Update 1: How the popular music during WWII reflected the political climate in the US

After finishing the first part of my research, I am posting my first update on the information I have found for my investigation into how political climate affects music. As I discussed in my first post, I am specifically investigating the political influence on popular music in America during WWII in contrast to the Vietnam War. In this post, I will be discussing my research on the historical background and music of WWII.

After doing some general background research on the United States involvement in both wars, what began to stand out to me was the abundance of opinion polls from each era regarding American involvement in each war. For WWII, I found that after the Pearl Harbor bombings in 1941 when the US declared war on Japan, 97% of the US population believed that the decision to begin actively fighting for the Allies was justifiable and necessary (Saad). I also found that 89% of Americans believe that WWII was a “just war”, making it the most just war in United States’ history (Moore et al.). However, I also found that the American public wasn’t always in favor of entering WWII. In 1940, one year before Pearl Harbor, only 13% supported going to war (Feffer). However, most of the public opposition to entering the war was involving fighting Germany in the European theater. With regard to Japan and the Pacific theater, people in the United States overall agreed that it was necessary to prevent imperial Japanese expansion, even if that meant risking going to war (Saad). Regardless of this shift in political opinion from promotion of isolation to accepting the United States’ role in the war, these opinion polls show that the American people were generally in agreement on how they believed the United States should proceed with the war.
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President Roosevelt’s decisions throughout the war
stayed on track with popular opinions, and this made him increasingly popular among the voters in America. As seen in this graph I found from a journal article on public opinion in the 30s and 40s, Roosevelt’s approval ratings stayed quite stagnant around 65% until the war began in September 1939, from which point it steadily increased until peaking around 80% in 1942. By aiding the Allies without entering the war until Pearl Harbor made it impossible to avoid, Roosevelt mirrored the views of the public and promoted a strong sense of unity and democracy within the public (Berinsky et al.).

 

As a further symbol of unity and American pride, propaganda signs convincing people in America to enlist in the military were very prominent during WWII. All of these signs, as I saw at the Smithsonian American History Museum, depicted soldiers as heroes and the American public united as one. Additionally, there was large amounts of propaganda promoting FDR and his decisions, and calling to elect him as the first president with a third term.

This was a display of presidential campaigning at the American History Museum. Large signs and pins to re-elect Roosevelt for a third term show his popularity among the American public.

This was a display of presidential campaigning at the American History Museum. Large signs and pins to re-elect Roosevelt for a third term show his popularity among the American public.

This was a display of propaganda posters convincing American civilians to get involved in WWII, either by fighting or by helping at home. The strong images of soldiers "freeing the world" and promotions of remaining united at home help show the positive attitude of heroism linked to being involved in the war. These types of posters did not appear at all in the Vietnam War display.

This was a display of propaganda posters convincing American civilians to get involved in WWII, either by fighting or by helping at home. The strong images of soldiers “freeing the world” and promotions of remaining united at home help show the positive attitude of heroism linked to being involved in the war. These types of posters did not appear at all in the Vietnam War display.

This poster displays the American public's approval of FDR, using the symbolic Uncle Sam to promote electing FDR for a third term to continue his handling of WWII.

This poster displays the American public’s approval of FDR, using the symbolic Uncle Sam to promote electing FDR for a third term to continue his handling of WWII.

Overall, the political climate during WWII was filled with unity and American pride, and this was reflected greatly in the popular music of the time. The four songs I chose to analyze from this time period are “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by the Andrews Sisters, “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman, “I’ll Be Seeing You” performed by Frank Sinatra, and “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” by Elton Britt. While I plan to go into more detail into each song in my final product, I will discuss some of my more general findings here. For one, the first two songs mentioned come from the emerging “Big Band” music of the time, which is characterized by its swing tempo, large amounts of instruments, and overall rhythmic freedom that allowed for dancing and happy, upbeat feeling (Stowe). This musical trend is very interesting because it seems very happy and carefree, despite the war that was being fought abroad. After researching more into this discrepancy, I found that the reason this music was so popular was because it was used to spread morale among civilians at home and soldiers abroad, to remind them of happier times and push them to fight for happier times after the war (McClellan). “Boogie” and “Sing” both have very upbeat, danceable rhythms and simple, repetitive lyrics to keep the focus on the sound and the happy mood it created. Contrastingly, the other two songs I chose to analyze, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” are softer and more focused on the lyrics. The public clearly resonated with this genre of music too, as “I’ll Be Seeing You” reached number 1 on the charts 1o different times during the course of WWII. As indicated by it’s title, “I’ll Be Seeing You” was a light song about missing someone you love and its message “perfectly capture(d) the emotions of millions of American couples separated by the war” (Leonard). “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” used its lyrics to capture the pride of being an American and fighting for liberty, which was a prominent theme in the propaganda used at the time and also reflected by the opinion polls of the American public.

In my next post, I will be posting about my research into the background and music of the Vietnam War, and then in my last post I will talk about the comparisons and contrasts I have made between the two genres. My goal is to bring all of these elements together to create my final product, and to elaborate more on my analysis of the music in that. Stay tuned for more!

Comments

  1. mcshannon says:

    Hi Cassidy!
    This is a very interesting research topic! Will you be looking mainly at the song lyrics or are you also analyzing the music theory (notes, rhythms, etc.)?
    My research is on Medieval era music and one of the pieces I looked at was written to protest and ridicule the current political situation at the time. It’s fascinating to see how music reflects such specific sentiments of time periods, regions, and people.

  2. Hi Cassidy,
    This is such an interesting thing to research! I thought it was interesting that you talked about how public opinion/favor towards the war changed over time. I don’t know if you are planning to look into this, but did you notice if there was a change in popular music even over that period of time? Did the popular music change in a way that reflected how public opinion of the war changed or was it consistently patriotic during the 40’s?
    My research has to do with Hollywood films and WW2 and it’s interesting to see how, as the public became more favorable towards the war, the studios became much more comfortable making explicitly anti-Nazi films.

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