Songs of the Century
Mathematicians know the next millennium doesn't begin until January 1, 2001, but at this point, that hardly matters: The citizenry at large has decided to party a year early, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. And what better way to anticipate the celebration of such a benchmark than with music that's stood the test of time?
That's the concept behind the following--a two-part journey through the sounds of this American century. In this, the first section, each year from 1900 to 1949 is paired with a tune of the same vintage that's intended to evoke what was happening musically when it was released. They're not necessarily the best ditties to come out during their particular year, nor are they always the most artistically accomplished; the majority of them are more about having fun than making art, which helps explain why they were often championed by regular folks long before critics caught on--or didn't catch on, as the case may be. But somehow, some way, they've wormed their way into our collective consciousness, and now they're part of who and what we are. No matter what your age, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised to discover how many of the eight- or nine-decade-old compositions below you know by heart.
Obviously, this is not a definitive list: For one thing, we won't know for quite a while if the selections from the Eighties and Nineties, which will appear next week, stick around as long as their predecessors have. Instead, consider it a virtual jukebox crammed with platters drawn from the last hundred years of U.S. pop cultural history. Sit down and spin a while.
"Bird in a Gilded Cage"
Written by Arthur Lamb and Harry Von Tilzer
Originally a hit for the all-but-forgotten Jerry Mahoney, this "Bird" remains in the repertoires of many musicians into old-time music and ragtime. But generations of listeners may know it best via the rendition trilled by Tweety in a classic Looney Tunes short. Fortunately, the cage was strong enough to keep Sylvester at bay.
Written by John N. Klohr
John Philip Sousa, the best-known figure in American march music, wrote the majority of his still-popular numbers ("Stars and Stripes Forever," "Semper Fidelis," "Washington Post March") during the late 1800s. But although the "Billboard March" name isn't as widely remembered as Sousa's smashes, its music is. Circuses began to feature the fanfare shortly after it first appeared, and many still do.
"Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home"
Written by Hughie Cannon
The exuberance at the heart of "Bill Bailey" has made it a sing-along favorite capable of crossing every conceivable genre boundary. Pearl Bailey's version was a top seller in 1950 (a full 48 years after its birth), but the song has also been covered by Louis Armstrong, Big Bill Broonzy, Chet Atkins, Patsy Cline, James Brown and Tiny Tim, among many others.
Written by Scott Joplin
Joplin was the father of ragtime, a style that helped spur the development of what's been called America's only original art form: jazz. The Sting, an Academy Award-winning film from 1973, was set during the Thirties, but soundtrack overseer Marvin Hamlisch decided to use Joplin's late-1800s/early-1900s music anyhow--and wound up turning "The Entertainer" into an enormous hit single.
"(I Am the) Yankee Doodle Boy"
Written by George M. Cohan
Cohan was a whiz at crowd-pleasing patriotism; he also gave us "You're a Grand Old Flag." This tune became his trademark, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, a 1942 Cohan biopic that won James Cagney an Oscar, cemented the notion for all time. Today's schoolkids are as well versed in it as are their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
"In My Merry Oldsmobile"
Written by Vincent P. Bryan and Gus Edwards
"Oldsmobile," popularized by co-writer Edwards and covered later by cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and others, came out at a time when the automobile was first imbedding itself in the psyches of the American middle class. As such, it laid the groundwork for every car-worshiping tune that's pulled onto the road behind it.
Written by Alfred Hart Miles, R. Lovell and Charles A. Zimmerman
Right or wrong, military themes are drummed into us at an early age. This one (the anthem of the United States Naval Academy, first recorded by the U.S. Naval Academy Band) is among the most rousing and effective. The success of songs like it is determined by the number of recruits it fires up--and judged by those standards, "Anchors Aweigh" is a real winner.
"On the Road to Mandalay"
Written by Rudyard Kipling and Oley Speaks
No, the credit line above isn't a misprint: "Mandalay" is the musicalization of a poem penned by Kipling, who authored such books as Kim and The Jungle Book. In light of that, the tune would seem to have a rather limited shelf life, but it rose again in the Forties and Fifties when jazzers like Jack Teagarden picked up on it. Later, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr. put the song into even greater circulation.
"Shine on Harvest Moon"
Written by Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes
Although "Harvest Moon" appears on at least two collections featuring songs that might have been heard on the Titanic, it refuses to sink. It scored for Ethel Waters in 1931 and Kate Smith in 1943, but that's only the tip of an iceberg that includes takes by jazz artists (Coleman Hawkins, Artie Shaw), big-band leaders (Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey), crooners (Rosemary Clooney, Vera Lynn) and modern revivalists like Leon Redbone.
