Music, World War II

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During World War II, the music industry made significant contributions to the U.S. war effort. It also endured wartime constraints and benefited from the extraordinary changes brought about by the war. By war's end, American music was ready to march to different tunes as a result of the social, cultural, and technological changes of the war years.

patriotic songs

Songwriters leaped into the fray early. By 1941 people were taking sides musically, even though many Americans still debated whether the United States should get involved in the war in Europe. "The Last Time I Saw Paris," by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, won an Academy Award that year for Best Song. It evokes wistful memories of one of the world's most beloved cities, which had been under German control since June 1940. A competitor for the award, the bouncy, reveille-inspired Andrews Sisters' hit, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," describes one young man's draft experience. Many listeners could relate to the lyrics because of legislation passed in 1940 authorizing America's first peacetime military draft.

After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the music industry faced new challenges. In addition to trying to attract listeners who were dealing with the war's difficulties and dislocations, the industry had to contend with government demands for songs that would inspire support for the war. The Office of War Information (OWI), created by Congress in 1942, pushed music producers to record patriotic or war-related songs. Producers did not welcome the government's interference. They believed they knew best what music would sell. One music executive, quoted by Kathleen E. R. Smith in God Bless America, protested that he did not want to lose money on fighting songs until "such time as the Government is ready to foot the bill" (p. 104). Smith notes that during the entire war only twenty-seven songs with war-related themes reached the top-ten charts, and most did not last there long. "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer" and "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" were two popular songs with war themes, the latter based on a comment attributed to a navy chaplain at Pearl Harbor. Other warrelated songs occasionally made the charts, including "Corns for My Country," "Der Fuehrer's Face," and "You're a Sap, Mr. Jap."

escapist and sentimental songs

Despite the existence of some songs with war themes, Billboard and Variety record charts show that the public preferred lighthearted, escapist songs, such as "Mairzy Dotes," a goofy novelty hit on what mares, lambs, and kids eat, or songs that described people's personal experiences. During the war years, female singers like Frances Langford and Dinah Shore became more prominent as they interpreted women's concerns. Lyrics reflecting both male and female perspectives often dealt with separation and loneliness, even though OWI discouraged these themes as depressing. Examples include "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," "It's Been a Long, Long Time," and "Waitin' for the Train to Come In."

Three popular holiday songs from the early 1940s, "White Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," exemplify this trend. Each is suffused with longing for a holiday "just like the ones I used to know." The first two employ dreams as a way to reach that ideal, the third anticipates the occasion "if the fates allow." All three sound uncertain that life could ever be the same again after the war, but they do offer hope. Striking an especially responsive chord, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" became the best-selling single of all time.

troop and homefront morale

Musicians made other contributions to the war effort. Many performed in United Service Organization (USO) shows. Glenn Miller enlisted in the army and organized the Army Air Force Orchestra. It toured America and Europe and brought Miller's version of swing to the troops. The popular bandleader, who also performed at Bond Drives and made V-Disks (records produced specifically for servicemen), disappeared in 1944 when his plane was lost over the English Channel. The composer Irving Berlin created a musical, This Is the Army, to help raise money for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. He included his World War I tune, "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," and added new songs on enlisted men's concerns. The show raised millions and played on Broadway and for U.S. troops at home and overseas. In the movie version, Kate Smith sang Berlin's inspirational "God Bless America." For their efforts, Smith and Berlin received U.S. Medals of Freedom. Cincinnati Orchestra conductor Eugene Goossens challenged composers to create a special fanfare to honor people involved in the war effort. Aaron Copland responded with "Fanfare for the Common Man" in 1943.

music industry

The music industry was greatly altered by the movement of people during the war years. As musicians joined the military, big bands either shrank or disbanded, creating a trend toward smaller, more intimate musical groups. As Philip Ennis notes in The Seventh Stream, in addition to military enlistments fifteen million people "crossed county lines" as a result of the war, and this "movement of people was unquestionably the most pervasive and important fact of the war years" (p. 121). This migration brought different groups into contact, which spread music styles such as "race" and "hillbilly" music. The emergence of black music styles led Billboard to add the Harlem Hit Parade chart in 1942. During the war years, country music surged in popularity as Southerners joined the military or left home for defense work.


Within days of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Cliff Friend and Charlie Tobias wrote and recorded the patriotic anthem "We Did It Before and We'll Do It Again" (recorded December 16, 1941).

December seventh, nineteen hundred and forty-one
our land of freedom was defied;
December eighth, nineteen hundred and forty-one
Uncle Sam replied.

We did it before and we can do it again.
and we will do it again.

We've got a heck of a job to do,
but you can bet that we'll see it through.
We know we're right and we also know
that gangsterism has got to go.

We did it before and we can do it again.
and we will do it again.

We're one for all and we're all for one.
They'll get a lickin' before we're done.
When we get goin' and start to click,
We'll put the ax to the Axis quick.

We did it before and we can do it again.
and we will do it again.

Millions of voices are ringing.
Singing as we march along.

We did it before and we can do it again.
and we will do it again.

We'll knock them over and then
we'll get the guy in back of them.
This country never has lost a war
from the days of William Penn.

We did it before and we can do it again.
and we will do it again.

SOURCE: Words and Music by Cliff Friend and Charlie Tobias

War-related technologies also changed the music industry. For example, the capture of Germany's magnetic tape technology, a simple production method that produced high-quality sound, allowed small, independent producers to cut records outside of the control of the major record labels and later fostered the development of rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

Socially, culturally, and technologically, the war years set the stage for the sweeping changes of the 1950s and 1960s—changes popular music would both inspire and describe.


Ennis, Philip H. The Seventh Stream: The Emergence of Rock 'n' Roll in American Popular Music. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, published by University of New England Press, 1992.

Erenberg, Lewis A. "Swing Goes to War: Glenn Miller and the Popular Music of World War II." In The War in American Culture, edited by Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Lingeman, Richard. Don't You Know There's a War On? New York: Nation Books, 2003.

Livingston, Jeffrey C. "'Still Boy-Meets-Girl Stuff': Popular Music and War." In America's Musical Pulse, edited by Kenneth J. Bindas. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music USA, rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Smith, Kathleen E. R. God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.

Whitburn, Joel. Pop Memories 1890–1954. Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc., 1986.

Internet Resources

Patriotic Melodies. "Fanfare for the Common Man." The Library of Congress. Available from <>.

Marie L. Aquila

See also:Music, World War I; USO.

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