Wednesday, June 6, 2012

War Music

[From time to time we’ve inserted relevant music clips into blog posts as illustrative of the time or topic, so it occurred to us that a couple of posts on  the music of the Vietnam War as a whole might be of interest. Karen Ferb, my close collaborator on the blog, has written this first of a two-part survey of ‘War Music’ to be followed later with a discussion of the protest music of the Vietnam War my brother, Jeff Sharlet, served in.]

Right up through Vietnam and beyond, war and music have been inseparable. In ancient times Greek soldiers sang to flutes and trumpets as they marched to war; more recently brave Scots followed their bagpipers into battle, while during the Korean War Chinese troops preceded human wave attacks with a chorus of war trumpets. And of course, at least since the Civil War, the military day has closed to the sound of Taps.

With the dawn of radio in the ‘20s, music became accessible to the multitudes. When America went to war in the ‘40s, radio music accompanied the troops. Armed Forces Radio Services (AFRS) and other shortwave broadcasts overseas brought a little bit of home to men fighting in the far corners of the world. In early ‘45, Time ran a piece on “GI Jill,” the armed forces’ response to Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally, whose broadcasts from Tokyo and Berlin aimed to demoralize US troops and make them homesick. GI Jill’s combination of music and breezy chatter was intended to make them feel at home.

GI Jill was Martha Wilkerson, who recorded her show, ‘GI Jive’ for AFRS six days a week in Los Angeles.  The transcripts were flown out to far-flung posts and “tenderly passed from one mosquito network to the next.”  Time proudly boasted that “From Kodiak [AK] to Canberra… [Jill] is a top GI favorite.”

Martha Wilkerson aka GI Jill
One of the most popular WWII songs for both Allied and Axis troops was Lili Marlene, a 1915 war poem set to music in 1938. It was a sweetly nostalgic song, laden with innuendo, that produced a guilty pleasure in many of the Allied troops.  Marlene Dietrich, one of the many stars who entertained US troops, sang it throughout the European and African theaters in her smoky, louche contralto during the war.
In 1944, the Andrews Sisters hit, The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, topped the charts.  Written in ‘41 at the outset of the peacetime draft to expand the military, this iconic tune has remained incredibly popular to the present day, so popular that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has ranked it #6 of 365 songs on its ‘Songs of the Century’.
He was a famous trumpet man from old Chicago way
He had a boogie style that no one else could play
He was the top man at his craft
But then his number came up and he was gone with the draft
He's in the army now, a-blowin' reveille
He's the boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B

 In the same year, Black American Louis Jordan notably scored a crossover hit, GI Jive, in spite of racial segregation which at the time extended even into the military.

♫This is the G.I. Jive
Man alive
It starts with the bugler blowin' reveille over your bed when you arrive
Jack, that's the G.I. Jive

Both the Allies and the Axis used music extensively for propaganda purposes.  In the days before “politically correct,” some of the songs on either side now sound pretty harsh to the modern ear.  Der Fuehrer’s Face; Goodbye Mama, I’m off to Yokohama; Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer; and Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition were among American tunes aimed at boosting morale among the troops while bashing the enemy.  The last was written in 1942, the year Jeff, Bob’s brother was born; Bob and his young friends enjoyed belting it out.

♫Down went the gunner, a bullet was his fate
Up jumped the sky pilot, gave the boys a look
And manned the gun himself … shouting
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and
we’ll all stay free!
 The Germans published lists of banned music and performers, not only Jewish artists’ works, but also works by anyone whose art was at odds with the Nazi party worldview.  However, for propaganda purposes the Nazi   propaganda minister formed a band, ‘Charlie and His Orchestra’, which played “degenerate” swing and jazz on shortwave radio on a regular schedule. These broadcasts were directed specifically at the home fronts in the US and Great Britain. Typically, the songs would begin as written, but a few lines later, the lyrics would change, describing, for example, how poorly the war was going for the Allies, emphasizing their losses, and predicting that they’d soon be defeated.

On the other side, perhaps the Allies’ major musicological coup of the war was to co-opt the first four notes of ‘Ode to Victory’, from the great German composer Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Those four notes corresponded to “V” for Victory in Morse Code and were used over and over again in concerts, films, and other forms of Allied propaganda.

One of the musical oddities of WWII was Dogface Soldier, written in 1942 by non-musician soldiers as a protest against commercial war songs.  A general called it “the best battle song of the war.” Although forgotten by its authors, the song spread by word of mouth, was actually sung in battle, and became part of the soundtrack for the postwar movie about Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of the war...  It’s still being sung today by American soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. Dogface Soldier was even adopted by the 3rd Infantry Division and is still sung at the division’s garrisons at Fort Stewart GA and elsewhere.

