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“The Baritone with Muscles in his Throat”: Vaughn Monroe and Masculine Sentimentality during the Second World War

During the Second World War sentimentality reclaimed the mainstream of American popular music. Ballad recordings—slow, romantic love songs—increasingly pushed aside the hot jazz sounds of the era’s dance bands. The singers of these songs were an assortment of old and new faces—Bing Crosby, Dick Haymes, Vaughn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra. Their hit songs, recordings such as “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Together,” “My Devotion,” and “There Are Such Things,” exchanged cynicism and irony for optimistic expressions of love, faithfulness, and devotion. These popular ballads shared in a broader wave of sentimentality that suffused the era’s mass culture—Hollywood film, commercial popular music, and radio programming.[1] 1940s sentimentality, although responding to new social conditions produced by the war, was modeled on and nourished by a historical tradition of sentimental culture stretching back into the mid-nineteenth century. Even while borrowing many of the tropes of this earlier sentimentality, such as true love, religious piety, and self-sacrifice, World War II-era sentimentality took on its own distinctive cast, shaped by the specificities of the historical moment, particularly the destabilizing effects of war mobilization on gender norms. 1940s sentimentality demonstrated a special concern with the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings of white men.

Vaughn Monroe (1911–73) was emblematic of this new sentimentality and its focus on masculinity. Famous first as a ballad singer on recordings and radio, he would eventually move into film acting. Although Monroe lacked the sexual charisma of the young Frank Sinatra (at that time part of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra) or the genial familiarity of Bing Crosby, he was a commanding presence on the bandstand and on the Hollywood screen. Tall, with a deep, strong voice, Monroe modeled a wartime masculinity that mixed together sentimental and hard-boiled traits. He performed a mid-twentieth-century version of the eighteenth-century “man of feeling”—sensitive and receptive to all kinds of softer “feminine” feelings: love, romance, and wistful dreaming. But this openness to feeling was combined with a contradictory “masculine” hard-boiled attitude, a behavioral mode suspicious of all feeling and emotional display. Making this combination work involved resolving contradictions inherent in the idea of what Leonard Cassuto, in his study of detective fiction, calls “hard-boiled sentimentality.”[2] How could a public figure navigate these gendered behavioral models to express both authentic emotion and cynical detachment?

In his cinematic and recorded performances Monroe offered a commercially successful way to combine “emotional volatility” with the need for “emotional discipline.”[3] Despite its evident success with audiences, Monroe’s performance was precarious: the expression of intense feeling, whether of love or hate, joy or fear, always threatened to go beyond the ability to control it. This gendered problematic—the extent to which men should display emotion—was widely discussed during the 1940s in the popular press in such books as Pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick’s bestseller On Being a Real Person (1943).[4] It was also a primary concern of military psychologists. In the widely distributed booklet The Psychology of the Fighting Man, the authors explicitly acknowledge the value of strong feeling to military success, even as they warn of its dangers if not kept in check:  “[T]he soldier must know about human needs, motives, and emotions—about fear, when it comes, what to do about it—about anger, when it is useful, when it makes trouble—about zest which is the core of good morale in a unit — about anxiety and the sense of insecurity . . . [and] about indignation against the enemy and irritation against comrades.” But at the same time, “violent emotion can put the soldier in mortal peril.”[5] Monroe’s public performance of “hard-boiled sentimentality” offered American listeners, men and women, a template for how to manage their emotions publicly. Monroe’s musical performances, although ostensibly about private romance, were really part of a larger conversation about the nature of gender and emotion in public life.

To illustrate these ideas, I focus here on two Vaughn Monroe musical performances—a recording of Roc Hillman and Johnny Napton’s ballad “My Devotion” and an onscreen performance of Yip Harburg, Sammy Fain, and Ralph Freed’s song “In Times Like These” from the 1944 film Meet the People (directed by Charles Reisner). These performances, representative of Monroe’s work at the time, illustrate the contradictions inherent in the wartime fusion of the sentimental and the hard-boiled—the difficulty of reconciling sentimental softness and hard-boiled toughness while at the same time preserving a strongly defined masculine self. Monroe’s performances are not indices of actual wartime gender norms. They are performances that offer listeners and viewers a fantasy—a wish-fulfillment—of what wartime masculinity could be.

“The Voice with Hair on Its Chest”

Monroe reached the height of his fame during the war years (fig. 1). Although most famous for his big baritone voice, Monroe was a trained trumpet player and studied for a short time at the New England Conservatory. Critics, reacting to his unusually low voice, labeled him with vivid nicknames that evoked an overtly masculine image: “Old Leather Tonsils,” the “Baritone with Muscles in His Throat,” “The Voice with Hair on its Chest,” and “Leather Lungs.”[6] “The voice with hair on its chest” contrasts Monroe with the many “boy” singers of the era such as Garry Stevens and Frank Sinatra. His voice is “muscular,” not feminine, tough like “leather,” not soft like silk. Less sympathetic critics, reacting to his all-American looks, slight Midwestern nasal twang, and stiff phrasing, described him as the “Million Dollar Monotone”—a bland but bankable musical star (245).

Monroe’s rise to fame was unusually quick. Less than a year after forming his own dance band he had a Billboard number one hit with the ballad “There I Go” (music and lyrics by Irving Weiser and Hy Zaret), a song that stayed on Your Hit Parade for four weeks. Writing at the time, jazz critic George Simon tried to explain Monroe’s rapid ascendance: “Seldom has any band come up so quickly, with so much attendant ballyhoo, and clicked so heavily with the audiences it has had to face.” Simon attributes the band’s explosive success to Monroe’s “dynamic personality”: “It’s around him, not his band, that the girls flock. His smile sends romantic, not musical, shivers down spines that are just beginning to harden.” Monroe is, Simon concludes, “the modern generation’s Rudy Vallée.”[7] For Simon, these aspects of Monroe’s success come at the expense of his musical integrity: the emotional reactions of Monroe’s fans are related to his appearance, possibly to his voice, but certainly not to his music.

Fig. 1. Portrait of Vaughn Monroe. Originally published in "Posin'," Down Beat February 12, 1947, 2. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.

Simon’s comparison of Monroe to the tenor Rudy Vallée is intriguing but lazy, an attempt to dismiss Monroe by connecting him to an earlier and much-criticized wave of mass cultural sentimentality: the rise of the crooners in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A more accurate comparison would have been to Bing Crosby, also a baritone, who in the mid- to late 1930s remade his image, transforming himself from a crooner into an embodiment of normative masculinity. “Crosby’s crooner,” writes Allison McCracken, “did not offer an alternative masculinity, as previous crooners had done, but sought instead to legitimize crooning by connecting it to traditional notions of white masculinity: a good work ethic, patriarchy, religious belief, white superiority, and contained emotions.”[8]  But more than Crosby, Monroe, in his stature and physique, evoked what Christina Jarvis calls the era’s “hegemonic militarized masculinity,” represented in exaggerated terms in propaganda imagery such as McClelland Barclay’s well-known Navy recruitment poster “Man the Guns” (fig. 2).[9] Following in Crosby’s footsteps, Monroe offered a more martial male body and personality for wartime America.

Fig. 2. “Man the Guns—Join the Navy” by McClelland Barclay, 1942. National Archives.

