Music As A Mirror Of A Society’s Feelings Toward War Essay

Such tragic events, as wars, do have their serious impact upon the societies, making them change. Each war is meaningful for any society and causes large changes and new mores, which are related to the extent, to which the nation was affected by that war. All wars have their common features and at the same time they are different and their traces of change for the societies also differ. World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Iraq war were serious conflicts for the American society, causing long-term change in social customs and ways of thinking. In addition there is a direct connection between the war impacts and pop culture within the country. There are a lot of different aspects of pop culture, which could be considered as addressing the war issues, but music is probably one of the best. The strong point of the music is that it is easily available and gives the opportunity to find the themes of continuity and change, which take place during certain periods of time. The role of music during the wartime has changed during the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. Studying the songs of the wars and of the periods after the wars, it is possible to trace these social changes. Music could play the role for the military recruitment practices, as the way to increase the public support for the world conflict, at the same time during the Vietnam War music became the outlet for humans for their anti-war protests and criticism of the government for their decisions, related to the war. Such serious changes are related to the transformation of the public opinion, as the media became less filtered and controlled, the music became correspondingly uncensored and could be used as a tool for expressing of radical position. The war times were hard, but they made the culture more democratic. Investigation of the music of each of the war periods and after war periods could be of great help for tracing of the changes in the society, caused by those historical events. Moreover there is a difference between the times of World War I and World War II , the Vietnam War and the Iraq war as there is an evident shift from pro-war public position towards anti-war opinion, causing divisions in the American society.

The concept “war song” was developed in order to define the songs, which were released during the war period. Usually these war songs were devoted to the topics of the conflict, human feelings and desire to return home. There are a lot of generally prevailing themes, which could be found in the songs, devoted to different wars, for example the themes of fulfilling of one’s duty, separation of the loving persons, critical perception of the conflict, motivating the soldiers and so on. It is important to underline the strong connection between music and society. In fact this connection was studied long time ago by Plato in The Republic, where he assumed that music could have impact not only upon individuals, but also upon the whole societies. So he stated that it was possible to utilize musical expressions for various aims “when modes of music change…the State always changes with them.” (Plato 2008). It is challenging to trace the same situations by the World Wars. Music has proved to be strong enough to contribute to building morale and mobilizing the masses. Confusion during the military conflict could also be eased with the help of music.

All musicians have their impact upon their societies, either they have or they do not have such intention. The words of the songs and the music itself belong to powerful means of public influence and persuasion. Some songs might even contribute to shaping of the personalities of the younger audiences and contribute to formation of their identity. The popular music has always been a part of the culture. The lyric of any time is the reflection of the cultural peculiarities of the nations during certain historical period. During the period of the Middle Ages the music and the whole cultural sphere was under the strict control of the Catholic Church, then the situation changed and the music tastes started to change rather quickly under the impact of various historical events and political issues. Music has its moral impact upon the society. Morality is defined as “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior” (Merriam Webster 2018). Certainly music could not be considered the only influential factor for building the moral portrait of the younger generations; still its impact should never be underestimated. Emotional impact of music is evident upon all individuals irrespective of their age or historical events. However, it is intensified during the periods of unrest or wartime. Music has the great potential and it could change the mood, make an individual reconsider the atmosphere or encourage certain behaviors or motivate for some actions or choices. To conclude here, music has the power to impact societies culturally, morally and emotionally and thus intentional use of the words and sounds could be turned into sending concrete messages to the audience. 

