Music News

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.

"Billboard March"
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.

"The Entertainer"
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.

"Anchors Aweigh"
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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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