As was typical of the era, Monroe and his orchestra recorded many kinds of popular songs, including novelties and mid- and up-tempo “hot” swing numbers. But aside from his hit 1949 recording of “Riders in the Sky”—an anomalous ersatz western song—the music that secured Monroe’s fame, and provided his greatest commercial success, were his lush ballads. Many of these recordings, such as the band’s theme song “Racing with the Moon” (1941), “My Devotion” (1942), “When The Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)” (1942), “Let’s Get Lost” (1943), and “There I’ve Said It Again” (1945), emphasized big arrangements, featuring strings and added vocal support (small vocal ensembles or sometimes larger choirs), and tempos that were often substantially slower than most ballads of the time. Monroe’s focus on ballads probably reflected his early experience in society bands playing sweet dance tunes for debutante balls and other high-society functions. When he formed the group that would make him famous, he explicitly wanted a band that was modern sounding but also appealed to the “conservative folk”: “I organized my new band in such a way that it would have mass and class appeal.”[10]

Despite sharing some very general characteristics, particularly slow tempos and romantic lyrics, popular ballads of the era came in many flavors. For example, Monroe’s first big hit “There I Go” (1940) exemplified the ironic, slightly bitter Tin Pan Alley love song in which love is a dangerous force clouding rationality and judgment. Monroe’s vocal performance is backed by a standard dance band arrangement of antiphonal horns and reeds—not too slow, not too fast, and with a clear, light “swing” bounce. But

Monroe was most successful with a new subspecies of ballad, one that featured unusually slow tempos, elaborate orchestrations with strings, and irony-free lyrics. Monroe’s 1941 recording of “The Shrine of St. Cecilia” exemplified this type of super-sweet wartime ballad. Based on a popular 1940 Swedish song (“Min Soldat,” or “My Soldier”), Monroe’s version featured entirely new lyrics by Carroll Loveday. The lyrics tell the story of a town destroyed by a storm, leaving only the church, “The Shrine of St. Cecilia,” untouched. The narrator of the song fuses the church—a symbol of hope and strength—with his love for another: “I kneel in my solitude and silently pray / That heaven will protect you, dear, and there'll come a day / The storm will be over and that we'll meet again / At the shrine of Saint Cecilia.” Considering the wartime context, the lyrical reference to a devastating “storm” destroying a European church inevitably evoked Nazi aggression (there was in fact a real St. Cecilia Abbey, not in Sweden, but on the Isle of Wight). But like so many wartime ballads, the lyrics are ambiguous; the wartime references remain metaphorical and the song fits the lyrical and musical expectations for a Tin Pan Alley ballad.

“The Shrine of St. Cecilia” is especially interesting for the ways the lyrics fuse traditional sentimentality, represented here in the theme of religious devotion, with romantic love, the bread and butter of the American popular ballad. This new lyrical fusion is presented at a strikingly slow tempo of only seventy-four beats per minute (most sweet dance band jazz hovered around one hundred beats per minute). The recording does not feature the strings, harps, and vocal choirs that would become common in Monroe’s recordings of the late 1940s and 1950s, but it does have an elaborate reed-dominated introduction, a sonic choice that runs against the grain of the dominant brass sound of dance bands, and twinkling chimes that evoke dreamy wistfulness. As I will argue later, this is a Tin Pan Alley love song infused with the historical concerns of nineteenth-century sentimentality.

The Ballad during the Second World War

In his essay on pop and rock “power ballads,” David Metzer offers three historical usages of the term “ballad” in American popular music: (1) a strophic song that narrates a story; (2) a “general heading for a ‘simple song of popular character’ that does not feature comic topics or use slang”; and (3) “slow songs dealing with themes of love or loss.”[11] The first definition is used largely by scholars and performers of American folk music in reference to songs that originated outside the commercial marketplace, created as part of an oral tradition. The second definition largely fell out of fashion after the 1940s, though it occasionally reappears, as in Allen Forte’s study of Tin Pan Alley song, The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924–1950.[12] The third definition is the one that is relevant here: a slow-tempo popular song with lyrics about romantic love. As Metzer points out, the twentieth-century “love song” ballad is a kind of meta-genre: there are Tin Pan Alley ballads, jazz ballads, R&B ballads, and rock “power” ballads. During the 1940s it was the Tin Pan Alley ballad that occupied the commercial mainstream: taken at slow tempos, with a clear emphasis on the written melody, these recorded performances were based almost exclusively on music created in the large publishing houses that dominated the industry. The lyrics of these tunes nearly always focused on heterosexual romance and love.[13]

Music critics, performers, and composers of the era frequently lambasted these commercial songs as sentimental, overwrought expressions of emotion. In a 1943 article for The American Mercury, Minna Lederman dismisses wartime popular music as “uniformly trivial,” “lugubrious” and “maudlin.” Despite all the songs cranked out by the music industry, she argues, “there isn’t a single stirring song that identifies our feeling with the present day.”[14] US and British civilian and military officials felt much the same way, taking very seriously the idea that popular music and mass culture traded in dangerous fictions that could sap wartime morale at home and abroad. The rise of the ballad during these years disturbed many government officials, and they actively sought out classical and Tin Pan Alley composers to write stirring and martial songs. Music, everyone seemed to agree, must be harnessed to the war effort; musicians were to be “cultural combatants.”[15] As historian Kathleen Smith documents in God Bless America, the American campaign to secure the cooperation of the popular music industry was a spectacular failure, and “slush” songs—a dismissive term for romantic ballads—dominated the sales and play charts throughout the war.[16] As a Variety headline proclaimed, “Public Prefers Novelties to War Songs, Publishers Figure; Cite Escape Need.”[17] Whether in the fevered climate after Pearl Harbor, the unsettled early years of the conflict, or in the more optimistic months leading to its end, “there was little change in the type of songs produced or the message or the subject of those that made it onto the best-seller lists. Love and romance were the continuing interest of popular music consumers” (Smith, God Bless America, 134, 141–42). Christina Baade describes how in 1942 officials at the British Broadcast Corporation even went so far as to ban crooners and sentimental songs from the airwaves, fearing that “‘sloppy’ lyrics, male crooners and overly sentimental female singers” were demoralizing the troops.[18] American soldiers also preferred their popular music “slushy.” In the fall of 1942, Variety reported, “Slush Tunes . . . Get Best Play in Camp Jukeboxes, Says Soldier.”[19] Smith also recounts the story of a soldier upset because his favorite ballads were to be banned from the popular Hollywood Canteen dance hall in Los Angeles (God Bless America, 131).[20]

In his snapshot history of American music on the eve of war, Pearl Harbor Jazz: Change in Popular Music in the Early 1940s, Peter Townsend explains how the debates over wartime “slush” represented a tipping point in the public understanding of sentimentality, especially as it related to popular music. Even as the term was rapidly becoming stigmatized by government officials and music critics, increasingly used to indicate a dangerous, feminine indulgence in emotion, it was also in widespread use as a positive descriptor of the music—Tommy Dorsey was the “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” and his theme song was “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” For many listeners of the time sentimentality still referenced something positive and desirable: “For audiences in 1942,” Townsend writes, “it was just as possible for songs to be good because they were sentimental. . . . In the early 1940s it was still permissible for songs, performers, and audiences to communicate through a stylistic language that was sentimental, even feminine.”[21] John Bush Jones makes a similar point in his survey of wartime popular song, arguing that “a much higher value was placed on sentiment during World War II” because sentiment was “almost synonymous with romantic” (The Songs that Fought the War, 28–29). Townsend and Jones both point usefully to the era’s understanding of sentimentality; however they exaggerate the change in the word’s meaning and usage. As I discuss later, the Anglo-American idea of sentimentality, beginning in the eighteenth century, has always been schizophrenic, pulled between positive and negative valuations. Sentimentality may have been more overtly celebrated in 1940s song titles and band monikers, but that positive usage did not erase the underlying historical tension inherent in the term.[22]

