For Dame Vera Lynn, life’s normal temporal sequence has gone awry. Simultaneously dragged relentlessly back to the past and under equally relentless demand to sing a song about the future, Britain’s most famous Second World War singer continues to be effectively denied a present. Like Dame Vera herself,1 the song, ‘We’ll Meet Again’, has become nationally iconic: the metonym of World War II; ritually sung at anniversary commemorations of the war and at reunions; like the fourth stanza of Binyon’s ‘For The Fallen’ (‘they shall not grow old…’) hymn-like, invested with a quasi-religious, patriotic quality. At the same time, its resonances have been invoked in popular culture, its strains the ironic accompaniment to the explosion of atom bombs in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); deployed with alienating effect in the Pink Floyd song ‘Vera’ (The Wall, 1982); the eerie aural backdrop to the Tower of Terror ride in Walt Disney World, California. This essay examines a song often sung but less often reflected upon, and, through it, investigates the phenomenon that is ‘Dame Vera Lynn’.
In the 1930s, rather than write or commission their own songs, singers visited music publishers to browse through new compositions: each performance then brought in royalties to publisher and composer. Vera Lynn came across ‘We’ll Meet Again’ in the autumn of 1939 at Irwin Dash, a Tin Pan Alley publishers.2 Its composition (it is dated 1939)3 therefore preceded the war. The song was the work of the well-established, London-based songwriters Ross Parker and Hugh Charles, with Charles providing the lyrics for Parker's melody. Lynn first sang it (along with ‘You Can’t Black Out The Moon’) that autumn on tour with the Ambrose Orchestra,4 beginning a still-unbroken tripartite connection between it, herself and the war. At the time, Lynn was 22. She had begun singing as a 7-year-old in the clubs of east London, billed as a ‘distinctive child vocalist’; at 11, she was a member of a juvenile troupe, ‘Madame Harris’s Kracker Kabaret Kids’. She metamorphosed into a professional ‘crooner’, featuring on dance band records with Joe Loss and Charlie Kunz and making her first radio broadcast in 1935. In 1937, she became a vocalist with Bert Ambrose and his band and when, in the winter of that year, the Ambrose Octet was formed in its stead, she joined full-time.5 The singer of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ in the autumn of 1939 was therefore a well-known stage and radio performer on the verge of a solo career but the ‘established character’6 of ‘Vera Lynn’, as understood today, was not yet in existence.
Even so, ‘Vera Lynn’ was already something of a construction. Lynn had been born Vera Welch. To join the Kracker Kabaret Kids, she sought a ‘more comfortable name’. Her main concern was to find something ‘short, easily remembered, and that would stand out on a bill – something that would allow for plenty of space around each letter’. A family conference decided on her grandmother’s maiden name.7 The connotations of ‘Welch’ (un-English, to ‘welsh’ on a debt) were therefore exchanged for those of the more mellifluous ‘Lynn’, a variation on ‘Linn’, which means lime or linden tree and also pool or cascade.8 With the prefix ‘Vera’ (‘truth’), the name encapsulated a reliable (‘vera lynn’ said quickly sounds like ‘verily’), pastoral, Falstaffian England,9 very much in tune with the propagandist myth of the nation promoted, not least by Churchill, during the Second World War. In this sense, ‘Vera Lynn’ was what the British and their allies were fighting for. But the ongoing construction of ‘Vera Lynn’ depended – and continues to depend – on ‘We’ll Meet Again’. What, then, was the significance of a piece which the performer herself described simply as ‘a perfect example of what you might call the greetings card song’ with ‘unpretentious off-the-peg sentiments’?10
The lyrics to ‘We’ll Meet Again’ are, as Vera Lynn points out, easily learned11 and nationally known:
We’ll meet again don’t know where,
Don’t know when,
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day,
Keep smilin’ thro’ just like you always do
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away,
So will you please say hello to the folks that I know,
Tell them I won’t be long
They’ll be happy to know that as you saw me go,
I was singing this song.
We’ll meet again etc.12
It is less well known that the song has two verses. Today these tend to be omitted: Lynn herself only ever sang the first one (largely because recordings could not exceed three minutes).13 The text is as follows:
Let’s say goodbye with a smile dear,
Just for a while dear,
We must part,
Don’t let the parting upset you,
I’ll not forget you sweetheart.
After the rain comes the rainbow,
You’ll see the rain go,
We two can wait for tomorrow,
Goodbye to sorrow my dear.14
Lynn sums up the message of the song as ‘people hoping in spite of everything to meet again’, the sentiments of ‘everybody who’s saying goodbye to somebody’.15 But, though the setting is, as she says, personal and intimate – ‘from me to you’16 – it is also a highly public song, broadcast throughout the world during the war and in latter years sung en masse at national commemorations. Like a Donnean valediction, therefore, it has a bifocal quality: private reassurance as mass spectacle. This was replicated in Lynn’s role as ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’ (discussed further below), which combined the personal and the representative.
