Beloved World War II-Era Singer Vera Lynn Dies At 103, Leaving Behind A Poignant And Relevant Legacy

“We’ll meet again/ Don’t know where/ Don’t know when/ But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

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While seemingly simple and lighthearted, these lines from Vera Lynn’s iconic song “We’ll Meet Again” serve as one of the most profound and consequential examples of lyrical poetry in human history. This, of course, has to do with the historical context of the song — Lynn’s version dropped in 1939 and went on to be one of the major anthems for Britain’s struggle against Nazi Germany during World War II. After the song’s initial success, Lynn went on to release a string of wartime hits, building a colorful career that spanned 10 decades in total. 

And now, on the morning of Thursday June 18, 2020, the world has awoken to the news that her 10-decade career has finally come to a close — Lynn has passed away at the grand age of 103. While she is gone, her legacy remains alive and well in the hearts and minds of fans from Britain and around the world. Public tributes have already been made by the likes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and fellow British music icon, Paul McCartney, both of whom fondly recalled Lynn’s warmth and uncanny ability to uplift the hearts of a nation in the thralls of war. Even Queen Elizabeth II herself — who, much to Lynn’s delight, quoted “We’ll Meet Again” in her recent public address regarding the COVID-19 pandemic — has reportedly sent a letter of condolences directly to Lynn’s family. In short, the who’s-who of legends mourning Lynn’s passing serves as a testament to the wide and potent reach of her work.

Yet, at the same time Lynn’s legacy faces a unique challenge — due to her close connection with British morale during the war, it can be difficult to determine where the real Vera Lynn stops and where the propagandized version begins. The propagandized version of her songs is perhaps what initially comes to mind for most folks — images of a strong, determined and united Britain singularly standing up against the Nazis; images of troops happily hanging out in barracks while women cheerfully worked away in munitions factories; images of the world’s largest empire making a final stand in its darkest hour. While these images are not without weight and certainly had a specific role to play in maintaining morale during the war, they don’t capture the full story. No, to really get a look at the full story of Lynn’s songs, we must look to the real Vera Lynn.

Born in 1917 to a plumber and a dressmaker, Lynn began performing publicly in 1924 at the age of 7. From there, Lynn bounced around singing for a variety of dance bands until she ended up in Bert Ambrose’s orchestra in 1937. With Ambrose, Lynn spent a few years building up her popularity — then, in 1939, everything changed when she recorded her fateful rendition of “We’ll Meet Again.” Within months of the song’s release, a Daily Express poll of British servicemen gave Lynn the title of ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart,’ a title she carried to her death. 

By the time the war really heated up in mid-1940, Lynn was performing as a solo artist, being one of the first entertainers in modern history to step into the role of ‘international pop star.’ By 1941 she had her own radio program entitled Sincerely Yours which broadcasted musical performances and personal messages from the homefront to British troops across the globe. By 1943 she had appeared in two feature films and was widely considered to be a definitive icon of Western culture. By the end of the war, she had amassed a canon of patriotic and sentimental songs — such as “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “There’ll Always Be an England” — which became embedded in the collective consciousness’s memory of the war.

However, unlike some of her American counterparts (such as the Andrews Sisters), Lynn’s career managed to survive beyond the war years. In 1952 she became the first British artist ever to achieve a No. 1 hit in the United States with her rendition of “Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart.” In the decades following she continued to make television appearances and put out music (including a string of Top 10 hits), but she gradually began to focus less on entertaining and more on her charitable efforts.

However, in 2009, with the release of her compilation record We’ll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn she made music history again by becoming the oldest living artist to reach No. 1 on the charts. Then, in October 2017 she was named the best-selling female artist of the year in the U.K. — meaning that as a 100-year-old, she outsold modern artists such as Dua Lipa and Lana Del Rey. All this combined makes for one of the most impressive resumes in popular music history. 

Still, ‘all this’ hasn’t yet touched on perhaps the most significant (and relevant) element of her legacy: her activism. Lynn’s death marks a milestone in the history of World War II as more and more of the brave souls who bore witness to its horrors pass on. In their wake, the legacy of the war hangs in the balance. As a performer for the Entertainments National Service Association, Lynn risked her life entertaining troops in India, Egypt and on the frontlines in Burma — the latter of which provides us with perhaps the best glimpse at who the real Vera Lynn really was.