Despite dealing in familiar topics of love and romance, 1940s Tin Pan Alley ballads differed greatly in the ways they lyrically and musically depicted them. As Philip Furia and Ulf Lindberg demonstrate, the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley had a penchant for sophistication and irony through vernacular speech. Love was “That Old Black Magic,” a dangerous game played by hesitant lovers (“Taking a Chance On Love”) unable to fully express their feelings (“You’ll Never Know”).[23] But these songs only represent one prominent strain in Tin Pan Alley ballad writing. Alley songwriters had many song templates at their disposal that married romantic or sentimental concerns with other topics such as travel and holiday celebrations such as Christmas.[24]  

But along with these established ballad types, the war years also produced something new: a ballad of earnest sincerity that featured lush arrangements and glacially slow tempos. These new songs conspicuously lacked any trace of irony. Instead, they offered lyrical and musical paeans of faithfulness and unwavering devotion. Love in these songs was straightforward and uncomplicated, if not always within reach. Although many singers and bands recorded ballads in this style, a few singers, such as Monroe, became specialists. Although a new development in American commercial popular music, these super-slow ballads were strongly influenced by an historical sentimental tradition. They were also part of a broader wartime conversation about the nature of feeling in public life, one that set sentimentality against the modern twentieth-century idea of the “hard-boiled.”

Sentimental and Hard-boiled

In popular culture, twentieth-century sentimentality combined two very different notions. First and foremost the word described an orientation toward the truth of feeling and the power of emotion over reason, what Raymond Williams, in his discussion of eighteenth-century sentimentality, describes as “a conscious openness to . . . and also a conscious consumption of feelings.”[25] A second notion of sentimentality—often obscure to its participants—was defined by a set of Anglo-American historical tropes representing specific ideas about the nature of gender roles, domestic life, and protestant religion. These tropes were connected to an historical discourse about the “feminine” emotions of love, compassion, sympathy, empathy, and pity.[26]

Although the nature and desirability of sentimentality has been a part of American cultural debates since the eighteenth century, it was not until the 1920s that another term emerged as a defining counterpoint: the “hard-boiled”—a mood or attitude that was aloof, cynical, and suspicious of feeling. Hard-boiled primarily remains in our lexicon in relation to a literary genre, the hard-boiled crime novel. Pulp novels by James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and others depicted alienated detectives navigating a corrupt, amoral urban landscape. Although the term adhered to these novels by the early 1930s, “hard-boiled” was already part of the American vernacular, heard in the dialogue of film characters and radio actors, sports announcers, political reporters, artists, and novelists.[27]

The origin of the word is murky. One theory has it originating on the minstrel stage (“What’s the hardest thing to beat?” “A hard-boiled egg.”). But by the 1910s it was widely used in print to describe a man who was “hard, shrewd [and] keen,” as “hard to beat” as a hard-boiled egg.[28] For Katherine Fullerton Gerould, writing in 1929 for Harper’s, Americans, softened by the material comforts of modernity, had turned “hard-boiled,” desirous of a rougher, truer existence. The nation had adopted a “fondness for life in the raw . . . the vogue of prize fighting, even among intellectuals and gentlefolk; the vogue of plays about gangsters, prostitutes, pugilists, etc., and of profanity and ‘frankness’ on the stage; the fluent biographies of bandits, crooks, outlaws, and other hard characters generally. . . . In short, all the ‘facts’ that the public delight[ed] in facing.”[29] But the hard-boiled wasn’t always shaded toward violence and nihilism; it was also a way to describe the American businessman—tough, clear-sighted, and willing to push aside emotions to get work done. Writing in American Speech in 1937, Paul Tamony argued that the word mirrors “the matter-of-fact attitude and impersonality of American business, and glosses that impartiality and disinterestedness that passes as an American trait” (“The Origin of ‘Hard-Boiled,’” 259). Politicians and political commentators of the era also adopted the word, using it to describe an idealized American virtue. George Patullo, in The Saturday Evening Post, celebrated the nation’s hard-boiledness, even as he warned against a countervailing tendency toward unwarranted emotion: “[A]lthough the average American is shrewd enough in his private dealings, and frequently hard-boiled, in the domain of public affairs he fairly wallows in sentimental slush.”[30]

Not surprisingly, the paradox of the hard-boiled-sentimental American became a commonplace of the era’s cinema, finding its way into Hollywood dialogue. In the very successful Gold Diggers of 1933 (dir. Mervyn LeRoy), the tough and sardonic out-of-work showgirl Trixie (Aline MacMahon) seduces a portly Boston Brahmin, Peabody (Guy Kibbee) with dreams of marriage, home, and family. “Say,” she says to a smitten if still hesitant Peabody, “can you imagine me getting sentimental, the most hardboiled dame on the Dirty White Way?” Her comic seduction—part of a plot to embarrass the moralistic lawyer and his employer, Lawrence (Warren William)—leaves no doubt that she is, in fact, not sentimental at all.

During the war years, the trope of the hard-boiled-but-sentimental American remained, but the balance between its elements shifted; the sentimental gained new prominence as writers and artists emphasized the need for feeling and emotional expression in a time of national crisis. Theater critic George Nathan, writing in 1942, recognized a new sentimentality in American theater, one that was more realistic—more hard-boiled—than the “tearjuice of yesterday,” where plays were so sweet that “it was almost impossible for the actors to stop sucking their thumbs long enough to speak their lines.”[31] Similarly, “tough” wartime journalists such as Ernie Pyle drew heavily on sentimental tropes. Pyle’s battle-hardened American G.I.’s “couldn’t resist” giving away their prized rations to “the sad and emaciated little faces of the children” they encountered.[32] Spurred by the war, 1940s mass culture consistently invoked historical sentimental tropes even while celebrating the hard-boiled.

The Sentimental Narcissism of “My Devotion”

[A] My devotion

Is endless and deep as the ocean

And like a star shining from afar

Remains forever the same


[A] Oh, my devotion

Is not just a sudden emotion

It will be constantly burning

And your love will kindle the flame


[B] What a sweet beginning

To the dream I had planned

All I own is yours alone

Your wish is my command


[A] And this sensation

Was never a mere fascination

Here in my heart, one sweet day, it started

Then with time improved my devotion to you [33]


Although a modest success, Monroe’s recording of “The Shrine of St. Cecilia” in 1941 was only prelude to several much bigger recordings that followed. One of these, recorded in late spring of 1942, was “My Devotion,” a song that reached number one on the Billboard charts in September of 1942. In its review, Billboard described the record as an “appealing love ballad” with a “simple melody,” an “excellent song for the maestro.”[34]  Like “The Shrine of St. Cecilia,” “My Devotion” reframes modern love in the older terms of a sentimental tradition. Here, rather than an uncontrollable force, prone to dangerous excess and heartbreak, love is about purity and commitment. Applying sociologist John Alan Lee’s terminology, this love is neither “erotic” nor “ludic” (the two most common modes in interwar Tin Pan Alley song) but “agapic”: “altruistic and unqualified,” “given dutifully and unselfishly with no expectation of reciprocity.” Agapic love borders on the spiritual (made explicit in “The Shrine of St. Cecilia”); the caring and gentleness of this love has no limit to its “faith, its hope and its endurance.”[35]