The song’s dramatic situation is of two people parting. The speaker is going to go somewhere else (‘as you saw me go’). It is likely that the addressee is either returning, or staying at, home: ‘will you please say hello to the folks that I know’ suggests that this person will remain with familiar friends and family while the other is with strangers. There is no explicit reference to war (except for the hint in ‘dark clouds’, a use of the pathetic fallacy which might also suggest the residue of explosions), but the song’s ineradicable association with the Second World War fixes the scenario as that in which the departing speaker is a member of the military off on active service. As the combat forces were exclusively male, this designates the person being left as the speaker’s wife or girlfriend (‘dear’, ‘sweetheart’). The seductive quality of the music – in particular the sultry chromatics of the opening before the soar up to ‘when’ (a tricky interval of a minor sixth) – reinforces this impression of intimacy. The lyric is accordingly consistent with a female-populated home front. Given that the setting suggests a male speaker, it is therefore odd that the song (like ‘Sally’ for Gracie Fields) became a hit for a woman singer. In interview, Vera Lynn argued that it was not written specifically for either sex.17 Notwithstanding this, a recording of it by her exists in which some significant changes have been made:
So I’ll just say hello to the folks that you know,
Tell them you won’t be long
They’ll be happy to know that as I saw you go,
You were singing this song.18
Though the pronouns are reversed here to accommodate a female singer, the version still maintains the speaker of the ‘we’ll meet again’ section as a man (‘you were singing this song’) even though his words are sung in a woman’s voice. The result is that the character who tells the other to ‘keep smilin’ thro’ – that is, the person automatically invested with superior courage and fortitude – remains a male part.
The song urges cheerful endurance of the discomforts and dangers of staying at home: ‘I am going away but you must be brave.’ The message replicates that of another lyric composed on its speaker’s leaving for the wars: John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of Weeping’. As the voice of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ exhorts his wife or girlfriend to ‘keep smilin’ thro’, ‘don’t let the parting upset you’, so the speaker of Donne’s poem bids his mistress (another voiceless addressee) with some petulance to ‘weep me not dead in thine arms’.19 Effectively, in both lyrics, ‘blame’ for the trauma of separation is reassigned from the politicians and military leaders who have initiated and wage the war to the emotional response of the woman obliged to remain behind.
As a war poem, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is, like its most famous singer, imprinted with the disorderly narratology of conflict. The earliest audiences of The Iliad all knew its plot in detail; readers of recent First World War novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy also know which side wins in the end. Such works can deploy narrative devices such as suspense (the reader knows what’s going to happen but doesn’t know when), foreshadowing and back shadowing. Literature written during a war, when it is not known when or how that war is going to conclude, has a different narratology: open-ended, subjunctive, uncertain. This is the tenor of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The hypothesis is that we will meet again but the conditions that must be satisfied to fulfil it are vague. ‘Don’t know where / Don’t know when’ runs the lyric, only specifying that the prospective reunion will be ‘when the bright skies drive the dark clouds far away’ (although this is countered by the relative confidence of ‘I won’t be long’ and ‘I know we’ll meet again’). Indeed, the second verse points to an endlessly deferred conclusion: ‘we two can wait for tomorrow’. The song itself is potentially eternal: the meta-textual structure ‘They’ll be happy to know that as you saw me go, / I was singing this song. / We’ll meet again etc’ leads perpetually back to the beginning. Like the war, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ could go on forever.
This sense of an uncertain outcome reinforces the eschatological nature of the song. ‘I know we’ll meet again some sunny day’ might refer to a summer reunion, but it could with equal ease connote a bright afterlife. In the context of World War II, the speaker was not just going away, but going away to war and possible death. Vera Lynn recalls singing the song in Burma to her smallest ever audience: two men who were too wounded to be moved. ‘I could see what they were thinking,’ Lynn wrote. ‘In the end, only one got home.’2 In such a scenario, the song undergoes a metamorphosis, now becoming an exchange between two comrades who will not both survive the conflict. In recent years, Lynn has been informed by servicemen’s widows that ‘We’ll Meet Again’ has been the last song played at their husbands’ funerals; she herself sang it at the funeral of Billy Butlin.21 In a charity concert after the war, she was asked to perform it after a comic version of Macbeth. Advancing onto the darkened stage, she began to sing, only to notice that lying on the floor were all the ‘bodies’ from the play’s final bloody scene. The only thing to do was to render a humorous version, so she gestured to each ‘corpse’ in turn, while assuring it, ‘we’ll meet again’.22 (And in addition to a comic, the lyric can bear a sinister interpretation, as evidenced by Disney’s Tower of Terror ride: ‘we’ll meet again’ can be construed as threatening.)
