Songs of the Century

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

"Is You Is, or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)"
Written by Billy Austin and Louis Jordan
The now-waning swing revival is misnamed: The music churned out by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Brian Setzer Orchestra is mainly jump blues of the sort originated by Louis Jordan, an unsung hero of American music. "Is You Is" exhibits the characteristics that make Jordan's writing so irresistible, including brashness and jocularity.

"Salt Peanuts"
Written by John Birks Gillespie and Kenny Clarke
Mr. Gillespie, whom everyone called Dizzy, generally isn't as acclaimed for his contributions to bebop as is, for instance, Charlie Parker. But the combination of "Salt Peanuts" and Gillespie's ebullient disposition smoothed the way for such Parker breakthroughs as "Ornithology" and "Yardbird Suite" (both from 1946), and for modern jazz as a whole.

"There's No Business Like Show Business"
Written by Irving Berlin
As boomed out by the mammoth-voiced Ethel Merman, "There's No Business Like Show Business," from the pen of Irving Berlin, is the sound of U.S. entertainment; its bold and brazen charisma is peculiarly American. Something of a theatrical declaration of war, the song all but says, "I will provide you with a good time or die trying."

"Blue Moon of Kentucky"
Written by Bill Monroe
Bluegrass, fathered by Monroe, is a composite of various folk and acoustic genres played fast and true--and the speed that's at its heart makes it an important link between country music and rock and roll. It's no accident that during his first sessions at Sun Studios, Elvis Presley took a well-aimed shot at this "Blue Moon."

"Honky Tonkin'"
Written by Hank Williams
What Bill Monroe did for bluegrass, Hank Williams did for country music, stamping it with a face, a voice and a sound. Williams borrowed many of his melodies, and his singing owes a debt to folks like Jimmie Rodgers, whose yodeling influenced the tonal breaks that highlight this tune. But his raw energy and aim-for-the-heart instincts were wholly his own.

"Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"
Written by Leo Robin and Jule Styne
Delivered by Carol Channing on stage and Marilyn Monroe on film, "Diamonds" opens a window onto post-war affluence. After the days of rationing and buying bonds to help support the boys overseas, it was acceptable once again to confess to a healthy love for luxury and excess. But the luscious creaminess of Jule Styne's music wouldn't serve as the model for the sounds of the next decade. Many of them would be louder and more raucous than the ones of the past--and nothing could stop them.

Next week: 1950-1999

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