The popular representation of agapic love in song has its most obvious historical antecedent in the popular songs of the mid-nineteenth century, the years surrounding the Civil War, a time that also saw the rise of the sentimental novel, the most famous example being Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). In his study of nineteenth-century American popular song, Jon W. Finson describes the fad for “fidelity” songs, which largely present “love that endures into old age . . . usually proceed[ing] from a retrospective point of view.”[36] Such songs included “When I Saw Sweet Nelly Home” (1859), “I’ll Be True to Thee” (1962), “When You and I Were Young” (1866), “Sweet Genevieve” (1869), “Will You Love Me When I’m Old?” (1872), and perhaps most famously, “Silver Threads among the Gold” (1873).[37] Here the song’s narrator celebrates love’s timelessness, its ability to retain its quality and intensity despite time’s unforgiving toll. As we grow old and our hair turns “silver white,” love “will know never, never winter’s frost and chill”; it glows warm and golden. The song’s chorus, set in four-part chorale harmony, opposes mortality with the perpetual golden shine of sustaining love.[38]

We should not be surprised that songwriters during the 1940s would reach back to another era of American war for an appropriate language of love in a time of anxious uncertainty. The seriousness of the present moment favored the recasting of Tin Pan Alley’s “Old Black Magic” into the language of faith: love as an eternal burning flame. The idea of devotion is an extension of this spiritual understanding of love; such a powerful, life-affirming force challenges us, demands that we live up to its ennobling character. But the agapic love portrayed in the song is also married to the erotic and heterosexual through the use of more contemporary Tin Pan Alley love-song formulas; it is this fusion that defines the new sentimental ballads of the 1940s. At the same time that the song’s lyrics celebrate love as an eternal burning flame, they also provide reassurance to the beloved of the lover’s monogamy—a real concern of many couples separated by wartime military service.

Interestingly, the lyrics to “My Devotion” focus very little on the lover and the qualities that compel such faithful affection. The singer repeatedly insists on his devotion and his capacity to sustain such unwavering commitment. The beloved functions only to feed the fire of the narrator’s devotion; she continually “kindles the flame” of his “burning” love. This is love as narcissism—“love for another human being modeled on the love of the self”—a notion at odds with the Victorian sentimental ideal of fidelity as self-abnegation.[39] The narcissism we hear in the lyrics is different from the familiar understanding of the idea as a psychological pathology. In psychoanalytic theory, narcissism is a basic structure of individual psychological development—in its “primary” form narcissism is “the original libidinal investment in the self,” and it is crucial to the creation of the child’s ego. In its later “secondary” form, narcissism involves the “withdrawal of cathexis” from the objects of the world, turning us back into ourselves.[40] When discussing this “secondary” formation, Freud contrasts the narcissistic love-object to the “anaclitic” or attachment one, a choice of love-object based on the beloved’s ability to care for the lover. The prototype for this kind of love is the parental figure (usually the mother) who guaranteed “nourishment, care, and protection” (LaPlanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, 33).[41] Thus, narcissism in adult life is, in part, an attempt to rediscover that “primary” feeling of completeness lost in the fractured world of our adult minds. Narcissism is an attempt to reassemble, or at least shore up, our subjectivity in the face of intense psychological and social pressure.[42]

“My Devotion” invokes a secondary narcissism where the individual (represented by the singing persona) directs his libido toward a love-object that represents some version of himself, what he is, was, or would like to be. The song reframes familiar lyrical clichés of love songs—love as an uncontrollable fire, love as expansive as the oceans and sky—in narcissistic terms. Faithful love, the song suggests, belongs to the lover; it is his devotion, not her devotion. But because the song adheres to so many of the familiar lyrical and musical conventions of the Tin Pan Alley love song, we hear a tension between lover and beloved, self and Other. This tension is rooted in the structure of narcissism itself:  the need both to invest love and attention in the love-object but also to keep the self (the ego) strong. The narcissism of “My Devotion” reflects the era’s intense pressure on Americans’ sense of self and identity, and the perceived need to reconcile the demands of the individual with the needs of the state.

Much of this pressure derived from wartime challenges to familiar gender roles, a byproduct of the nation’s massive wartime mobilization. For example—and most relevant here—men in the service were no longer heads of their households, their economic and social authority transferred to a different institution, the armed forces. No longer at the helm of family life, they had to transfer much of their affective life to a new abstract and bureaucratic “family.” “My Devotion” displaces these concerns by reformulating them into the familiar language of heterosexual love and romance. The sentimental expectation of love as self-abnegation was too unsettling to an already unsettled masculinity; the narcissism of the lyrics work to secure the masculine ego from its loss in the love-object. Thus the song presents a masculinity strong enough to meet wartime demands for strength and compassion, hard-boiledness and sentimentality.

The tensions in the song, between self and Other, narcissistic and anaclitic, are echoed in the bifurcated musical arrangement. “My Devotion” opens with a surprisingly dissonant and tonally uncertain introduction, an invention of Monroe’s arranger (most likely pianist Arnold Ross).[43] With no clearly defined home key, the introduction presents highly chromatic and dissonant harmonized melodies, passed from muted trombones to muted trumpets and then to piano. A rising alto saxophone melody follows, supported by the rest of the reeds playing sustained chords. Soon the storm clouds dissipate as a bright, muted trumpet enters over the fading saxophone with another scalar passage, this time played in a clearly defined major key. Unlike the rhythmically static introduction, the trumpet’s melody is played with the familiar rhythmic “bounce” of the era’s swing jazz. The trumpet continues with a statement of Roc Hillman’s melody, now accompanied by the full band in a typical antiphonal arrangement, with the melody and its harmonic support passed back and forth between reeds and brass. With the start of the “real” song, the anxious and dissonant mood of the introduction dissolves into a comforting and stable major-key melody driven by a familiar dance band beat. From an uncertain beginning, the listener is now able to orient herself around a tonal center.

The presence of such a lengthy and unsettled introduction is unusual; most pop songs of the era began immediately with the primary melody in a defined key. Sometimes arrangers provided a brief four- or eight-bar introduction, but only to set up the groove and harmonic support. The introduction to “My Devotion,” however, presents listeners with music very distant from what follows. In sound and function, the introduction most directly references the era’s Hollywood film scores. By the 1940s film composers had developed a common musical language—a mixture of romantic and modernist compositional techniques—to represent and enhance the experience of cinematic narrative. These techniques, heard in hundreds of films, created a widely understood musical language of feeling. Through cinema, the chromatic dissonance and tonal uncertainty of Ross’s introduction had become familiar signifiers of a particular emotional world: apprehensive, anxious, and uncertain.[44] But that emotional landscape quickly gives way to a very different space, the affective sonic world of the popular ballad. This familiar place, defined by a clear major-key tonal center and diatonic melody, is an intimate locale, known to listeners from hundreds of previous recordings. It is a sonic locale where feeling appears plentiful and true.[45]

The instrumental introduction is just a prelude to the real attraction,  Monroe’s voice, the primary vehicle for conveying the song’s affect.[46] As Serge Lacasse has argued, popular singing, in contrast to operatic or other “classical” styles, is rooted in “everyday-speech modes.” This relationship, along with modern recording techniques (especially electrical amplification and the microphone), creates intimacy and directness, a “stylised way of conveying emotions.”[47] Some popular singers, notably Louis Armstrong, developed styles very close to speech, a kind of parlando driven by a powerful, swinging rhythm. Influenced by Armstrong, other singers such as Bing Crosby transformed this approach into something more “astringent and smooth.”[48] Monroe, although clearly in the Crosby tradition, added more “classical” elements into his sound, developing his breath control and vibrato. As a result his vocal performances bridge the rhythmic, speech-like cadences of jazz-influenced singing and the elevated tone of classical singing. The phrasing is precise but stiff, hanging just behind the beat. He makes the entire first line of text—“My devotion is endless and deep as the ocean”—one long legato phrase. Notice too how Monroe’s first word—“my”—swells over the entire first measure rising into a nasally “I.” The phrasing avoids the rhythmic compressions, extensions, and syncopations common to jazz-based singing. Monroe’s diction is assertive and clear, but also fussy: listen to the way he emphasizes the feminine end-rhymes “devotion” and “ocean.” Even though his orchestra plays in the modern dance band style, his conservative vocal performance appears as a rejection of modern jazz singing.[49]

