We’ll Meet Again became Dame Vera Lynn’s signature song. It was also one of the first singles to use a synth, was accused of being too “slushy” for the troops, and has featured in Dr Strangelove and Stranger Things.
No song captured the heartbreak and optimism of Britain at war better than We’ll Meet Again.
Recorded in 1939 by Vera Lynn, who has died at the age of 103, its lyrics provided comfort to all those who were apart from their loved ones.
“We’ll met again, don’t know where, don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.”
The song has since been quoted by the Queen and covered by Johnny Cash. It even entered the UK chart earlier this year, offering a message of hope during the coronavirus lockdown.
“Its lyric seemed to me to be a perfect example of what you might call the ‘greetings card song,'” Dame Vera wrote in her 1975 autobiography Vocal Refrain.
“A very basic human message of the sort that people want to say to each other but find embarrassing actually to put into words.”
The singer was only 22 when she first recorded the song. It was in the first year of the conflict – during the so-called “phoney war”, when troops were conscripted but very little fighting took place – that Lynn found the song while shopping around music publishing companies in London’s Denmark Street for new material.
One of the leading lights at the time was Hughie Charles, who had turned down the opportunity to open the batting Lancashire County Cricket Club to seek his fortune as a composer.
Having appraised Lynn as “a very nice kid”, he encouraged her to record two patriotic songs he’d written with Ross Parker in anticipation of the coming hostilities – the strident, optimistic There’ll Always Be An England and the more wistful We’ll Meet Again.
She first performed We’ll Meet Again in the summer with Bert Ambrose and his orchestra. “Looking back on the reviews, I notice the newspapers picked up on it right away,” she told The Guardian in 1995.
“It was the perfect song to sign off with, and I started to use it more and more.”
With a melody loosely based on Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F, it was the singer’s performance that touched people’s hearts – her characteristically low tone and emotional delivery chiming with the prevailing mood of the times.
Her first recording of the song took place later that year, accompanied by Arthur Young on a new instrument called the Hammond Novachord, the world’s first commercially-available polyphonic synthesizer.
The “instrument that reproduces the tone of a dozen instruments” had only made its debut at the New York World Fair that April, making Lynn’s single one of the first pop records (perhaps the very first) to feature a synth.
However it was a later recording, backed by a full orchestra, that became more famous.
By that time, she had become a fixture on forces’ radio with her programme Sincerely Yours.
More than 20% of the British public tuned in to the show every Sunday night, as Lynn performed songs of hope amid hardship and read out letters from people separated by the war.
“Although we did the programme from a studio, I always tried to imagine myself singing and talking from my own home,” said the singer. “Addressing myself not to an audience in the conventional sense, but to scattered individuals – an intimate conversation, but to a couple of million people.”
Each episode closed with a rendition of We’ll Meet Again. “Keep smiling through / Just like you always do,” she urged listeners. But not everyone was happy.
Following a series of British military defeats in northern Africa, a small but vocal campaign argued that “radio crooners” and “sloppy sentimental rubbish” were affecting the forces’ morale.
“If our Armed Forces really like this sort of thing, it should be the duty of the BBC to hide the fact from the world,” wrote a typical correspondent to the Daily Telegraph in 1942. Instead, he argued, the troops should be listening to “something more virile”.
In response, the BBC formed a Dance Music Policy Committee, known colloquially as the “anti-slush” committee, to review the music it was broadcasting.
“We have recently adopted a policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country,” said one ruling from 1942.
Among the victims were Bing Crosby’s standard I’ll Be Home For Christmas, which the committee felt would make troops homesick and despondent. Similarly, The Mills Brothers’ Paper Doll was banned as “we did not think it desirable to broadcast the song’s theme of feminine faithlessness”.
The star was not swayed by the arguments, writing a column in the Sunday Dispatch saying the forces personnel and their “wives and sweethearts” valued the sentiment of her weekly radio show.
“During my two series of Sincerely Yours, I received letters from the boys in the forces at the rate of 1,000 a week. By the end, I received 18,000 and they have been coming ever since,” she wrote.
“As I saw it,” she later reflected, a song like We’ll Meet Again “was reminding the boys of what they were really fighting for, the precious, personal things rather than the ideologies and theories.”
As the “anti-slush” debate raged, one of the star’s “middle-aged listeners” wrote to the Radio Times, voicing his support for Lynn in particular.
“The words of her songs may have been so much sentimental twaddle. But she treated them with as much tenderness as though they were precious old folk, as though they meant something, something that she believed in and assumed that her audience believed in too,” he wrote.
“By some magic she contrived to persuade you that neither she nor anybody else had ever sung or heard the songs before, that she had only just discovered their peculiar delights… and was generously passing them on.”
Sadly, the BBC bowed to pressure and cancelled Lynn’s show, but her popularity persisted.
In 1943, she starred in a film loosely based on her own life, in which a beautiful young dancer discovers a gift for singing, and turns her talents to entertaining the British Army in Europe.
Titled We’ll Meet Again, the finale featured a re-recording of the title track, which became the best-known version of the song.
Soon afterwards, Sincerely Yours was reinstated by the BBC, and Lynn continued to travel the world, performing to “the boys” in uniform.
But while the bittersweet lyrics of We’ll Meet Again were perfectly suited to the uncertainty of war, the song endured and adapted after 1945.
It has been covered by Frank Sinatra< Peggy Lee, Rod Stewart and Sammy Davis Jr. It was referenced by Pink Floyd in their song Vera, and used to haunting effect in the closing scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic satire Dr Strangelove.
During the Cold War, it was chosen by the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service as one of the tracks that would be played to comfort and reassure survivors of a nuclear Armageddon.
More recently, it has featured in TV shows like Stranger Things and The Simpsons, and films including Hellboy and Trainspotting 2; while it also provides an eerie backdrop to the Tower of Terror ride at Walt Disney World in California.
As the coronavirus hit the UK earlier this year, the song’s message of cheerful resilience was invoked by the Queen who, in a rare televised address, told the nation: “We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”
Her message helped the song enter the singles chart for the first time in its 81-year history (the original recording pre-dated the charts, although Charles and Parker’s sheet music was a best-seller in the 1940s).
In all that time, Dame Vera said she “never tired of singing” it.
“I had no idea that that particular song would become the tune people most associated with the war era,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Or that my voice would become the one that most reminded people of the hope for the future that we needed to have at that time.
“I’m told that schoolchildren today still learn the words to We’ll Meet Again. That thrills me.”