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A decade ago, researching another project, I found myself listening to oral histories of the second world war, interviews with people who were children during The Blitz. Their memories, surprisingly, included admissions that they had found the experience to be an exciting one, playing in a semi-ruined, semi-abandoned city. This was the inspiration for a novel (which I think will never be ready for release, no great loss there) – but is it useful as a picture to paint of the time? It challenges a popular perspective, but does it just do this by introducing another, equally unbalanced one?
British culture is awash with unreal memory of the second world war. Popular entertainment of the time has already been forgotten – for those who were born in the decades to follow, the stiffness, forced jollity and now-obscure references make it hard to connect with Arthur Askey or Tommy Handley – but the “blitz spirit,” the never-issued “keep calm and carry on” poster and a whole industry of Hitler-based comedy remain cultural touchstones. It’s in this spirit that nostalgic collages of the time are assembled – plucky Londoners going about their business cut to the post-war orchestral recording of Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” This recording seems to hold much less in the way of restless ghosts than the contemporary version with Vera backed by Arthur Young on the Novachord (one of the world’s first synthesisers) – but the goal of nostalgia is always to comfort.
Perhaps the best way to address this time is by starting in the manner of the documentary series The World At War (still close to definitive nearly 50 years after its release) which opens with a deadpan monotone describing the arbitrary massacre and destruction of an entire village. It’s an act of genuine courage to present some of the worst horrors immediately, challenging the viewers to only keep watching if they are ready for more of this – no glory or heroism, no warm glow, just unspeakable horror, and only an ambiguous way for the horror to be eventually stopped.
I am – thankfully! – not making a documentary about the second world war, but, all the same, the idea of a sound collage of 1939 leaving it out entirely is a ridiculous one. If I layer pop songs of the time behind news clips, then all I am doing is dulling them of all meaning, folding them into this insulting nostalgic view. Equally, if I put stirring, positive music behind political speeches, is that not a tacit endorsement for their place in history? Is it my place to present Churchill, for example, as a hero? And yet I cannot steer clear of manipulation entirely. For the most part I have tried to give news reports and speeches space to breathe, using classical recordings which are less time-bound than pop or jazz, but when I needed to adopt a palette, the flavours were sadness and hope.
But I’m afraid I’ve been leading you down the garden path a little here. This is a four and a half hour long mix (!) and the second world war doesn’t really make an appearance until the last hour. While Europe and East Asia spent the year either at war or in anticipation of war, for the rest of the world, other things were on the agenda. This is the year that swing starts to really split – the smoother styles, more acceptable by white society, were becoming codified in the “Big Bands” of Glenn Miller, Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. Band leaders like Louis Jordan and instrumentalists like Pete Johnson were taking inspiration from blues to create an upbeat kind of stripped-down jazz, which would soon be labelled “rhythm & blues”, “jump blues” and eventually “rock & roll”. Then there were the swing pioneers, looking to break down ideas about rhythm and melody, big names like Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington who were kicking off what would soon become “Bebop”. It’s a genuinely exciting time for music, and three and a half hours seemed, if anything, not enough to give a real feel of all these ideas in the air.
Of all the recordings featured here, however, the two most notable fit neither into the war, nor the developments in swing. Solomon Linda & The Evening Birds improvised “Mbube” in the only recording studio in Sub-Saharan Africa one day in 1939 – while the song is best-known these days for its adaptation “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, this belies its importance for generations of African musicians. Then there is Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” – the only pre-50s recording in Rolling Stone’s new top 500 tracks of all time. It’s more than I can do to write about it, and even mixing it seemed crude and insulting, instead it sits on its own at the heart of this mix.
