Has there ever been a generation that has so much access to its recent past – not just its own cultural past but that of other cultures as well? Is there any other generation so obsessed with its past and identity but so unaware of it as well?
Maybe we should do a little exploring?
Let’s begin with Gus Elen wittily bemoaning the ‘ouses in between. It’s an amusing condemnation of London’s housing conditions, lack of greenery and rent-rising landlords. The piano sometimes seems to work against the lyrics – much like the sounds in grime do. It is surprisingly modern in lots of ways.
Humour is ever present in the era’s lyrics, check the bragging, self-depreciation and put-downs as Harry Champion spits bars about fashion errors in Any Old Iron. Instrumentals were also waggish and sprightly, particularly Scott Joplin’s ragtime Entertainer.
But what of romance? Where were blues and jazz? What about confident women? Step forward Marion Harris. Tell that man he’s going to regret his decision. Harris fair belts out After Your Gone but contrast that style with “Whispering” Jack Smith taking advantage of modern recording technology to gently croon and sound as if he’s directly speaking to you while staring into your eyes.
Such intimacy. Such suave delivery. No wonder WJS won hearts. In fact, I picture Lucienne Boyer replying to him with Parlez Moi D'amour. Her tender flow and those sweeping strings make it seductive – quintessentially French.
Carlos Gardel was born French but raised Argentinian, becoming the epitome of male tango singers. He sings Volver and its dramatic tale of lost love, the pain of remembrance and glimmering hope. Above the equator, Trio Matamoros sound archetypally Cuban – the guitars and the swaying fluidity of the rhythm make Lágrimas Negras the sound of foolish desire.
I would have loved Cuba in 1928, but before that I would have been wherever Trixie Smith was, hoping she was singing the sexy boast of My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll) about me. I believe Trixie would have swung to the excitement Duke Ellington summons in It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing). But, if down on my luck, I would flirt with Lucille Bogan because there’s a place for raunchiness and Shave’Em Dry is as explicit as they come.
If truly down on my luck, I’d play The Prisoner’s Song. Vernon Dalhart’s tune is raw, rural and forlorn; importantly, it sounds honest. But it wasn’t just personal grief expressed in lyrics, the 1930’s wretchedness weighs on Rezső Seress and he sings of it in Szomorú vasárnap: “The world has come to its end. Hope has ceased to have meaning. Cities are being wiped out. Shrapnel is making music. Dead people on the streets everywhere.”
Yes, it’s a menacing and violent era, so we forgive Robert Johnson’s nihilism; he just wants his “little sweet rider” but expects to face that “Hellhound on my Trail”.
Away from authentic candour, orchestras swelling with strings and brass provided fantasies, romance, escape, feeling heavenly while dancing Cheek to Cheek like Fred Astaire. It’s a golden age for melody and musical nuance in which the loveless find consolation in the Stardust of songs – ask Louis Armstrong.
Bea Wain intimated the pain of devoted love in Deep Purple; The Boswell Sisters conjure gorgeous harmonies before incorporating the blues to intensify rejection’s pain in Mood Indigo. Perhaps pre-WWII’s dreamy yearning is encapsulated in Al Bowlly’s Goodnight Sweetheart, which has jauntiness but a sentimental undertow.
I loved the idealistic and realistic co-existing in the period’s songs; É Doce Morrer No Mar by Dorival Caymmi is quixotic in imagining mythical sirens and a beautiful death at sea, but the underlying truth is the fatalism of poor fishermen; in Konoyo no Hana by Chiyoko Shimakura innocent, naive love is blemished; innocence is lost.
However, there’s also wisdom, acceptance and noble ideas: Nature Boy by Nat King Cole philosophises: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn. Is just to love and be loved in return."
Post-WWII the previously hidden raucousness enters the mainstream – the bawd and beat of Walkin’ Blues; consumerism and lust in Cadillac Boogie; raw electric guitar sounds in How Many More Years; doo-wop’s velvety amorousness in There’s No One But You; the imploring sensuality of Sarah Vaughn & Clifford Brown’s Body and Soul.
All the songs mentioned inspired pop, rock and soul; the cross-pollination of musical styles post-1955. Yet, we know very little about the world’s musical past. This article is the tiniest step in recognising that wealth.
The Very Big Era A-list Playlist:
Gus Elen - If it Wasn't for the ‘Ouses in Between
Harry Champion - Any Old Iron
Scott Joplin - The Entertainer
Marion Harris - After You've Gone
“Whispering” Jack Smith - I'd Climb the Highest Mountain (If I Knew I'd Find You)
Lucienne Boyer - Parlez Moi D'amour
Carlos Gardel - Volver
Trio Matamoros - Lágrimas Negras
Trixie Smith - My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra - It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing)
Lucille Bogan - Shave 'em Dry
Vernon Dalhart - The Prisoner's Song
Rezső Seress - Szomorú vasárnap
Robert Johnson – Hellhound on My Trail
Louis Armstrong – Stardust
Fred Astaire - Cheek to Cheek
Larry Clinton and his Orchestra with Bea Wain - Deep Purple
The Boswell Sisters - Mood Indigo
Al Bowlly – Goodnight Sweetheart
Dorival Caymmi - É Doce Morrer No Mar
Chiyoko Shimakura – Konoyo no hana
Nat King Cole – Nature Boy
Jesse Powell with Fluffy Hunter – The Walkin’ Blues
Jimmy Liggins and His Drops of Joy – Cadillac Boogie
Howlin' Wolf - How Many More Years
The Orioles - There's No One But You
Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown - Body and Soul
Across the Decades - The Full Nominations List (377+):
Guru's Wildcard Pick:
Elsie Carlisle with Ambrose and His Orchestra:
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Anything goes before rock'n'roll: great songwriting 1900-1955. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.