Lynn “somewhere in the jungle.” (Photo courtesy of Lynn’s Twitter).

“My memories of the wartime years are strongest when I think of Burma,” Lynn said in her autobiography. “I find it difficult to imagine the young woman I was then — 26 years old, barely married, never traveled anywhere and suddenly in the middle of the jungle in Burma, a stone’s throw from the fighting. It was a strange and wonderful experience that has lived with me for the rest of my life. I have always carried with me the memory of all the brave men I met who were fighting that ‘forgotten war.’”

That right there gets to the crux of Lynn’s legacy: remembering the ‘forgotten war.’ The exact meaning of that can be interpreted in a few ways — most literally, Lynn spent years working with Help 4 Forgotten Allies, a British non-profit devoted to providing aid to Burmese veterans living in modern-day Myanmar. In this regard, Lynn fought tooth and nail against the ‘forgetting’ of the actual war: she was acutely aware of the fact that Britain was not in the war alone, but actually had many imperial holdings around the world whose contributions to the victory effort remain largely unsung to this day. After the war, those communities were not only left with severe damage (both physically and mentally), but were also excluded from the nationalist sense of British identity that had ‘won the war.’ 

Lynn’s distaste for this brutish British cultural exclusion didn’t stop in the post-war years — in fact, it remained an issue she was passionate about up to her death. In 2009, she sued the British National Party after the far-right political organization began raising funds for its European election campaign by selling compilation CDs featuring her music. 91 years old at the time, Lynn was reportedly furious at the use of her music to drum up support for the staunchly anti-immigrant, nationalist party. 

This shows us the wider, more symbolic meaning of ‘remembering the forgotten war.’ Just as John Adams famously warned that the true history of the American revolution will forever be lost to falsified and romanticized depictions, Lynn attempted to warn that the same thing may happen with World War II. She did this through a variety of means, such as her music, her activism and even a short documentary dedicated to the memory of the war. This harkens back to the aforementioned full story of her songs.

See, while it may be easy to see Lynn’s work as a celebration of the British identity and the ‘easy’ Allied victory in World War II, her music is actually much more profound. Her songs were not a call to arms, but rather a call for peace. Her celebration of the British people was not a celebration of their national pride, but rather a celebration of their ability to overcome hardship and unite as a single community. Her warm sentimentality was not for the ‘good ol’ days’ of pre-war imperial Britain, but rather for the innocent, care-free life of simply being able to enjoy the things you love with the people you love. Her assurance that ‘we’ll meet again someday’ was not encouragement for men to choose to go off to fight, but rather solace for men who had no other choice but to fight. In short, Lynn’s music was not the personification of Lady Liberty fearlessly marching into battle, but rather the personification of a nation bravely attempting to overcome their fear, anxiety and unfathomable loss just to hang on.

Which leads us back to the current moment — while the war ended 75 years ago, its legacy continues to unravel, impacting many aspects of our lives to this very day. At the same time, new struggles are on the rise, putting global populations at risk in a way we haven’t experienced in decades. There’s a reason Queen Elizabeth II made reference to Lynn in her public address — we, again, are in unprecedented times of sacrifice.

The sacrifices of Lynn’s generation looked different. Their sacrifice looked like countries fully mobilizing, men suiting up in uniform and women entering the workforce to keep the homefront from collapsing. Today, the sacrifice looks like countries fully shutting down, healthcare workers suiting up in protective gear and passionate citizens around the world demanding change from a broken system at the verge of collapsing. While the struggles are entirely different, what’s at stake remains the same: every human’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These terms are lofty and hard to fully grasp in any exact circumstance, but moments such as World War II and the current combination of medical and political crisis remind us that they are not hypothetical. The sacrifice embodied by Vera Lynn and her work reminds us that they are not hypothetical. They are living, breathing elements of our world, and without diligence, hard work and determination, it is very possible that they will cease to be. We must remember that there were times in living memory when everything had to be sacrificed to keep them in place. 

So now, after 103 well-spent years, Lynn’s work on this planet is done. What we are left with is a complicated and beautiful legacy — one of strength, one of compassion, one of understanding and one of hope. May we always remember the tender soul that Lynn shared with us all in her decades of music-making. May we always be as vigilant as she was in trying to keep the true story of her time alive in the public consciousness. May we all rest easy knowing that somewhere over the White Cliffs of Dover, Vera Lynn will be singing with the bluebirds forevermore. 

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