0:00:00 Victor Young – Prelude (Clip from BBC Winston Churchill – Ten Weeks Of War) (Clip from The Voder – Homer Dudley Bell Labs) 0:00:38 Harry James – Here Comes The Night (Clip from 1939-09-03 BBC Places Of Entertainment To Be Closed) 0:01:32 Solomon Linda & The Evening Birds – Mbube (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 0:04:33 Betty Hutton – Ol’ Man Mose (Clip from Gone With The Wind) 0:07:16 Glenn Miller – In The Mood 0:10:49 Al Donahue – In The Mood (Paula Kelly, Vocal) (Clip from Ninotchka) 0:11:31 Carmen Miranda – Mama Eu Quero 0:13:27 Fats Waller – Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Clip from The Women) 0:17:24 Art Tatum – Tea For Two (Clip from Gone With The Wind) 0:19:54 Lionel Hampton – Central Avenue Breakdown (Clip from Young Mr Lincoln) 0:23:01 Pete Johnson – Let ’em Jump (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 0:26:31 Billie Holiday – Some Other Spring (Clip from 1939-03-08 BBC Gas Mask Drill) (Clip from A.R.P. – Gas All Clear (Handbells)) 0:29:40 Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith – Echoes Of Spring (Clip from 1939-03-15 BBC Chamberlain After Czech Invasion)
0:32:07 Duke Ellington – Sergeant Was Shy (Clip from Only Angels Have Wings) 0:34:47 Xavier Cugat – One Two Three Kick Conga (Clip from Ninotchka) 0:36:24 The Manhattan Brothers – Thaba Tseu (Clip from Gone With The Wind) 0:39:12 Raymond Scott – Oil Gusher (Clip from Bachelor Mother) (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) (Clip from The Cup Final 1939) 0:41:24 Benny Goodman Sextet – Flyin’ Home 0:44:35 Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys – Ida Red 0:46:52 The Carter Family – Hello Stranger (Clip from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) 0:48:59 Grigoraș Dinicu – Hora Lui Ion Dinicu Și Sârbă Lui Tanţi (Clip from General Franco in Barcelona) 0:50:09 Sexteto Flores – Un Besito No Mas (Clip from Hollywood Hobbies) 0:53:31 Artie Shaw – Begin The Beguine (Clip from Philo T Farnsworth – The Birth of Television) 0:55:27 Carl Stalling – Good Egg (Clip from Beau Geste) 0:55:53 Hoosier Hot Shots – Like A Monkey Likes Cocoanuts (Clip from Dodge City) 0:57:50 Cats And The Fiddle – I Miss You So (Clip from La Règle du Jeu)
1:00:22 Charles Trenet – Mam’zelle Clioénilmontant (Clip from Le Jour se lève) 1:03:51 Georgius – Sur La Route De Pen-Zac (Clip from La Règle du Jeu) 1:05:31 Django Reinhardt Et Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France, Avec Stéphane Grappelli – Younger Generation (Clip from The Voder – Homer Dudley Bell Labs) 1:07:59 Gus Viseur – Swing 39 (Clip from Lou Gehrig – Farewell To Baseball) 1:10:43 John Kirby – Effervescent Blues 1:12:29 Andy Kirk – Twinklin’ (Clip of Dr James Naismith – Creator Of Basketball In Rare Interview) (Clip from Eve Ad 2000) (Clip from Blondie Dagwood – Dagwoods New Suit) 1:15:60 Count Basie Orchestra – You Can Depend On Me (Clip from Blondie Dagwood – Dagwoods New Suit) 1:19:14 Bud Freeman – The Eel 1:20:39 Lead Belly – Poor Howard / Green Corn (Clip from Drums Along the Mohawk) (Clip from Goodbye Mr Chips) 1:23:45 Ari Barroso, Lamartine Babo – No Rancho Fundo (Clip from Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney – 1939 newsreel footage) 1:25:47 King Radio – It’s The Rhythm We Want (Clip from Midnight) 1:28:28 Ink Spots – If I Didn’t Care (Clip from Confessions of a Nazi Spy)
