A different track

This week, I have been busy laying out a small exhibition in the Anderson Room to commemorate the start of the Second World War.

I had a very clear idea in my head of what I was going to do – an exhibition based around some wartime favourites: There’ll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover, Lilli Marlene, Moonlight Serenade, Bella Ciao, and the famous timpani version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – Morse code for Churchill’s Victory V, the sound of the BBC broadcasting to Europe throughout the war years.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, and reflecting wartime conditions, the exhibition ended up being rather different to my original intentions. It is though, I believe, perhaps a truer reflection of the times.

There are surprising gaps in the music collections received under the Legal Deposit Act here at Cambridge during the Second World War. As might be expected with war time shortages, far less music is published than usual. We only have 7 shelves, for example, for the smaller size popular music from 1939-45, compared to 12 for the equivalent period in the late ’20s-early ’30s. Initially much of the music was very plain, and printed on cheap paper and occasionally thick card. There are a surprisingly large number of band parts, there is music to aid the war effort and to keep spirits high, and a good dose of satire.

Following the declaration of war in September 1939, a substantial amount of music was published reflecting national songs of the Allies. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Polish music seems to have been particularly popular, though the publishers seem to have been less enthusiastic about possible performances. One item – Poland’s soul has not departed (Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła), the national anthem of Poland, has a stern warning for patriotic performers “The copying of this work by hand in any form – on blackboard or on paper – is strictly forbidden as contrary to the Copyright Act, 1911.”

In May 1940, with an invasion of Britain apparently imminent, the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to become popularly known as the Home Guard, were formed, a selection of band music was swiftly published to celebrate this enterprise. Other celebrations included the poignant song The little ships will sail again by Australian songwriter, Jack O’Hagan. This may have been in part a tribute to the flotilla of small boats who rescued the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk, but it was also nostalgia for a time when it was possible to go for a day’s sailing without having to count the cost. It was also a tribute to the rather larger ships that braved convoy duty throughout the war. Noel Coward’s London Pride similarly became a tribute to the city, and its people as the Blitz raged through late 1940.

An unexpected item in the exhibition is the song For Britain’s Freedom, composed for Crayford Urban District Council‘s efforts for War Weapons Week 24th-31st May 1941. Crayford would have been at the heart of the action during the Battle of Britain, then part of Kent, now part of Greater London, it was near Dartford, which was hit many times both during the Blitz, and by the later V1 and V2 rocket attacks.

Despite the grim situation, the British love of satire was never far away. One great example following the unexpected arrival of Rudolf Hess in Scotland in 1941 was the song Thanks for dropping in, Mr. Hess. It’s actually quite surprising that we received a copy of this, as the War Office was less than impressed by the song, and banned it for the duration, fearing that it would damage morale.

Less contentious was Oh what a surprise for the Duce, following the initially abortive invasion of Greece by the Italians in October 1940.

By 1943 some rather more colourful covers were turning up. Many of these were from the United States, who provided a mirror to the British Home Front – the American I’ll see you at Christmas (if only in my dreams), is reflected in the British One day it will all be over; while the Hollywood movie, You can’t ration love, would have found a response in food-rationed Britain.

A British song, Got any gum, chum, has an exuberant cover of an American GI, and an awed small English boy meeting his very first “Yank”. The GI has a definite look of the Superhero about him. In contrast to this, is the laconic British We don’t know where we’re going until we’re there. This must have been a familiar song to many soldiers in the run-up to D-day, moving from one training area to another, with little explanation, or sense of moving forward.

One of the most unexpected finds in the boxes of wartime music was a cache of material from the Workers’ Music Association. Founded in 1936 by composer, Alan Bush, the Association sprang out of a festival of the Labour Choral Union, and Co-operative Musical Associations. Some of the more unusual items include music for revues held during the war in the Unity Theatre, King’s Cross. The theatre itself had some shared political origins with the Music Association, arising from agitprop street theatre of the 1930s, and the Workers’ Theatre Movement. Headed by Una Brandon-Jones, Unity had an all-girl revue troupe – the Amazons, who toured factories and air-raid shelters, providing an extraordinarily liberal, and feminist, voice for the women, who worked in munitions, and dealt with everyday life on the Home Front.

We have the music, but sadly not the poster…

We’re not entirely sure here in the Music Department, why we received so little in the way of well-loved wartime music. All of the songs that I mention in the first paragraph, except for Lilli Marlene – more on her in a later post, never arrived except in much later editions. It’s possible that publishing was badly affected by the Blitz – the area, around Denmark Street, home to many of the UK popular music publishers, was particularly badly hit; however I know from personal experience that this music was published, and was available during the war. Perhaps the publishers were more concerned with keeping up wartime morale by selling their music, than sending copies to Legal Deposit Libraries? Perhaps Legal Deposit music was lost in wartime action? It is a mystery that will probably never be solved.

Meanwhile, the exhibition runs until the middle of December – do come and see it. Information on how to get a reader’s ticket, if you don’t already have one, can be found here.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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2 Responses to A different track

  1. Very interesting – many thanks


  2. Reblogged this on Claimed From Stationers' Hall and commented:
    From an era a century later than our project’s focus, we encounter legal deposit again – at Cambridge University Library. The practical impact of the Second World War? A disruption in the supply of legal deposit music!


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