American music during World War II was pervasive in a way that music had never been during a war before. By 1940, 80% of American households owned a radio, making music easier to listen to for all. Popular songs from the WWII era were far more accessible to civilians and soldiers alike, and thus were better able to build morale than in previous conflicts.
Many popular World War II songs focused on romance and strength rather than propaganda, morale, and patriotism. Popular singers of the era included Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, the Andrews Sisters, and Bing Crosby. Notable wartime radio songs were “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Shoo Shoo Baby,” “I’m Making Believe,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Songs that ridiculed the Axis Powers were also popular. Most of these songs directed towards Europe focused on Hitler and the Nazis as opposed to the civilians. However, songs directed towards the Pacific tended to show blatant racism, hatred, anger, and revenge, especially following the Pearl Harbor attack.
Swing and Big Band music were the most popular and pervasive genres of music during the Second World War. Big Band grew out of the jazz music of the 1920’s and consisted of a mix of improvised and written sets performed by a 17-piece orchestra. By the early 1930’s, Swing became its own style. Bands led by artists like Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford, and Cab Calloway performed Swing music, which is distinguished primarily by a strong rhythm section, a medium to fast tempo, and the unique “swing” style – a combination of elongated and shortened beats produced by the fixed attacks and accents of musicians. By the mid-1930’s, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw became household names and swing dance had grown alongside Swing music.
When the U.S. entered the war in late 1941, Swing music also went to war. Jazz and Swing provided comfort for families at home and soldiers abroad. Many musicians who were drafted into the military took their music with them. Some of them even led military jazz bands that traveled the world to boost the morale of troops.
Glen Miller, for example, got permission to form a 50-piece band, the Army Air Force Band, and go to England to perform for the troops. They gave at least 800 performances. In December 1944, Miller was flying from England to Paris to play for soldiers on the continent when his flight disappeared over the English Channel and he was declared Missing in Action.
Artie Shaw was another popular musician and band leader who served in the military during the war. He enlisted in the Navy and formed a band that served in the Pacific Theater, playing for sailors and marines.
For U.S. service members who were not able to listen to live music, the U.S. War Department, collaborating with various recording companies shipped V-Discs – “V” for Victory – overseas. Many popular singers, big bands, and orchestras of the era recorded special V-Disc records.
In addition to Swing music, other popular music at home and abroad included the Andrews Sisters, whose “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” became an iconic song of WWII, and many others like Vera Lynn and even songs written by Walt Disney Productions.
Music was one of the many things that provided entertainment, distraction, and enjoyment to the American troops both overseas and at home. It also helped uplift those still on the home front and helped separated families feel more connected through music.