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God Bless America

God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War

Kathleen E.R. Smith
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    God Bless America
    Book Description:

    After Pearl Harbor, Tin Pan Alley songwriters rushed to write the Great American War Song -- an "Over There" for World War II. The most popular songs, however, continued to be romantic ballads, escapist tunes, or novelty songs. To remedy the situation, the federal government created the National Wartime Music Committee, an advisory group of the Office of War Information (OWI), which outlined "proper" war songs, along with tips on how and what to write. The music business also formed its own Music War Committee to promote war songs.

    Neither group succeeded. The OWI hoped that Tin Pan Alley could be converted from manufacturing love songs to manufacturing war songs just as automobile plants had retooled to assemble planes and tanks. But the OWI failed to comprehend the large extent by which the war effort would be defined by advertisers and merchandisers. Selling merchandise was the first priority of Tin Pan Alley, and the OWI never swayed them from this course.

    Kathleen E.R. Smith concludes the government's fears of faltering morale did not materialize. Americans did not need such war songs as "Goodbye, Mama, I'm Off To Yokohama", "There Are No Wings On a Foxhole", or even "The Sun Will Soon Be Setting On The Land Of The Rising Sun" to convince them to support the war. The crusade for a "proper" war song was misguided from the beginning, and the music business, then and now, continues to make huge profits selling love -- not war -- songs.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5948-5
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Chapter 1 What this Country Needs Is a Good Five-Cent War Song!
    (pp. 1-11)

    World War II had an enormous impact on all aspects of American society: political, economic, and social. The United States was transformed from a nation crippled by economic depression, divided by class, and facing a crisis of confidence, into a prosperous society that was united in purpose and beginning to show limited tolerance for the diversity of its population. The war affected nearly every man, woman, and child in the United States. While young men, and later women, were overseas or stationed at training camps throughout the country, children and adolescents on “the home front” were encouraged to do their...

  5. Chapter 2 “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”
    (pp. 12-17)

    The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor sent American songwriters into a flurry of activity, producing combative, war-like songs. According to the lead story inBillboardof December 20, 1941, record producers were swamped with anti-Axis songs, and reliable estimates included in the same issue placed the number of tunes peddled in the first weeks of the war at more than one thousand.¹ One publisher claimed to have received over four hundred tunes with Pearl Harbor as the theme following December 7, 1941.² “Writers kept rushing into publishers’ offices with songs inspired by the event,”Varietysaid, though it added, “The...

  6. Chapter 3 “There’s Nary an ‘Over There’ in the Lot”
    (pp. 18-25)

    The desire of the public and the Tin Pan Alley songwriters for war songs passed through several stages. The patriotic phase came first. Following the flood of Pearl Harbor songs,Billboardcounseled smart songwriters and publishers to concentrate their efforts on “tunes of a less specific nature,” and no doubt there would be another “Over There” to take the country “by storm.” As soon as the war was well under way,Billboardadded prophetically, the publishers might find the public as receptive to ballads, love songs, and torch songs as they had been in peacetime. American publishers pointed to England...

  7. Chapter 4 War Songs in Boy-Girl Terms
    (pp. 26-38)

    Although most of the songs discussed, thus far, dealt with civilian life on the home front, Tin Pan Alley had not given up the quest for a solid, military-style war song. The sentimental songs and the songs that looked forward to the end of the war were still considered unsuitable for the purpose of uniting Americans in the war effort. Since the songs about the home front could not do the job, Tin Pan Alley looked to the men and women serving in the military for inspiration in creating the Great American War Song.

    The men in the service had...

  8. Chapter 5 War Is Good for the Music Business
    (pp. 39-49)

    The songwriters’ view of a radiant future might have been shaped by their own wartime prosperity. The music business claimed a huge share of the increasing amount of money Americans spent on amusements during the war. With material goods rationed or completely unavailable, Americans spent their money on entertainment: movies, sheet music, records, and the theater. Sheet music sales were never better, often topping the six hundred thousand mark for a single tune—one rarely reached before this time.

    The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) reported a 25 percent increase in sales royalties in 1944 over the...

  9. Chapter 6 “Yearnful Bellowings”
    (pp. 50-61)

    Despite the enormous outpouring of songs from every part of the nation, no single war song emerged from World War II that rallied the American public and the righting man as George M. Cohan’s “Over There” had during World War I. Those responsible for boosting morale during the war worried about this and wondered what contributed to the lack of a “war song.” The United States government attempted to guide and encourage composers to provide this war’s “Over There.” But was it even possible for such a song to gain wide popularity in the 1940s?

    Had the mental and social...

  10. Chapter 7 Recipes for War Songs
    (pp. 62-67)

    In its continuing search for the Great American War Song, the OWI offered songwriters the following guidelines: Songs should focus on enemies of the “United Nations [Allies]” and not minimize their abilities. Consequently, the enemy should not be the object of humorous songs; ridiculing him might lead the American public to underestimate his strength, which in turn would lead to complacency and a lessening of the intensity of the war effort. Songs that called the enemy by derogatory names, such as “yellow rats” or “dirty Huns” would not help win the war. OWI’s reasoning was that the real enemy was...

