War songs

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War songs
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I was thinking about the lyrics of that great 2nd.World War number one hit song "We'll meet again" and how unsure anybody alive in Europe at that time around 1942 could actually be sure that meeting anybody again was seriously on the agenda, unless they had hidden themselves away in the Outer  Hebrides or somewhere. 


"We'll meet again don't know where, don't know when..."  was putting it mildly.  If you were fighting on one of the many battle fronts in Europe, Africa and the recently opened up South Asia and the Pacific fronts, not knowing where and not knowing when was the order of the day, as all communications including letters written by soldiers were open to censorship.  Where you were was a number one secret. This information, supposedly of vital interest  to the "enemy" couldn't be disclosed to even your closest relatives back home.  Because you never knew did you?  Think about it. Was it possible that your closest relatives, perhaps given to gossip, perhaps not sympathetic to the war if such a possibility was even thinkable, perhaps secretly on the "other side", well shouldn't it be borne in mind  that in this horrendous time of war they should  be considered the enemy too? Not to consider this possibility was approaching treason.     That your friends and relatives might in fact not be totally in tune with the bourgeoisie's absolute need to pursue this mass global destruction  to some sort of bitter end - just so that capital could be put back on its feet; the memory of the proletariat's revolutionary wave twenty years earlier erased for ever, and the unsatisfactory position of profit restored to strength after the frustration of the depression - had to be taken seriously. You never knew. You couldn't trust anyone.  You couldn't be sure. Not if you were the ruling class determined to put things right for capital; and determined to teach the working class a lesson it should never forget. 


What an unbelievable  state of affairs this  seems to us now.  And why did everyone go along with it as lambs to the slaughter?  



The song "We'll meet again" (if we're lucky that is!) goes on  "Keep smiling through just as you always do..." and expresses the hope that populations at home, subject to bombing and punitive austerities,  and those fighting on the fronts, faced with constant death or mutilation,  will blank  out and suppress  their human feelings of loathing and revulsion at what the war is doing to everyone,  and make out its really all fun and we're enjoying it - and if we're not we'll keep it to ourselves and hide it!


 This is such  a negation of human life and the human will to live. How did the bourgeoisie get away with it?  "It's being so cheerful as keeps me going"  the character Monalot  whined  weekly on the popular ITMA show  (NB. ITMA = Its That Man Again, the man being Tommy Handley; host to a crowd of wartime characters on the wireless, designed to keep the terrified population amused.)   For you weren't supposed to talk about the war, but were expected to keep your chin up and look forward to the "Blue  birds over the white cliffs of Dover" as another war time song had it, which exotic birds were expected any day soon "just you wait and see"; that is if you survived the blitz, the bombs, the fronts, concentration camps, the holocaust,  starvation diets,  atomic bombs and so on.   


The final irony of "We'll meet again" which must be worth five stars as far as irony goes, is at the words: "Will you please say hello to the folks that I  know. Tell them I won't be long..."  The person  speaking  if not pleading in this sad song  is someone being sent abroad to fight and probably die.  He wants to persuade those unfortunate enough to be left behind at home and thus denied the full orgasmic pleasure of being allowed to kill the enemy on the battlefield and die there in glory himself,  that really everything's fine and, you'll see,  I'll be back before you know it. Before you can say "Jack Robinson"  as some local  dialects  put it in those times. Isn't this some sick kind of phony optimism?  It's like the soldiers taking the King's shilling in the UK  and being recruited happily for the 1st. World  Massacre used to say they'd be back for Christmas - but didn't say which year. Unable to imagine the war would drag on for years and only be ended by proletarian revolution.  

War is a terrible thing. It's an obvious thing to say though not obvious to the bourgeoisie for whom it is a necessity.  That is to say it is an essential activity for decadent capitalism in its attempts at survival.  Will the unpleasant situations in Ukraine, Syria and various African countries lead us  to yet another war  with its array of sordid songs of solace "there'll be love and laughter and peace ever after" as the bourgeoisie lied in 1942,  or will the proletariat finally bring the current cycle of wars, which began in 1914,  to an end? 



Lili Marlene

"Lili  Marlene" was a song in German written in 1915 but which, almost by accident, became an improbably popular song beloved by soldiers  on various sides in World War 2.  How did this happen?  

Radio Belgrade, in a country then occupied by German forces, had very  few gramophone records.  One it did have was of an unknown German female crooner singing "Lili". Only 700 copies had been sold in Germany and Goebbels had said he didn't like it. (Was that to prove something in Lili's favor?)  But  Radio Belgrade decided to use the song  as its final tune every night as the station closed down.  Sung in German, It quickly became  essential listening every night for soldiers of many different languages  all over the Mediterranean theatre of war for whom it became an addiction. They couldn't resist. 

  But why was this? What benefit, comfort  or  consolation  did this song's clumping rhythm  bestow?  