1:32:08 Lagos Mozart Orchestra – Esan Inyong Ikide (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 1:34:07 Flanagan & Allen – Nice People (Clip of WC Fields in You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man) 1:35:56 杉井幸一 – おけさ節 (Clip from Son of Frankenstein Trailer) 1:37:23 Carl Stalling – Rubber Dog 1:37:39 Judy Garland – The Jitterbug (Clip from Blondie Dagwood – Dagwood’s New Suit) 1:39:03 Raymond Scott – Bumpy Weather Over Newark (Clip from Bachelor Mother) (Clip from The Voder – Homer Dudley Bell Labs) (Clip from Breakfast Pals) 1:40:07 Ramblers – Drie Kleine Vischjes (Vocal – Wim Poppink) 1:41:02 Kay Kyser – Three Little Fishies (Clip from Hollywood Hobbies) 1:42:42 Louis Armstrong – Jeepers Creepers (Clip of James Hilton discussing his Goodbye Mr Chips – CBS Radio Interview) 1:44:45 Patricia Rossborough – Sunrise Serenade 1:46:09 Thaton Ba Hein – Taw Hnit Taung Swe (Clip from Intermezzo) 1:48:08 Sukru Tunar – Cifte Telli (Clip from Ninotchka) 1:51:08 Joe Turner & Pete Johnson – Roll ’em Pete 1:52:55 Sonny Boy Williamson – Good Gravy (Clip from Midnight) 1:54:31 Louis Jordan And His Tympany Five – Keep A-Knockin’ (But You Can’t Come In) (Clip from Gone With The Wind) 1:56:20 Lionel Hampton And His Orchestra – Denison Swing (Clip from Stagecoach) 1:59:36 Gene Autry – Back In The Saddle Again (Clip from Drums Along the Mohawk)
2:01:42 Ida Cox – Death Letter Blues (Clip of Lincoln’s cross examination from Young Mr Lincoln) 2:03:21 Jelly Roll Morton – Oh Didn’t He Ramble (+ Sidney Bechet) 2:06:10 Sister Rosetta Tharpe – This Train (Clip from In Name Only) 2:08:45 Mills Brothers – Georgia On My Mind (Clip from Destry Rides Again) 2:11:38 Sidney Bechet Quintet – Summertime 2:15:26 Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit 2:18:47 Perihan Altindag And Rakim Elkutlu – Ne Bahar Kaldi Ne Gul 2:20:43 Hanende Agyazar Efendi – Kessik Kerem 2:22:05 Tommy Dorsey – Dawn On The Desert (Clip from Philo T Farnsworth – The Birth of Television) (Clip from Ninotchka) (Clip from The Man In The Iron Mask) (Clip from Mr Smith Goes to Washington) 2:24:35 Johnny Hodges (Ellington) – Dooji Wooji (Clip from Only Angels Have Wings) 2:27:17 Coleman Hawkins – Body And Soul
2:30:14 Larry Clinton; Bea Wain – Deep Purple (Clip from Gone with the Wind) 2:32:30 Chick Webb – Undecided (Clip from Swing Dance In Secret) 2:35:46 Coleman Hawkins – Fine Dinner (Clip from Midnight) 2:38:15 Carmen Miranda – South American Way 2:40:02 Dorival Caymmi – O Que É Que A Baiana Tem 2:43:00 Francisco Alves – Aquarela Do Brasil 2:44:59 The Growler – Trinidad Loves To Play Carnival (Clip from Rules of the Game) 2:47:33 The Atilla – La Reine Maribone 2:49:26 Cab Calloway & His Orchestra – The Jumping Jive (Clip from Ninotchka) 2:51:36 Bram Martin – Chopsticks (Vocal – Bob Howard) (Clip from The Women) 2:52:38 Slim Gaillard – Matzoh Balls 2:54:45 George Formby – Sweet Sue, Just You 2:56:06 Arthur Askey – The Worm 2:58:11 Flanagan & Allen – Run, Rabbit, Run
3:00:53 Johnny & Jones – We Hoeven Niet Te Hamsteren 3:02:48 Andrews Sisters – Beer Barrel Polka (Clip from The Voder – Homer Dudley Bell Labs) 3:05:05 Pyi Hla Pe – Shwe-Tanga 3:07:54 Will Bradley Trio – Down The Road A Piece (Clip from Lou Gehrigs 1939 Radio Interview While at the Mayo Clinic on 1340 KROC AM) 3:10:57 Fats Waller – Your Feet’s Too Big 3:13:59 Rex Stewart (Ellington) – Fat Stuff Serenade (Clip from Machine Made Voices) 3:15:52 See There Singing Band Kumasi – Anoma Oreko 3:17:52 Be Sackey’s Band Of Appam – Nkyrinna 3:18:41 Kpagon Band Accra – Ba Wo Ni Aya Ye 3:20:43 Lead Belly – Fannin Street 3:22:25 Pete Johnson – Barrelhouse Breakdown (Clip from The Hunchback of Notre Dame) 3:24:00 Andy Kirk And His Twelve Clouds Of Joy – Floyd’s Guitar Blues 3:27:05 Edward Heyman & The Les Paul Trio – Out Of Nowhere 3:29:56 Stéphane Grapelli – Baby
