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Image © Jonas Mohamadi.
World War 2 is a common history topic in most schools, and music lessons have become a popular entry point.
From propaganda posters to classic wartime songs, art and music bring the past alive for children. Teachers sharing the famous poster of Lord Kitchener or the songs of Vera Lynn helps them understand what life was like during World War 2.
Teachers in any key stage often share art and music with their class as part of a wider cultural approach to history. Propaganda posters are a popular way for a KS2 class to explore the art styles of the time, while short films and adverts may be used as educational tools to help children understand how people thought. In schools where music lessons are taken by specialist music teachers, the class may even learn to play some WW2 music. KS2 children in particular often enjoy finding out what popular culture was like in other periods of history.
Music In World War 2
In the early 20th century, most people still consumed music by watching performances in music halls, while the middle class and upper class people who could afford music lessons would buy sheet music to perform at home.
By World War 2, however, radio had become popular. Most households had one, creating a sense of community as families huddled around to listen to popular music playing alongside news broadcasts and alerts about the war. Artists were encouraged to produce uplifting music to support the troops and keep public morale up. Record players became more affordable around this time as well, meaning people had more access to music at home. Going to the cinema was also popular, and just like now, film soundtracks frequently became hits.
Second World War Singers
Jazz, swing and big band were the main styles of music during World War Two. Vera Lynn, known as the "Forces' sweetheart", was very popular, while artists like Bing Crosby and Doris Day were also well-known. Performers from other areas of the arts turned to singing, with comedians like Arthur Askey and Flanagan and Allen especially popular for lighthearted tunes which poked fun at the Nazis. Actress Marlene Dietrich even started singing, recording anti-German songs despite being born in Germany.
Songs From World War Two
World War 2 songs were written to keep people's spirits up, and had lyrics focusing on the hope of better times to come, like White Cliffs of Dover, which says 'There'll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow when the world is free'. Others, like Pack Up Your Troubles, talked about the need to stay strong through tough times. Many others discussed reunions with loved ones when the war was over. We'll Meet Again by Dame Vera Lynn, with its chorus of 'We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll meet again some sunny day', is a good example.
We've listed some of the best-known WW2 songs below.
We'll Meet Again - Vera Lynn
A poignant tune about having faith in seeing loved ones again once the difficult times are over.
Lili Marlene - Marlene Dietrich
A good opportunity to discuss what people on both sides of the war had in common since the song was popular in Allied and Axis countries alike.
Pack Up Your Troubles - Felix Powell
Originally written and released during WW1, this song became popular again during World War 2.
White Cliffs Of Dover - Nat Burton
A hopeful tune looking forward to the day things will be better, written to raise people's spirits.
Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line - Arthur Askey
A typically funny World War 2 song from comedian Askey which puns on the Siegfried Line (a German defensive line) by comparing it to a washing line.
I'll Be Seeing You - Billie Holiday
A nostalgic tune about missing a loved one, a good one for discussions around the grief and loss people experienced during World War 2.
Run Rabbit Run - Flanagan and Allen
Winston Churchill was reportedly a fan of this song, whose words were changed to mock Hitler and the German forces.
Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Judy Garland
Originally written for the Wizard of Oz soundtrack, the song's yearning for better times made it popular during World War Two.
White Christmas - Bing Crosby
An older hit that became popular during the war for its imagery of cosy Christmases at home with loved ones.
Sentimental Journey - Doris Day
Released just in time for the end of the war, this became a homecoming anthem for returning soldiers.
Ways To Learn About World War 2 Music
The best way to learn songs by heart is to listen to them several times. Most of the ones above are easily available online via music streaming services and archives. Once they've heard a song a few times, many kids will start to sing along naturally anyway. If they need more help with the words, they're usually available online too - try letting them read along on a device if you can't find a version of the song with a lyric video.
Another way to help KS2 children explore WW2 music is to ask them to role-play as a radio DJ and compose their own Top 5 or 10. You could even record it for them on your phone if they really get into it. Encourage them to discuss the reasons for their choices, or why they think people might have liked a particular song during wartime.
When sharing this music with your KS2 child, it's important to remember the context wartime songs were written in. They are products of a different era and may contain lyrics we wouldn't consider suitable these days. It's important to have conversations with your child about these issues, and how some things that were considered normal in wartime, aren't thought of that way today.
Jennie is a Manchester native who discovered a love of teaching and travel whilst teaching at a kindergarten in China, and has spent her time since then becoming an expert in both. Jennie mainly teaches KS2 children and still thinks she has the best job in the world. She also runs a tutoring and mindfulness company called ‘Recreate-U’ which helps people to reach their full educational potential through making them feel comfortable, safe, and happy in their learning environment. In her spare time she can be found up to her elbows in a craft project or curled up somewhere comfy with a book and a hot cup of tea.