In the Korean War, the main musical genre was country, and the lyrics spoke of faith, patriotism, fear, and longing.  A young officer expressed his fears and longing in Rotation Blues circa 1951:
♫I got the Rotation Blues
I'm a lonely soldier sittin' in Korea….
But rotation's comin', so I should have no fear
Following one of the bloodiest battles of the war at Heartbreak Ridge, an exhausted soldier wrote his mother of the horror of it in a song of that title:
♫On Heartbreak Ridge I stand tonight
 Nothing but wounded and dying in sight
Vietnam was the first American war to bring forth a barrage of protest music. In the Korean War, Elton Britt’s The Unknown Soldier presaged the protest songs of the Vietnam War soldier:
♫My grave is a promise you did not keep
 My wreath is a ribbon of pain
 and though I am dead, I shall never sleep
 If I know I have died in vain

The generally upbeat and patriotic songs of World War II, the good war, were replaced with darker, sadder themes during the Korean War, which can be viewed over the course of the Cold War as a transition to the music of the Vietnam War.  The Cold War 50’s, years often viewed through rose-colored glasses as “the good old days,” were actually a time of high anxiety, living as we did under the triple threat of The Bomb, Communist subversion, and crippling polio.  ‘Ban the Bomb’ demonstrations were frequent, and citizens fretted about fallout shelters while the schools drilled kids to ‘duck and cover’ when the sirens sounded.  There were attempts at levity in the face of direst threat.  The Kingston Trio popularized “Merry Minuet,” reminding us that

♫…we can be tranquil and thankful and proud, for man's been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud.
And we know for certain that some lovely day,
someone will set the spark off... and we will all be blown away.

It was written in the caustic style of the satirist Tom Lehrer, who would continue in that vein throughout the Vietnam War with titles such as the “pre-nostalgic” So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III).

♫While we're attacking frontally,
Watch brinkally and huntally,
Describing contrapuntally
The cities we have lost.
No need for you to miss a minute
Of the agonizing holocaust.
Beginning in the final year of the Korean War, rock and roll swept the nation with the rise of the likes of  Ray Charles (Mess Around, ‘53), Bill Haley and the Comets (Rock Around the Clock, ‘54), Elvis Presley (That’s All Right, ‘54), Chuck Berry (Maybellene, ‘55), and Bo Diddley (Bo Diddley, ‘55).  
Like all young men turning 18 in the US at the time, Elvis Presley registered for the draft in 1953.  Soon a superstar, he was drafted in ‘58 and sent to Fort Hood TX, later serving with the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany. In spite of the Cold War issues, it was a period of great exuberance and growth in the US.  The baby boomers entering their tween years embraced rock and roll wholeheartedly.  The Cold War was in full swing, but the Army didn’t faze young men since we weren’t in a hot war. 
Elvis Presley (U.S Army)
Elvis in the army

Elvis was discharged in ‘60, and his fans’ anxious wait for new movies and appearances was over. It wasn’t long until the release that same year of the musical film, G.I. Blues, with its popular soundtrack, which included Didja Ever:

Ya get up in the morning and turn the shower on
 You're gettin' pneumonia, the hot, hot water is gone
 Freezin' sneezin'
 You wanna dry your back, a well
 Didja' ever get one of them days
 When there's no towel on the rack

For most GI’s during the Cold War, those were about the worst aspects of Army life.  But quietly, over in Southeast Asia, war was coming.  US military advisors had already been on the ground in South Vietnam for years, and in 1961, President Kennedy gave his blessing to the Green Berets, Special Forces out of Fort Bragg that would specialize in counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia. And in ‘62, the first protest songs, though written much earlier, hit the Billboard Top 100 chart.  They were Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer, both top hits for Peter, Paul and Mary.  This was also the year Jeff Sharlet, who had enlisted in the Army, found himself assigned to a Vietnamese language course.

Bob Dylan self-titled album P

Bob Dylan's debut album, March 1962

In the background that same year, Bob Dylan gave the first public performance of Blowin’ in the Wind in New York’s Greenwich Village.   The song spoke of war, peace, and freedom.  The gates of anti-Vietnam War protest would soon open wide.

To be continued at a later date …

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy:

Charlie and His Orchestra:

1 comment:

  1. 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone' had additional verses by Joe Hickerson in Bloomington, 1960. Joe later became archivist of folk music at the Library of Congress.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.