Alma Katsu’s Playlist for Her Novel “The Fervor”

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In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Alma Katsu’s novel The Fervor is a masterfully told and timely book of historical horror fiction.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

“Katsu weaves myriad perspectives into a powerful historical horror novel centered on the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. . . . The meticulous and compassionate portraiture, placed against the backdrop of what evils humans do to one another, creates a horror that renders even the creepiest spiders merely decorative in comparison. Horror readers looking for sharp social commentary should snap this up.”

In her own words, here is Alma Katsu’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Fervor:

The Fervor is set in an internment camp for the Japanese during WWII. The main character, Meiko Briggs, is Japanese, married to a white man who enlisted in the military after Pearl Harbor. The novel combines historical fiction with horror in order to explore anti-Asian racism in the U.S. both past and present. I say “present” because I try to show in the book how, in some important ways, things haven’t changed from the 1940s.

Since it’s been approximately 80 years since WWII and readers might be unfamiliar with the pop culture of that era, I thought it would be interesting to put together a playlist of popular American music of the time. There is a specific sentiment conveyed by these wartime songs that is unmistakable and singular to WWII. You hear this music and are instantly conveyed back in time.

One of the things I find shocking, from a modern perspective, is the extent to which American popular music and film were used to support the war effort. It’s unlikely that you’d see the same thing happen today. Take the War on Terrorism: while it was widely supported by Americans, we didn’t see the music and film industries churning out content that blatantly buttressed the Government’s actions. My father fought in WWII and my mother was a teenager in Japan during the war. I heard these songs and watched these movies as a child, and yet I never questioned the jingoism and fervent animosity towards the enemy, both Germany and Japan, depicted therein.

The Fervor playlist:

I’ll Be Seeing You – Billie Holiday and Eddie Haywood and his Orchestra (1944)

With 16 million American men serving during the war, sweethearts and couples separated while the man is off fighting was a common theme. This song about long-distance love was so popular that it was recorded by three artists in one year: Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford, and my favorite, Billie Holiday with Eddie Haywood and his Orchestra. In The Fervor, Archie Mitchell, in training to become a minister, realizes that there might be more than the mid-Western world he knows when his neighbor, the pilot Jamie Briggs, introduces him to jazz singers like Holiday.

White Christmas – Bing Crosby (1942)

Bing Crosby first sang “White Christmas” on the radio on Christmas Day, 1941, just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The version most of us are familiar with, the one from the movie Holiday Inn, was recorded later. It’s a little hard, perhaps, for modern audiences to associate this song—pleasant, wistful, and full of longing for home and hearth—with war, but by the time the movie came out, saw hundreds of thousands of fathers and sons shipping out for foreign fields. When the U.S. entered the war, it was by no means clear that the Allied forces were going to be able to defeat their enemy, and “White Christmas” galvanized American troops by reminding them of what they were fighting for back home.

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition – Merry Macs (1942)

The title says it all: sure, today we get the odd country western tune glorifying military service, but even by modern standards it’s still hard to believe that a pop song that blatantly combines religion with war could become a big hit, but this one did, rising to number two right behind White Christmas. Written by Frank Loesser, the song was first recorded by the Merry Macs and later popularized by Kay Kaiser and his Orchestra. Loesser reportedly got the idea from a news story about Howard Forgy, a chaplain who thought up with the expression while ministering to the sailors on the USS New Orleans when it came under attack.

Rosie the Riveter – The Four Vagabonds (1943)

We’re all familiar with this titular figure, the woman who goes to work on an assembly line to keep production running when the men have left for war. The original artwork was done by J. Howard Miller (and later by Norman Rockwell) but the concept was further popularized by this song. One of the interesting things I learned about the internment camps from my relatives was that the internees, concerned about the dire circumstances they found themselves in, rolled up their sleeves and did what needed to be done, just like Rosie. They cooked meals out of communal kitchens, made furniture, provided an education for the children, and grew their own vegetables.

The lyrics warned listeners to be on guard against sabotage, something the public was constantly reminded of whether in song or via posters plastered all over public spaces and the workplace. This fear of espionage by foreign spies and disloyal Americans, which comes up time and again in The Fervor, is the main justification for the imprisonment of Japanese in the camps, even though no cases of Japanese Americans spying for Japan were ever proven.

Cowards Over Pearl Harbor – Denver Darling (1941)

It was shock and anger over the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drove America to enter the war—and to quickly round up Japanese and Japanese Americans on the West Coast and ship them off to internment camps. This lesser-known Western tune, recorded two weeks after Pearl Harbor, is a perfect example of the sentiment of the time (“out of the sky came hawks of destruction, piloted by disciples of hate…”), and helped fan public support for the camps despite any evidence of an insider threat.

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree – Glenn Miller Orchestra (1942)

Another take on the popular theme of the lovelorn couple separated by war, and another song to be recorded by multiple artists the same year, making it one of the most popular songs of 1942. It was first recorded by Glenn Miller with Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, and The Modernaires on vocals, but came out later that year in the film Private Buckeroo with the Andrew Sisters and the Harry James Orchestra.

American Patrol – Glenn Miller Band (1942)

This upbeat tune perfectly captures American optimism at wartime, but it was written long before WWII—in 1885, as a matter of fact. The song combines the main march with fragments of other popular patriotic tunes of the time. Miller’s swing version, recorded six months before he reported for duty in the Air Force, was perfect for its era and was one of the most popular songs of the year. Miller was killed in the war, his plane going down over the English Channel on Christmas Day 1944, his body never recovered.

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy – Andrews Sisters (1941)

This song was so popular that it was still playing on some radio stations when I was a young child. It was a favorite of my parents, too. What might surprise some folks is that it was released a year before the U.S. entered the war in an Abbott and Costello movie, Buck Privates. Whether America should enter the war had been a matter of intense debate for a while, given the pounding its Allies were taking, but isolationists were able to argue that American interests were better served by staying out of the war until the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Alma Katsu is an award-winning author primarily known for combining horror with historical fiction in works such as The Hunger, the story of the Donner Party, and The Deep, a reimagining of the sinking of the Titanic. As a former intelligence analyst for CIA and NSA, she studied civil conflict, propaganda, and the manipulation of popular attitudes toward war. Her husband’s entire family was interned during WWII..

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