New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “SONGS THAT WON THE WAR”


Historians of World War II seldom include the name of Canadian Ruth Lowe in their list of heroes who finally brought about victory in 1945. That oversight is not surprising: she neither wore a uniform nor toiled in a war production factory. But she certainly could compose songs.

As Canada approaches Remembrance Day, it is timely to remember her contribution and that of other songwriters, big bands and singers to the war effort. (Wikipedia is my main resource.)

During the war years, most Canadian households owned radios. The “big band” swing sounds of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, the Dorsey Brothers and our Canadian-connected Casa Loma Orchestra brought entertainment right into homes across the country. In the 1930s, singers were used primarily as accompanists to a band’s instrumental music. Gradually through the 1940s, soloists became more popular as performers in their own right, with bands eventually being relegated to a back-up role.

With the declaration of war by Britain, Canada and the empire in 1939, followed by the USA in 1941, popular music became a morale booster—one might say “a subtle form of propaganda”—for troops serving around the world and for those loved ones left behind. And this is where Ruth Lowe comes in to the picture.

Ruth Lowe was born in Toronto in 1914 and later spent much of her adult life in Canada where she worked as a pianist and accompanist. She married Harold Cohen, a Chicago music publicist in 1939. A year later, he died of kidney disease. She was left a widow in Toronto at age 24. As an expression of her grief, Lowe wrote “I’ll Never Smile Again” as a personal, private tribute to her late husband. By chance, it was discovered and arranged by Canadian composer, Percy faith, and performed on the CBC. Tommy Dorsey subsequently created an arrangement for his new band singer, Frank Sinatra. The sentimental song became a massive best seller, remaining on the Billboard hit parade for 12 weeks in 1940 and later winning a Grammy.

While not intentionally written for the war effort, its emotional lyrics resonated with anyone who had a loved one serving away from home. Imagine you have a son, daughter or husband far away for several long years, likely in danger. Or maybe you were that one in uniform and far away. Then listen to this verse:

Within my heart, I know I will never start
to smile again, until I smile at you.

Once the United States was drawn into conflict, popular music answered the call. Band leaders like Miller and Shaw served in uniform, entertaining troops overseas and in home bases. Singers like Vera Lynn boosted British morale with her melodies. But it was the American song writers who best captured the sombre mood on the home front with their country at war. Then as now, Canadians listened to that same music

A traditional march like “American Patrol” was ramped up to become a patriotic, upbeat rendition by Glenn Miller in 1942. “Rosie the Riveter” was a now-iconic poster extolling the crucial role women played in factory war production. It was also published as a catchy tune in 1943:

Everyone stops to admire the scene
Rosie at work on the B-Nineteen

After the 1940 fall of Paris to the German Blitzkrieg, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, the Third, wrote the sentimental “The Last Time I saw Paris,” sung by Ann Sothern. Many songs touched upon the separation between a soldier and his girl waiting back home. One of the most poignant set of lyrics were sung by Dinah Shore in “I’ll walk Alone.”

I’ll always be near you, wherever you are,
Each night in every prayer.

As the long months became years away, men and women in uniform must have wondered at times whether their loved on back home would still be waiting. This anxiety was given voice in a 1942 arrangement by the Andrew Sisters of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me.” ’til I come marching home.

The best-selling 1940s song was “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby in 1942. Whenever I hear those familiar lyrics —“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know —” I think of men in uniform listening to that recording on December 24th in some muddy foxhole in France or fighting through a Japanese-defended steaming jungle in the South Pacific. I think of Canadian veterans of Hong Kong, held for years in a prison camp. They would not be home for that Christmas. And many would not return at all.

Canadians also served in later decades. But neither the Korean conflict, various peace-keeping missions nor the more recent war in Afghanistan ever produced the wave of morale-boosting popular music which flooded the airwaves from 1939 to 1945.

On Thursday, we will remember them.