Songs of the Century

Part one of a pre-millennial salute to the music that made America sing.

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
Written by E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney
As unemployment skyrocketed and prices shot up, the entertainment industry mainly focused on distracting people from their misery. But eventually, songwriters could no longer ignore what was happening around them--and the response to "Brother" confirmed that the public could accept something other than escapism. The few short minutes it lasts encapsulates a time and a place as well as any other American song.

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
Written by Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern
Most critics don't regard the musical Roberta as one of the Thirties' most indelible efforts, but at least it puffed out "Smoke." The inherent drama and tension of the song's deliberate melody, initially sung by Irene Dunne (and danced by Fred Astaire), survived intact when the Platters brought it back to the fore in 1959.

"Stompin at the Savoy"
Written by Andy Razaf, Benny Goodman,
Edgar Sampson and Chick Webb

"Savoy" was introduced by Chick Webb, but it became Benny Goodman's calling card. The song is a swing/big-band essential, and as such, it's become familiar to thousands upon untold thousands of swingers-come-lately. But just as important, it contains within it the kernel of bebop and post-bop jazz.

Written by Du Bose Heyward and George Gershwin
Like Cole Porter, Gershwin was as extraordinarily prolific as he was stunningly gifted; an argument could be made for choosing one of his songs to represent most of the years in the Twenties and Thirties. "Summertime," from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, is typical of his work--deeply felt yet instantly accessible. American songwriting at its zenith.

"Hellhound on My Trail"
Written by Robert Johnson
"Terraplane Blues," issued by Vocalion, a branch of Columbia Records, was the Johnson song that hit the biggest during his short lifetime (he died in 1938, at age 27), but "Hellhound" catches the scariness of his art in a singular way. His skeletal, haunted blues can be viewed as a blueprint for rock and roll.

"Do Re Mi"
Written by Woody Guthrie
Social consciousness was rare in popular music, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" notwithstanding. However, it's an important quality of folk, and traveling troubador Guthrie may be the finest practitioner of the art that America has produced. "This Land Is Your Land" and "Deportees" are magnificent efforts, but the Dust Bowl-era "Do Re Mi" ("California is a garden of Eden/A paradise to live in or see/But believe it or not/You won't find it so hot/If you ain't got the do re mi") shows Guthrie's skill at using humor to sharpen his point.

"In the Mood"
Written by Andy Razaf and Joe Garland
Glenn Miller's 1940 rendition of this song stands as a singular moment in pre-World War II entertainment; big-band music doesn't get any warmer or more inviting. But while it's very much of its era, "In the Mood" isn't limited by it, as covers by everyone from Ernie Fields to Bette Midler eloquently testify.

"Over the Rainbow"
Written by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen
As is clear by many of the items lauded here, the merging of a good film and fine music can help a song live on and on and on--and in no instance are the reasons for this clearer than in this one. "Over the Rainbow" is a wonderful tune in its own right--bright-eyed, hopeful, filled with the poetry of the common people--and the image of Judy Garland warbling it against a black-and-white sky only brings its attributes into higher relief.

"Back in the Saddle Again"
Written by Gene Autrey
The singing cowboys of the cinema perpetuated the myth of the West even as they provided a conduit for Western music that was sneered at by most serious music reviewers. "Back in the Saddle Again" is emblematic of a style that influenced music, films and television programming for decades.

"Take the 'A' Train"
Written by Billy Strayhorn
Duke Ellington was flat-out brilliant as a songwriter: "Sophisticated Lady," "Mood Indigo" and "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" are just some of his masterful compositions. But Ellington was just as impressive as an arranger, bandleader and cultivator of the talents of people like frequent collaborator Strayhorn. "Take the 'A' Train," which became Ellington's theme song, brings out the best in everyone involved.

"Der Fuehrer's Face"
Written by Oliver Wallace
When the United States first became a participant in World War II, much of the propaganda that resulted was confident in an impudent and comical manner. "Der Fuehrer's Face"--performed by Spike Jones, Thomas Pynchon's favorite musical anarchist, in an animated short called Donald Duck in Nutzi Land--is a case in point. The song goes after Adolf Hitler with the ultimate weapon: a wet raspberry.

"One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)"
Written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen
Frank Sinatra was a song interpreter, not a songwriter, but the force of his personality was such that his version of tunes is often the one that sticks in most people's minds. That's the case with "One for My Baby," a song that gives a melancholy spin to hard-boiled bar culture. Sinatra wasn't the first to sing it, but he might as well have been.

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