Vera Lynn, in 1941, at a munitions factory somewhere in Britain. Photo by the Ministry of Information Photo Division,
courtesy the Imperial War Museums.
Vera Margaret Welch, a young English singer whose career was just taking off, thought she was a victim of unfortunate timing when World War II broke out in September 1939.
“Oh well, bang goes my career,” she recalled thinking, according to the BBC. But Vera Lynn – as she was known professionally – actually had perfect timing, and the music she made has proved to be almost eerily timeless.
Her rendition of “We’ll Meet Again,” released that year, rallied a nation that was about to send its soldiers off to battle once more, less than a quarter-century after World War I decimated the generation of young men that fathered them. Her 1942 version of “The White Cliffs of Dover” referenced the aerial Battle of Britain, whose front line was above those cliffs along the English Channel.
In 1942, much of the United Kingdom was still clearing the rubble of the Blitz. Many children sent from vulnerable cities remained in comparative safety in the countryside or abroad. “The White Cliffs of Dover” promised a peaceful future when “The shepherd will tend his sheep/the valley will bloom again/And Jimmy will go to sleep/in his own little room again.” (It also famously promised that there would be “bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover,” which was a mistake by American lyricist Nat Burton. Bluebirds are not native to England.)
Dame Vera Lynn, as she was known in her home country in later life, died yesterday at age 103. When she volunteered for the war effort, she was told that her greatest contribution would be to keep singing, to bring cheer and hope to her embattled nation. Her songs became a staple of the airwaves as she traveled, in dangerous wartime conditions, to entertain troops from Britain to Burma (modern-day Myanmar). She hosted her own radio series, too. “Sincerely Yours” linked the troops with their friends and family at home, as Lynn read excerpts from letters addressed to loved ones at the front.
“We’ll Meet Again” also became the title track of a 1943 film. Lynn herself played the starring role of a singer who encourages her fellow Londoners through the Blitz. The film ends with a performance by Lynn, in character, to a gathering of Royal Air Force airmen who join in with the promise that, in real life, only some were able to keep. (The song was later put to the same use, with deliberate irony, in the final scene of “Dr. Strangelove” in 1964.)
Lynn gave her final live performance in 1995 (when she was 78) at Buckingham Palace, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of victory in Europe. But she never lost her place in the U.K.’s consciousness as the “Forces’ Sweetheart.” Nor did her music lose its relevance, even if most Americans today either assumed she was already gone or never knew her name.
In 2014, modern-day singer Katherine Jenkins teamed up with a recording of a younger Lynn in a virtual duet of “We’ll Meet Again” to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The pair re-released the song this spring as a fundraiser for the National Health Service, as Britain rallied its spirit and its resources once again – this time to fight the new coronavirus.
Queen Elizabeth II referred to that wartime anthem in her own speech to her nation on April 5. “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return,” the queen assured her people at one of the darkest moments of the pandemic, when the nation’s prime minister himself was ill. “We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
For many of us, that promise remains unfulfilled. But as a dismal and often dangerous spring finally draws to a close, we still have the promise of future togetherness and bluebirds, even if those bluebirds are symbolic.