Bluebirds and Rainbows: Songs for Troubling Times
The right songs can sustain and challenge us.
Posted May 05, 2020
In 1942, in the midst of the violence of World War II, actress Vera Lynn sang one of the most played recordings of the war years, The White Cliffs of Dover: “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, just you wait and see.” The song gave hope to people throughout England, America, and beyond.
The lyrics didn’t grapple with political or military issues. They painted images of the ordinary lives people had lost and promised their return: “There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after. Tomorrow, when the world is free... The shepherd will tend his sheep. The valley will bloom again. And Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again.”
Popular songs have expressed the unbearable grief of parents who have lost a child in war. While stationed in the South Pacific following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Redd Stewart wrote A Soldier’s Last Letter, recorded by Ernest Tubb in 1944. A No. 1 hit, the song stayed at the top of the Country charts for four weeks and crossed over to the Pop chart Top 20. The song expressed the love of a son for his mother, “Mom, I didn’t know, that I loved you so. But I’ll prove it when this war is won... I’ll finish this letter the first chance I get.” The absence of his signature told his mother the news she had dreaded, “she knew that her darling had died.” Comfort in times of grief can be found in many popular songs. In 2007, Tim McGraw first performed his tribute to the families of soldiers who had died, If You’re Reading This. Written from the perspective of a soldier who intends his letter to be read only if he is killed in action, the song reassures his grieving loved ones: “I’m in a better place where soldiers live in peace angels sing amazing grace... And if you’re reading this, I’m already home.”
During times of great adversity, popular music has comforted and inspired. Some songs empathized with the depth of emotions experienced by many. At the onset of the Great Depression, people could identify with the plight of those profiled in the 1930 song, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? “Once I built a railroad... Once I built a tower up to the sun... Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal. Buddy, can you spare a dime?”
But during times of crisis and loss, music can offer more than a vehicle for catharsis, consolation, and empathy. It can also offer emotional escape and hope. In 1933, the song We’re in The Money portrayed a fantasized end to the Great Depression: “Gone are my blues and gone are my tears. I’ve got good news to shout in your ears. The long lost Dollar has come back to the fold with silver you can turn your dreams to gold... Old man depression, you are through." Other songs characterized by such optimistic fantasy were also popular. In 1936, Bing Crosby’s recording of Pennies from Heaven topped the charts for ten weeks: “Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.” Crosby released I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams in 1938: “Lucky, lucky me. I can live in luxury ‘cause I’ve got a pocketful of dreams.”
Triggered by adversity, songs that convey inspiring messages of hope for better endure in popularity. Originally sung in 1939 by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, many versions of the song Over the Rainbow have since been recorded. In 1990, the beloved Native Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (IZ) released his hauntingly beautiful rendition that was used in films and shows, such as ER, Scrubs, Meet Joe Black, and Finding Forrester. Though the lyrics mention troubles that “melt like lemon drops,” the song primarily paints an image of an ideal world to wish for: “Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me... Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue and the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true.”
Pretending that the someday is already here is a twist on the psychological phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Acting as if you’re happy when you’re not means you’re engaging in behaviors that are more likely to promote the return of happiness. When people are in a good mood, they smile, laugh, sing, and socialize with others. All those behaviors produce feel-good emotions and help diminish the risk of isolation and loneliness. If you “fake it till you make it,” you engage in behaviors that are more likely to lead to success or some level of achievement. Once you, and others, think of something as possible, it is reasonable to strive to attain it. You might not succeed entirely, but not trying definitely won’t advance toward the cause. At the height of the Vietnam war in 1968, protest folksinger Phil Ochs released his rallying cry The War is Over: “I declare the war is over. It’s over, it’s over... You only are what you believe. I believe the war is over.”
Fantasy cannot by itself transform reality and should not substitute for the reality in which we must live. But it can serve as more than just an aspirational goal, worthwhile in itself. Imagining what can be can motivate and sustain. Not limited to a particular time or place, it can serve a universal need for comfort, resolve, and healing. Composed for the animated film An American Tale, the love song Somewhere Out There expresses the longing of those who are separated by distance: “Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight, someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight.” The emotional power of imagination is clear: “even though I know how very far apart we are, it helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star. And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby, it helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky.”
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