On one level “My Devotion” is a public reassurance that the separations of wartime will not undermine the monogamous heterosexual man. Courtship will lead to marriage and American society will survive and thrive. Yet these surface assurances hint at a darker reality—that a war with the combatants seeking total and unconditional surrender would likely require aggression, even cruelty, in order to secure victory.[50] This created a particularly acute psychological and ideological dilemma: what should be the place of sentimental values in the context of “total war”? Vaughn Monroe’s “My Devotion” provides one solution to this dilemma, masculinizing the sentimental idea of fidelity and turning it away from the anaclitic “overvaluation of the sexual object” toward the narcissistic reassurance of the male lover’s ego. This in turn offers the listening public a display of how male emotionality could work during wartime.

Vaughn Monroe and the Sentimental Space of Hollywood Film

The masculinized sentimentality represented in Monroe’s successful ballads resonated with similar trends in other media, especially Hollywood film. Like many of the popular singers and bandleaders of the era, Monroe appeared in a handful of Hollywood films during the early 1940s. One in particular, Meet the People (1944), shows very clearly how the singer became a visual and sonic wartime shorthand for an idealized male sentimentality. Directed by Charles Reisner, Meet the People was a loose cinematic adaptation of a leftist 1939 Broadway theatrical revue.[51] Essentially a “backstage musical” infused with wartime concerns, the film follows the attempts of the two leads, shipyard worker William “Swanee” Swanson (Dick Powell) and Broadway star Julie Hampton (Lucille Ball), to stage a show for wartime shipyard workers.[52] Monroe and his music are part of the larger narrative and emotional structure of the film, a structure that alternates between hard-boiled and sentimental representational modes.

Monroe’s band performs three songs in the movie. The first, “I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants),” takes place in the opening minutes of the film and features comic singer Ziggy Elman. The other two performances appear midway through the film as part of the concert held at the shipyard. In a seven-minute feature, Monroe and his Orchestra perform the ballad “In Times Like These” (with Monroe alone on vocals) followed by the bouncy swing tune “I Like to Recognize the Tune” (sung by actress June Allyson). Consistent with the “backstage musical,” these performances function in the diegesis of the film as “entertainment” for characters. Frequently these kinds of performances are one-off numbers, the song disappearing from the rest of film’s soundtrack. However, “In Times Like These” does return; the Monroe performance is actually the second time we’ve heard the song. The repetition of the ballad gives the song a significant narrative and thematic role in the film.

Like both “The Shrine of St. Cecilia” and “My Devotion,” “In Times Like These” only obliquely references wartime life. “In times like these,” the lyrics begin, “who would think that love would find a way / With all the lights dimmed out / With darkness all about?” It is likely that listeners understood the “times” of the song as wartime, where all the “lights dimmed out” referred as much to “dimouts” and “blackouts” as to nighttime romantic trysts. For Jones, World War II is the song’s only plausible meaning: “[The war was] unquestionably the context for [Yip] Harburg’s core idea, an idea found in other popular song about wartime romance—that it was more than a minor miracle that home front civilians or service personnel could still meet and fall in love in ‘Times Like These’” (The Songs that Fought the War, 235). But the lyrics are still so general, constructed almost entirely out of lyrical clichés (dimmed lights, dreams, clouds with silver linings, hearts adrift), that the song easily “passes” as a prewar Tin Pan Alley romantic ballad describing how in a turbulent world “love goes on.” In fact, as in “My Devotion,” the song’s effectiveness derives from this ambiguity—from being in, but not necessarily of, its immediate historical moment:

[A] In times like these,

Who would think that love would find a way,

With all the lights dimmed out,

With darkness all about?


[A] In times like these,

Who would think a dream could be so fair

Or that a silver lining

Could still be shining somewhere?


[B] Like all the rest

I was adrift; my heart was all at sea.

Just when the world needed a lift

You came and smiled at me.


[A] And there was spring

Singing from the tops of all the trees,

And the breeze telling the dawn that love goes on

In times like these.[53]

We first hear the song early in the film when Swanson (Dick Powell) sings it to Julie Hampton (Lucille Ball) during their first encounter alone together. When he first sees Hampton on stage at the shipyards, a smitten William “Swanee” Swanson immediately schemes a way to win a date by promising free kisses from Miss Hampton for every war bond purchase. With prize in hand, Swanee takes the glamorous Broadway actress for hamburgers at a greasy spoon, followed by a drive to the “Scarlet Roof”—a wooded overlook above the shipyards. After contemplating the lighted shipyard for a few seconds, Swanson runs to the car to get the script for his play, and we realize that his interest in Hampton has been utilitarian all along: he wants the actress to star in a shipyard production of the musical that he and his cousin John Swanson, now a marine fighting at Guadalcanal, wrote together.

Throughout all this, the two characters banter and battle each other in screwball-comedy style: Swanee’s working-class, down-to-earth sensibility is pitted against Hampton's urbane wit. After Swanson returns from his car with his musical play, the two have this conversation:

Hampton: And I thought it was love: fierce, eager, all conquering.

Swanee: There's always time for that. The play opens . . .

Hampton: Look, uh, you're not going to read all that tonight, are you?

Swanson: [Laughs.] I'll tell you what I can do. I can sum the whole thing up in thirty-two bars, a love song. Would you listen to that?

Hampton: Do I look like a softie for a song? [No reply.] Well I am. Provided it explains everything to everybody.

Swanson: Well maybe it’ll explain me to you.

Hampton: Too bad you haven’t an orchestra hidden behind that rock.

Swanson: But I have . . .

[We hear a swell of harp and violins. The camera tracks Hampton as she passes the “Inspiration Point” sign and reveals Swanee starting up a record player behind a bush.][54]

This is the key moment. It is song that enables the characters to transform from cynical and ironic to authentic and sincere. This scene shows how the sentimental and the hard-boiled, despite their gendered associations, were templates of behavior available to both men and women. Hampton’s hard-boiled exterior gives way, via song, to a softer sentimentality, something more in keeping with still-dominant norms of femininity. The scene’s shift in tone from comedy to romance echoes an old show-business practice extending back into the nineteenth century: “From the earliest days of the music hall, comic turns would wrap up their act with a sentimental song: forget the cynicism and humiliations of music-hall humor they seemed to say, this is the real me, the real you.”[55] But the shift to sentimentality in Meet the People also reveals the way Hollywood absorbed the form and content of Depression-era social realism, a cultural aesthetic infused with hard-boiled concerns. The generic formulas of Hollywood cinema demanded a softening of the tough proletarian concerns that the stage revue had expressed. Interpolating a newly composed ballad into the film was a surefire way to temper the heavy-handed populism of the film’s leftist politics.[56]

Fig. 4. William “Swanee” Swanson (Dick Powell) singing “In Times Like These” to Julie Hampton (Lucille Ball) in the MGM film Meet the People (1944).