Exhorting courage, recalling home, providing an optimistic view of life after death, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ was part of the war effort. ‘Musicians,’ Lynn wrote in her autobiography, ‘are not cowards, although the press had a good time suggesting they were.’23 When she herself went to volunteer, she was told that she would be most ‘valuable’ – indeed, ‘vital’ – as an entertainer: people ‘were going to need entertainment more than they’d ever done in their lives’.24 Primarily, her remit, as she saw it, was to boost morale:
In wartime music fills an important niche in national life. In the Second World War it was not used as a wardrum, to beat up martial spirit, but to provide good cheer for the forces, to stimulate workers in the war factories and to hearten people in their homes.25
But carrying on the business of entertainment provided an example as well as a distraction. Insisting that the show must go on while the London theatres were being bombed was ‘a small act of defiance’.26 This, of course, is what ‘We’ll Meet Again’ calls for: ‘keep smilin’ thro’ as a military tactic. When, in 1941, Lynn’s BBC radio programme, Sincerely Yours, began to go out, she felt that it did have ‘slight warlike intentions’, going head-to-head with the Germans’ favourite, ‘Lili Marlene’. Sincerely Yours was heard throughout occupied Europe as people met again and again around their clandestine wirelesses, creating the potential for future reunions – many with the singer herself. For Lynn, it was the opportunity to ‘reach out’. ‘Like me,’ she wrote later, ‘many [women] found new possibilities and a new confidence in their war role.’27 Sincerely Yours – and ‘We’ll Meet Again’ – was therefore empowerment of a kind. Perhaps in reaction to this, some M.P.s and retired officers – ‘none of whom were actually doing any of the fighting’ – said publicly that sentimental songs produced sentimental soldiers ‘who would desert at the first catch in a crooner’s voice’. Questions were asked in the House of Commons and the BBC set up an Anti-Slush Committee.28 The criticism, according to Lynn, was ‘soon squashed’: ‘as I saw it, I was reminding the boys of what they were really fighting for, the precious personal things rather than the ideologies and theories.’29 They were fighting, in other words, for ‘Vera Lynn’.
This emphasis on the ‘precious personal things’ was central to Lynn’s role during the war. In 1939, she topped a list of favourite female vocalists chosen by men of the Tank Corps and also won the British Expeditionary Force’s singing popularity poll.30 As a result, she acquired the title ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’, cast, in her own words, as ‘a believable girl-next-door, big-sister, universal-fiancée’.31 This was also the persona projected on Sincerely Yours, announced in the Radio Times as ‘To the men of the Forces: a letter in words and music from Vera Lynn’.32 Soon the ‘letter’ was receiving one to two thousand a week in return from the troops.33 Lynn tried to keep in contact with them, sending out photographs. Later, she began to deliver personal messages to individuals over the airwaves, visiting hospitals and nursing homes before the show ‘so that I could tell Gunner Jones or Bombardier Brown that his wife had just had a baby, that I had talked to her and that mother and child were just fine.’34 The result was to make her ‘a message carrier between separated people’,35 a private spokesperson, even advocate, recapitulating on a larger scale the effect of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. As she wrote later, the song was ‘a very basic human message of the sort that people want to say to each other but find embarrassing actually to put into words. Ordinary English people don’t, on the whole, find it easy to expose their feelings even to those closest to them. […] ‘We’ll Meet Again’ […] would go at least a little way towards doing it for them.’36
Lynn reprised this intimate yet representative role in her tour to Burma in 1944 under the auspices of ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association). Touring the hospitals, she sensed that ‘direct, individual contact’ was more important to the men than singing and music. ‘How are things at home?’ was a constant refrain. The reply ‘business as usual’ was given ‘as a matter of pride’:37 ‘keep smilin’ thro’ given new urgency and meaning. The primary effect of Lynn’s tour was to reduce the distance felt by the troops. ‘Home can’t be too far away can it [sic],’ one soldier remarked, ‘if you can just appear among us.’38 But another effect was to introduce a glamorous woman into the male space of war. Though the ENSA uniform was sombre – ‘a severely military-looking outfit’39 – Lynn also spent amassed clothes coupons on a tight-fitting, pale pink chiffon dress and, despite the heat, wore lipstick.40 A picture emerges of a strong, healthy, sexually attractive woman reassuring and comforting men who are wounded and immobilised: a complete reversal of the gender dynamics of ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
In the recent televised commemoration of the 60th anniversary of VE Day, the song was sung, not by Vera Lynn, whose final public performance was on the 50th anniversary, but by a young Welsh soprano, Katherine Jenkins. Jenkins was, the compère announced, the ‘new Forces’ Sweetheart’, and, as she and Dame Vera embraced, it seemed that a torch was being passed on. But several factors suggest that the role has fallen into desuetude. With mass communication, there is no need for the kind of personal contact which Lynn provided. Troops can phone and email their families themselves. Moreover, the role seems to depend upon the nature of the conflict. British troops currently in Iraq are not fighting for a near-universally supported cause as was the case in World War II: a celebrity, indeed, would be more likely to be found voicing opposition to the war, rather than acting as the troops’ darling.41 For Lynn, being the Forces’ Sweetheart involved rather more than singing: she did, and does, work for them. And public opinion, at least as far as Iraq is concerned, would not be satisfied with the all-too-vague promises of ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