"By the Light of the Silvery Moon"
Written by Edward Madden and Gus Edwards
Perhaps the swooning/spooning song of its era, "Light," which is available on recordings by Judy Garland, Mitch Miller and Guy Lombardo, would seem to have little appeal to entertainers into more elemental forms. But so all-pervasive has been its influence that Gene Vincent, Jackie Wilson, Etta James and Johnny Winter have all taken shots at it--and more will surely follow.
"Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life"
Written by Rida Johnson Young and Victor Herbert
Part of the score to the musical Naughty Marietta, "Mystery" is an example of the vigorous melodrama at which Herbert excelled. It's prized by both aficionados of early 1900s theater and fans of 1974's Young Frankenstein, who remember it as the song Madeline Kahn belted out while orgasming beneath the grunting figure of the newly constructed monster.
"Alexander's Ragtime Band"
Written by Irving Berlin
Berlin was arguably the century's most fertile hitmaker, churning out indelible words and melodies over a staggering span; his name appears again nearly forty years further down this roster. "Alexander's Ragtime Band," written when he was in his early twenties, is as long-lived as any of his efforts: While it's closely associated with the likes of Louis Armstrong, the cut has been recorded by hundreds of other artists and is still a crowd-pleaser.
"The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi"
Written by Bryan Stokes and F. Dudleigh Vernor
Anymore, fraternities are associated with things like excessive drinking and sadistic hazing rituals. These activities took place at many frats of the past, too, but they were hidden behind a public image shaped to a large degree by the sentimental, close-harmony singing epitomized by "Sweetheart," indelibly interpreted by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians.
Written by Fred Weatherly
Start singing this emotional-bordering-on-maudlin classic in a pub anywhere in the land, and by the second line, at least half the patrons present will have joined in. The roots of the tune are embedded in Irish soil, but it has long since transcended those origins. Country belters as disparate as Conway Twitty and Johnny Paycheck have included it on albums, and Ray Price's 1967 turn took "Danny Boy" into the C&W Top Ten.
"St. Louis Blues"
Written by W.C. Handy
It's no coincidence that the Grammys of the blues genre are called the W.C. Handy Awards. "St. Louis Blues" isn't Handy's first blues song ("Memphis Blues" came out three years earlier), but it's a key source of his legend, and in the years since Marion Harris took "St. Louis Blues" to the top of the charts, it's become one of the most frequently covered compositions ever. The Internet-based All-Media Guide (www.allmusic.com) lists a stunning 691 albums on which it appears--and that's not counting those that are no longer in print.
"Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile"
Written by George Asaf and Felix Powell
The United States had not yet entered World War I when "Pack" was popularized, but from the beginning, it was associated with soldiers cheerfully marching into battle to bring the Huns to their knees. When the U.S. subsequently joined the fray, the song helped keep up the spirits of doughboys and non-combatants alike.
"I Ain't Got Nobody"
Written by Roger Graham, Spencer Williams and Dave Peyton
The sassy pun of this song's title and the flamboyant vaudeville feel of its music have an appeal that easily bridges the years. Sophie Tucker, a performer who bumped-and-ground with the best of them, put her thumbprints on it, and in 1985, David Lee Roth, fresh from Van Halen, found that it fit his persona just as well.
"The Bells of St. Mary's"
Written by Douglas Furber and Emmett Adams
A Christmas song of sorts, "Bells" exudes a teary-eyed religiosity that has made it irresistible to performers of every conceivable stripe. Bing Crosby, who turned the holiday season into his own personal cottage industry, not only covered the song, but used it as the handle for his 1945 sequel to Going My Way, and Phil Spector made it the tender centerpiece of A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, which may be the greatest yuletide rock album ever.
"Till We Meet Again"
Written by Raymond Egan and Richard Whiting
Any goodbye is enhanced by the inclusion of "Till We Meet Again," which more than eighty years later is as heartfelt a way to say farewell as any other. Virtually every crooner during the first half of the century kept the song on his or her set list, and the producers of 1951's On Moonlight Bay and 1956's The Eddy Duchin Story employed it to predictable effect.
"You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet"
Written by Al Jolson, Gus Kahn and B.G. De Sylva
Jolson was the superstar vocalist of his day--a singer so enormously popular that he had no peer. "Sonny Boy" and "My Mammy" were as closely associated with Jolson as was "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet," but the last track achieved a unique notoriety when Jolson spoke the title phrase in a sound segment of 1927's The Jazz Singer, the film that inaugurated the era of talking pictures.