  11. Chapter 8 Just Love Songs with a Once-Over-Lightly War Background
    (pp. 68-80)

    From the commencement of the war, the OWI recognized the power of radio. Here was a tool for propaganda already in place that could reach millions of listeners. Ninety percent of American homes had a radio.¹ After coordinating the “correct” music and organizing propaganda “spot” announcements with already existing radio shows, seeing that popular shows included war-related themes and if applicable, music, into their plots, and convincing the radio networks to donate free air time to government-sponsored war messages and entertainment shows,² the OWI’s Elmer Davis turned his attention to the music industry and stepped into the search for the...

  12. Chapter 9 The National Wartime Music Committee
    (pp. 81-95)

    From its inception the OWI framed directives that offered guidelines for songwriters to aid them in the composition of “proper” war songs, and, in the public press, the OWI rebuked Tin Pan Alley for its uninterrupted production of “nostalgic” hit songs. Finally, the OWI decided to become directly involved with the music business and established the National Wartime Music Committee in November 1942, with representatives from each area of the federal government that had a need for music in any form. The National Wartime Music Committee was organized to seek out and pass judgment on the suitability of “morale” tunes...

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. Chapter 10 “From Cantata to Outright Corn”
    (pp. 96-113)

    From the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II, it was apparent to the music business that the American public was not overly interested in bloodthirsty martial songs. Although the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers president, Gene Buck, urged members on December 8, 1941, to “do their bit” for the crisis by writing “fighting songs,”¹ others in the music business doubted that the American public was inclined toward war songs. Publishers declared that the only way to find out was to put such songs into circulation. Marching melodies in manuscript form were dusted off and...

  15. Chapter 11 Tin Pan Alley’s Music War Committee
    (pp. 114-127)

    At first the music industry was shocked at the demise of the National Wartime Music Committee, and at the accusations the committee aimed at Tin Pan Alley, faulting ASCAP and Tin Pan Alley for their tardiness in supplying contracts and agreements for copyrights. The music industry asserted that it had always cooperated with the government and would willingly cooperate further if the government would only explain what it wanted done. In reply, the committee, according to Abel Green, “gasped in surprise, stuttered that it didn’t want nothin’ from nobody, and that it had been misquoted—and then scuttled itself.”¹ The...

  16. Chapter 12 Tin Pan Alley Still Seeks the “Proper” War Song
    (pp. 128-142)

    Other than the temporarily successful war bond drive songs, popular music was still in arrears when it came to war song production. By 1943 the press had noticed the failure as well. In a column titled “Tin Pan Alley Seeks the Song” in theNew York Times Magazine, June 6, 1943, John Desmond asked why the same Tin Pan Alley that had produced two wildly popular war songs (each selling over a million copies of sheet music), “Over There” from World War I and “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” from the Spanish-American War, could not write another Great...

  17. Chapter 13 Even Stale Music Sells Like Nylons
    (pp. 143-152)

    When the OWI created the National Wartime Music Committee, allied itself with the American Theater Wing’s Music War Council, and called on all Tin Pan Alley songwriters to churn out tough-minded songs that would educate Americans about the realities of war, it hoped for better results than it got. The OWI never understood the function of talent and artistry in popular music production. To the government, song composition was a craft; songs were products to be manufactured. It assumed that if Tin Pan Alley tried hard enough and all its components cooperated, it would be possible to write the Great...

  18. Chapter 14 Jitterbugs and Bobby-Soxers
    (pp. 153-159)

    The music industry’s sales figures for the period December 7, 1941–August 14, 1945, also provide a clue to the mystery of why no great war song appeared. An analysis of who was buying the records and sheet music and what types of songs were preferred reveal that a new force had entered society and the marketplace: the American teenager, and more specifically, the teenage girl.

    The 1940s introduced the age when the adolescent emerged as a social phenomenon and marketing target in America. The teen revolution, which would develop and flourish in the 1950s, was launched in the mid-1940s....

  19. Chapter 15 “Meet Soozie Cue”
    (pp. 160-178)

    InWartimePaul Fussell contends that there was a tremendous amount of social cohesiveness during the Second World War and that community spirit during wartime was “revealed by the all-but-universal knowledge of the same popular songs by all ages, classes, and genders.” He claims that Americans knew all the popular songs and who had recorded them: “Not to have known them would have been not to have played the game at all.”¹ But there is evidence to suggest that not all of America was pleased with popular music or was part of what Fussell calls “a shared culture.” Serge Denisoff...

  20. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 179-200)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-224)
  23. Selected Discography
    (pp. 225-254)
  24. Index
    (pp. 255-276)