“I believe the bomb that struck Hiroshima was the answer to our fighting boys’ prayers.”
— “When the Atom Bomb Fell” Karl & Harty, 1946
We’re in the middle of two anniversaries that might get thinking adults to discussing an issue that can only lead to arguments.
It’s been 70 years since the United States used the atomic bomb as a weapon of war – it was dropped over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 – and Americans have been debating ever since: immoral war crimes that killed up to about 246,000 people, mostly civilians; or necessary acts that saved millions more lives than they took – including those of up to 1 million American servicemen – by ending the war in the Pacific.
But don’t look for an argument here. Today’s column is about music, specifically lyrics. And while some of the songs mentioned below don’t give the bombings the respect they may deserve, they are part of history.
Though the topic doesn’t show up much in the many books and movies about the atomic age, songwriters and musicians also had a lot to say about the bomb and what it could do.
“It was early one morning, when all the good work was done;
And that big bird was loaded, with that awful atomic bomb”
— “Atomic Bomb Blues”
Homer Harris (with Muddy Waters) 1946
Most atomic music is not the kind of stuff you’d hear on popular radio, even when it was new, so after all these decades if someone didn’t tell you about the genre, you might not know it existed. That’s a loss.
I wouldn’t know, either, except that several years ago my younger brother gave me a copy of the CD “Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security.” (Thanks, Gil.)
With all of the atomic anniversaries this year, I’ve been listening to it a lot lately.
Many popular styles of music are represented in the collection, from blues to country, from jazz to calypso, from early rock ‘n’ roll to whatever you call that orchestral stuff Doris Day and her ilk did. Such as this one that equates radioactivity with the heartbeat of one in love:
“I tic, tic, tic and my heart beats quick, How can anything go wrong?
When I’m listening to that Geiger counter song. I tic, tic all day long.”
— “Tic, Tic, Tic”
Doris Day, 1949
You can find the list of songs, their lyrics and inspirations, and the groups that recorded them by going to atomicplatters.com. It appears you can still buy various editions of the album online.
Some of the songs on my abridged “Single Warhead Edition” are preachy, some are clearly tongue-in-cheek, and some, rightly or wrongly, try to link atomic and sexual power.
“Atom bomb baby … She’s just the way I want her to be.
A million times hotter than TNT.”
— “Atom Bomb Baby”
The Five Stars, 1957
Some are schmaltzy, in the angst-ridden style of the teenage death songs that were so popular during the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.
Think of “The Last Kiss.” Now increase the death toll immensely and you get “Fallout Shelter.”
All-out nuclear war has erupted the night of the big game, but Dad tells Son not to worry because they have a fallout shelter. Son wants to go get his girlfriend, only there’s not enough room, so the teenager decides he’d “rather die with you than live without you” and runs to her instead.
“You hold my hand, I understand the sickness has begun.
And if we live or if we die our hearts will beat as one.”
— “Fallout Shelter”
Billy Chambers, 1962
Touching. “Fallout Shelter” wasn’t a hit for Chambers, but he would go on to write Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” which was.
Some songs see the extreme and fiery devastation of an atomic blast as a sign that the Second Coming of Christ might be at hand.
“Everybody’s worried ’bout the atomic bomb,
But nobody’s worried ’bout the day my Lord will come.
When he’ll hit, great God a-mighty, like an atom bomb.”
— “Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb”
Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio, 1950
That’s not such an unusual take. You still hear televangelists and the like predicting the imminent return of the Lord by incorporating modern technological developments and the threat of nuclear annihilation into their “signs of the time.”
But some of the atomic era songs just make you wonder what they were thinking.
“I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too!
The things I did to them baby, I can do to you!
‘Cause I’m a Fujiyama Mama, and I’m just about to blow my top!”
— “Fujiyama Mama”
Wanda Jackson, 1957
Though these particular lyrics today seem shockingly callous, this screaming rockabilly song is considered one of Jackson’s best and was actually a hit in Japan in the late ’50s. Jackson was reported as saying she was treated like a dignitary there during a concert tour in 1959.
Atomic devastation is not to be taken lightly. It’s definitely not funny.
But people cope with things that are frighteningly bigger than they are in many ways. The music from the age of the atomic bomb gives a snapshot of what some people were thinking at the time. What will today’s music say about us 70 years from now?
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.