New Publication: God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War
God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War, by Kathleen E.R. Smith (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, March 2003).
In times of war and tragedy, music can be a profound tool for healing. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, average Americans tuned into over four-and-a-half hours of radio music daily, and patriotic songs engendered feelings of solidarity. Such songs as "Over There" had been invaluable morale boosters during WWI, and the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley scrambled to write their own version of the Great American War Song. The most popular tunes, however, continued to be romantic ballads, escapist tunes, and 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 tips for writing "proper" war songs.
God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War, documents this attempt to stir up support for the war through popular music, arguing that it was ultimately a misguided failure. Examining the two foremost music business publications of the years 1941-1945, Variety and Billboard, and documents from the OWI, this book provides an intriguing history of the way government and entertainment interests combined for a common cause.
God Bless America is a significant study not only as a history of popular culture during the Second World War, but also as a chronicle of the first attempt by the federal government to influence the types/contents of songwriters' efforts.
American entertainment of the World War II years was superficial, mass-produced, and commercialized. Any attempts by the government to impose its guidelines on this national enterprise--show business--would have to accept these facts. The OWI thought it understood this, and its unofficial policy of "business-as-usual" that allowed the entertainment industry to carry on as before seemed reasonable. But the OWI failed to comprehend the large extent by which the war effort would be defined by "advertisers and merchandisers." It was not prepared to admit that Tin Pan Alley could not be converted from manufacturing love songs to manufacturing war songs just as automobile plants had retooled to assemble planes or tanks. Selling merchandise, in the form of records and sheet music, was the first priority of Tin Pan Alley and the OWI never really swayed the music business from this course.
God Bless America concludes that the government's fears of faltering morale did not materialize. Americans did not need such 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 appropriate war songs was doomed from the beginning, and the music business, then as now, continues to make huge profits selling songs about love--not war.
Dr. Ray Browne, editor of The Journal of Popular Culture, has said of God Bless America, "[It is] of the utmost significance because it develops a conflict of opposing interests between official Washington and the American people. Well written, clear, clever, informative and interesting.... This is a new approach and should not be superseded for a long time."
Kathleen E.R. Smith
Assistant Professor of History
Northwestern State University of Louisiana
3329 University Parkway
Leesville, LA 71446
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