I tend to work later in the day than many of my museum colleagues and while the building was under construction that was quite a drag-as I left each evening I said my goodbyes to empty hallways and plastic-covered mannequins. Now that the museum is buzzing with life again, I’ve been finding myself treated to unfamiliar sights and sounds as I make my way out of the building. Walking towards the exit earlier this week, for example, I was delighted to hear the tune “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” wafting through the atrium.
The melodious sound drew me towards a rehearsal taking place for a new program called “Happy Holidays! American Popular Songs, 1941-45.” This was not run-of-the-mill holiday caroling and the program—which will run on select days in December—is about more than just entertainment. The performances are designed to bring to life the music of 1940s wartime America as well as share the stories behind the songs and what they reveal about the nation during World War II. Though the singers wore their street clothes that evening, when they perform live they will be fashioned in 40’s-era clothing, complete with fox stoles and pullover sweaters. Between songs, the vocalists will narrate the history behind the music. This new program is the first in a new series of programs on American Popular Song designed to engage our visitors with the sounds of the past—enlivening the museum environment and providing a multisensory means for experiencing American history.
For several years I worked in an office adjacent the former Ella Fitzgerald exhibition, which featured an audio loop of the queen of skat doing her thing. Each day, I saw this performer—who made a notoriously harsh audience at the Apollo clamor for more—touch visitors with her creative vocal improvisations and cheerful “babadebepops.” I didn’t realize how much I had missed experiencing American history through music until my run-in with the “Happy Holidays” rehearsal. For me, the program is a happy reminder of the way live performances can conjure up a bygone era and the power of music to fill up a space with warmth and life.
Dana Allen-Greil is the new media project manager at the National Museum of American History.