WORLD WAR II AND THE SHRINKING OF THE ENSEMBLE
How did wartime restrictions and other factors cause popular music ensembles to shrink in size during the 1940s, helping to set the stage for the small “combos” of Rock and Roll?
In the 1930s and early 1940s, American popular music was dominated by Big Bands that played Swing, an energetic and danceable style of Jazz. Bandleaders including Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and others toured and recorded with ensembles that often featured upwards of fifteen instrumentalists, in addition to the vocalists who often contributed to the Big Band sound. The popularity of this music was unchallenged; in 1941, the year the United States entered into World War II, every song that reached No. 1 on Billboard’s best selling singles chart was recorded by a Big Band. But by the war’s end in 1945, the era of the Big Band had abruptly declined, with an entirely new class of solo singers and small combos dominating the Pop charts.
The onset of the war affected every area of American culture, including popular music. The size of the U.S. military expanded from under 2 million active duty personnel in 1941 to over 12 million in 1945, diminishing the number of qualified instrumentalists available to perform in civilian orchestras. Some professional musicians who entered the service continued to play in military ensembles, including Glenn Miller, who left his Big Band at the peak of their popularity to serve as an entertainer for the troops abroad. But with significantly fewer musicians available to perform stateside, many Big Bands were forced to reduce down to smaller ensembles.
In addition to shrinking band sizes, World War II affected the music business on a material level. Many musical instrument manufacturers temporarily converted their factories to produce military contracts, replacing production of new saxophones and pianos with jet engines and ammunition. And in 1942, the War Production Board imposed strict rations on shellac—the primary material used to press phonographs—curtailing the number of records that could be manufactured. These changes made it abundantly clear that the country’s first priority was to win the war, and until victory was declared, the music business was of a lesser priority.
Wartime rationing also fundamentally changed civilian life, as Americans were asked to reduce their usage of tire rubber, gasoline, and many other household goods. Posters reminded citizens of their responsibility more to the country than to themselves with phrases such as, “Millions of troops are on the move… Is YOUR trip necessary?” Leaders of Big Bands were also faced with significant travel restrictions, and were forced to reduce their touring schedules. And with over 12 million enlisted service men and women, the ensembles that managed to stay together suffered from a shortage of audiences able to purchase concert tickets.
But it wasn’t just the war that affected the music industry of that time. From 1942 to 1944, the American Federation of Musicians imposed a strike against the major record labels due to disagreements over royalty payments. Union musicians, including many who performed in Big Bands, were temporarily forbidden from recording new music. Singers, who were not represented by the musicians union, were not required to participate in the strike, resulting in an upturn in vocal-based recordings and the rise of solo vocal performers, including Frank Sinatra.
Along with vocalists, specialty music genres such as R&B and Country also sold well during the strike. These genres generally relied on smaller rhythm combos and fewer horns than were featured in Big Bands. Instead, drums, piano, bass, and guitar could cover a similar amount of musical space as a larger ensemble, but at a fraction of the size. This combination of shrinking bands, the rise of solo performers, and the increasing popularity of more marginal styles of music provided the seeds from which Rock and Roll would grow in the 1950s, as American youth moved away from the Big Band music of their parents towards a new sound all their own.
This lesson explores the transition from the Big Band era of the 1930s and 40s to the rise of smaller ensembles and featured singers in the years following World War II. Students will analyze and draw conclusions from primary sources including wartime rationing posters, archival photographs, and Billboard chart lists. Video clips featuring the music of Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and other artists provide students with visual and musical evidence to discuss factors that led to the shrinking of popular music ensembles and the emergence of genres that inspired Rock and Roll artists in the 1950s.
Video pages: Johnny Burnette Trio - Lonesome Train (1956) | Nat King Cole Trio - It's Better to Be By Yourself (1951) | The Glenn Miller Orchestra - Jukebox Saturday Night (feat. the Glenn Miller Modernaires) (1943) | The Benny Goodman Orchestra - Sing, Sing, Sing (1937) | Frank Sinatra - Stardust (1949) | Washington in War Time (1943)
Image pages: Benny Goodman Orchestra, 1937 | Captain Glenn Miller conducts the Army Air Force Band during WWII | Food Rations Poster from WWII | Harry James Orchestra feat. Frank Sinatra - "All or Nothing At All" Record Label, Original Issue, 1940 | Harry James Orchestra feat. Frank Sinatra - "All Or Nothing At All" Record Label, Reissue, 1943 | Rubber Rations Poster from WWII | The Glenn Miller Orchestra, 1940 | Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, 1941 (Frank Sinatra in back row, behind drummer) | Travel Restrictions Poster from WWII
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
1. Begin class with a video clip of the Glenn Miller Modernaires performing “Jukebox Saturday Night” (1944). Ask students to pay special attention to the instrumental music heard in this recording.
Explain that the music in this clip is being performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, a popular “Big Band” during the early 1940s. The Modernaires were a vocal group who often performed with the orchestra.
