American Music Goes to War

by Tom Wolff

Entertainment is always a national asset. Invaluable in time of peace, it is indispensable in wartime.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1943

Background

Music during World War II had an unprecedented impact on America, both on the home front and on troops serving overseas. Unlike World War I, which occurred in the pre-radio era, by December 1941, virtually every American household, 96.2 percent, owned radios. Never before had recordings of songs and live musical performances been broadcast to so many millions of Americans, both to those supporting the war at home and to troops serving throughout the world. For many Americans, this mass distribution of music had a unifying, patriotic effect by raising the morale of the troops overseas and motivating and inspiring the Americans at home to fully support all aspects of the war effort. Some African American recording artists, however, used the power of music to highlight the hypocrisy of America’s fight for freedom and democracy abroad, while discrimination and segregation were prevalent across the United States and throughout the segregated armed forces. Though many types of music in the 1940s had a following, swing and jazz were by far the most popular. Banned throughout Germany and occupied Europe, this uniquely American music served as a defiant hope for liberation and freedom, and in many ways served as the soundtrack for the war. 

Objectives

  • Students will gain an understanding of the cultural and socio-political role music played in the daily lives of Americans during the 1940s/WWII era, both on the home front and overseas. 
  • Students will become well versed in the analysis of a variety of primary sources using the Library of Congress “Primary Source Analysis Tool” handouts, including sound recordings, oral histories, motion pictures, photographs and prints, and sheet music.
  • Students will synthesize and summarize the historical information acquired throughout this lesson, and conduct and analyze their own research, in a collaborative effort to create a final songwriting project in which their mastery of 1940s/WWII history is evident.

Materials

*Teachers and students will use the following analysis tools, which are also embedded within this lesson.  *For clarity of instruction, additional primary sources, songs, etc., are only linked within the lesson.

Lesson Activities 

Day One: Introduction to the 1940s/WWII

Pre-Lesson

Students already have a basic understanding of the events of World War II, both on the home front and overseas, from lecture notes and assigned reading. The night before the lesson, students will complete the “Music and You” questionnaire to assess the importance today’s music has on their daily lives in an effort to gain empathy for the impact swing, jazz, and big band music had on people during the 1940s.  

Introduction to 1940s Music

As students enter the classroom, “Jeep Jockey Jump” (instrumental) by Glenn Miller plays in the background. 

“The Empathy Hook”

Students take out last night’s homework, the “Music and You” questionnaire. Students begin sharing their responses with the class. Refer to “Music and You Questionnaire / Teacher Handout” for segue from students’ chosen song to 1940s music.

Capt. Glenn Miller, US Army Air Force: Musical War Hero of WWII

Listen to Glenn Miller’s “Jeep Jockey Jump” (instrumental) for a second time as an example of the popular swing music that dominated the war years:

Although it has no lyrics, the rhythm of the song was designed to honor American soldiers riding in bouncy jeeps on battlefields all over the world. When the song ends, read Miller’s bio with the class from this same link.

Use the Library of Congress “Sound Recording Primary Source Analysis Tool” (PDF) handout to craft questions the students will use to fill out on their handouts in analyzing Glenn Miller’s “Jeep Jockey Jump”:

Sample teachers’ questions for analysis for “Jeep Jockey Jump” using the LOC handout:

  • Describe what you hear.
  • List any instruments you recognize.
  • Although this song is instrumental, what imagery and detail is created by its rhythm?
  • If it is musical, could you dance to it?  
  • What can you learn from listening to this recording (author’s purpose)?

Students use the Library of Congress “Observe/Reflect/Question (ORQ) Primary Source Analysis Tool” (PDF) handout to respond to teacher’s prompts from their copy.

Homework

Research the career of Glenn Miller, who left his lucrative big band career, joined the US Army Air Force, and performed 300+ USO (United Service Organization) shows overseas, which entertained American troops and boosted morale. Using the following links, and credible Internet sources you find on your own, create Capt. Glenn Miller’s obituary for the United States Armed Services military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, focusing on his military service and heroic death.

Use the How to Write an Obituary Guide as your model to write your Glenn Miller obituary.

