A short history of … “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)”

“East of the Sun, West of the Moon” may be the English translation of the title of a Norwegian folktale first published in the mid-19th century, involving a white bear offering to take the youngest child to fix a family’s poor position, but many of our readers will know it best as the title of a popular song from the ’30s. “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” has been recorded by numerous artists, including Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Charles Lloyd, Stan Getz and Diana Krall, and has gained a reputation as a jazz standard.

It is also a well-known fact that many of the songs written in the first half of the 20th century that have gained such a reputation made their debut on Broadway plays; however, not many besides this debuted in a college undergraduate stage production. “East of the Sun” made its debut in the 1934 production of a Princeton Triangle Club musical titled Stags at Bay. Brooks Bowman, its composer, was a 21-year-old undergraduate student at Princeton whose promising songwriting career would be cut short – he died three years later, in a car crash.

“East of the Sun” was first recorded by Hal Kemp in 1934; years later, in 1940, Frank Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra greatly contributed to its popularity and its reputation as wartime hit. Indeed, by the time World War II started – and before it was given a new life by many prominent modern jazz figures – it became accosted with a feeling of nostalgia and, for the American soldiers abroad, homesickness.

These are precisely the characteristics of the old jazz hits that were exploited by Nazi propaganda via Mildred Gillars, an American radio broadcaster employed by the Third Reich. Gillars was best known as Axis Sally. One of her shows, broadcast from France from 1942 to 1945, was titled Home Sweet Home Hour, and its purpose was to make U.S. forces in Europe feel homesick through sweet talk and with talk of infidelity of soldiers’ wives and sweethearts.

In May 12, 1944, the Princeton Alumni Weekly printed a letter received via V-mail written by a man named B. Franklin Bunn, a former Princeton student who had been a financial adviser to the Triangle Club. In his letter, Bunn recounted hearing “East of the Sun” during one of Sally’s shows while stationed in Calais, France: “Can you imagine a headline reading ‘Princeton Triangle Club Aids Nazi Propaganda? … Brooks Bowman would probably roll over in his grave.”

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