2. Display a list of Billboard’s No. 1 best selling singles for 1941, the year the United States entered into World War II.
1. Play an audio clip of “Sing, Sing, Sing” (1937), a song recorded by the Benny Goodman Orchestra during the so-called “Big Band era” of the late 1930s and early 1940s. While listening, students should take notes on any instruments they can identify on the recording.
2. Display a photo of the Benny Goodman Orchestra from the late 1930s. Help the students identify the instruments in this ensemble, which features one clarinet (played by Benny Goodman, in front), four trumpets, two trombones, four saxophones, piano, guitar, bass, and drums -- a total of fifteen musicians, though many bands of the era were even larger.
Ask students: What do you think might have been some of the challenges of managing a band of this size? (Answers may include: touring with a large group of people can be logistically difficult, it’s expensive to pay the salaries of so many musicians, etc.)
3. Display images of rationing posters, which were displayed throughout the country during World War II. Have student volunteers describe the images on these posters. What sacrifices do these posters ask American civilians to make, and why do you think these sacrifices were important to the war effort?
4. Play video clip from Washington in War Time (1943), a film depicting life in Washington D.C. at the height of the war. As they watch, students should take notes on how the film presents ways that civilians can contribute to the war effort.
Discuss as a class:
5. Return to the photo of the Benny Goodman Orchestra from 1937. Ask students: How might rations on rubber tires, gasoline, and other travel restrictions due to the war have affected the touring schedule of a band of this size?
6. Display a table showing active U.S. military personnel from 1939-1945. Students should examine the sizes of different branches of the military over the course of the war.
Discuss as a class:
7. Display a photo of the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1940 (point out Miller playing trombone in front), followed a photo of Miller conducting the U.S. Army Air Force Band during the war. In 1942, when the Glenn Miller Orchestra was one of the best selling acts in the country, Miller left the band to voluntarily enlist in the armed forces. As a captain, he formed an ensemble of military musicians to entertain the troops.
8. Explain that in addition to rationing and the military build-up, there was also a 1942 strike by the American Federation of Musicians against the major record labels that affected the popular music industry. While the strike did not necessarily lead to smaller bands, it did shift the focal point of the popular music combo.
Divide students up into small groups and distribute Handout 1: All Recording Stops Today. Students should read the handout as a group and discuss the questions below. When finished, invite volunteers from each group to share their answers.
9. Display side-by-side images of two different versions of record labels for “All Or Nothing At All,” a song recorded by Harry James and His Orchestra with vocals by Frank Sinatra that was first released in 1940 (before the recording ban), then reissued in 1943 (at the height of the recording ban).
10. Play a clip of Frank Sinatra performing the song “Stardust” on the television and radio program Your Hit Parade (1949). Point out that Sinatra became a featured singer on this program in 1943, at the height of the musicians strike.
Ask students: how might Sinatra’s frequent appearances on a nationally-syndicated show between 1943 and 1949 have affected his popularity?
11. Non-union R&B and Country artists who were not beholden to the terms of the recording ban also found larger audiences during and after the war. For examples of these respective genres, play video clip of the Nat King Cole Trio performing “It's Better To Be By Yourself” (1951), followed by a clip of the Johnny Burnette Trio performing “Lonesome Train” (1956).
12. Distribute Handout 2: Best Selling Singles for 1941 and 1951. Students should examine both lists.
Ask students to imagine that it is 1951, and they are reporters working at Billboard magazine on assignment to write an article about how the sound of American popular music changed from 1941 to 1951. Students should outline an article that takes the position that it was either events directly connected to World War II (military growth, rationing, etc.) or the musicians strike that caused ensemble sizes and popular musical sounds to change so drastically over a short period of time.
Students should write one or two lead sentences to set up their argument, followed by a rough outline for the rest of the article in list form.
Students should develop their outlines from the summary activity into a full article of approximately one page in length. Students may use any materials cited in the lesson and are welcome to expand their research to include any other artists who exemplified a shift in popular American musical tastes between the 1940s and early 1950s.
Of the 14 photographs included in the collection, choose one image and write a one-page imagined narrative in the voice of a person pictured in the selected image. What is his or her name? How long has he or she been working at the piano factory? What are his/her thoughts or feelings on the factory being converted to make jet engines for the war? Incorporate information and details you have learned in class, such as the rationing posters from WWII.
2. Research a product or a material that was rationed during World War II and design an original rationing poster to help educate Americans about how rationing this item will help support the U.S. military during wartime. Students may choose from the following list:
3. Conduct independent research on the musical career of a popular Big Band leader of 1930s-40s. Imagine that you are writing the liner notes for a contemporary reissue of this artist’s music. Write a 1-2 page essay on your artist and his band, being sure to mention any pertinent biographical information about the bandleader, any significant musicians who played in his ensemble, popular recordings they made, and how WWII and/or the musicians strike affected his band and career. Students may choose from the following band leaders:
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.