"Rose of Washington Square"
Written by Ballard MacDonald and James F. Hanley
Fanny Brice was one of the biggest musical-comedy stars of her age, and thanks to the Barbra Streisand flicks Funny Girl and Funny Lady, she's remembered by untold millions far too young to have seen her on stage. "Rose of Washington Square," her signature song, has exhibited just as much staying power.
"I'm Just Wild About Harry"
Written by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
Eubie Blake is a one-man diary of American music in the twentieth century; the son of slaves, he died in 1983 at the age of 100. "I'm Just Wild About Harry" is probably his most timeless number, a blast of romantic excitement that became an early jazz staple via musicians like Sidney Bechet and Red Nichols prior to a second life as a showstopper for Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and many others.
"Chicago (That Toddling Town)"
Written by Fred Fisher
The language of this civic toast is antiquated: Most listeners south of sixty associate toddling with one-year-olds just learning how to walk, not sophisticates sauntering along State Street. But the jaunty rhythms and brassy passions glorified by Fisher (who also wrote "Peg O' My Heart") still catches the spirit of what's most enjoyable about urban living.
"Down Hearted Blues"
Written by Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin
Like Eubie Blake, Alberta Hunter, who was just shy of ninety when she died in 1984, finally received her due late in life. She won great notices for the songs she contributed to the 1978 Alan Rudolph flick Remember My Name and became a sought-after live act. "Down Hearted Blues" was one of her biggest accomplishments. Bessie Smith's cover of the song was the first ever to sell more than two million copies.
Written by Cecil Mack, Lew Brown and Ford Dabney
Racism wasn't simply tolerated during the first quarter of the century; it was embraced. "S-H-I-N-E" is typical of the casual depiction of "darkies" by the showmen who entertained their fellow Caucasians by covering their faces in black. To hear an especially poignant modern version of the song, check out the 1978 Ry Cooder long-player Jazz.
"Sweet Georgia Brown"
Written by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard and Ken Casey
"Sweet Georgia Brown" has served as the musical trademark of the Harlem Globetrotters since the team started, and the pairing makes sense: There's a definite corollation between the silky and sinuous character of this song's rhythms and the squad's behind-the-back passes and courtside wizardry. But the number also sums up much of what makes New Orleans jazz and Dixieland so contagious.
Written by Benny Davis and Harry Akst
"You've got the cutest little baby face" is a line that's as simple as simple can be--which is probably why it rings so true. This chipper declaration of affection projects happiness yet is so malleable that artists ranging from Lawrence Welk and Bobby Darin to Little Richard and the Kinks have made it work for them. And that's not to mention the myriad TV commercials the song has made a little more tolerable.
"T For Texas"
Written by Jimmie Rodgers
Rodgers, who died of a tuberculosis-related illness when he was in his mid-thirties, synthesized blues and folk to come up with a little something that we know today as country music. "T For Texas," a million-seller that was called "Blue Yodel" on its original Victor Records label, was his first smash, and its spare instrumentation and ardent yodeling became the foundation on which C&W is built.
"Love Me or Leave Me"
Written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson
Written for a musical with the memorable moniker Whoopee, "Love Me or Leave Me" was introduced by singer Ruth Etting, whose life served as the basis for the film Love Me or Leave Me, a 1955 opus headlined by Doris Day. But the song, a fearless declaration of romantic independence, easily eclipses this connection. Lena Horne may have cut the ultimate version, but it's the rare composition that brings out the best in whoever sings it.
Written by Andy Razaf, Harry Brooks
and Thomas "Fats" Waller
For too long, Waller's wide eyes and huge smile attracted more attention than his songs. But the recent stage success of a revue named for this song serves as a reminder of his considerable gifts. His creations are a pure joy, and the irony at the heart of this one delivers an important message: Misbehavin' can make for an awfully good time--especially when you're teetering on the edge of an economic depression.
"What Is This Thing Called Love?"
Written by Cole Porter
Porter wrote so many great songs, including "Anything Goes," "At Long Last Love" and "You're the Top," that singling one out seems downright unfair. But "What Is This Thing Called Love?" is one of his finest, a lovely and sophisticated offering that captures all that was sparkling about the lifestyle of Manhattan upper-crusters.
"Minnie the Moocher"
Written by Cab Calloway, Irving Mills
and Clarence Gaskill
Of course, even the tuxedoed and evening-gowned elite with enough money to ride out hard financial times liked to get down on occasion, and Harlem's Cotton Club was the place to do it. Calloway's boisterous salvo, filled with grabby slang ("She's a low-down hoochie-coocher") and a wonderful nonsense hook ("Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi!"), is like a big whiff of reefer madness. Its use in The Blues Brothers prompted a well-deserved Calloway comeback.
"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.
"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.
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."
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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