Vera Lynn will always be a symbol of the Second World War – of British defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, of stiff upper lips and quivering sentimentality, of deep emotions running beneath a placid surface.
It is said that, when war broke out in 1939, the 22-year-old singer – who has died aged 103 – thought: “Oh well, bang goes my career.” Instead, it was the making of her. Before that, she was just another pretty girl with a sweet, clear voice singing in music-hall revues, performing standard ballads on the radio and touring the nation’s dance halls with popular orchestras. She had released two singles as the featured singer. Assuming that all this would come to an end, she volunteered for war work – but was advised that she could best serve her country by continuing as an entertainer. And so it proved.
The song that made her is one of the great songs of the 20th century. Composed by two stalwarts of English musical theatre, pianist and actor Ross Parker and theatre producer Hugh Charlie, We’ll Meet Again beautifully articulated the emotional uncertainty engulfing the nation as Britain’s men were being called up to fight, and families and sweethearts faced separation.
“Let’s say goodbye with a smile, dear / Just for a while, dear, we must part,” are the plucky opening lines, delivered with Lynn’s unerring tenderness and sincerity. The chorus melody aches with melancholy even as it’s counterpointed by words of abiding hope and optimism, a message of such distilled reassurance that it’s almost a prayer.
The original recording is not the sweepingly lavish singalong we usually hear today. That was actually remade in 1953, with a full orchestra and choir of British Armed Forces personnel. The version heard over the airwaves in 1939 was more stark and beautiful, with Lynn accompanied by a sole electronic keyboard played by Arthur Young. The Hammond Novachord was the precursor of the polyphonic synthesizer, creating a wobbly otherworldly timbre that floated beneath Lynn’s lovely, high, clear voice.
There was something about the sincerity of the lyric, the beauty of the melody, the strange simplicity of the sound and the truth of the performance that resonated with a power almost greater than the sum of its parts. It was the right song, at the right time, with the right singer.
There is no art form that unites like music, articulating universal emotions as if they spring from our very breast, especially when we raise our voices and sing along. We’ll Meet Again is a song that brought succour to untold millions throughout the war years, that kept hope alive in our darkest days. There were other songs that Lynn made her own, as she became dubbed “The Forces’ Sweetheart,” broadcasting across the world via her shortwave radio show, starring in propaganda movies, and travelling to Egypt, India and Burma to entertain frontline troops.
In 1941, her recording of The White Cliffs of Dover gave Britain its second great wartime anthem, never mind that American lyricist Nat Burton was unaware that the bluebird is not indigenous to the United Kingdom, and is never likely to be seen over Dover. The spirit of the song transcends such pedantry. It is, once again, an anthem of hope, with a soaring melody built to be sung along to.
There was no one like Vera Lynn in America, where the war years were soundtracked by the jazzy razzmatazz of the Andrew Sisters and the sophisticated pulse of The Glenn Miller Orchestra and sensuously romantic timbre of Doris Day. Lynn’s vocal style would have already been verging on the old-fashioned even at the height of her fame, certainly compared to the more animated be-bop rhythms swinging in from the USA.
Lynn’s steady, perfectly enunciated delivery offered a very English style of crooning, owing something to the genteel tradition of drawing room ballads and parlour songs. She performed live with a quartet rather than a big band, and the rhythm tended to ebb and flow following her stately delivery rather than being driven by bass and drums. What she had in abundance was the one thing all great singers have in common: a sense of truth. Her potency was her purity, her perfect enunciation, nothing overstressed or overdone, just every note in its right place, sung with a calm conviction that everything would be all right in the end.
Lynn’s musical career did not stop with the war. In 1953, she became the first British female singer to top the US Billboard charts with Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart, another song of aching reunion that echoes her wartime style, although this peace-time anthem was actually composed by a German, Eberhard Storch. Lynn remains one of only nine British women to have achieved this feat. (The others are Petula Clarke, Lulu, Sheena Easton, Bonnie Tyler, Kim Wilde, Leona Lewis, Adele and Charli XCX.)
Her popularity as a performer survived rock ’n’ roll, although her style shifted somewhat in the 1960s towards sophisticated easy listening. There are some genuinely fine albums from the period in which Lynn gets to exercise some of the more sensual and dramatic aspects of her voice, notably on Among My Souvenirs with Tony Osborne & His Orchestra (1964). Over her career she recorded country songs and light orchestral versions of contemporary hits by artists from Harry Nilsson to ABBA.
One single worth digging out is the lushly romantic It Hurts To Say Goodbye from 1967, where the range and emotion on display demonstrates that Vera Lynn would have been considered a great singer in any era. On a rare performance of melodramatic intensity, the famous stiff upper lip almost cracks. Almost.
But for most of her career, Vera Lynn continued to sing and celebrate the songs of the war, content to provide a beacon of reassurance through changing times. In 2009, aged 92, she became the oldest living artist to top the British album charts (albeit with a compilation). In 2017, she became the first centenarian to have a top 10 album, with Vera Lynn 100. It is a reminder of what enduring esteem and affection Lynn was held in. For in the end, we will always return to the calm power Vera Lynn exuded in our darkest hour, when her voice was the very incarnation of the spirit of a nation.