In cinematic terms the transition from dialogue to song is an example of what Rick Altman calls an “audio dissolve”: like a “video dissolve” which uses superimposition to transition from one image to another, an audio dissolve “superimposes sounds” to make a transition between the diegetic soundtrack to the music track (orchestral underscoring) (The American Film Musical, 63). In a musical, however, the audio dissolve never effects a complete transition because film musicals live in the space between the diegetic and non-diegetic: characters sing in the film’s diegesis, and there may even be a sound source visible in the shot, such as a record player. But very rapidly the film score nearly always exceeds in fidelity and scope any visible source of sound. The diagetic performance either fuses with the musical soundtrack or is “taken over” by the non-diagetic film score. Poised between these two audio realms, song in the Hollywood has a “bivalent character,” creating a cinematic space between the “real” world and an “ideal” one: in the musical number, sounds obey both real-world “natural causality,” where moving bodies produce sounds, and ideal-world “rhythmical causality,” where music produces the in-time movement of bodies (64–65).

When Swanson breaks into “In Times Like These,” his performance shows viewers that the ideal world of feeling—a sentimental utopia—is accessible; all it takes is a song. In terms of the narrative, the performance of “In Times Like These” is also proof of Swanson’s capacity for sincerity; he may be “using” her now, but he is capable of romance. For Hampton, the song is evidence that she is in fact “soft” and her hard-boiled exterior is just a working façade, necessary for showbiz life, but not her true self. Moreover, she purports to believe in the power of a love song to capture the varieties and intensities of romantic love, how it “explains everything to everybody.” With the end of the song, the mood shifts and the sentimental gives way once again to the hard-boiled. In the following scene, we see Hampton’s manager reading Swanson’s play. “Not bad,” he says, to which she replies: “Never mind the understatement, Monty. It’s good and you know it. It’s topical, the music fresh. It’s written by a shipyard worker and a marine hero. And it’s all about people. People with lights in their eyes.” Back in the rough and tumble world of Broadway, Hampton re-adopts her hard-boiled demeanor—Swanson’s sincerity and the honesty and authenticity of his play add up to a good investment.

For the second appearance of “In Times Like These,” at the shipyard dance, the entire sequence is set up with an establishing shot of a sign announcing the “Liberty Ship ‘Deck Dance’ on Board the S.S. Simon Bolivar, No. 281,” followed by “Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra” and “Committee Girls Wear Your Liberty Whites.”

Fig. 5. Vaughn Monroe, as himself, singing “In Times Like These” from the MGM film Meet the People (1944).

A dissolve reveals a ship deck filled with dancers. After a brief scene between Swanson and another shipyard worker, the camera lowers, slowly dollying across the dance floor, moving closer and tighter on Vaughn Monroe, dressed in a light grey suit and dark tie. The camera stops in mid-close-up, Monroe filling the center of the frame. Visible behind him are several string players along with the band’s drummer and guitarist. It is not an especially dynamic performance—Monroe barely moves his body, never raising his arms or showing his hands. The only physical gestures we see are his singing mouth and accompanying facial expressions: blinking eyes, raised eyebrows, and tilted head. Monroe never looks into the camera; instead, he surveys the dancing couples in front of him. Here we can see the ways Monroe’s voice worked with his appearance, the way “that voice, that smile” and that “wavy hair” created his star persona (Simon, Simon Says, 161). When we hear the ballad this second time, the song now carries narrative weight—it is the sound of the lead characters’ courtship, and it represents their first moment of sincere connection. The reprise of the song was surely intended by the film’s producers as a way to “plug” the song, to give viewers another listen in the hope of creating a hit. But the reprise does much more than that. It offers viewers another chance to experience the sentimental space once occupied by the film’s romantic couple, who at this point in the film have separated. Alone, unencumbered by other singers or instrumentalists, and with the full attention of the camera, Monroe toughens up this sentimental locale, replacing Dick Powell’s lighthearted tenor with his own heavy baritone. Aiding the construction of this sentimentalized masculinity is the song’s lyrical narcissism, very similar to that in “My Devotion.” As in that song, the lyrics focus on the lover and not the beloved. The one time the singer does address the beloved (in the song’s bridge), it is not to extoll her treasured characteristics but to describe her ability to stabilize him: “Like all the rest I was adrift / My heart was all at sea / Just when the world needed a lift / You came and smiled at me.” Voice, image, sound, and lyrics combine to construct a fantasy of wartime masculinity—sentimental, capable expressing vulnerability and feeling, but also strong in conventional masculine ways (tall, broad-shouldered, deep-voiced, paternalistic).

Even though that is the last we see of Monroe in the movie, the establishment of the masculinized sentimental cinematic space endures. Paralleling Monroe’s integration of the sentimental and the hard-boiled, the film ends with its own narrative integration, the combination of sentimentalized romance with the hard-boiled political space of wartime shipyards. After meeting the wounded John Swanson, who had the mistaken idea that his co-written show was already a Broadway hit, Hampton realizes that their show Meet the People deserves to be presented in its original form, without the dazzle she tried to add to it earlier in the film, and performed by the shipyard workers themselves. In her dressing room, preparing to perform in Swanee and John’s show, Hampton confesses to her friend (Virginia O’Brien) that she truly loves Swanee. She laments how her hard-boiled, show-business ways drove yet another love out of her life: even a “hep chick from New York,” she says, who knows “all the plots, all the angles,” still can’t keep true love. Here the film fuses the rehabilitation of Hampton and Swanee’s romance with the successful performance of Swanee’s populist musical revue, a musical play celebrating a democratic “people” working together to defend an America threatened by totalitarian aggressors. The film’s finale thus shows the ways feeling connects the private and public. The good of the public is dependent on honest interpersonal relationships. And that honesty is dependent on a balance between sentimental feeling and hard-boiled civic duty. Even though he plays only a small part in the film, Vaughn Monroe’s presence looms large. He is the literal embodiment of the film’s wartime ideal of sense and sensibility.

A Postwar Family Man

Monroe’s middle-class, middle-American appeal made him an ideal vehicle for the sentimentality of the war years. In later years it also made him attractive to television producers and advertisers. Following the war and the collapse of the dance bands, Monroe made a surprisingly smooth transition to the new, post-dance-band world. He had a string of hits in the late 1940s and 1950s, including “Ballerina” (1947) and “Riders in the Sky” (1949). A major radio personality throughout the 1940s, he hosted R. J. Reynolds’s Camel Caravan from 1946–49, moving with the program to television. Although these shows were short-lived, the singer would be a common fixture on variety shows throughout the next two decades, making appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and American Bandstand. In the 1950s and 1960s Monroe became the “voice of RCA,” appearing in advertisements for the company’s phonographs, radios, television, and records. He was also a stockholder and talent scout for the company.

Although writers such as Simon would emphasize Monroe’s sexual and romantic appeal, his music and persona are better characterized as classically sentimental. His Current Biography entry from 1942 emphasizes his domesticity: “Because of his romantic appeal it is seldom mentioned in publicity releases that the handsome, blue-eyed and blond-haired bandleader is married. He has known his wife since high school days in Jeannette. Through the years they corresponded faithfully and finally decided to seal the friendship for life. Vaughn Monroe married Marion Baughman on April 2, 1940.”[57] Mary Jo Thomas, a member of the Moon Maids, the female singing quintet Monroe added to the group in 1946, remembers the singer as a fatherly figure who ran the group like a “family band,” calling the girls (all from Denton, Texas) his “Texas kids” (fig. 3).[58]

Fig. 3. Movie still from Carnegie Hall (1947, dir. Edgar G. Ulmer). Vaughn Monroe is singing Sam Coslow’s song “Beware, My Heart” accompanied by the Moon Maids and his Orchestra.