When Vera Lynn got back from Burma, she wondered whether ‘all would be anticlimax from now on for me’.42 Conscious that her connection with the war was now indelible, she anticipated its end by moving to the Sussex countryside in November 1944: ‘there was a feeling that an era was passing which I had been very much a part of’.43 At the end of the 1940s, she went to the United States and, with ‘Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart’ (notably these words are the German equivalent of ‘We’ll Meet Again’), became the first British artist to top the US charts. She appeared regularly on Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show. and also had top ten hits in Britain and her own BBC series in the ’50s and ’70s. But these achievements are not the ones that are remembered. It is hard to determine when ‘Nostalgia’ as a phenomenon kicked in and ‘Vera Lynn’ was reconstructed. According to Lynn herself, it was simply that, as the years went by, people began to get more and more nostalgic.44 Made a Dame in 1975, when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, she became increasingly in demand to sing at Second World War anniversaries and commemorations: at the 60th anniversary events this year, her presence – even though she no longer sings publicly – was indispensable. At such commemorations and reunions, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ has undergone another metamorphosis. Now those who join in are in their eighties and nineties. ‘We’ll meet again’ might signify ‘we’ll meet at next year’s reunion’ but it must also now refer again to that eschatological ‘sunny day’ when late and present comrades come together. If this is true, then the endlessly forward-looking lyric has turned to look backwards – become, in effect, a memorial.
Reunion – meeting again – seems to have become newly fashionable in recent years: the success of the Friends Reunited website is just one example. School or work reunions tend to be (often highly emotionally-charged) occasions for catching up, marking change and moving on. But such things are not possible in the endlessly deferred reunion of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Caught in a time loop, the song resists ‘closure’. In a similar way, Vera Lynn is suspended too, at least until the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.
Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A. J. Smith. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
Jamieson, Alastair. "Forces Darling Vows She Won’t Cash In". The Scotsman. 10 July 2002. <http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=742472002>.
Lynn, Vera. Vocal Refrain. London: W. H. Allen, 1975.
Lynn, Vera, Robin Cross, and Jenny de Gex. Unsung Heroines. The Women Who Won the War. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1990.
---. We'll Meet Again. 1989. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2005.
Parker, Ross, and Hugh Charles. "We'll Meet Again." London: Dash Music, 1939.
Undated recording of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (Ross and Charles) by Vera Lynn, on Favourite Wartime Songs. Pastimes, Oxford, England / River Productions Ltd., 2003. RRCD127/128/129/PT.
Interview with Dame Vera Lynn, Ditchling, East Sussex, 2 August 2005.
1. There is a Vera Lynn Close in east London.
2. Vera Lynn, Vocal Refrain (London: W. H. Allen, 1975) 81; interview with Dame Vera Lynn.
3. Ross Parker and Hugh Charles, "We'll Meet Again," (London: Dash Music, 1939). A novel, We’ll Meet Again, by Dudley Gordon Leslie was published in London in 1930.
4. Vera Lynn, Robin Cross and Jenny de Gex, We'll Meet Again (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2005) 8.
5. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 22, 30, 41, 45, 55, 61, 82.
6. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 103.
7. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 30.
9. ‘Vera Lynn’ is also cockney rhyming slang for ‘gin’.
10. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 81.
12. Parker and Charles, "We'll Meet Again".
14. Parker and Charles, "We'll Meet Again".
18. Undated recording of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ by Vera Lynn, on Favourite Wartime Songs.
19. John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984) 89.
20. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 120.
23. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 77.
24. Interview; Lynn, Vocal Refrain 85.
25. Lynn, Cross and de Gex, We'll Meet Again 127.
26. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 85.
27. Vera Lynn, Robin Cross and Jenny de Gex, Unsung Heroines. The Women Who Won the War (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1990) 6.
28. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 99.
29. Interview; Lynn, Vocal Refrain 99.
30. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 92-3.
31. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 97.
32. Lynn, Cross and de Gex, We'll Meet Again 128.
33. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 100.
34. Lynn, Cross and de Gex, We'll Meet Again 128.
35. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 98.
36. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 81.
37. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 113.
38. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 115.
39. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 109.
41. Geri Halliwell, who entertained British troops in Oman, attracted criticism for being paid between £80,000 and £120,000 for doing so (Jamieson).
42. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 122.
43. Lynn, Vocal Refrain 128.