3:32:36 Glenn Miller – Moonlight Serenade (Clip from Of Mice and Men) (Clip from Goodbye Mr Chips) 3:37:09 Debutantes & MGM Studio Orchestra – Optimistic Voices (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 3:38:02 MGM Studio Orchestra- March Of The Winkies (Clip from 1939-08-27 BBC Czech Ambassador In London On Poland Situation) 3:39:08 Toscanini, NBC Orchestra – Beethoven 3 Symph. Funeral March (Clip from 1939-08-28 – CBS Coverage on the Eve of WWII) (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) (Clip from 1939-08-31 BBC Alvar Liddell Reports On German 16 Point Plan) (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) (Clip from 1939-09-01 State Of Armed Conflict With Poland) (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 3:42:40 Pablo Casals – Bach No. 5 In C Minor – I- Prelude (Adagio – Allegro Moderato) (Clip from 1939-09-01 BBC Alvar Liddell Reports The Invasion Of Poland) (Clip from 1939-09-01 BBC Ignace Paderewski On The War Looming Before Poland) (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) (Clip from 1939-09-03 BBC Britain Declares War On Germany) (Clip from 1939-09-03 BBC Prime Minister Chamberlain Declares War On Germany) 3:46:24 Max Steiner – The Death Of Melanie (Clip from 1939-09-03 BBC King George VI Addresses The Nation) (Clip from 1939-09-03 BBC Places Of Entertainment To Be Closed) 3:50:30 Toscanini, NBC Orchestra – Beethoven 3 Symph. Funeral March (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 3:53:05 Django Reinhardt – Echoes Of Spain (Clip from 1939-09-01 BBC Alvar Liddell Reports On Evacuation Of Children) (Clip from 1939-09-01 BBC S J de Lotbiniére Reports Further On Evacuation) (Clip from 1939-09-01 BBC S J de Lotbiniére Reports Train Now Leaving) 3:54:22 Bert Ambrose – Nasty Uncle Adolf (Vocal – Jack Cooper) (Clip from 1939-09-10 BBC Evacuee Message To Parents) 3:56:50 Judy Garland – Over The Rainbow (Clip from 1939-10-13 BBC Children’s Hour Broadcast By Princess Elizabeth)
4:00:04 Art Tatum – Over The Rainbow 4:00:27 MGM Studio Orchestra – Terrified Lion (Clip from Adolf Hitler – Speech – 1939-09-22 – Poland and it’s imminent defeat) 4:01:01 Max Steiner – Soldiers In Retreat (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 4:02:20 Toscanini, NBC Orchestra – Beethoven 3 Symph. Funeral March (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 4:03:17 Pablo Casals – Bach No. 4 In E Flat – I- Prelude (Allegro Maestoso) (Clip from 1939-10-01 BBC Winston Churchill – The First Month of the War) 4:05:27 Golden Eagle Gospel Singers – A Warrior On The Battlefield 4:08:02 Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet – Precious Lord 4:10:33 Roland Hayes – ‘Roun’ ‘Bout De Mountain 4:11:59 Duke Ellington – Informal Blues (Clip from 1939-10-15 (BBC Richard Dimbleby) By a French Road) 4:14:21 Art Tatum – Deep Purple (Clip from 1939-11-11 BBC Queen Elizabeth – Fortitude Of Women) 4:17:35 John Kirby – Dawn On The Desert 4:20:21 Django Reinhardt – Echoes Of Spain (Clip from Review of the Year 1939) 4:21:39 Victor Young – The Scroll And The Storm (Clip from 1939-12-18 BBC Winston Churchill – The Sinking Of The Graf Spee) (Clip from HM King George VI – The Royal Christmas Message of 1939) 4:23:58 Lale Andersen – Lili Marlen (Clip from HM King George VI – The Royal Christmas Message of 1939) 4:27:39 Vera Lynn – We’ll Meet Again (Novachord – Arthur Young) (Clip from The Roaring Twenties)