’ to ‘Miss You’: Popular Recordings, Epistolary Imagery, and Romance during War-Time, 1941-1945.” The Journal of American Culture 19:4, 1996: 15–27.
Jones, John Bush. The Songs That Fought the War : Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2006.
Smith, Kathleen E.R. God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.