Styles & Forms | Nostalgia | Popular & Novelty
Although it generally refers to music recorded up to the end of the Second World War, nostalgia is not a genre in the sense that the artists share inherent characteristics or sensibilities. Instead they have a special resonance, an ability to conjure up feelings and memories of a specific era.
Some of them stood for harrowing times: Mae West epitomized the defiance of the Depression years and Vera Lynn defined British sentiment during the Second World War. Some harked back to evocative periods; though he began his career after the war, the British crooner Max Bygraves enjoyed success with his Singalongwaryears LPs in the 1990s. Other artists evoked exciting artistic periods or distinctive styles. Marie Lloyd was the quintessential music hall performer in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald bestrode the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s to the 1950s. Noel Coward’s wordplay virtually defined English urbanity in the mid-twentieth century and Al Jolson will forever be synonymous with the advent of talking pictures.
The Lithuanian-born Jolson began his career on the vaudeville circuit and his command of song, dance and comedy had made him America’s first superstar by the early 1920s. Often performing minstrel-style, he borrowed heavily from early jazz and ragtime. Jolson sealed his status as ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’ in 1927 when he starred in The Jazz Singer, ushering in the era of movie sound with the immortal, ad-libbed words ‘You ain’t heard nothing yet’. The film also saw him perform his signature tune, ‘My Mammy’, which remains a standard of the talkie era.
As America wallowed in the Depression during the late-1920s and early 1930s, Mae West, another vaudeville favourite turned movie star and recording artist, flouted the puritan mood with a welcome spark of glamour, wit and winking sexuality. At a time of tight censorship, the Brooklyn sexpot’s weapon of choice was the double entendre: among her song titles were ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘I Like A Guy What Takes His Time’. But West’s sultry, suggestive delivery is best exemplified by ‘Come Up And See Me Some Time’, a lascivious classic that was a huge influence on Marilyn Monroe.
The Soldiers’ Solace
Vera Lynn captured the mood on the other side of the Atlantic. If one voice encapsulated the pain and romance of the Second World War for Britons, it was Lynn’s. Making her solo debut in 1940, the east Londoner was the country’s favourite singer during the wartime years and the link between lonely servicemen and their sweethearts back home. Lynn hosted a BBC programme, Sincerely Yours, in which she read out personal messages and trilled bittersweet ballads themed around long distance love. Her plangent vocals were most famously employed on ‘We’ll Meet Again’, a string-backed paeon to post-war reunion that she first performed in 1939 and reprised in the 1942 film of the same name. Lynn’s career continued long after hostilities ended. She had several hits in the US in...
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