Monroe’s post-wartime success also suggests the continuing relevance of his particular mixture of sentimental and hard-boiled masculinity. His wartime singing persona anticipated the terms of a Cold-War debate on the nature of masculinity in a changed world. Postwar demobilization, Kinsey’s famous 1948 report, the explosive growth of consumerism, the rise of white-collar male office work, the ideological battle against communism—all these contributed to what many historians have identified as a new “crisis of masculinity” in the Cold-War era. American media offered conflicted messages about masculinity: men were supposed to be “hard” in work and politics, but “soft” in their domestic lives. Although the fight against communism required a tough, realistic assessment of existential danger, the very fight for an American way of life was based on a sentimental understanding of the centrality of marriage and family life.[59]

Although Vaughn Monroe reflected the cultural concerns of his moment, both during and after the war, his performance of a tougher, hard-boiled sentimentality is part of a longer historical story, what Claude S. Fischer describes as Americans’ moving toward “emotional self-discipline” and the suppression of “hostile or disturbing emotions” while at the same time “cultivating warm ones, especially sympathy and sensibility, in low-key ways.”[60] 1940s wartime ballads, ostensibly about private romance, were really about something much bigger: the place and politics of gender and emotion in public life. American involvement in World War II demanded many contradictory modes of thinking and feeling from its citizens. Popular culture played out one of these battles—between the dangers of and necessity for emotion and feeling, especially for white men. Despite its appearance of ease and confidence, Vaughn Monroe’s performance of sentimentality reflected a profound tension between emotional expression and discipline and between feminine and masculine behavioral norms. Monroe’s “leather lungs” and muscled throat soothed wartime listeners by representing a new kind of martial American masculinity.



[1] Modernist “high culture” artists of the era also embraced a renewed sentimentality. See Suzanne Clark’s important revisionist study, Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991). More recent examples include Clive Hart and Robert Scholes, “James Joyce’s Sentimentality,” James Joyce Quarterly 41, no. 1/2 (2003-04): 25–36; Marcel DeCoste, “A Frank Expression of Personality? Sentimentality, Silence and Early Modernist Aesthetics in ‘The Good Soldier,’” Journal of Modern Literature 31, no. 1 (2007): 101–23; and Jennifer A. Williamson, Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism: Narrative Appropriation in American Literature (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013). On sentimentality in twentieth-century modernist music see Stephen Downes’s discussion of Francis Poulenc in his chapter “Beautiful and Sublime,” in Aesthetics of Music: Musicological Perspectives, ed. Stephen Downes (New York: Routledge, 2014), 84–110.

[2] Leonard Cassuto, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

[3] Julie Ellison, Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 20.

[4] In a chapter on fear and anxiety, Fosdick explains both the value of embracing emotional expression and controlling it: “This fact of fear’s necessity and usefulness, however, far from solving our problem, underlies its seriousness. If fear were a sheer evil, our situation would be simpler than it is. Just because fear is an indispensable part of our organic structure, and from its primitive forms of physical recoil to its highest spiritual exhibitions in reverent awe no human life is complete without it, its abnormalities are the more perilous. Like fire, it is a great and necessary servant but a ruinous master. When it becomes terror, hysteria, phobia, obsessive anxiety, it tears personality to pieces” (Harry Emerson Fosdick, On Being A Real Person [New York: Harper, 1943], 111).

[5] National Research Council, Psychology for the Fighting Man: What You Should Know about Yourself and Others (Washington, DC: Infantry Journal, 1943), 18–19, 322.

[6] Jim Cox, Musicmakers of Network Radio: 24 Entertainers, 1926–1962 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 245.

[7] George Simon, “July 1941: Monroe more impressive than his Band,” in Simon Says: The Sights and Sounds of the Swing Era, 1935–1955 (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971), 161.

[8] Allison McCracken, Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 310.

[9] Christina S. Jarvis, The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 2004), 8.

[10] Quoted in Current Biography, ed. Maxine Block (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1942), 605.

[11] David Metzer, “The Power Ballad,” Popular Music 31, no. 3 (2012): 455, n3.

[12] Allen Forte, The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[13] Interestingly, although the lyrics to some ballads indicated gender through personal pronouns, a surprisingly large number of ballads were gender-neutral, using the first person “I.”

[14] Minna Lederman, “Songs for Soldiers,” American Mercury, September 1943, 296–301, 296. See also Kathleen E. R. Smith, God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 81–95.

[15] Annegret Fauser, Sounds of War: Music in the United States during World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 4–5.

[16] See also John Costello, Virtue Under Fire: How World War II Changed Our Social and Sexual Attitudes (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1985), 120–55; Lewis A. Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 195; John Bush Jones, The Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939–1945 (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2006), 9–31; and Richard Lingeman, Don’t You Know There’s a War On? The American Home Front, 1941–1945 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970), 213–23.

[17] Variety, February 2, 1944, 1, 46. See also Smith, God Bless America, 137.

[18] Christina Baade, Victory through Harmony: The BBC and Popular Music in World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 13. In the British context, the attack on sentimentality was also tied to a general fear of Americanization—stoic British soldiers and citizens softened by “slushy” American commercial entertainment (140).

[19] Variety, September 2, 1942, 2.

[20] Funded and run by the figures in the motion picture industry, the Hollywood Canteen offered music, dancing, and food, along with the frequent appearances of film stars and other celebrities (Sherrie Tucker, Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014]).

[21] Peter Townsend, Pearl Harbor Jazz: Changes in Popular Music in the Early 1940s (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007), 206, 208.

[22] Surprisingly—given his antipathy to popular music—Theodor Adorno offers the most concise summary of this complexity: “The actual function of sentimental music lies rather in the temporary release given to the awareness that one has missed fulfillment.” For Adorno, sentimentality in music relies on the signifiers of unrestrained emotional expression to convey loss. As we revel in a fantasy of romantic fulfillment, we are also simultaneously aware of the impossibility of that fulfillment, of the ways society frustrates our needs at every turn. The seeming celebration of “sentiment” and “sentimentality” during the 1940s existed alongside a deep-seated distrust of the value and truth of emotion in daily life (Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002], 462).

[23] Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Ulf Lindberg, “Popular Modernism? The ‘Urban’ Style of Interwar Tin Pan Alley,” Popular Music 22 (2003): 283–98.

[24] Continuing a trend from the 1930s, songwriters produced many songs that folded love and romance into narratives of travel and escape: a “Sentimental Journey” (1945) under the “Velvet Moon” (1943). Similarly, the era’s many newly-minted Christmas songs—“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944), “The Christmas Song” (1944), and of course the most popular of them all, “White Christmas” (1942)—connected sentimental tropes of family, faith, and devotion with a nostalgic yearning for the past.

[25] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976; rpt. New York: Fontana, 1981), 237.

[26] Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (New York: Methuen, 1986), 8. Michael Bell, Sentimentalism, Ethics and the Culture of Feeling (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 2–3.

[27] See Cassuto, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality, 1–22, for a concise history of the literary genre and its roots in nineteenth-century sentimental literature.

[28] Peter Tamony, “The Origin of ‘Hard-Boiled,’” American Speech 12 (1937): 258–61.

[29] Katharine Fullerton Gerould, “This Hard-Boiled Era,” Harper’s Magazine, February 1929, 265–74, 266.

[30] George Pattullo, “Our Sentimentalists,” Saturday Evening Post, October 10, 1936, 23, 67, 69, 67.

[31] George Jean Nathan, The Entertainment of a Nation: Or, Three Sheets to the Wind (1942; rpt. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971), 62, 63.

[32] Pyle’s quote is from John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1976), 58.