During the times of World War I, when the radio was not available in every family, it was possible to make calculations of sheet music purchases in order to make conclusions about popularity of this or that song. “Many of the songs prior to the United States’ involvement in World War I reflected strong support for neutrality. Such melodies included Blanche Merrill’s“We Take Our Hats Off to You, Mr. Wilson” sung by Nora Bayes and Fanny Brice in 1914. In the song, Wilson is hailed as “the world’s great mediator” because his “pen is greater than the sword.”6 1914 was the first year of the Great War and under President Wilson the United States remained neutral despite the conflict overseas.” (Watkins 2003). Americans did not support that involvement into the war, as they were convinced that it was the fight of a different country and not of America. Most of them supported the role of Wilson, as the peacekeeper and mediator. However, changes in the public opinion upon the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 could be traced. As soon as the story was made public with the help of American newspapers, most of the American citizens were outraged at the fact of using of submarine warfare by Germany without any restrictions. But still most of the Americans did not support the idea of entering the war. When the process of mobilization of troops was launched in America, songs, which revealed the protest for the war, appeared, and it is not correct to assume that absolutely all World War I songs were written in support of the war. “There was a presence of openly pacifist sentiment reflected in song, mostly through the eyes of parenthood. According to the Billboard charts, Al Bryan’s “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” was a very popular song at its release in 1915. With lines like “Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder/ To shoot some other mother’s darling boy,” the message of the song implies that war would be nonexistent if more mothers spoke out in opposition.” (Cleveland 1994).  This was of great popularity in 1915, but in 1917 the situation changed, as the country entered the war. Later this song was even rewritten and received the title “It’s Time for Every Boy to Be a Soldier.” Other World War I songs were written to arouse patriotism among American citizens. “The American flag became an icon in songwriting and the focus of many war anthems. In fact, the national anthem “Star-Spangled Banner” was made popular in 1914, even though it was penned by Francis Scott Key a century earlier. After it reemerged, it remained an important rallying song and was used constantly at public events.” (Watkins 2003). One of the most famous songs of World War I period was George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” It was released soon after the country entered the war and it contained motivation for all citizens to support and be proud of their close people, going to war. The tempo of the music reminded the troops arching very much. The song maintained its popularity till the end of the war. When World War I was over, the sense of emerging change was intense. A lot of soldiers returned from the war with the intention to leave their small towns and start their new lives. The hit of 1919 “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?),” was devoted exactly to this theme. Researching the lyrics of the times of World War I, it is possible to trace how the music reflected different views of people and their positions. Upon the end of the war most of the American people came to realize that their country has changed immensely, as well as the people, living there became different.

During the years of World War II music continued to be the perfect reflection of the variety of human feelings about that conflict. “The changes in society following the Great War were illustrated through several war songs and, as one historian states, mirrored a “corresponding shift away from homogeneity of America during World War I.” (Young 2008). Technological innovations and changes, which took place between the two wars, contributed to creating a new stage for the musical scene. The major source of the media was radio and in the 1920s and 1930s all the information was obtained with the help of radio. Statistically people were listening to the radio up to four hours every day. More and more radios were available in private homes. This was also the moment, when the federal government also came to realize the actual effect of the media upon citizens of the country. Thus in June 1942 the Office of War Information (OWI) was created. The major aim of this institution was to secure building of the needed morale and seizing control over the information, which is spread about the war. Willian and Nancy Young in their book Music of the World War II Era commented about OWI:

The OWI hired artists to create propaganda posters on subjects as varied as rationing and saboteurs, put together several hundred newsreels about both the war and the home front to show in theaters…and utilized radio by producing numerous broadcast series that heightened public awareness about current events. (Young 2008).

Then also the National Wartime Music Committee was created by Elmer Davis – the head of the Office of War Information. The main aim of this committee was to make the evaluations of the war songs for the general public. Those songs, which motivated and encouraged the troops, were supported and spread. However, the more was the government involved into controlling of the music, the less melodies attracted attention of the public and finally the committee voted itself out of existence in 1943. “Of all of the songs the NWMC released, only two were popular in the American mainstream. “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” both became big hits, with the latter going to number one on Billboard in early1943.  “Praise the Lord” told a story of a pilot who encouraged a group of gunners to keep fighting the good fight: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition/ And we’ll all stay free.” (Loesser 1942).

Along with the onset of World War II, the themes of the songs started to change and there was an evident isolationist tendency in them, as most of the popular songs argued about putting the American issues to the top priorities, instead of focusing upon European affairs. Further the events in Pearl Harbor changed the attitude of the American people towards the war. After the attack there were no more isolationist songs, most of the songs motivated to go off to war and were devoted to their effects upon soldiers and their families. One of the brightest examples was We’ll Meet Again by Hughie Charles, which was not popular upon its release in 1939, but won extreme popularity after the Pearl Harbor attack. There appeared a lot of songs about hope, making people believe that soon everything will be good again and the world will be free. One of the examples could be the hit Sentimental Journey, telling the story of the loved ones returning home. Thus it is evident that during the war years the listeners wanted the music to remind them about their close and beloved people and about their homes. “Another category of music that was popular was the upbeat dance songs featuring servicemen. Referred to as “khaki-wacky” songs, these hits described middle and working class girls becoming infatuated with the soldier persona. The phrase “every woman loves a man in uniform” comes to mind with many of these songs.” (Jones 2006).

