Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Two Early Galvanizing American Songs of WWII

Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States joined the Allies, American songwriters began their attempt to produce the song that would be the rallying cry, the “Over There,” for the current world war.  Although no single song achieved this, there were many martial songs that did become intensely popular during this time.  One was “We Did It Before and We Will Do It Again,” written by Charles Tobias and Cliff Friend and ostensibly performed by Eddy Cantor (Tobias’s brother-in-law) on December 10, three days after Pearl Harbor. That’s some quick performing and even quicker composing.  Dinah Shore sang it on her show exactly one week after Pearl Harbor and Cantor interpolated it into his musical – “Banjo Eyes” – that opened on December 25th.

Enormous amounts of radio airplay and sheet music sales followed but record sales didn’t.  In his book, The Songs That Fought the War, John Bush Jones explains this by saying “We Did It Before” was the type of song people wanted to sing, not listen to.  And although it was most likely the song’s length that kept it from becoming the “Over There” of WWII, it was certainly one of the big ones and Bush explains why:

What makes “We Did It Before” stand out among over one hundred professionally written militant war songs is its direct yet clear lyric set to a catchy, singable tune in march tempo; it avoids the usual clich├ęs of expression in such songs while retaining the message that with the United States in the war, the Allies will quickly defeat the Axis.

Another militant song that achieved immense popularity was based – loosely, as it turns out -- on an event which occurred on December 7th, 1941.  Pearl Harbor Fleet Navy Chaplain, William Maguire, was helping transport ammunition during the Japanese attack when he was reported to have made the comment, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”  Apparently, Maguire wasn’t so sure he’d said it.  He explained later, “If I said it, nobody could have heard me in the din of battle.”  But he admitted the phrase accurately expressed what he was feeling at the moment.

Lyricist Frank Loesser saw Maguire’s supposed statement in a newspaper clipping and wrote some lyrics in which "the sky pilot" -- the chaplain -- lays aside his Bible to man the anti-aircraft gun of a dead gunner.  He set his fictitious lyrics to a dummy melody, fully intending to hand over the job of tunesmithing to a professional.  But his friends urged him to retain his own melody and the song went on to sell millions via sheet music and recordings (and Loesser went on to great success as a composer).

As the song’s popularity soared, so did its controversy.  While some clergymen incorporated the song into their services, others balked at its linking of a man of the cloth with ammunition (and Maguire was apparently not pleased either). This controversy only increased the song’s popularity which caused it to hit the radio like a tidal wave which in turn caused the song’s publisher, Famous Music (and to a slightly lesser extent, the civilian branch of the Office of War Information), to request the stations to play it only once every four hours.  Both of these institutions had a personal stake in keeping the song popular for as long as possible and wanted to insure against listener burnout.

Why was the song so popular?  Time and place obviously had everything to do with it but for the specifics, I’ll let Jones have the final word:

The tune is robust, muscular, and just repetitive enough that it’s easy to remember and hard to forget, and the lyrics are just as touch and energetic, yet filled with a playfulness that keeps the song entertaining, not just belligerent.


All the Years of American Popular Music, by David Ewen, 1977.

The Songs that Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945, by John Bush Jones, 2006.

Quotes taken from The Songs That Fought the War, pages 125, 155, and 157.

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