Go to any Second World War event and you will hear the same tunes being played either over the loudspeaker system, or being sung by a singer in period costume. Many of the pieces of popular music from this period have become iconic and inextricably linked with the conflict. To many it would seem that these tracks were pre-destined to become the soundtrack to an era, these days one only has to hear the first few bars of ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, or the introduction to ‘Wish Me Luck’ to be instantly transported back over seventy years. At the time however the iconic status these tunes would gain was not clear, and indeed an editorial in The War Illustrated in February 1940 decried the poor quality of popular music compared to that which had accompanied the Tommys of WW1 to war. Of World War One the article said ‘the songs usually meant something, and the troops found in them a strong and simple rhythm, just right for the route march.’ In comparison the author felt that in regard to the songs of the Second World War there was ‘ a poverty which is proved by the fact that the young troops of today have chosen to sing as many of the old favourites as of the “modern smash hits”. One feels perhaps the usual snobbery of each older generation, who dismiss the current popular music as lacking the qualities of the music they enjoyed in their youth, conveniently forgetting their own parents probably had similar opinions of their choice of music! The author goes on to explain that he feels the problem is that the BBC plays tunes by ‘jazz band crooners’ rather than tunes with a good rhythm for marching to, and when troops did adopt popular tunes for marching, they tended to adapt the lyrics to make the more ribald.
Tonight’s object perhaps highlights the important role the BBC did have in influencing musical taste during the war, but also shows that tunes were written which were ideally suited to troops on the march. This piece of sheet music is for the popular hit ‘We Don’t Know Where We’re Going (until we’re there):
As can be seen by the prominent advertising, this song was made popular by the radio show ITMA. ITMA stood for ‘Its That Man Again’ and was hugely popular, starring Tommy Handley and mixing comedy and music, running from 1939 to 1949. Whilst gramophone records were hugely popular in WW2, there was still a market for sheet music and many more people could play the piano than is now the case. Communal singing and music in general was a popular pastime, as witnessed by the huge popularity of concert parties:This particular song was written by Ralph Butler, with music by Noel Gay. The cover depicts typical British soldiers of the period, marching, clearly showing the subject of the song and looking inside we can see that the tune uses a four beat march:This, along with the lines reflecting the wartime experience for many troops, made it a hugely popular song for marching soldiers and the song was used to great effect in the 1973 film Overlord. This seems to disprove the commentator in the original War Illustrated editorial, popular marching tunes were written and were sung and they gained iconic status. We are left asking though, whether the status of the many songs that we still associate with the Second World War is down to their musical and lyrical quality and how much is due to the feeling of nostalgia and period they evoke.