The U.S. presence in Iraq was also reflected with the help of music. Starting from the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were a lot of hits, which revealed the protest against this war. There were two songs, which received the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2004 and in 2009. The first hit was American Idiot, expressing the idea that America plunged into the atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia. The song criticized the Bush administration. One more song – 21 Guns – was not openly an anti-war song, however the audience built strong association with the twenty-one gun salute, which is usually performed during the funerals of the fallen soldiers.

The Vietnam War is considered to be a serious turning point in the research of the war music in America. Before most of the songs were related to the pro-war themes, Vietnam made the audience change the attitude to many things. This was the first time in the history of the country, when the number of the protesting against the war songs outweighed the number of pro-war songs. Most probably this was also possible thanks to spreading of more information to the public via unfiltered media resources. The overall role of the media was changing in the 1960s and this had impact upon the connection between war and music and perception of both. Television had entered the lives of the American citizens and provided much more opportunities to obtain detailed information about the actual state of things. There was a lot of information about social unrest and Civil Rights efforts distributed with the help of television. A great number of American citizens were not aware of the Vietnam situation until 1965 and Operation Rolling Thunder. There was already no chance to express any kind of neutrality, like it was at the beginning of both world wars. A lot of citizens questioned the authority and their government and refused to accept their reasons to enter the war in Vietnam. Thus, no wonder that during this period a great number of anti-war songs became popular. “Prior to that time many musicians were silent about the war. It was not until Americans themselves began to change their opinion about their presence in Vietnam that many musicians in the record industry began to market protest.” (Bindas, Houston 1989). The escalation of the protest songs is often associated with the song by Tom Paxton “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation,” released in 1965. Paxton was utterly critical towards the policy of the president of the country and expressed his attitude in the following lines:

“Lyndon Johnson told the nation, “Have no fear of escalation.

I am trying everyone to please. Though it isn’t really war,

We’re sending fifty thousand more,

To help save Vietnam from Vietnamese.” (Paxton1965)

The post –war examples of music reflected different attitudes and positions of the people. George Crumb’s quartet Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land expressed critical perception of the Vietnam War. This music was an attempt to make the audience reconsider the concepts of friends and enemies and find the points, which could connect them. Crumb used numerology, extended vocal techniques and cyclicality for reflecting of that historical moment after the war. Black Angels did not support any of the sides, instead they rejected the conventions of popular memory.

Overall, analysis of the songs, related to wars in the twentieth and twenty-first century leads to the conclusion that the music during wartimes represents the reflection of the opinions of the American citizens, however, they are subject to change, which could be caused by additional sources of information, depending upon the fact, whether they are filtered or not. Also there is a great difference between the songs of the war time and post-war periods. During the war motivating and encouraging songs became hits, as people going to war and those, who remained at home, needed support first of all. The songs of the after-war periods served to memorize the war heroes or simply the fallen soldiers.

Works cited:

Bindas, Kenneth J., Houston, Craig. “‘Takin’ Care of Business’: Rock Music, Vietnam and the Protest Myth,”. Historian 52, 1989

Cleveland, Les. “Singing Warriors: Popular Songs in Wartime,” Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 3, 1994

Jones, John Bush. The Songs that Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-

1945. Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2006

Loesser, Frank. “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” 1942

“morality.” Merriam-Webster, 2018

Paxton, Tom. “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation,” Ain’t That News, Elektra, 1965

Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett. Forgotten Books, 2008

Watkins, Glenn. Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003

Young, William H., Young, Nancy K. Music of the World War II Era. Westport, C.T.: Greenwood Press, 2008

The terms offer and acceptance. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016.

[Accessed: October 27, 2021] (2016) The terms offer and acceptance [Online].
Available at:

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]
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