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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

11/11/2015

Corns for my Country
The Andrews Sisters

I’m gettin’ corns for my country
At the Hollywood Canteen
The hardest workin’ junior hostess
You’ve ever seen
I’m doin’ my bit down here for Uncle Sam
I’m a patriotic jitterbug
Yeah, yeah, that’s what I am

I’m gettin’ corns for my country, you should see the pounds fly
I’m gettin’ down the waistline and I don’t even try
I don’t need a DuBarry or a Westmore course
Cause my weight’s been taken over by the Army Air Force

We’re not petite as sweet Joan Leslie, but then we never mind
When those GIs knock the South, we’re glad that we’re the healthy kind
The way those cowboys from the prairie expect us to sashay
I think I’d rather two-step with their horses any day

We’re gettin’ corns for our country, though the goin’ is tough
When we think we can’t go on, we find we can’t get enough
So if you hear of a soldier, sailor or marine
Tell him to look us up at the Hollywood Canteen

I used to be aesthetic, they say, oh yes I was, really I was
I served the drama, arts, and the ballet
But the theatre guild came over and said, “Forget about Pavlova”
Learn to cut a rug, so now we’re jitterbugs

I’m gettin’ corns for my country, so I’m really all in
In a week from now we’ll be here with our usual vim
So if you hail from the Bronx, Des Moines or Aberdeen
Come down and ask for us at the Hollywood Canteen

Last Christmas, I got my sister an enamel mug emblazoned with the words, Dig For Victory. I gave her then-fiancé (now husband) a matching enamel mug printed with a replica of an emergency tea ration tin. I felt very clever. On a practical level, there are certain members of my family who have a tenuous grasp of spatial relationships, and many favoured mugs have found themselves at the mercy of said family members. Having a couple of tin mugs means that these ones, at least, shall survive the treacherous journey from dishwasher to cupboard.

On a slightly less practical note, though, I felt doubly clever because of how reminiscent these mugs are of the Second World War. Both my sister and brother-in-law are military historians of one sort or another, and my sister in particular studies the after-effects of the Second World War. The phrase Dig For Victory is a callback to contemporary campaigns that encouraged English citizens to grow vegetable gardens as a means of relying less on rationed goods and imports during the war. The idea of having an emergency tea ration — well, I’m not sure how accurate the mug is to the time period, but it’s reminiscent of the Second World War, and very English, as well. My sister is a keen gardener, and my brother-in-law is a keen tea drinker, so all of this seemed most excellent.

Don’t worry; I realize we’re a ways off from Christmas still, even if most chain stores don’t. I bring these particular presents up because I’ve been thinking about digging for victory this past week. It occurred to me again this morning when I walked into work and saw that there were still thriving green ferns in the flowerbeds outside at the beginning of November. I had these two thoughts in quick succession: “oh, that’s lovely,” and then, “OH GOD GLOBAL WARMING.”

There is a connection between these two things, I promise, and not just because they both involve plants. There was this thing in England during the Second World War called the “Dunkirk spirit,” named for the Dunkirk evacuation in May and June of 1940. With naval ships too big to get close enough to shore, the Little Ships of Dunkirk — private boats requisitioned by the government, or freely given by their owners, and in some cases even sailed by their owners — made roundtrips from England to Dunkirk on the French coast to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers trapped on the beaches. It wasn’t a victory, per se, but nor was it a defeat, and it galvanized a people. The Dunkirk spirit, analogous to the Blitz spirit or a stiff upper lip, refers to a kind of communal stoicism in which the peoples of Britain banded together to face a dangerous and frightening situation. By God, they were going to make it through. Bomb our cities? We’ll build shelters. Set fire to our homes? We’ll have volunteer fire brigades. Block our imports? We’ll make our own food. We will not be broken. We will dig for victory. We’ll make it. We’ll survive. We’ll win.

Of course, reality is never quite as straightforward as that. It’s hard to believe that every member of an entire nation bore up under pressure without ever cracking for six years’ hard slog of an all-consuming war. There was a thriving black market for rationed goods throughout, and bombing raids were an excellent time for the less savoury to commit crimes. But even with that caveat, the fact of the matter is there were victory gardens, and rationing, and people moving into atypical jobs, and a whole society changing itself to move toward a single goal. Even though it was likely never so universal as the mythologies surrounding the war would have us believe, there’s something inspiring about it.

It’s an American context, but Corns for my Country by the Andrews Sisters captures a similar sort of spirit: this idea that we’ll all do what we can, whether it’s jitterbugging with GIs or growing vegetables on the front lawn. The song comes from the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen, a spiritual sequel to Stage Door Canteen, both of which are star-studded variety shows with paper thin plots and thinly veiled propaganda speeches designed to inspire the war effort.

In the lead up to Remembrance Day, I’ve been thinking about the Dunkirk spirit. I’ve been thinking about the civilians who made the war effort possible, and the sacrifices they must have all made for it. I’ve been thinking about working together and holding firm in the face of frightening realities and difficult odds.

I’ve also been thinking about the ferns outside my workplace that are still green when it probably should have snowed by now if not for human-made climate change. I’ve been thinking about the people who go to bed hungry every night. I’ve been thinking about the gross inequalities in this country. And I’ve been wondering why it is that we can all band together to fight a war but we can’t seem to stay in a room long enough to agree that something needs to be done about all of those things. We are clearly capable of so much more.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings