What term could be more oxymoronic than “wartime nostalgia”? Does anyone really want a return to the days of Hitler, Hiroshima and Auschwitz?
Yet in America, where no bombs fell and no storm troopers landed during World War II, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley created a seductive wartime dream world of heroics and hearts and flowers that grows more appealing as the decades slip away.
Fifty years after the end of World War II, the music that wafted through our national dream life in the early 1940s is regarded by many as the country’s finest pop moment.
Nostalgia for the ‘40s dates back to the early 1970s when Bette Midler scored a top 10 single with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” a 1941 Andrews Sisters hit.
More recently, cabaret singers like Maureen McGovern, Andrea Marcovicci and Mary Cleere Haran have devoted entire programs to the 1940s, and Barry Manilow has recorded an album of big-band standards. Harry Connick Jr. presents himself as a born-in-New-Orleans reincarnation of Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes.
Discussing his passion for ‘40s pop, Connick has used words like “clean” to describe its charm. He doesn’t just mean its lack of sexual explicitness but its simplicity, integrity and upbeat attitude.
When America declared war on Japan in 1941, the swing era was already in full flower, with the Glenn Miller Orchestra defining the optimum musical balance between the visceral and the romantic.
As America went to war, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” crooned by Bing Crosby in a voice rich with reassurance and faith, projected a Currier and Ives vision of a pristine, snow-christened America to soldiers abroad and their loved ones at home.
Crosby, who was 40 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, reigned as the vocal embodiment of American benevolence, while Sinatra, who was 13-1/2 years younger, brought a new current of erotic tenderness and vulnerability into pop singing.
Hits like “I Dream of You,” “If You Are But a Dream,” “Dream” and “Put Your Dreams Away” were sugarcoated valentines counseling patience and delayed gratification to the wives and girlfriends of American soldiers.
Few sounds are more compellingly wistful than the youthful Sinatra’s ardent murmurings.
“Night and Day,” Sinatra’s first hit after leaving the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, brought the harmonic vocabulary of Puccini and Rachmaninoff into the pop arena and defined Sinatra’s war-years sound.
Just as they are today, pop music’s sound, structure and technology during the war years were a populist aesthetic mirror of their time and place. With the birth of swing in the late 1930s, American pop achieved a blend of sophistication and utopian optimism that prevailed for nearly a decade.
But if the ascendance of swing expressed a remarkable unanimity of spirit in America, that feeling coincided with shared adversity: a Depression followed by a world war.
The music of the early ‘40s may have been better made and more wholesome than much of today’s pop, but the social and economic climate was in many ways harsher. The standard of living was much lower, and individual opportunities for selffulfillment were relatively limited.
Feminism had subsided after women won the vote in 1920, the civil rights and gay liberation movements were still years away, and there was little in the way of teenage culture.
In this puritanical climate, the more pop-oriented swing bands like those of Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers made music that presented the ensemble as a model community ruled by a strong (often dictatorial) male leader surrounded by deferential henchmen and largely anonymous instrumentalists.
Although technical expertise within one’s assigned role was respected, teamwork was valued above everything, and obedience to authority obligatory.
While the voices of leading swing band vocalists like Bob Eberly, Ray Eberle, Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton and Helen O’Connell had their distinctive traits, they were ultimately homogenous with the ensemble. Their rhythmic and timbral inflections and freedom of expression were limited by rigid, preset musical formats.
The smoothness of the ensemble blend reflected an unquestioned belief in social decorum, in being “nice” at all costs. The band arrangements emphasized neat, orderly patterns and a group harmony that was emotional as well as musical.
Among vocal groups like the Pied Pipers, the Modernaires and the Andrews Sisters, individual styles were subordinated to a scrupulously homogenized sound, accented by synchronized movements and invariably cheery smiles. This team spirit mirrored a society in which it was assumed that every able-bodied man would gladly serve his country or risk social ostracism.
V.J. Day, on Aug. 15, 1945, burst the bubble. Within the next year and a half, eight of the country’s most popular swing bands, including those of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, had broken up. (Glenn Miller had died in December 1944 when his plane was lost over the English Channel.)
Led by Sinatra, the era of the model community gave way to the era of the model singer. The reign of the genteel pop crooner ended with the arrival of Elvis Presley and the comeback of Sinatra, who had reinvented himself as the new king of swing.
In the more sophisticated swing revival that Sinatra oversaw, the singer ruled, with the band arrangements custom-made to suit his moods. An aura of “niceness” was no longer a requirement.
Cooperation, teamwork and an enforced civility had brought America out of the Depression and enabled the country to triumph in a world war that almost everyone agreed had been worth fighting. It was time for an explosion of individual voices.