In Victory through Harmony: The BBC and Popular Music in World War II (Oxford 2011), Christina Baade delivers a fascinating account of the BBC’s activities during the Second World War. Victory through Harmony won a Choice Outstanding Academic Title in 2012, and will be out in paperback later this year. It is a worthwhile read, and not only because the book demonstrates an impressive command of the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham Park, near Reading, which contains a huge amount of materials chronicling the BBC’s involvement and influence in musical and cultural Britain. There is an overwhelming amount of material, but Christina delivers the information in a format beyond just a blow-by-blow account, including a helpful synthesis of the integral—and sometimes subversive–place of popular music in Britain during World War II. Christina and I had a long conversation over Skype this summer, complemented by an e-mail exchange.
Samantha Bassler: What were the origins of this study — was it your PhD topic? How did it evolve as a topic, and what made you interested in this topic for the dissertation?
Christina Baade: I first encountered the topic in a seminar on “The Dangerous in Music,” taught by David Crook at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, when I was a grad student. While looking around for a term paper topic, I ran across a passage reporting that the BBC had banned crooners during the Second World War. “That’s strange. Why?” I thought. The question launched me on a term paper in which I explored popular music and propaganda at the wartime BBC. There were themes of gender, sexuality, and nationalism, interesting musical genres, and intriguing series like Music While You Work, which was broadcast in factories—all bound together by this powerful public broadcaster and total war. I was hooked, and I began to think about it as a possible dissertation topic.
Fortunately, I was able to speak with Michele Hilmes, a radio and media scholar at Wisconsin, who had begun to do a great deal of research on the BBC (see her 2011 book, Networked Nations). She urged me to visit the BBC Written Archives Centre, which I was able to do when I went to a conference in London. It’s a great archive—a beautiful space, knowledgeable staff, lots of people doing interesting research on a wide range of topics, and a huge breadth of material. When I began looking through my first set of files, I was amazed at the level of detail they contained and the sheer quantity of documents. So, I had a topic that fascinated me; a topic that would touch on larger questions on the interrelationship between music and media, popular music and gender, and transatlantic musical exchanges; and the archival material to ground my discussions.
As a general piece of advice for young researchers, how did you manage to organize your book? If from your dissertation, for example, did you write your dissertation as a book, or develop it after the dissertation was completed? Any general advice on getting a book published and the process involved, or on writing for publishing early on in academia?
The book covers many of the same topics as my dissertation, but it is a very different piece of writing. In many ways, I look at the dissertation as my first draft attempt to work through a massive archive of material. After I finished, I spent a number of years focusing on articles and conference papers, in which I dug deeper into jazz, gender issues, and issues of Americanization. The book I proposed and eventually wrote was much tighter thematically and theoretically than the dissertation, and I think it benefited from my growth as a scholar in those intervening years.
So, I’m certainly no model for how to quickly turn one’s dissertation into a book. My general advice is to not be afraid of revision and rethinking, to use shorter papers and publications as opportunities to work out questions related to the book project, and to speak with mentors and people in your field about which presses are the best fit for your work. I also found the peer review process at OUP to be enormously beneficial. It wasn’t just a hurdle before contract and publication; rather, it was an opportunity to get really useful feedback from both Norm Hirschy, the editor with whom I worked, and the anonymous reviewers. Even if OUP had decided not to publish my book, it would have been better for having gone through the peer review process there. I’m sure that’s true for many presses.
I was very interested in the idea of the ‘Phony War’ and the BBC’s involvement in it. Have you seen this web site? Really interesting. Clearly, the British as a people are partly defined because of how they suffered during WWII. How do you think this war shaped their music tastes, or do you think that the same type of music would have been popular whether there was a war or not?
That’s a great website. I used it in researching VE Day and music for the book’s conclusion. I think the site speaks a great deal to the BBC’s continued role in shaping and promoting narratives of British national identity—here, using an interactive, online platform to create a public, accessible (and highly searchable!) archive of people’s wartime accounts. Really cool.
This is a bit speculative, of course, but I think the war amplified tastes that already existed while also contributing to certain structural situations (less stable big bands because of the call up, fewer gramophone releases, larger gatherings of youth, American GIs in Britain) that made the offering of different musics more or less viable. I think these forces definitely converged to make swing, as played by the big dance bands and also by small, sometimes interracial combos, much more popular than it had been before the war. I also think the war created an environment where people looked to music for reassurance and escape. Performers like Vera Lynn became so huge, I think, because they helped fulfill this desire, because they were sincere and “of the people,” and also because the BBC became willing to promote women crooners as soloists and “personalities.” And then, there was strict-tempo dance music, which a huge number of people LOVED. Social dance, specifically the English-style ballroom dance that was popular in the big dance halls, played a big role in its popularity before the war—and dancing became one of the major forms of entertainment during the war (along with cinema-going and pub-going). But, people also liked to listen to it—I’m sure the regular rhythm, straightforward melodies, and mellow timbres were a big attraction at a point when there was a lot of complexity and uncertainty.
