Monday, 23 May 2011

"Satan with the small moustache"

Before December 7, 1941 and U.S. entry into Wold War Two, American pop culture, reflecting a large segment of public opinion, was reluctant to face the reality of the war raging in Europe and the Nazi menace. Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley were still mainly in the business of diverting Americans from their Depression woes. Notable exceptions were the films Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940).

By late 1940 and early '41 American involvement in the war was growing ever more likely, and conscription had been enacted. Patriotic themes began to emerge in movies but they were largely unserious. The military-themed finale of the 1940 Busby Berkeley musical Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney (in uniform) and Judy Garland is a smugly self-confident paean to American readiness and invulnerability.

As far as I know, this Irving Berlin song is the first pop song to deal specifically with "Satan with the small moustache," preceding by one year (and one declaration of war) Spike Jones' 1942 hit record of Der Fuehrer's Face . Without ever mentioning Hitler by name, this may be the only pop song ever to treat him in a non-comic manner. Berlin registered the song for copyright on January 14, 1941 and introduced it on the radio program ASCAP on Parade on February 1st. Mildred Bailey and the Delta Rhythm Boys recorded it on February 24th.

Irving Berlin's patriotism was heartfelt and serious. He once said, "Music is so important. It changes thinking, it influences everybody, whether they know it or not." He also said, "Songs make history and history makes songs."

If ever a song exemplified Berlin's theorem, this is it.

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