(HOST) Followers of popular music had a bit of a surprise recently, when Britain’s Top 20 album chart featured an old familiar name. Commentator Vic Henningsen explains.
(HENNINGSEN) Young rockers stand aside – make way for the "Greatest Generation"! Hearts leapt in Britain when news broke that Vera Lynn, whose songs stirred millions during World War II, was back on the Top 20 chart with We’ll Meet Again – The Very Best of Vera Lynn. A re-release, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, her album overtook U2, Green Day, and others to enter the chart. Dame Vera, as she’s known – she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1975 – was last on the charts in 1952. Now, at 92, she’s the oldest living artist to make Britain’s Top Twenty.
Vera Lynn began her career at age 7, singing in workingmen’s clubs in the London slums. She gained international fame in her 20’s, with renditions of songs like White Cliffs of Dover, I’ll Be Seeing You, and We’ll Meet Again that raised British spirits in the darkest days of World War II. Her songs weren’t about ideology, she said, but about precious, personal things that brought home a little nearer to those overseas. Parliament wondered if they were too sentimental, if they encouraged homesickness among the troops, but thousands of servicemen rallied to her support and the broadcasts continued. Clandestine listeners in occupied Europe learned her songs and taught them to their children, who in turn taught their own children. Even today, European audiences much too young to remember the war join in We’ll Meet Again without a hitch.
Known as "The Forces Sweetheart", Lynn took the role seriously. Where other entertainers visited troops in North Africa or Europe, she made a point of travelling to Burma, to visit General Bill Slim’s so-called "forgotten army" in the jungle. Signing thousands of photographs for soldiers overseas, she made sure to write a personal message on each one. Wives and sweethearts couldn’t believe that the singer did this for perfect strangers and she was occasionally accused of having affairs with men she’d never met.
To audiences of the time, Vera Lynn was England – even more than Churchill because she wasn’t political. She had a long career – singing We’ll Meet Again at the apocalyptic end of Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove for example – but, throughout, she remained the personification of Britain during its "finest hour". In 1982, a reporter for the Times of London marveled that "a middle-aged woman walking onto a stage could bring an audience to such a highly emotional state – looking at her through glistening eyes, cheering her through lumpy throats." No surprise, then, that in 2000 the British public voted her "the person who most represents the spirit of the last century." To surviving members of that so-called "Greatest Generation" she still represents all that was good about what’s been called the "Good War."
"Gone from the charts, but not from our hearts" is what oldies DJ’s often say. But in Britain, once again, Dame Vera rules both.