Have you ever seen the Britcom “Goodnight Sweetheart”? A man finds a pothole between London in the 1990s and 1942 and, like all great sitcom heroes, uses the opportunity to make money.
The sitcom does something great: it makes the iconic Londoners who carried on in the face of the Nazi’s blitzreig human again. It kicks them off their pedestal and makes them that much braver for being brave, cowardly, avarious, licentious, drunken, mortal humans living with death imminent and occuring every moment.
It is suckers game to discuss WW2… we won and they lost the world’s last good war. And the music was often a little flabby: as they did with punk rock, the natives took the black out of jazz and added the stiff upper lip. English pop was mostly American remakes with an over abundance of sugar and strings, a touch of Music Hall and an accentlentless Englishness and more than all of that a great deal of jingoism.
That’s Vera Lynn singing there to the RAF: all buck teeth and stringy hair. And those boys, in the thousands, they are going off to die, and if they have a girl they hope they’ll see her again and that’ll she look like Vera. And Vera? She’s been all over the colonies trying to buck the boys up to fight the Axis powers. She looks so small before these rows and rows of candidates for
poppies in normandy (er, I know, but the analogy will hafta stick). And she looks so powerful, so meismic, such a leader.
But what can she say after WWI? The boys had learned their lesson by then, nobody was “tickled to death to go” any more. Nah, they were poets like Siegfield Sasson and Wilfred Owen: “Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots, of gas-shells dropping softly behind.” Hardly a tonic for the troops. So what could “The forces Sweetheart” do?
She could sell a different kind of pariotism. To say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel is not the same as to say that all patriots are scoundrels by any length of the lexicon. And to admit through omission that war is hellacious and people die is not to deny it and to sing of the English women waiting for their heroes to return is optimism not lying for effect.
“When you find yourself in hot water,” Lynn sang, “make like the kettle and sing.”
“There’ll be love and laughterAnd peace ever after tomorrow, when the world is free.”
“We two can wait for tomorrow, goodbye to sorrow, my dear.”
Vera had her own radio show in 1940 and the boys stationed all over the world listended to her every week. She had a light, clear, lovely soprano, full of youth and hope and she had found a patriotism that was always looking forward: a very English sense of tenaciousness and courage. Remember: the French were losing, the Yanks a promise not fulfilled, London in ruins, and the colonies crumbling. She couldn’t sing “it’s a sweet and noble thing to die for your country,” it would be un-British to have her singing about (metaphorically speaking of course) big dicked English warriors, she certainly couldn’t give in. What she could do was lead a people to tomorrow when the world is free.”
With the exceptions of a handful of songs and the odd Irving Berlin ballad, the songs are all dry toast and jelly but there is a stirring of grace under pressure in the organ (so redolent of the old movie theaters of those days) and the swelling and subsiding strings and the pretty English Rose: a sorta opposite Churchill.
And the West won the war and freedom rang though the British empire was over for ever. And so was Churchill given the boot gurgling about the Fascist Labour party as he went into sinility and death and the boys did come home -to no jobs so the Labour tinkered with a socialist paradist and the country went bankrupt (take heed Obama).
Vera Lynn even had a hit song in the States in the late-40s!! And she won the OBE and is a Dame!!! She’s still alive today. But her legacy is showing a politically astute morale and morality in pursuit of propaganda. Nobody has ever gotten it quite right since. The States is either shouting “try burning this flag,” or whinging “1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?” Britain was worse, bogged down in class warfare in their political music (Vera was a lower middle class pumber’s daughter who sounded classless when she sang but never lost her accent when she spoke).
When the world is free, indeed
By the way: since everything is connected any way. Vera Lynn started her career singing for the english jazz leader Joe Loss. Ross Macmanus, Elvis Costello’s father, started his career playing for the english jazz leader Joe Loss.