A memoir written about the war by a British soldier sheds some light.  He had first beard the song in 1942 in the N.African desert.  Then, parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1944, he heard it every day on Radio Belgrade. He writes: 

.  "At Valjevo, as at so many other places, in the desert, in Bosnia, in Italy, Dalmatia, and Serbia, we would tune our wireless sets in the evening to Radio Belgrade, and night after night, always at the same time, would come, throbbing lingeringly over the ether, the cheap, sugary and almost painfully nostalgic melody, the sex-laden, intimate, heart-rending accents of Lili Marlene. 'Not gone yet,' we would say to each other. 'I wonder if we'll find her when we get there."

Cheap, sugary and painfully nostalgic he says. And throbbing lingeringly.  Heart rending and sex-laden.  A marvelous description of a song the words of which would be double-Dutch to most listeners but the tune of which must some  how have conveyed all that was needed to be known, and then of course the singer's own performance and artistry. Does she sound "sex-laden"? She does. Did she come across as a woman offering solace to all soldiers, "underneath the lamplight, by the barrack square...?" She did.  She sounds like a prostitute, or "loose woman" as people would have it then.  Did she  convey all our human longings for love  and companionship now totally obliterated,  and rendered  null and void, and unthinkable,   by the demands of the capitalist war machine? I think she must have. 

Towards the end of the war, the OSS, some secret American organization working to produce demoralizing influences to be used against German soldiers, commissioned Marlene Dietrich  to record a version of "Lili Marlene" which became a big hit in England as the war dragged hopelessly to its end. I suppose the required "demoralization" was contained in the fact that here were German lyrics being plundered and translated into English - or American! - the language of the conquering triumphant bourgeoisie, dripping with blood and gore, as was the bourgeoisie everywhere at the end of WW 2. And ever since! 

Anyway, this "victors song" as it now was, would be heard at the many Victory in Europe Parties held in British streets, under the fluttering bunting and Union Jacks as in a renewed but starving Merrie England (oh! how  PM Cameron would have revelled  in it all!)  as we, the working class, also defeated but unaware and dumb,  celebrated our incredibly long  drawn out crushing  of  the Fuehrer and the  "nazzies", as Churchill called them.  Our VICTORY as it was billed.  But with food rationing, fuel shortages, and the  working class socialist Attlee government (lol)  imposing austerity far worse than that being  imposed now - despite the great bourgeois  benevolence embodied in the newly set up National Health Service  where even false teeth and glasses were free at least at the start - it didn't feel particularly happy or victorious, and the overwhelming sadness of Lili Marlene resisted without difficulty the forced jollity of VE Day. 

If you tired of Lili Marlene however, you could always play Flanagan and Allen's rendition of "Run rabbit, run rabbit run, run, run", out of tune as usual, full of grunts and groans, and now containing a new verse to the effect of "Run Adolf, run Adolf, run, run, run". This and many other squalid and mindless delights were  on endless offer from a triumphant British bourgeoisie courtesy of the British Bourgeois Broadcasting Company which is  still relentlessly at it after all these years. Does nothing change?  

spectre of Christmas 1914?

Fred, your point about the American OSS backing an English version of Lili Marlene is  an interesting one. Dietrich herself of course was a prominent anti-Nazi émigré. But the Allies were also surely motivated by the need to ‘recuperate’ a song that was ‘crossing the lines’ and becoming so popular with British and American troops? It must have given the ruling class unpleasant twinges of the Christmas 1914 truce and raised the spectre, however remote, of fraternisation…  In the introduction to her own version of the song the British  singer June Tabor certainly seems to think so…


The other song perhaps worth mentioning here, although not as politicaly interesting,  is the poignantly titled,  melancholic French pe-war song ‘J’attendrai (‘I will wait’), recorded by various singers and also popular with German soldiers and sailors. Apparently it was the song German sailors chose to play over the tannoy as the battleship Bismarck finally sank...




Thank you MH for adding a

Thank you MH for adding a much needed Marxist touch to this thread  with your point  about the Allies  needing to 'recuperate' a song that was "crossing the lines" and raising the spectre of fraternization.  I had tried  to think myself about the implications of a song that crossed the demarcation lines imposed by war but couldn't get  anywhere.  

When I find my earphones again, I will listen to what June Tabor has  to say. 

I wonder if anyone else has anything  to say about war songs and the unruliness  of music in  not being strictly containable within National borders and within nationalistic sentiment; and the implication contained therein that nationalism is an artificial and political  invention, imposed by those who only seek to exploit, control  and  mystify?  

John Gaunt
Sing a Song for Sixpence

‘They used to tell me I was building a dream,
So I followed the mob,
If there were fields to plough,
Or arms to bare,
I’d be right there on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream,
Peace and glory ahead ....
So why must I stand in line ... for bread?’

