Soldiers and Swingsters, Brothers in Arms: Why was there no Anti-War Swing?

While soldiers fought across Europe, one American jazzman wrote a song urging leaders to “Stop the War.” But was Wingy Manone sincere in his plea? And why didn’t more swing musicians take up this pacifist cry? I wondered why anti-war swing wasn’t a thing.

From Vietnam to the Gulf, music has ranged its troops opposite those with rifles and tanks. Tunes protesting war abound, with left-leaning folk songsters often leading the charge against violence. But the battle lines drawn between artists and soldiers were not always so clear; there is almost nothing which could be called anti-war swing.

In 1941, when war knocked on America’s door at Pearl Harbor, the 15-year Swing Era was already eight years old. Music was the nation’s dominant cultural force; jazz orchestras ruled the pop charts and swing soloists were household names, as jazz critic Scott Yanow notes in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music. Swing was what all the hep cats danced to, if they could find space on the overcrowded floors of the Savoy or elsewhere.GI and USO Hostess Swing Dance

When Japan attacked, composers quickly returned fire with a barrage of morale-boosting melodies, and pro-war jazz standards number in the dozens. As the first war fought in the electronic age (with nine in ten households owning a radio by 1940), Axis-smashing anthems like “G.I. Jive” and “V-Day Stomp” could be blasted to almost every home in the nation.

The Great War’s poets had penned plenty of verses condemning it, and songs like Alf Bryan’s “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” were written and popularly sung during that conflict. But, while that ditty was repurposed (as “It’s Time for Every Boy to Be a Soldier”) after the Lusitania was sunk, 1930s jazz was much more jingoistic from the off.

Soldiers and Swingsters, Brothers in Arms: Why was there no Anti-War Swing?The sole outlier seems to be Wingy Manone’s 1941 composition, titled “Stop The War (The Cats Are Killin’ Themselves).” Recorded nine months before Japan’s sneak attack on the States, this record opens with a cascade of falling bombs and bullet bursts, seeing ships blown up, planes brought down, and soldiers machine gunned.

“Put away the guns, put the bombs on the shelf,” the one-armed trumpeter urges, “stop the war, the cats are killin’ themselves.” With eerie prescience, he relates how “a big bomb hit a boat out in the sea” and “the sailors jumped up, hollered ‘whatcha doin’ to me?’”

But its apparent distaste for violence is unique, within swing. The comprehensive archive of anti-violence music at www.antiwarsongs.org has a section devoted to World War I, but none dedicated to its even bloodier sequel. Google “songs that won World War Two” and dozens of lists appear; search for swing songs protesting the conflict and the internet comes up blank.

Dr Sheldon Winkler, author of The Music of World War II, confirms that this is no computer glitch. “In all the lectures I have presented and the panels I have been a part of, I have never been asked about anti-war songs,” he said in response to my email. “I checked all of my books [on that era] and found nothing on anti-war sentiment.”

Dr Winkler—who, at 87, can remember the conflict—was clear on the cause of this pro-war bias. “With patriotism at an all-time high, all opposition to the war was frowned upon,” he said. Indeed, when America First Committee chairman Charles Lindbergh condemned it, President Roosevelt called the aviator a Nazi.

Soldiers and Swingsters, Brothers in Arms: Why was there no Anti-War Swing?So was Wingy—no stranger to carnage, after losing his arm in a tram accident—alone amongst jazz musicians in decrying this bloody conflict as it raged? Not necessarily, says Scott, who reckons Wingy wrote “Stop The War” “with tongue in cheek.” “Some leftist [musicians] were against the war on principles’ sake. There were some songs making fun of life in the army, but they weren’t really anti-war since fighting the Nazis was pretty popular.”

He added: “Most of [Wingy’s] recordings were not exactly serious and ‘Stop The War’ is not exactly a political protest.” Certainly, nothing else in the jazzman’s discography pushes pacifism. Indeed, his catalog is low on war-themed songs; only 1944’s “General Jumped at Dawn,” which sees the officer promise a “barbecue in Berlin” after finishing with the führer.

Swing music generally avoided attacking the war head-on, though it certainly took indirect part in the fighting. Martyn Beeny wrote a PhD thesis on the subject, titled Music Worth Fighting For, in which he describes a “fine and productive balance” between the music industry and the American war machine.