With regards to discussion of publishing firms in London: As far as which music was published and popularized, and which was not, how much was this dictated by the BBC, how much by public civilians, and how much by the soldiers? Furthermore, could you comment on the differences between Tin Pan Alley and the US system of music publishing, and that which existed at the same time in Britain?
That question seems to get to the chicken and egg culture industry debate: is popular music liked because it is what the public wants or because that’s what the industry gives them? I don’t think the answer is either/or. In terms of the BBC, it definitely had a key gatekeeping role. It was hard for publishers to promote their songs if they weren’t played on the BBC, although a song featured in a film (particularly a big budget American film) might have a chance. I see two big differences between US and UK music publishing. First, the US system was bigger and richer and had close ties to Hollywood, the big commercial radio networks, and the MCA, which managed touring for most of the big bands. It was also influential abroad—through Hollywood films and ties to, say, British firms. The British publishers were smaller and did not enjoy a similar reach into the US market. Second, British publishers had to contend with the BBC, which had an ambivalent relationship with commercial music, given its imperatives of public service and cultural uplift.
The discussion of British musical tastes and their relationship to masculinity during wartime and also to gender and race during WWII is fascinating. It seems to tie into the public’s idea of what good British music is, even if it goes in opposition to what the BBC promoted and allowed to have majority airplay. I am particularly interested in how they describe the musical stylings of what isn’t suitable for major airplay, in addition to the vocal stylings. What was it about the music itself, or more the performance and the portrayal of the music?
There were two sites where I found that these discussions coalesced: around the program Music While You Work and in the work of the Dance Music Policy Committee, which formed in 1942 to combat sentimentality and “slushiness” in dance music—something that was seen as a real threat to the nation’s morale at a point when the war wasn’t going very well. Music While You Work had a myriad of guidelines in terms of tempo, instrumentation, dynamics, genres, and of course NO SINGERS. But, that was for factory broadcasts, which involved real challenges of sound reproduction, and a special audience of workers, which many envisioned as female and unaccustomed to assembly line work. In terms of the “crooner ban” of 1942, the focus really was upon the singing voice. Well, first, BBC staff thought they could focus on the sheet music itself and not the performance. I think that perspective shows how little most members of the Dance Music Policy Committee “got” popular music. There is, of course, a much wider gap between sheet music and a dance band’s interpretation than between a symphonic score and an orchestra’s performance. Focusing on sheet music allowed the committee to vet lyrics and to spot the (banned) use of classical melodies, but that was about it. When they began to vet performances, the focus in the minutes of the committee’s meetings was upon singers. I think that had a lot to do with the low status of so many singers: they were usually paid less than instrumentalists, were regarded as less “professional,” and tended to occupy a feminized position. The most effective way of promoting sheet music sales was singing a song’s lyrics, so they were also associated with the most commercial element of a band’s performance, and the BBC was always suspicious of commercialism. My interpretation of the archive is that the committee most objected to vocal timbres, techniques, and styles that drew upon crooning (as opposed to musical theatre) and to American accents. It was about resisting Americanization as well as discouraging sentimentality, which many older listeners considered to be effeminate and thus (!) deleterious to the war effort.
The only instrument that got nearly the same degree of scrutiny as singers was the theatre organ. There was a lot of criticism of theatre organists for the fact that they did not play “true” organ repertory (i.e., church music) and their overuse of the tremulant. I’m sure that it also didn’t help that they were associated closely with the cinema, the site of American films, matinee idols, and film-”obsessed” young women. Although highbrows tended to disdain them, they were hugely popular before and during the war, and one of the BBC’s most popular broadcasters (as measured by his weekly count of fan letters and requests) was the BBC’s resident theatre organist, Sandy Macpherson.
Samantha Bassler is PhD student at the Open University, with master’s degrees in musicology from both Oxford and Rutgers Universities. Samantha’s research interests include London antiquarian societies, Radiohead, and sixteenth-century representations of the disabled feminine body. Samantha is adjunct at Rutgers University, Newark, and Westminster Choir College; her articles appear in Music Theory Online and postmedieval.
Christina Baade is associate professor in Communication Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her current projects include a co-edited collection on music and broadcasting (contracted by OUP) and a book on popular music, performance, and cultural memory.