The Big Band Era: Wartime Influence on Pop Culture
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
The 1940s was a very unique decade of the 20th century. Due to the first half being engulfed in the Second World War, mainstream culture was severely influenced by the "War Effort". This resulted in many films, books, and songs that have become great classics, not only for their fantastic artistry but for their memorialization of the darkest period of the 1900s.
This decade was truly the gateway towards modern pop culture, as it mainstreamed Hollywood films, vinyl records, popular radio shows, and so on. The end of WWII saw major innovations in mass media, overlapping the term with all forms of mixed media, allowing us to enjoy the entertainment from that era today! Let's take a look at some of the main subcategories in pop culture and what was most popular within those mediums.
The 1940s was the birth of swing and big band, music that was not only liberating with its fast-paced tempo and creative dances but also revolutionary and at times dangerous to listen to.
In countries that were under German occupation, big band and swing were considered rebellious, anti-Christian, and, even more insultingly, labeled as "Black music."
As shown in films based on this era such as Swing Kids (1993), record shops would have to order records that were under false labels and sleeves; for example, you might find a Tommy Dorsey album in a sleeve of German Folk music. The very practice of listening to this music could have you arrested, even sent to a concentration camp, depending on the severity of the situation (for example, attending a dance club with said genre as its main music).
For those in the area where this music was popularised, the United States, they could enjoy dancing and listening to big band with ease, but that didn't make this music any less revolutionary. Artists such as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and the "King of Swing" himself, Benny Goodman, became household names and have remained so to this day. The upbeat sound of big band/swing kept the spirits of the general population high in a time of true dire straits, being one of the reasons this music has stood the test of time.
Some popular songs from these artists are:
Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman
In The Mood by Glenn Miller
Boogie Woogie by Tommy Dorsey
Take the 'A' Train by Duke Ellington
Much like the music of this era, the film industry was severely impacted by the war. It not only discussed the issue at hand but was also funded by the war effort. In the '40s, you'd often see a propaganda film before the main movie played, and even the money for film tickets went towards purchasing war bonds. Despite the great military influence on Old Hollywood in the first half of this decade, many gorgeous and memorable films came out of this era as classics.
Movies such as Casablanca and His Girl Friday used the world situation to their advantage in the script, making the war relevant to the storyline rather than feeling shoe-horned in. To this day, Casablanca is considered one of the greatest films ever made, while His Girl Friday launched the careers of actors such as Ros Russell and Cary Grant.
Other truly classic films outside of the war topic such as Take Me Out to the Ball Game, The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca are still beloved to this day, retaining the reputation Old Hollywood has for being the best era in the film industry.
Books were still one of the most common forms of entertainment during the '40s. Pulp Fiction and comic books were particularly common, as they were cheap to produce and distribute, and the cheerful, if somewhat superficial, storylines were a pleasant distraction for young and old people alike from the terrors of a war-stricken world.
Comic companies such as Action, Detective (now DC comics collectively), Pep, and Archie Comics were among the most popular for teenagers and soldiers - superhero stories generally for boys and the teen romance of the Archie/Pep comics for girls. These books were comforting to young people especially, as they demonstrated superhumans defeating the evils of the world. In fact, comics with certain heroes defeating Hitler were particularly popular.
The 1940s mainstreamed comic books to a point unseen in their short history up to that time. Characters such as Superman and Captain America gained extensive popularity and to this day are extremely influential in modern pop culture.
Besides cheaply printed comics and pulp novels, a lot of modern classics came out in these years. Books such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Grapes of Wrath, and 1984 are all notable works of literature that were both popular upon their release and in our modern-day.
Although I could write forever on the massive pop culture following of this era, I highly encourage all of you to invest some time into researching and discovering this mixed media for yourself. You may find your passion within vintage filmmaking, saxophone music, or comic book illustration. The 1940s was truly a decade worth further exploration and I'm certain is an era never to be forgotten.
Fackler, Guido, "Jazz Under the Nazis." Music and the Holocaust, 2000
“Hitler's Jazz Band: How the Nazis Used Swing as Propaganda.” HistoryExtra, 26 Nov. 2020,
“Golden Age of Comic Books.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_Comic_Books