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How the arrival of war shaped British music

Thousands stand before the Lincoln Memorial and listen to noted African American contralto Marian Anderson give a free concert after she was barred from singing in the concert hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution. - Credit: Bettmann Archive

A concert in the US inverted stereotypes and thwarted bigotry, while the arrival of war shaped British music. SOPHIA DEBOICK​ reports.

As one devastating war ended, another was beginning. Franco claimed victory in the Spanish Civil War on April 1, 1939, after nearly three years of proxy war between international communist and fascist forces, and Hitler’s intentions for the rest of Europe were rapidly becoming clear. Following the previous year’s Anschluss and the annexation of the Sudetenland after the capitulation of the Munich Agreement, the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia and demand for control of the Klaipeda Region of Lithuania early in 1939 were ominous developments.

Neville Chamberlain recognised the Nazi designs on the east and made a commitment in the Commons in March that the government would “lend the Polish government all support in their power” should the country be threatened. With August’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact carving up the east in advance, Britain put itself on a war footing, and the first shots of a new world conflict were fired at Westerplatte on the Polish Baltic coast in the early hours of the morning on September 1.

Mutual declarations of war and sinking of ships quickly followed the Nazi invasion of Poland, and Britain was almost immediately grappling with all 
the accoutrements of military action on the home front – identity cards, rationing and the blackout. Thousands euthanised their pets in anticipation of all-out fighting and shortages.

In fact, the eight months of the Phoney War followed, and while Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd’s August letter to president Roosevelt warning about the need to beat the Nazis to the atomic bomb indicated how it would all end, for now, boredom shot through with foreboding was the prevailing mood.

In this environment, music quickly emerged as an important morale-booster for Britain, while as the US pursued a policy of neutrality it instead battled its own internal divisions, with music proving an important theatre in the battle over race.

A triptych of British wartime favourites made their appearance in this year. English song-writing duo Ross Parker and Hughie Charles came up with both We’ll Meet Again and There’ll Always Be an England, both career-defining hits for Vera Lynn, a dance band singer who thereafter took on the dimensions of myth as ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’.

The sentimental classic We’ll Meet Again was recorded in the month war broke out, just as the abrasively patriotic There’ll Always Be an England became a hit.

Gracie Fields was already an established celebrity by this time, having sold millions of records and appeared in more than ten films, but Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye), with its unusual wordless soprano vocal line, became a signature tune for her. Released in October, the song took on a poignant note as conscripts were mobilised for war – “Give me a smile I can keep all the while/ In my heart while I’m away”.

Both Fields and Lynn would be staples of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), founded in 1939 by theatre producer Basil Dean to provide entertainment for British troops. It would quickly expand its remit to civilian workers, and was testament to the key role of popular entertainment in the war effort.

Dean had produced and directed Gracie Fields and George Formby films and, unsurprisingly, made them central to ENSA’s roster of artists. But the organisation’s offering gained a reputation as being of uneven quality, to put it mildly, with ENSA coming to stand for ‘Every Night Something Awful’.

Dean was known as a difficult character, but he had to be, what with ENSA being constantly in conflict with the BBC’s near-monopoly and being pulled in both directions by top brass who wanted ‘improving’, highbrow entertainments for their men, while the troops themselves were often keener on cheaper thrills.

ENSA nonetheless loomed large in the wartime imagination and was a training ground for the comic talents of Spike Milligan, Joyce Grenfell, Tommy Cooper, Eric Sykes, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers, while established acting greats John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson did Shakespeare for the organisation in tours towards the end of the war. In 1945, the London Ballet would be formed for the organisation, while the Sadler’s Wells Ballet would go to Belgium and Paris under the auspices of ENSA early that year, even venturing to Germany and Poland immediately after the war ended.

Joining these highbrow wartime entertainments was pianist Myra Hess’ series of some 2,000 concerts performed over the six years of the war at the National Gallery, which had been emptied of its treasures when they were evacuated to Wales in the autumn of 1939.

Taking place every weekday lunchtime, the concerts carried on even through the Blitz. Hess performed personally at some 150 of these shows, her mastery of German composers Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann proving that music knows no borders.

As the US emerged from the Great Depression and sat happily distant from the war in Europe, its hit songs that year veered between the celebratory and the dreamy. Louis Armstrong’s recording of When the Saints Go Marching In was a jubilant Top 10 hit, while Glenn Miller’s ecstatic In the Mood spent 12 weeks at No.1 on the Billboard Jukebox Record Buying Guide from October.

Miller supplied the achingly romantic hit of the year, Moonlight Serenade, as well as topping the chart with the wistful Over the Rainbow, while The Pine Ridge Boys made the first recording of the melancholy and charmingly simple You Are My Sunshine. It became a timeless classic, recorded by everyone from Doris Day to the Beach Boys and Johnny Cash. But the mood of American confidence was best symbolised by Kate Smith’s version of Irving Berlin’s recently revised 1918 song God Bless America, which was one of the biggest hits of the year.

Yet its triumphalism irked some, with Woody Guthrie writing This Land is Your Land in response, and indeed such uncritical patriotism ignored the scourge of racism, a reality excoriated in one of the most powerful protest songs ever recorded.

Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish communist from the Bronx, and was inspired by a photograph of the hanging bodies of teenagers Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, lynched in Indiana in 1930. Despite a decline in such murders, there were more than 100 lynchings of black Americans in the 1930s and Meeropol intended Strange Fruit as a song “which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere”. When Billie Holiday took the song on, debuting it at the New York club Cafe Society in March, Meeropol had found a singer who could give the lines the gravitas they deserved: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

But lines about “bulging eyes” and “the sudden smell of burning flesh” were too much for Holiday’s label, Columbia, and instead she recorded the song with the independent Commodore Records in April. Released three months later, that almost gothic recording was a Top 20 US hit despite being absolutely incendiary, with the New York Post noting in October: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise.”

While Holiday gave herself over to a visceral condemnation of the ultimate expression of racism, celebrated African-American contralto Marian Anderson was finding that racial prejudice was trying to silence her voice altogether. Anderson had been invited to sing in Washington by Howard University that April and the city’s premier classical music venue, Constitutional Hall, was the intended location.

The Hall, however, was owned by the patriotic membership organisation Daughters of the American Revolution. They had a white performers-only policy and blocked the event. It was a terrific own-goal. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organisation in disgust and Anderson instead performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, attracting an audience of 75,000, almost 20 times larger than the capacity of the original venue, performing a diverse selection, from My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, to Schubert’s Ave Maria, Oh mio Fernando from Donizetti’s La favorite and the spiritual Gospel Train. Despite never being politically outspoken, at the Lincoln Memorial concert Anderson presented an image of a black woman surrounded by the symbols of American patriotism that disrupted stereotypes.

Popular icons were born in 1939, proving that war couldn’t stop the cultural imperative. Batman made his first appearance in an issue of Detective Comics, The Wizard of Oz premiered, and December’s Gone with the Wind fixed the caricature of the southern belle. These icons would be unchanged by the events of the war years, living on throughout the 20th century and beyond, and while many of 1939’s musical hits will always be synonymous with war, others would prove timeless.

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