Sunday Afternoon Music: Vera Lynn – “The White Cliffs of Dover”
This one is, perhaps, a little out of character, but bear with me and you’ll see why I chose it.
Every time I hear this song, it almost makes me cry. There’s so much honest sorrow and hope in Lynn’s voice. If you want to really appreciate this song, you have to put it into context. 1942 England was a scary place to be. World War II is one of the only wars that touched every person and every place on the face of the earth, and this was only 3 years into what, for some, was a war lasting 6 years. D-Day was still two years of hard planning away, and Allied attempts to get into Europe from its “soft underbelly” to the south were not going well. The United States had only been in the war for a few months, but England had to rely on it to help keep ocean trade lanes open to get supplies in to their tiny island – not just war material, but basic food. To be in England in 1942 was to be in a country under siege – a country that seemed smaller and more isolated day by day.
In 1940, England suffered through the Battle of Britain, the start of a series of bombings, air raids, and dogfights all over England, even striking the center of London itself. The worst of this Blitz continued through 1941, when Hitler turned his attention elsewhere, but kept up throughout most of the war. By the time Vera Lynn recorded “The White Cliffs of Dover” in 1942, it had become normal to hide in subway stations regularly or pick through the rubble of High Street to get your grocery shopping done. To the average person, it looked as though the forces of darkness were slowly winning worldwide.
Once you put yourself into that hopeless place, imagine hearing this song come over your radio at night. Lynn does not fail to acknowledge the darkness of the situation, but still she promises that one day, instead of fighter planes and explosions the sky will be filled with bluebirds again. The White Cliffs of Dover are one of England’s most distinctive features, large chalk cliffs at the point closest to continental Europe. It was the first thing anyone would see coming from France – and their first line of defense. They are a stand-in for the rest of the country: to have peace there would signal peace everywhere.
Often, it’s very hard to put yourself in the shoes of people who have come before. One of the great things about music is that it can put you there. And if you want to appreciate history, you need to understand that it’s nothing more than stories about people – and people are pretty much the same, no matter when they live. Enjoy.