I have been reading John Denver's Autobiography Take Me Home. In it he mentions a phenomenon of his music as it correlates with the timing of the ending of the Vietnam War: "while the war in Vietnam was winding down . . . the song ["Sunshine on My Shoulders"] suddenly reached out to touch a deep chord of need in the country" (p. 131).
This reminded me of the phenomenon of Stephen Foster's music in the mid-1860s and how it allowed people the opportunity to "escape" the reality of the Civil War, which touched virtually every household in America, North and South. While his songs had been known and sung for years before the War, his popularity soared during the conflagration, especially towards the end when the country wearied of the seemingly endless conflict. (Read more on Foster in one of my earlier posts, 23 June 2009.) Having the opportunity to escape with "Beautiful Dreamer," the family gathered around the piano-forte to join together in song - no doubt mindful of the voices that were not included, having been silenced on the battlefields - providing people a chance to forget, even if only for a few moments, the ravages of war. Songs he had written years before the war were resurrected to be elements of escape for his many fans. Like Denver, he, too, died way before his time (he was only 38).
This comparison got me to thinking about whether or not WWI and WWII also had their entertainment escape options, providing the country with a way to leave the war behind for a short moment. During and before the Civil War, the people's entertainment (outside of the home) was the Minstrel Show (often incorporating Stephen Foster songs), but following that time period in history, the minstrel shows died out and were replaced by Vaudeville. Here, again, was a place where the atrocities of WWI could be escaped for the mere price of admission; and, with Edison's gramophone now found in most homes, people could "bring the music home" to play in their own parlors. To read more about this means of entertainment, check out the website that declares vaudeville to be "a dazzling display of heterogeneous splendor" by Rick Caston.
Also popular during WWI was a man whose music provided both patriotic songs and escape music in WWII as well: Irving Berlin. In WWI, Berlin wrote more about the war; in WWII, while contributing many songs to create a sense of American unity (e.g., "God Bless America," written in 1938), Berlin also wrote to help people forget war. The 1940s is marked, musically, by such productions as "White Christmas" and "Holiday Inn," great escapes, both. Berlin's 60-year career contributed a lasting legacy of music in America.
Musical theater also provided Americans with a means to escape war in the 1940s: Meet Me in St. Louis and Going My Way, both produced in 1944, are perfect examples.
So, whether it was gathering around the piano-forte in the parlor as a group of family members and friends, singing from the sheet music of Stephen Foster, getting out of the house to attend a vaudeville show or musical theater production of Irving Berlin's during the early- to mid-1900s, or singing along with the radio in the car "with" John Denver, Americans have found ways to musically side-step the wars of the times. In a way, since the popularity of these composers and media have been so universally accepted, they have served to unite Americans, even if their personal views on the respective wars have differed.
One is left to wonder if there is such a uniting force at work today, in the musical world, to allow us such an escape from what is currently happening overseas. Perhaps that is a personal issue, with less singing in group gatherings and more people listening privately to MP3s on personal players instead of as a group gathered around the radio or phonograph. And perhaps the escape elements are things that must be examined after the fact. Perhaps we shall see.