When I make generational generalizations I usually remember to add the caveat that exceptions to the rule are as numerous as adherents to it. (When I don’t I should.) In every generation there are slackers and workaholics, libertines and prudes, authoritarians and anarchists, extroverts and introverts, and so on. Yet that doesn’t mean such generalizations are useless. There really is such a thing as a Zeitgeist. Think of it as a shift of the centerline of the bell curve for any one trait to the left or right. Mainstream centerline behavior really is wilder among equivalent age cohorts in some decades and more reserved in others. Some eras and age groups really are characterized by more cautious saving and others by more free spending – once again at the centerline: there are always profligates and misers on the bell curve tails in any age group in any era. That said, I’ll go ahead and generalize.
The prompt for all this was a brief broadcast interview of a 100-year-old World War 2 veteran. He wasn’t one of those rare old birds still chirpily on his mettle. The clip reminded me of vintage newsreels from the 1930s with interviews of doddering Civil War veterans. Those of us old enough to have members of the GI Generation as parents (or grandparents) remember them differently. A few of us are lucky enough to still have them around. The very youngest of the GI Gens were 17 in 1945 and therefore are 91 years old in 2019; the vast bulk are several years older. At 1,900,000 they are not quite 0.6% of the U.S. population and their numbers are diminishing rapidly. Of the more than 16,000,000 U.S. military veterans of World War 2, some 450,000 remain. In their heyday they were a formidable bunch.
The GI generation (aka Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”) consists of those old enough to have served legally in the armed forces in WW2 (whether they actually did or not), but not old enough also to have served in WW1 or to have been strongly shaped by the experience of WW1. So, the birth years for the generation are from about 1905 to the first several months of 1928. I’ve written about this age group before, and I won’t repeat the long list of its relative virtues, flaws, and quirks acquired from the experience of Depression and war. (I’m also writing from an American perspective; the impact of the war varied dramatically from one country to the next, so while there are parallels in the characteristics of the generation across borders there are large regional differences, too.) I will mention a couple though. The first is that they grew up early. Maybe the word “early” is unnecessary.
The GI Gens and the so-called Silent Generation (b. the latter half of 1928 through 1945) that followed them were the last adult generations. Those who know them know what I mean. My Boomer generation didn’t always appreciate that when we were in our youth. In the 1960s “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” was a Boomer slogan. It was one we never really gave up: we didn’t trust ourselves when we passed 30 and for good reason. Generations after the Boomers seem if anything even less eager to grow up as evidenced by the contemporary usage of “to adult” as a verb to describe doing something hard and disagreeable.
It is hard to overestimate how much the GI Generation dominated the last half of the 20th century, mostly to the country’s benefit. Most of the benefit was in nonpolitical matters, but every President from Kennedy to George H.W. Bush belonged to the generation. The Silent Generation never got a President. The succession skipped over them to Boomer Bill Clinton. Most classic rock stars were (ironically) Silents however, so at least they got to star in something – which brings us to the second item: popular music.
The popular sounds of the 1960s so beloved by Boomers (performed mostly by Silents) really are special, but if there is a decade that outshines the ‘60s it is the 1940s. My parents weren’t shy about playing their music, so I grew up with it in the house. The big band sound was the most iconic, but was only one of various styles. Lyrics could be sentimental without (usually) being sappy, they could be silly, or they simply could be spirited – and, though youthful, somehow adult. Many songs became night club standards we still hear in some venues. Even the most familiar ones to me (and those older) may be unknown to younger people though. Anecdote: Some time ago I was watching a Young Frankenstein DVD with a Gen-X friend. (Gen-Xers are those born 1965-1980.) At one point in the movie Gene Wilder leans out the train window and asks a shoeshine boy, “Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania Station?” I said to my friend, “You know, someone under 40 might not know that is a joke.” He looked at me puzzled and asked, “What joke?” Sigh.
Anyway, the interview of the old vet mentioned above prompted me to pluck a double CD off my shelf titled Those Were Our Songs: Music of World War Two. I’ve been playing it in my car the past few days. Though they aren’t my songs in the sense meant in the title, they do arouse nostalgia. These tunes filled the air at home while I was growing up. I recommend the collection even to those too young for a nostalgia response, for some very good stuff was recorded in the 40s. Of course, any anthology reflects the taste (in some cases the budget) of the person who assembles it and so is idiosyncratic by its nature, which is to say I would have made several different choices for this set. Glenn Miller, for one, is glaringly absent: this is like a ‘60s collection with no Beatles or a ‘50s collection with no Elvis. I would have traded a few tracks for Ellington or one of the Dorseys or more of Goodman. What did make it into the collection is pretty good however – well, 80% of it, which is an unusually high proportion for this kind of hodgepodge. (On the off chance someone else is puzzled by Gene Wilder’s line, by the way, play disc 2 track 5.) I’ll probably play through the discs again on my car trips along with some supplemental 40s-vintage material to round them out. They still evoke a smile as many times as I’ve heard those songs before.
Harry James & Helen Forrest – I've Heard That Song Before