Music during World War II had an unprecedented impact on America, both on the home front and on troops serving overseas. Unlike World War I, which occurred in the pre-radio era, by December 1941, virtually every American household, 96.2%, owned radios. Never before had recordings of songs and live musical performances been broadcast to so many millions of Americans, both to those supporting the war at home and to troops serving throughout the world. For many Americans, this mass distribution of music had a unifying, patriotic effect by raising the morale of the troops overseas and motivating and inspiring the Americans at home to fully support all aspects of the war effort. Some African American recording artists, however, used the power of music to highlight the hypocrisy of America’s fight for freedom and democracy abroad, while discrimination and segregation were prevalent across the United States and throughout the segregated armed forces. Though many types of music in the 1940s had a following, swing and jazz were by far the most popular. Banned throughout Germany and occupied Europe, this uniquely American music served as a defiant hope for liberation and freedom, and in many ways served as the soundtrack for the war. Indeed, no other period in U.S. history mobilized and instrumentalized culture in general, and music in particular, so totally, so consciously, and so unequivocally as World War II.
Whether as an instrument of blatant propaganda or as a means of entertainment, recuperation, and uplift, music pervaded homes and concert halls, army camps and government buildings, hospitals and factories. Even more than movies, posters, books, and newspapers, music sounded everywhere in this war, not only in its live performances on the USO stages, but also through recordings and radio. Both sides of the war began to practice the art of propaganda in an effort to inspire their people or demoralize their enemies. Japan utilized radio broadcasts as means of demoralizing the Allies in the South Pacific, creating a well-known personality the troops called “Tokyo Rose.” Music played an important role in this effort to control the hearts of the populace as each country strove to find their musical voice during the war. So far as the U.S. is concerned, even today, musicians such as Dinah Shore, Duke Ellington, and the Andrew Sisters personify the sound of this war. Whether performed by all-girl groups such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm or by military bands conducted by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, swing entertained civilians at home and G.I.s stationed abroad. Numerous films created to boost both civilian and military morale—from Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Stage Door Canteen (1943) to Anchors Aweigh (1945)—featured star-studded numbers presenting country sounds, barbershop quartets, swing, sentimental ballads, and hot jazz, among others. Likewise, nostalgic songs such as “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1938) and belligerent tunes as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (1942) had their place on popular radio programs and USO shows.
The war era saw the birth of many pieces in the “Great American Songbook”. The power of American popular music in the late 30s and early 40s cannot be ignored. Jazz, swing, and the big band sound became a part of the culture in both hemispheres. And the United States was in a unique position as its artists and musicians were seemingly in agreement with their government to see the conflict end quickly and bring their soldiers home.
The United Kingdom was, in some ways, forced to embrace the dance, jazz and big band music that was coming from across the pond. They began to relax the programming of the BBC so that their young soldiers were not seduced by the radio waves coming from German-occupied Europe.
Germany enforced a strict ban on anything the Nazi party considered “unfit” for its people. Works of modernism, impressionism or expressionism were forbidden as the Nazi regime sought to project German art as the pinnacle of society. They approved of the works of German masters such as Beethoven, Bruckner, and Wagner and demonized the music of Korngold, Schoenberg, and Webern, largely on racial lines. However, even in Nazi Germany there was an undercurrent, a subculture that embraced the jazz and big band sound coming from the west. By the end of the war, Goebbels commissioned a Nazi swing band called “Charlie and his Orchestra” in an effort to win the propaganda war. (Going along this vein, I recommend watching the movie “Swing Kids.” It is an excellent film that shows the youth of Germany and their desire to be different in a culture and a country that stressed conformity at the time.)
The power of music to influence thought and culture has long been understood. But the 20th century allowed for a single song, a single performance of a single song, to be broadcasted to every corner of the globe. After World War II, the world of music was much smaller giving way to the explosion of popular music in the next few decades.
Wolff, Tom. American Music Goes to War. History Now. 2018. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/content/american-music-goes-war
Stewart, James. Timeline: World War II, Musical Propaganda. VPR. 2017. https://www.vpr.org/post/timeline-world-war-ii-musical-propaganda#stream/0
Fauser, Annegret. Music During World War II. Oxford University Press blog. 2013. https://blog.oup.com/2013/02/music-during-world-war-ii/