Music. History.
Glenn Miller Air Force Orchestra featuring Johnny Desmond - Now I Know
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"Now I Know (Propaganda Broadcast)" by The Glenn Miller Air Force Orchestra featuring Johnny Desmond [1944]

1944 was an eventful year not only at home, but all over the world. World War II dominated both the headlines and peoples’ day-to-day activities. The popular music industry in America embraced the Allied effort to a point, but only Glenn Miller went so far as to leave civilian music entirely to join the service as the head of a modern military band. In 1943 and ‘44 Miller broadcast uplifting and patriotic big band music from New York. That show was popular enough to earn him a bigger Army Air Force Band and a trip to England to entertain the troops. 

In addition to live performances for the military, in the fall of 1944, Miller made numerous recordings for the Office of War Information, the propaganda arm of the U.S. government during the war. Many of these recordings were broadcast from England to Germany in November as part of the show Music for the Wehrmacht. All of the music Miller cut for the program, including Harold Arlen's “Now I Know,” was put on wax at the now-famous Abbey Road Studios. As many of you can probably hear, Glenn Miller, Irene Manning, and Johnny Desmond all spoke terrible German, but while their greetings and somewhat feeble propaganda sound funny today, they were quite serious in their attempt to influence the outcome of the war. 

Only a month after these recordings were broadcast, Miller flew to France to entertain the troops there. Somewhere over the English Channel, his plane disappeared. Captain Glenn Miller is still listed as missing in action, presumed dead.

Fela Kuti - Zombie
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"Zombie" by Fela Kuti [1976]

Ain’t No Monster Mash: Better Music for Your Halloween Party, Day 8 of 13

Many of you will host or attend Halloween parties that have a playlist to dance to. Alice Cooper’s “I Love the Dead" won’t really work in that situation. Fela Kuti’s afrobeat anthem "Zombie," however, will keep the dance floor bouncing for over twelve minutes. The story behind the song (and album of the same name) - released at the tail end of 1976 - is unfortunately not as innocent as a simple novelty Halloween dance tune. As the album cover makes clear, "Zombie" was a metaphoric attack on the Nigerian military. And it had real life consequences.

Here’s what The Guardian had to say about “Zombie” in a 2004 retrospective: 

You could make a case for 1976’s most revolutionary record being not ‘Anarchy In The UK’ but this second, perfectly conceived slice of pop subversion, with its killer groove sounding like no one else, thunderous brass with wonderful trumpet from Lester Bowie and lyrics in pidgin English attacking the mindlessness of the Nigerian military (‘Zombie no go turn unless you tell am to turn/Zombie no go think unless you tell to think…’).

Fela’s robotic stage moves had been copied by protesters in riots against the government he was banned from Ghana for being ‘liable to cause a breach of the peace’ and this song provoked an attack on his new commune, named by Fela the Kalakuta (‘Rascal’) Republic. Indeed, Fela had declared independence from the repressive Nigerian state. On 18 February 1977, more than 1,000 armed soldiers surrounded the compound, set fire to the generator, and brutalised the occupants. Fela alleged he was dragged by his genitals from the main house, beaten, and only escaped death following the intervention of a commanding officer. Many women were raped and the 78-year-old Funmilayo was thrown through a window. She subsequently died.

Fela kept up the polemic, delivering his mother’s coffin to the army barracks and writing the song ‘Coffin for Head of State’ . One of his masterpieces, ‘Unknown Soldier’, followed an official inquiry that claimed the commune was destroyed by ‘an exasperated and unknown soldier’.

Read the full article: The Big Fela.

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"Marching to Pretoria" by Josef Marais with His Bushveld Band [1941]

The history behind “Marching to Pretoria” goes back well beyond the time of this recording. In 1880 and ‘81 and again from 1899-1902 pioneering Dutch farmers (“boers” in Dutch) fought two “Boer Wars” against impending British rule in inland South Africa. The many marches played during the military conflict apparently included a new song to this tune. Both the British soldiers and the Dutch militia created verses and it is unknown from which side the tune originated. The lyrics used by the English were simple (like most marches) and spoke of the British troops’ drive toward the capital of the Boer-held region (called Transvaal). Pretoria is now the de facto capital of modern South Africa since it houses the executive branch of the nation’s government.

In 1939 South African singer Josef Marais (then working in New York) wrote what became the definitive version of the song. His first recording of the song, heard above, includes both the traditional English lyrics and a verse in Afrikaans (which I unfortunately cannot translate for you). This recording was likely played on his weekly radio show “African Trek” on NBC Blue Network and broadcast on short-wave radio in South Africa. A few years later (ca 1954?) Marais made another, more famous recording with Rosa de Miranda, the Dutch native who had become and would remain his musical partner.

Finally, to take this post even further back, compare the story of this song - its theme, its transfer to later generations, its flexible lyrics - to some of the earliest recognizable folk music in the Western tradition, Homer’s Illiad and Odyessy. Remember that, although the music is lost, those works were originally mostly sung rather than read or spoken. Just something to think about…