The White Cliffs Of Dover - Pop Music In World War Two

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at


    When I was a toddler in this war and being bred in northern England what I most remember, apart from warm comfort food, were the reassuring songs that floated from the heat-radiating radio—homegrown stuff like “Down forget-me-not Lane” and “We’ll meet again”. And there was promise that all would be well soon and there would once more be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover. My mother scoffed, stating that such birds were not native to our isles.” These Americans-- whatever next!” Indeed Walter Kent, who had written the words in New York safety, said he hoped one day to see these white cliffs.

       In 1945 my mother, in charge of us three children, was trying to alight from the train at King’s Cross when a strapping American flashing brilliantly in a well-tailored uniform of what looked like silk and stuck with colorful badges, came to her aid. ”Ain’t yer folks here to meet ya?” No, my father was still serving in the Royal Air Force. After offering us packs of chewing gum he set off at an impressive rolling gait, spreading glamour and singing about being “Deep In The Heart of Texas’, a most magical faraway place it sounded like…

       While Britain had its fill of troubles, America, at home, had prospered. War ended the Great Depression, there were plenty of jobs and the entertainment industry thrived. Big bands swelled to even forty players, with a row of strings. Many bandleaders joined the armed forces, most notably Glenn Miller, king of the swingers as far as the kid bobbysoxers were concerned. He and his outfit were sent to England where they astounded everybody. Erstwhile crooner Lt. Rudy Vallee kept the home fires burning with his Coast Guard Band.

       During the war the bands swung even more furiously, capitalizing on the youthful demand for rollicking, rattling, railroad-inspired numbers propelled by a boogie-woogie beat. There was “Chattanooga choo choo”, “GI Jive”, “Cow-Cow Boogie’, and a big band version by Tommy Dorsey of the original “Boogie-Woogie” first recorded by the inventor Pine-Top Smith in 1929. Curiously, jazz pianist Fats Waller abominated boogie and had it written into his   contract that he should never be forced to play such primitive trash.

       But where were the  up-and-at-’em songs that had graced World War One, when Tin Pan Alley had published more songs before or since? Stuff such as “Just like Washington crossed the Delaware General Pershing will cross the Rhine”. The polite ASCAP writers stuck to sophisticated romance ballads, leaving it to eccentric Frank Loesser to comment on the war with a witty paraphrase of words uttered by a navy chaplain during the Pearl Harbor raid of 1941:”Praise the lord and Pass the Ammunition”.

       Instead the war spirit was fostered by musicians on the fringe of pop – hillbillies who were carrying on the old Alley tradition.

       Record distributors reported huge sales of Bob Wills’s “White Cross in Okinawa”, Roy Acuff’s “Cowards Over Pearl Harbor” and Elton Britt’s “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere”.

       So during the war millions more people were exposed to hillbilly music and they found that they liked it. In wartime you got down to fundamentals and hillbilly kept it all close to the earth. “Time” magazine noticed that there was a “bull market in corn” (October 1943). How far did it spread? Mainly through war migrations. A two-way traffic was operating: Southerners were moving north to work in defense plants and bringing their home music demands with them. And Northerners, stationed in Dixie army camps, were bombarded with rural sounds from radio stations (600 hillbilly ones). Nashville, home of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry radio show was becoming the center of hillbilly music and this music was fast becoming an industry. In 1945 “Billboard”, already listing the hillbilly music as “folk”, predicted about country music that “when the war is over and normalcy returns it will be the field to watch.”

       Some of the hillbilly songs were hoisted into the realm of general pop recordings by mainstream bands and vocalists.”San Antonio Rose”, originally a hot number by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys was smoothed out into a hit for Bing Crosby. “Deep in the Heart of Texas” with its four audience participation claps was off limits for workers, especially for those working in munitions plants. “Pistol Packin’ Mama”, originally written and recorded by Texan Al Dexter and his troopers, became one of the biggest hits of the war mainly due to a cover version by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters-- and the subject of a lawsuit when Frank Sinatra refused to sing it on network radio.

       However the hillbilly category of pop was on the segregated fringe; most songs were still firmly made in Tin Pan Alley or the movies. They were ballads of comfort or solace, presented by crooners and croonettes (or song thrushes, as they were known in the trade). By war’s end big bands were fading and singers took center stage.

    In 1940 the top artists were all bandleaders, but by 1945 their top spots had been usurped by Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, The Andrews Sisters, and Dinah Shore. Sinatra set the tone for sad balladry with his first hit,” I’ll Walk Alone”, written by a woman whose husband had just died. Then there was ‘You walk by’; and “I don’t want to walk without you’. This was all buried, in 1942, by nostalgia for snow and sleigh bells in Irving Berlin’s catchy yearn by a fellow stuck in the pitiless sun of Beverly Hills and dreaming of a White Christmas”.

       This far-fetched idea was taken further afield by a craze for adaptations (or steals) of classical themes; they were good tunes and they were out of copyright. Thus there was Tony Martin’s “Tonight We Love” based on the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano concerto No. 1” and many more such steals. Latin America seasoned the perfumed alleys of Broadway with songs like “Besame Mucho”, “Amapola” and “Tico tico’’. American pop was straying far from the rarified air of New York.

       One of the biggest hits of the war years came from deep within the enemy camp.”Lili Marleen’ started life as a poem, by Hans Leip, a soldier on the Eastern Front in World War One. In the late 1930s Lale Anderson, a popular singer in Berlin cabarets, had a good folksy tune put to it by Norbert Schultze who would go on to compose such marches as “Bombs Over England.”

    In 1939 Miss Anderson recorded "Lili Marleen " on the Electrola label. In 1941 a radio station run by propaganda experts in Belgrade was in need of records to play for the troops in North Africa.“Lili” was programmed on a tape recording  (the Germans had invented magnetic tape) and was soon a big hit.  The allied armies picked it up and loved it equally. In Britain new lyrics were written by Tommie Connor after permission was granted by the Custodian of Enemy Copyrights.

       As “Lili Marlene” the song became a massive American hit in a definitive version by Marlene Dietrich. American pop was becoming eclectic and far-flung.

    By war’s end, soldiers and the public alike, sated by nuclear weapons and global violence, were tired of lines of blazing brass and mooing saxophones, tired of boogie beats .Instead they warmed to the one-on-one croon of solo singers like Dinah shore telling them winningly, “You’d be so nice to come Home to”—a nice suburban tract home with a humming fridge, sunny kids, a two-car garage and a dream of a hole in one. On the radio Bing Crosby, the people’s friend, pipe in hand and cardigan sitting comfortably, might be telling of “faraway places” they’d rather be in for ‘Now Is The Hour”, a song from New Zealand. Escape and be satisfied away from the world and its troubles.

    And away over in England I was responding to the flood of American comic books and movies with a killer thrill. Everything over there seemed to be drenched in Technicolor and home was drab in comparison. Disappointingly her songs were mostly about moony love; I would just have to wait for the arrival of rock & roll to complete my picture of America as a wonderland of instant excitement.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at