The World War II years were a unique time in American music. With so many soldiers stationed all over the world, and with so many people from vastly different cultures thrown together in a random fashion, our nation was in the midst of a massive and very direct information exchange. Men from the Deep South were swapping stories and songs with guys from New York City. Chicago boys were trading guitar licks with Texans. In the thirties, the Okies had migrated to California. They took their music with them and spread a sound that would evolve into the Bakersfield version of country. With the war going on, hillbilly music was being taken around the world. For that reason, its influence was spreading faster than ever before.
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It is quickly obvious when listening to records from that era that country music writers felt the war deeply and personally. They had relatives and friends who were wading ashore on Pacific islands or battling Hitler’s forces in Europe. Many of them suffered from injury, and worst, death. The music was used to build morale, not only on the home front but overseas as well. In many cases, country songs became the themes for units. Hillbilly song titles were often chosen as the names for bombers.
The song came out of a vision
Like so many others, Zeke Clements was deeply concerned by the death and dying which were part of the worldwide conflict. It was a time that tested faith.
As millions did, Zeke often turned to the Bible and prayer for a source of comfort. On one dark night in 1943, when the horrors of war seemed so very close, a haunting vision hit the songwriter and would not let him go. Clements had come upon a Bible passage saying God had put a rainbow in the sky, which Zeke took as meaning that the world would not again be destroyed by water.
The next time it would be destroyed by fire, he reasoned, feeling strongly that it was possible the war would consume the world with fire as the Bible had predicted.
With the image of World War II setting the world on fire fresh in his mind, Clements asked his friend Earl Nunn for assistance in writing a song about it. The two men composed words that were meant only for this one moment in the grand scale of time: the duration of the war. They called their new song “Smoke On The Water.” Immediately after Clements premiered the number, several artists lined up to record their own versions of it. The first single to make the charts came from a thirty-three-year-old Kentucky native, Red Foley.
A song affects in many powerful ways
Overseas, “Smoke On The Water” became a password for certain Marine groups. It as well became the inspiration for many soldiers caught in the midst of kamikaze raids and close fighting.
For years after World War II finally came to an end, songwriter Clements received letters from war veterans. They were telling him how his song inspired them. It fueled them to continue fighting when they felt that they couldn’t take the war anymore.
The war had been a special time for America. It was an occasion when a nation banded together to contribute to paying freedom’s high price. World War II is long over, but “Smoke On The Water” remains as a testament to how much people gave to make the song’s message ring true.
Knowing the songwriter more
Zeke Clements came to the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s as one of the first western singers. Decked out in flashy cowboy outfits, he was a crowd favorite. But in spite of this, he never placed any of his recordings on the national pop or country charts. Still, of all the country music old-timers, he is the performer whose voice was probably heard by more children than any other. In the 1937 Disney classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Clements supplied the voice of Bashful. Zeke also wrote several hits for a host of artists.
Eddy Arnold scored big in 1948 with Clements’ “Just A Little Lovin’ (Will Go A Long Way)”. That release camped out at the top of Billboard’s country charts for eight weeks. Yet, Zeke’s most-inspired strike occurred five years earlier. Clements’ composition would not only launch the career of one of country, gospel and pop music’s most beloved stars. It would also become one of World War II’s most important songs.