Some “khaki-whacky” numbers, like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Rum and Coca Cola,” put a fun spin on the soldier lifestyle. Meanwhile, “slush” songs like “I’ll Be Seeing You” bemoaned the separation and sadness; but even “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” imagined a victorious soldier marching home to his love, having kicked Hitler in the pants.

Soldiers and Swingsters, Brothers in Arms: Why was there no Anti-War Swing?“There was so much support for American efforts to join and fight the war after Pearl Harbor that it didn’t make sense to song writers and publishers to release music that would have been against that sentiment; they wouldn’t have sold any [records],” said Martyn. “The kind of music that appealed to people was friendly, unassuming, melodious and irrefutably American. It’s no wonder that the song publishers didn’t write songs expressing anti-war rhetoric; this would not have been irrefutably American.”

Music historians the Youngs called it “the Good War; one that few Americans challenged in any way.” Thus swing did not condemn the fighting, or demand that troops return; rather, as Martyn found, the music “supported, coerced, provided hope, boosted morale, joined those separated, and most importantly, gave a reason to fight.” He added: “Popular music in World War Two, unlike during other wars, sought to entertain and help win the war, and has thus cemented its place in the collective memory of that war.” (See, William and Nancy Young, Music of the World War II Era.)

Soldiers and Swingsters, Brothers in Arms: Why was there no Anti-War Swing?In fact, Martyn found that “the war produced almost no music with lyrics that dealt directly with death, danger, fear, or loss”. Instead, “the lyrics were uniformly positive and uplifting in a conventional manner”, while the “few songs that did have lyrics confronting such issues avoided specifically mentioning them, instead they hinted at them or skirted around them.” He added: “The phonograph replayed for many of those in harm’s way a variety of musical sounds that evoked friends, hopes, schools, dance halls, and soda shops that they had left behind.”

Tin Pan Alley songwriters were “patriotic to a fault,” Martyn noted, which was crucial in keeping morale up on the battlefield and at home. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt noted: “Entertainment is always a national asset. Invaluable in times of peace, it is indispensable in wartime,” adding that “all those who are working in the entertainment industry are building and maintaining national morale both on the battlefront and on the home front.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower knew the power of music too, adding: “War is fought in many ways, by fighting at the front, by transportation, communication, supply lines, and by maintaining the morale of the soldiers who must bear the brunt of it.” Artists would benefit from this fact directly, as musicians were drafted with instruments in hand rather than being handed a rifle. Many would spend the war years practicing their craft for the entertainment of troops, rather than wallowing in trenches like artists of the previous war.

Soldiers and Swingsters, Brothers in Arms: Why was there no Anti-War Swing?The moral imperative to help whip Hitler was emphasized by the creation of the National Wartime Music Committee (NWMC) and its successor the Music War Committee (MWC), which cast the government’s critical eye over potential releases. Even the most die-hard die-hard pacifists would get behind war; in 1941, Pete Seeger and The Almanac Singers released Songs for John Doe. Alongside folk classics like “Billy Boy” and “Eliza Jane,” the album featured overtly anti-war songs like “C for Conscription” and “The Strange Death of John Doe,” killed by “a bayonet in the side.”

The disc was suppressed, decried as anti-American even before that country had entered the conflict. Suspicions abounded that Seeger and co had been ordered to release it by Comintern, the Communist Party’s international unseen hand. But even these ardent conscientious objectors reversed their stance when Nazi Germany invaded Communist Russia; Seeger even joined the army to serenade the troops, after penning a pro-war anthology Dear Mr. President.

Clearly then, opposing America’s entry into the war was bad for business, politically unpopular and likely to get a musician branded an enemy of the state. What then of Wingy’s apparent, one-time potshot at the conflict? Maybe “Stop the War” was a joke. Wingy was, after all, a radio and silver screen comedian as well as a musician. Maybe it was an earnest protest which he quickly recanted, like Seeger, when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Information is scant; his 1948 biography Trumpet on the Wing (replete with his beloved jive talk) makes but one mention of the war; a passing reference to a 1943 engagement with Mildred Bailey, at the Bama Club, “a place near a big army camp, which was patronized by officers.”

Perhaps Wingy just wanted to forget the carnage and move on with life, three years after VJ Day. But he seems to have sided with his contemporaries, who believed that producing anti-war records while Americans were dying for liberty would have been a clambake; another solid bringer-downer, when cats everywhere were just flipping their wigs for a killer-diller riff.

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