Suggested Links for Glenn Miller Research

Brief overview of Miller’s contributions to entertainment during WWII, Mt. Holyoke College

Comprehensive Glenn Miller project, University of Colorado:

Day Two: The USO, Bringing American Music to the Troops

The USO and American Troop Morale

Begin by projecting and reading this history of the USO from the Library of Congress website.

Project the YouTube video clip of images of Bob Hope and other musical performers from various USO shows during WWII recorded at Stockton Air Field on May 23, 1943, for the Army Air Corps Cadets. Running Time: 2:50

Use the Library of Congress “Primary Source Analysis Tool” handouts for Sound (PDF), Photography and Print (PDF), and Motion Pictures (PDF) for assistance in crafting questions the students will answer on their handouts in analyzing the WWII USO YouTube video clip.

Some sample teacher questions for analysis for the WWII USO video clip using the LOC handout:

  • Describe what you see and hear in the images.
  • What are the physical settings?
  • Do you only see live action, still pictures?
  • What was the purpose of these USO film clips?
  • Who do you think created them?
  • Who are the people appearing in these images?
  • What can you learn from examining these film images?
  • What is missing from them?
  • Who do you think was the intended audience?
  • What feelings or ideas do you think its creators wanted to communicate?

Students respond to the above questions regarding the Bob Hope 1943 USO Show using student primary source analysis tool (PDF) from the Library of Congress.

Closure

Using the above information gleaned from the handouts, have students complete the following:

  • Write a brief description of the USO film clip.
  • Think about what you have learned about the history of the USO from the reading and discussion. How does the USO film clip support or contradict your current understanding of this topic?

Days Two and Three: For the Troops Only: The V-Disc and “Command Performance”

V-Discs: Shipping America’s Music Overseas

Although the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) was on strike from 1942 to 1944 and due to a dispute over royalties no music was recorded for record labels in the United States during this time, the biggest recording stars of the 1940s came together to record V-Discs (“V” for Victory) that were recorded exclusively for the troops and shipped overseas.

Read the V-disc background information from the Record Collector’s Guild and discuss as a class.

Analyzing Primary Sources:  Art Tatum’s “Body and Soul”

Listen to the recording of artist Art Tatum speaking directly to American troops and introduce his new V-Disc recording of “Body and Soul.”

Use the Library of Congress “Primary Source Analysis Tool” handout for Sound (PDF) for assistance in crafting questions the students will answer on their handouts in analyzing Tatum’s recording.

Students respond to the teacher’s questions regarding Tatum’s “Body and Soul” using the student primary source analysis tool (PDF) from the Library of Congress.

Activity: Write a Caption Using V-Disc Images for Stars and Stripes Newspaper

Using the above Library of Congress handout, students will complete the following homework assignment:

You are a reporter for Stars and Stripes newspaper assigned to write a story regarding the impact of V-Discs on the morale of American troops overseas. Using your analysis of the three V-Disc images, write a grammatically correct, compound-complex, newspaper-style caption (sentence) for each of the three photos in the link, below, that are to accompany the article (Remember: you are not writing the article, just the captions for the images). Each of your three captions will include as many of the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, and why) as possible in order to provide sufficient context:

Homework

“Command Performance”:  Troops Only, Overseas All-Request Radio Show

“Command Performance,” which aired from March 1942 to 1949, was a radio program broadcast over Armed Forces Radio Network (AFRS) exclusively for troops overseas. Hundreds of thousands of letters were sent by troops from around the world, and the AFRS producers took requests directly from their letters. This weekly, 30-minute program provided the troops with a taste of the homefront from top music performers and Hollywood stars of the time, who volunteered their services to honor the troops. 

Watch the recording of a live broadcast of this weekly series on YouTube, which explains how the show was produced. You only need to view the first 2-3 minutes to gain an understanding of the show’s format.

“Command Performance” Troop Request Letter

You are a soldier serving overseas. Write a typed, one-page letter to the producers of “Command Performance” requesting your favorite musical performer, band, or song, and describe the following:

  • What are your circumstances as a soldier overseas?
  • In which theater of the war are you serving (city/country)?
  • Describe how the show has boosted your morale.
  • What is your city/state of origin?
  • What do you miss most about home?
  • Request a specific “command performance” of your favorite song/band/musical performer to be aired on the show.