Opening lines of the 1929 Depression song Brother Can You Spare a Dime? On its 1932 appearance in the Broadway show Americana it was (rightly) seen as a critique of capitalism. There were moves to remove it from the show and ban it from the radio. However its subsequent association with the avuncular and popular singer Bing Crosby served to attenuate the song’s revolutionary kernel and aided attempts to reduce it to the level of avowedly optimistic songs such as ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, unofficial theme tune of the Democratic Party at the time of FDR’s state capitalist New Deal. Despite this recuperation, ‘Brother’ (sometimes sung as ‘Buddy’) remains a powerful proletarian protest, IMO, recalling also the widespread protests of demobbed WW1 US soldiers denied their promised war payments.

An interesting if un-marxist essay on and around the song and the material conditions which gave rise to it can be found here:


sentimental optimism!

Thanks for the link John Gaunt, and what you point out with regard to "sparing a dime".  Reading the article  I was surprised that someone should take so much trouble over a few  songs in the absence of any Marxist or overt political motivation at all. Is it academicism at work?   Is it an example of academic "neutrality"?     But some of it was interesting like: 

 The Depression ended with America’s entry into World War II, and for the first time in over a decade Americans looked beyond their country and its problems to events in other parts of the world. “The White Cliffs of Dover” takes a sentimentally optimistic view of England’s difficult and courageous stand, almost alone, against Nazi Germany. (The song was most certainly inspired by Alice Duer Miller’s long poem The White Cliffs of Dover [1940], which became a best seller and the basis for a successful motion picture...

This is fun isn't it?  The "Depression" ended with the start of World War 2.  Its a bit like someone saying "My depression ended when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given six months to live."  

Is war such a great motivator?  Apparently so.  Americans looked beyond their own country and its problems for the first time in a decade, the author writes. This sounds very positive.  Internationalism at last!  The reality was rather different however, wasn't it? A defeated working class, half starved and tragically submissive, was parceled up and sent abroad as cannon fodder: its return not anticipated. Hardly an example of people looking outward and beyond narrow horizons,  or of war opening up hopeful avenues!  

Then there's  "England's difficult and courageous stand..." This is the Churchillian  stuff of legend.  We'll fight them on the beaches etc. We'll starve ourselves to death before we surrender.  We'll never give up and so on.  Churchill had a pistol available should capture be imminent.  What the rest of us were supposed to do wasn't made clear. Put on a gas mask and look scary? Challenge the Nazzies in the streets and get hung from the lamp posts like strange fruit?  I wonder how much courage there actually was; and what there was to be courageous about?  The brutal victory of one murderous bourgeoisie over another? The achievement of staying alive through all the violence and austerity?   What a triumph this would be for the working class. The ultimate Pyrrhic victory.

And then there is the song  itself, and its fantasy lyrics.  Do bluebirds exist? Are Dover's cliffs really white?  D.H Lawrence escaping  England at the close of World War 1 and crossing the Channel said they resembled "an upturned coffin floating on the sea" but then he had reason to be bitter given the treatment he had received from a spiteful military,  having a German wife and being a writer, and failing his medicals too! 

"There'll be love  and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, just you wait and see" the White Cliff's lyrics postulate.  And we're still waiting!  I don't know about "love  and laughter" but "peace ever after" well just forget it. This is one of the bourgeoisie's biggest hoaxes. Like full employment and free beer tomorrow.  Like a National Health Service worthy of heroes.   You knew of course that World War 2 turned the class of defeated workers into a class of heroes, didn't you; celebrated all over Europe by militarized cemeteries in the silent but serried ranks of the dead, still submissive, and grimy white cenotaphs in dirty white (like the White Cliffs themselves) plonked down ugly and centre stage  in just about every town and village on the continent?   Just a constant reminder in case anyone should forget of our glorious dead - the glory lies in dying for the preservation of the bourgeois class! -  and the marvels of war, not its pity, and the way war serves to perpetuate capitalism itself.  Capitalism feeds off death. Capitalism: dripping blood and gore.  

I can't resist this...

For those who want to improve their French, Brassens "Guerre de 14-18" is a great classic, you wouldn't think it from the music but it is a magnificent lampooning of military pretensions to "glory". The words are just below the song also, so out with your dictionaries lads!


In the same idiom as "Buddy can you spare a dime", is, I think, the 1946 song (possibly from the 30's) "Sixteen Tons". It's a coal mining song which includes the lines "Sixteen tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt" and "Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go, I own my soul to the company store".

I saw Country Joe and the Fish perform their Vietnam war song at Pilton Festival in 1968 complete with a screen with the words on which were pointed out by a bouncy ball above them. Everyone stood up and sang.

The best anti-war song without any words? Without a doubt Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner.

And don't forget our own Jaycee's very catchy and profound anti-WWII song.