Remembering Vera Lynn

I had decided not to do a post on Dame Vera Lynn, who passed away yesterday, aged 103. She was, after all, representative of an era before the singles chart came into being. Born during WWI (just think about that for a second!), she began singing with dance bands before going on to become the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’, singing traditional pop songs that kept spirits up among the public and the armed forces during the second world war. Plus, there are plenty of obituaries doing the rounds, by people who know much more about her than me.

278244fd90f7ae50a1da1be746f6a0bf

But, she did have a #1 single: ‘My Son, My Son’ in 1954. You can read my original post on that here. (I don’t think I was wildly complimentary about the song, but hey ho.) Plus, she was the first non-American artist to reach #1 on the US Billboard charts, with ‘Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart’, in 1952.

On top of that… I was doing some browsing in the wake of her death, and read some really interesting stories about her. For example, that she played an anti-heroin benefit gig with Hawkwind, organised by Pete Townshend, in the eighties. And that she rocked up to Brighton Pride aged 92, to support the Brighton and Hove Gay Men’s Chorus in another charity performance. And that she sued the British National Party for using her signature tune, ‘We’ll Meet Again’, in an ad campaign. (I suppose part of the reason I was going to avoid this post was because her legacy and her back-catalogue have been hi-jacked by nationalists and Brexiteers in recent years – but clearly Ms Lynn had no time for that nonsense herself.) Here is said signature song:

It would have been a massive #1 in 1939, had the singles chart existed. ‘We’ll Meet Again’ has reappeared in the British charts in recent weeks, after striking a resonant chord with those isolated during the Coronavirus crisis – making Dame Vera by far the oldest person ever to have a hit single.

So in the end I did decide to do a post on Dame Vera Lynn. And you’ve just read it. Normal service will resume tomorrow!

1592472929017

(Lynn, on a morale-boosting tour in 1942)

Dame Vera Lynn, 20th March 1917 – 18th June 2020

24. ‘My Son, My Son’, by Vera Lynn

hqdefault

My Son, My Son, by Vera Lynn (her first and only #1)

2 weeks, from 5th to 19th Nov. 1954

You don’t meet many Vera’s nowadays, do you? You’d meet a Frank, a David and a Johnnie quite easily on your local high street. But a Vera’d be hard to come by. And a song titled ‘My Son, My Son’, which sounds like the name of a hymn? Sung by a Vera? I knew before ever pressing play that this would be a crusty relic of a record.

This is ‘If’, by Rudyard Kipling, set to music. My son, my son, you’re all I hoped you’d be. My son, my son, my only pride and joy… My son, my son, just do the best you can, Then in my heart I’m sure, You’ll face life like a man… I’m fairly sure that this song stands alone, out of the thousand plus UK number ones, in taking the form of a love letter from a mother to her son. So points for originality at least.

All the British-Recorded-Hit-Song-From-The-Early-1950s hallmarks that we’ve grown oh so familiar with by now are present: cut-glass diction, earnest delivery, sombre – oh so sombre – tone. I mused last time on why so many of these early chart toppers were by Americans. And on top of all the glamour, glitz and razzamatazz it probably just boils down to them being more fun. Listen to this, then the Kitty Kallen record from a few posts ago, and tell me which of the two singers you’d rather have with you on a night out…

b84410a3-7096-4b86-980c-c8956bf65f12_1.c7c6a9a9b2e4554e552980fa76bd09ca

It’s clear, although it’s just occurred to me this very minute, that the record buying demographic in the pre-rock age were middle-aged. How else do you explain this, and David Whitfield? The music charts will soon be driven by youngsters, but not quite yet. Of course, in fairness Vera Lynn was a huge star, and had been since the 1930s. I mentioned Sinatra, and Doris Day, as still resonating today and, in the UK at least, Vera Lynn – the ‘Forces Sweetheart’ – has left a big old mark on popular culture. It’s only right that she grabbed her solitary #1 hit (she would have had a load more if charts existed for the ’40s) and I should try to find something nice to say about it. But…

One big problem with this song is that it sounds like a wartime release. A mother, tears in her eyes, watches as her son shoulders his rucksack and heads for the frontline, and mulls over how proud she is of him. But this was recorded nearly a decade after VE day! Maybe Vera knew her audience. More of that stoic ‘We’ll Meet Again’, off to the trenches stuff, eh Vera? Give ’em what they want! Maybe she was dying to re-invent herself, to try out some of this rock ‘n’ roll that everyone was banging on about, but the suits wouldn’t let her…?

Anyway, one final reason why I should try saying something nicer about this track is that Dame Vera Lynn is still alive at the impressive age of 100, and there is a chance (admittedly a very minute chance, but still) that she may read this. But… Nope, I can’t. Next!