A Tribute to Vera Lynn (JB)
CD compilations used in making these notes are The Best of Vera Lynn 25 Great Songs Delta Music CD6481 UK and The Very Best of Vera Lynn We’ll Meet Again Decca.
I never cease to wonder at the cultural baggage which we carry round, which is a defining part of our fundamental being but of which we are unaware until some improbable episode triggers off what we had all too often thought we had discarded as forgotten junk. But the discarded junkrooms of our mind can reappear as treasures. There is the shock of learning something “new” about ourselves. The experience can even bring that rejuvenating burst of laughter and tears at the same time. We applaud Puck: Lord, what fools these mortals be. But we shouldn’t applaud too loudly. There are bonuses in getting to know our own foolishness. And I fancy Blake comes into the equation here: If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
It was in the recent innocent business of lopping a broken kettle into the non-recyclable bin that I experienced a vivid flashback of my mother singing Be Like the Kettle and Sing as she went about household chores. A couple of minutes with the search-engine showed me this was a Vera Lynn number.
I was seven when the War ended, so I had no vivid memory of the Forces’ Sweetheart in her prime, but her repertory was forever pouring out of the radio as well as out of my mother in her cleaning hours. I would have denied knowing these songs from memory until I just discovered they were very much there in some hidden depths of myself.
Some time in the early seventies I was directing a play at St George’s English School in Rome. I wanted a recording of something evocative of the War and thought one of Vera Lynn’s numbers would be ideal. My friend, Michael Aspinall was going to London for a few days and I asked him to pick up a Vera Lynn LP. He did, and on his return invited me to his birthday party, with the good news that I could also pick up the record.
The party was going splendidly. Then someone saw the Lynn record and put on We’ll Meet Again. The festive atmosphere instantly evaporated and the house emptied. Michael and I were left in shocked laughter at the effect. It was just this that I was after for my school play.
Vera Margaret Welch was born on March 20th, 1917 in East Ham in the Essex bit of Greater London. Her first public appearances as a singer were at the age of seven, when she instantly adopted her grandmother’s maiden name, Lynn. She went on to appear with such major bands as Joe Loss and Charlie Kunz, recording for Crown Records, which was then aborted by Decca. In 1939, the Daily Express had servicemen vote for their favourite performer. Vera Lynn won by a long chalk and from henceforward was known as the Forces’ Sweetheart.
In 1939, she also met Harry Lewis, a clarinettist and saxophonist, whom she married in 1941 when he became her manager; they had a daughter, Virginia Penelope Anne Lewis. During the War, she toured Egypt, India and Burma, entertaining the troops in the open air. She also had her own radio programme during the War – Sincerely Yours – on which she read and responded to messages from the boys in the military service. Thus her voice and repertory became inseparable from the Blitz.
Her popularity was unrivalled in British showbiz, though she had to wait for Harold Wilson’s government for her Damehood in 1975. After the War, she continued to sing and was very active in various charities, especially those connected to ex-servicemen.
Perhaps most amazingly, as part of the events to mark the passing of seventy years since the beginning of the War, in 2009 a reissue on CD of some of her most performed numbers went straight to number 1 in the Charts, making her, at the age of ninety-two, the oldest singer to have achieved this. It must surely also mark the longest career ever in showbiz.
Was it Harold Wilson who said that it wasn’t Winston Churchill who won the war, but the voice of Vera Lynn? She came to be regarded as the very embodiment of the phlegmatic, unsentimental quiet resilience of the British during the War.
And that brings us to her voice. However commercialised her voice was – and no one can doubt that it was – her characteristic timbre was shot through with a remarkable and unadorned sincerity. She never sang notes; she sang words: the notes were only there in service of the words. A twin to this was her impeccable diction. Both are traits she shared with an earlier promoter of patriotism – Clara Butt. But while the Voice of the British Empire boomed her message – Wider Still and Wider – and her contralto resonance was said by Beecham to be audible on the other side of the English Channel, the Forces’ Sweetheart was a waif who whispered her message into the heart of the nation with a limited mezzo soprano range. The microphone and the radio were her essential tools.
Like many another great artist, she soon learned to transform a vocal limitation into a vocal asset: the moment the notes go higher than that very limited range they develop a vibrato. But she soon understood that this was useful as expressive vocal colouring. Her art demands that she never forces. And she never does. When that higher note disturbs her voice it disturbs her listeners. Was there ever a more apt instance of audience involvement?
Her only real rival during the War was Gracie Fields, whose voice had enormous range and power. It was also a vastly superior voice in almost every sense. And Gracie was able to successfully indulge in spheres of presentation which were closed to Vera, not the least of which were comedy and parody.
Vera’s art was shyer and more introspective, both qualities which were closed to Gracie except when she was parodying them. There is an intimacy to the art of Vera Lynn, an intimacy which can be as attractive and unexpected as Emily Dickinson:
I heard a fly buzz – when I died –
The stillness in the room
Was like the stillness in the air –
Between the heaves of storm –
If Clara Butt and Gracie Fields bulldozed their art into the nation, Vera Lynn haunted it. And as history has shown, ghosts have a way of sticking around. Compared with those two artists who might be seen as rivals, Vera Lynn dated at the very least. There is something to be said for having suggestion as a key element of your art.
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see.
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
When the world is free.
Sometimes, as here, the suggestion doesn’t bear close scrutiny: bluebirds are not indigenous to the British Isles, neither in times of peace nor in times of war. But that would be saving the science to sacrifice the poetry of the message. Those of my parents’ generation – and beyond – never stopped singing this. Vera was good at conveying poetry. And who cares about an ornithological slip-up? Here was one of her numbers that entered the national consciousness. www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp6tzQ4R1tg
Not all her songs were written for her. She had a number by Irving Berlin, although I associate White Christmas with Bing Crosby. And Over the Rainbow with Judy Garland (another artist who thoroughly plumbed the depths of pathos). But Vera Lynn will be eternally remembered for We’ll Meet Again:
Let’s say goodbye with a smile, dear, Just for a while, dear, we must part. Don’t let the parting upset you, I’ll not forget you, sweetheart.
We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day. Keep smiling through, just like you always do, ‘Til the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.
So will you please say hello to the folks that I know, Tell them I won’t be long. They’ll be happy to know that as you saw me go, I was singing this song.
After the rain comes the rainbow, You’ll see the rain go, never fear, We two can wait for tomorrow, Goodbye to sorrow, my dear.
Vera Lynn was too gentle a soul to have strayed into pastiche or parody. But that does not mean that she was not subject to parody. Dr Strangelove is, for me, the greatest comedy in the history of cinema. And when the mushroom cloud goes up at the end to annihilate the earth, it was a stroke of genius on Kubrick’s part to fade in Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again. You may remember that the subtitle of the movie was How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Even Dame Vera must have smiled.