Days Three and Four: Music on the Homefront

“Rosie, the Trumpeter?”

The wartime draft created a major shortage of musicians all over the county. As in defense plants and other previously male-dominated industries, women stepped up to fill the void in the workforce, joining jazz and swing bands all over the nation. During the war more than one hundred all-girl bands formed and toured the country, entertaining troops on army bases, performing at war bond drives, and playing at dances. One such band, the Prairie View Co-Eds (PVCEs), was not only an all-girl band, but an all-black girl band. Although the USO forbade discrimination, army bases were segregated, and black troops deplored the tension that occurred when they attended predominately white USO shows. In response to this racial tension, all-black USO centers were opened, and acts such as the PVCEs were recruited to perform for the black troops.

All-Girl Jazz Bands: The Prairie View Co-eds and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm—“Rosie the Trumpeter?”

In the CBS oral history transcript, Roz Cron, one of the only white members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and vocalist Carline Ray recount their experiences in all-girl swing and jazz bands during WWII. Have students complete the Library of Congress oral history handout (see link below).

Use the Library of Congress “Oral Histories Primary Source Analysis Tool” (PDF) handout for assistance in crafting questions the students will answer on their handouts in analyzing Ms. Collin’s interview.

Students complete the oral history primary source analysis handout (PDF) from the Library of Congress.

Oral History Group Study

In groups of three, students discuss the information presented in Ms. Collins’ oral history, and complete the following in class:

  • Summarize Ms. Collins’ oral history, and include any important information learned about her experiences during the war.
  • Speculate about the purpose of the oral history. What do you think the person telling the story, and the person recording it, expected to accomplish? Do you think it succeeded? Explain in detail.
  • Consider your prior knowledge of WWII, versus the events described in this oral history. How does this oral history support, contradict, or add to your current understanding of this period?

Days Four and Five: Reactionary Music on the Homefront

Music and Race Relations

Some recording artists proclaimed their disappointment with segregation both at home and in the American military during WWII using music as their vehicle. Black troops were assigned menial jobs and rarely given combat duty or positions of authority and responsibility—even blood supplies were carefully separated due to the systematic racism of the time. But soon after WWII, the American military was desegregated, which gradually paved the way for improved racial equality throughout American society. 

Josh White: “Uncle Sam Says” Next Verse Activity

Students listen to Josh White’s racial protest song, “Uncle Sam Says,” which chronicles racial segregation at home and throughout the Armed Forces. White’s politically charged music impressed FDR and the First Lady so much that they invited him to perform at the White House. 

In groups of three, students will write three additional verses to Josh White’s song, “Uncle Sam Says,” based on their analysis of three primary sources and their understanding of race relations in America after WWII.  

  • Give each student one of three primary sources from the Next Verse Uncle Sam Says Primary Sources Handout
  • Students conduct analysis of the three primary sources using the LOC handouts used throughout this lesson.
  • Based on the analysis of the sources, and on their knowledge of America in the decades following World War II, students will write three additional stanzas to Josh White’s “Uncle Sam Says,” following the format and rhyme scheme of the song.

Final Project: Multimedia Song-Based Project

Introduce this project on Day 5, the final day of the lesson. This project is to be completed primarily outside of class, but feel free to provide groups with a few minutes of planning time in the coming weeks. Students should be able to complete this project in two weeks.

1940s/WWII Multimedia Song Project Assignment Sheet and Rubric (PDF)

Additional Resources

Extension Activities

Motion Picture Primary Source Analysis: Germany’s Swing Kids—Defying Hitler

While viewing the film Swing Kids, complete the Library of Congress “Motion Picture Primary Source Analysis” handout.  The trailer is available on YouTube.

Music and Memory: Oral Histories as Primary Sources

Interview family, friends, neighbors, or community members regarding their experiences during WWII, and how music affected their lives during this time. Write a 3- to 4-page summary of your interview.

Technology and Music in the Military: Today’s Troops

Interview a soldier who served within the past two decades regarding how today’s technology has improved their morale overseas. How did having Sony Walkmans, iPods, “boomboxes,” etc., affect their mindset.  

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