[33] “My Devotion,” words and music by Roc Hillman and Johnny Napton, copyright © 1942 (renewed) Chappell & Co., all rights reserved; used by permission of Alfred Music. Lyrics transcribed by the author. The letters in front of the stanzas represent different sections of the song. Tin Pan Alley songs were highly standardized into a basic 32-measure form of four 8-bar sections, the middle 8 also known as the “bridge” or the “release.” Conventionally, historians and music theorists label each 8-bar section with letters, each letter designating the same musical materials (although not the same lyrics). The two most common formal arrangements were AABA  or ABAC. For a classic account of the development of 20th-century Tin Pan Alley song form, see Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983), 326–390.

[34] Interestingly, the flip side of the record featured the “cute novelty” “When I Grow Up,” a vocal feature for Ziggy Talent, a member of Monroe’s Orchestra (Review, Billboard, July 11, 1942, 69). Thus the record represented two major types of popular songs: the ballad and the novelty tune, one about love and romance, the other about exuberant and carefree fun.

[35] Lee is quoted in Ian Inglis, “Variations on a Theme: The Love Songs of the Beatles,” International Review of Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 28, no. 1 (1997): 37–62, 46.

[36] Jon W. Finson, The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 49.

[37] Don Tyler, Hit Songs: 1900–1955 American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007), 24.

[38] Eben E. Rexford, “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” music by H.P. Danks (New York: Charles W. Harris, 1873). The sheet music can be found on the Mississippi State University Libraries website; see

[39] Martin S. Bergmann, The Anatomy of Loving: The Story of Man’s Quest to Know What Love Is (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 171.

[40] Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2009), 547–48. Also Jean LaPlanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Hogarth Press, 1973), 255–57.

[41] For Freud’s original paper on narcissism see Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 67–102. In non-neurotic love, there is a balance between libido directed at the self (the ego) and the object. The investment of the libido in the object can impoverish the ego; but a reciprocating lover can restore that lost self-esteem (Bergmann, The Anatomy of Loving, 171).

[42] Although I don’t address it here, psychoanalysts vigorously debate the relationship between narcissism and gender identity formation, especially masculinity. Some writers, most famously Nancy Chodorow, prioritize gender formation, and see the various kinds of secondary narcissism as the result of gendered parenting, especially its “mother-monopolized” structure. For other writers such as Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, narcissism is shaped by parenting practice irrespective of gender. For a summary of these debates see Isaac D. Balbus, “Masculinity and the (M)Other: Toward a Synthesis of Feminist Mothering Theory and Psychoanalytic Theories of Narcissism,” in Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 210–34.

[43] Personal correspondence with Claire Schwartz, webmaster for the Vaughn Monroe Appreciation Society,

[44] On “classical”-era Hollywood scoring and its relationship to imagery and narrative, see Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). On the romantic and modernist musical influences on film composers see Peter Franklin, Seeing through Music: Gender and Modernism in Classical Hollywood Film Scores (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[45] A special thanks to Daniel Belgrad for his insightful reading of these musical introductions.

[46] For a history of pre-rock ‘n’ roll popular singing in the U.S., as well as a discussion of its “speech-like” character, see John Potter, Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 87–112. On the crooning style of singing see Stephen Banfield, “Stage and Screen Singers in the Twentieth Century,” in The Cambridge Companion to Singing, ed. John Potter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 63–82, 72–74. On crooning and its connection to intimacy and gender see McCracken, Real Men Don’t Sing, 74–125.

[47] Serge Lacasse, “The Phonographic Voice: Paralinguistic Features and Phonographic Staging in Popular Music Singing,” in Recorded Music: Performance, Culture and Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 225–51, 227. See also Potter, Vocal Authority, 87–112.

[48] John Potter, “Jazz Singing,” in The Cambridge Companion to Singing, 53–60, 56.

[49] A competing recording also made in 1942 by Charlie Spivak and His Orchestra for Columbia Records vividly illustrates Monroe’s more “mature” approach. Spivak’s singer, Garry Stevens, was a young “boy singer” (like Sinatra) with a light tenor voice and a looser crooner approach to phrasing (strongly influenced by Bing Crosby). In his recording with Charlie Spivak, Stevens takes a much freer approach to phrasing. Unlike Monroe, Stevens passes quickly over the “m” of “my” rising quickly to the sustaining “i” vowel sound. By shifting the emphasis to the final syllable, Stevens’s phrasing immediately imparts more forward momentum, creating a sense of always moving toward the next words. In contrast, Monroe’s emphasis on the beginning syllables of his words gives the effect of stability and fixedness, of being firmly planted in the present. Stevens’s smoother, lighter flow—more typical of the jazz-influenced singing of Bing Crosby—is complemented by a more conventional swing dance band arrangement.

[50] For a discussion of allied war aims and the “doctrine” of unconditional surrender see David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 162–63.

[51] The Hollywood version replaced all the stage music with a mixture of newly written and older hits. Although written in Tin Pan Alley styles, the stage musical featured more explicitly political numbers such as “Senate in Session,” “The Unwritten Law,” and “Union Label.” The film’s music, on the other hand, was significantly less indebted to the era’s Leftist rhetoric. Lyricist—and the film’s producer—E. Y. Harburg and composer Sammy Fain contributed two songs (“In Times Like These,” “Shicklegruber”) but the film also includes Harburg and Howard Arlen’s “Heave Ho” (1944) and Harburg and Burton Lane’s “It’s Smart to be People” (1944). Other featured songs included were Jay Gorney and Henry Myer’s “Meet the People” (1940), Clarence Williams and Charles Gaines’s “I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants)” (1934), Oliver Wallace’s “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (1942; performed in the film by Spike Jones and His City Slickers), Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart’s “I Like to Recognize the Tune” (1939), and Earl K. Brent’s “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again” (1944). These songs, along with a few very brief interpolated tunes and some underscoring, is credited to musical Director Lennie Hayton, with orchestrations by Wally Heglin, Conrad Salinger, Hugo Winterhalter, and John Watson, and vocal arrangements by Kay Thompson. Dan Dietz, The Complete Book of 1940s Broadway Musicals (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 52–53.

[52] Although unusual in its leftist Popular Front origins, Meet the People was part of a larger and specific wartime musical film genre. These movies—Stage Door Canteen, Thank Your Lucky Stars, This is the Army, and many others—combined military settings with romantic couplings and elaborate stage shows. In Rick Altman’s formulation, wartime musicals such as Meet the People combined the semantics and syntax of the “show” and “folk” musical subgenre: the triumph of putting on a show (and romantic coupling) was now fused with the need to “hold together a community on the verge of dissolution.” Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 238. See also Jennifer R. Jenkins, “‘Say it with Firecrackers’: Defining the ‘War Musical’ of the 1940s,” American Music 19 (2001): 315–39; and Allen L. Woll, The Hollywood Musical Goes to War (Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, 1983), 83–102.

[53] “In Times Like These" (from Meet the People), lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, music by Sammy Fain. Copyright © 1943 (renewed) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., © 1939 (renewed) EMI Feist Catalog Inc. Rights throughout the world controlled by EMI Feist Catalog Inc. (publishing) and Alfred Music (print), all rights reserved; used by permission of Alfred Music.

[54] All film dialogue transcribed by the author.

[55] Simon Frith, “Pop Music,” in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, ed. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 91–108, 103.

[56] For an important, revisionist account of 1930s and 1940s “social realism” see chapter three of Michael Dennings’ The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1996), 115–59.

[57] Maxine Block, ed., Current Biography (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1942), 606.

[58] Jim Cox, Musicmakers of Network Radio: 24 Entertainers, 1926–1962 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 253.

[59] Steven Cohan, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), xii.

[60] Claude S. Fischer, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 223–24.