My Favorite Songs of The Year … if that year were 1939

Lists upon lists. Blah blah blah. Favorite albums of the year. Favorite bands of the year. Most satisfying post coital naps of the year. It’s a thing, I suppose. So, without further ado I give you:

My Favorite Songs of The Year … if that year were 1939.

It was 1939. A new house cost $3,800 and the average annual salary was $1,730. A gallon of gas cost 10 cents, a loaf of bread 8 cents, and a brand new car was roughly $700. LaGuardia Airport opened in New York and, get this, regular television broadcasts began in the United States. Need more? Well, the holy trinity of pop culture icons were born in 1939: John Cleese, George Lazenby (the only Bond that matters. Suck it, Connery), and the six million dollar man, Lee Majors.

Oh, and there was music. Odd, stirring, thrilling music.

Here are my top songs from 1939:

“Strange Fruit” by BImage result for 1939 billie holidayillie Holiday

First, there’s that voice. Man, if the pain in her voice doesn’t immediately speak to you, you are probably a sociopath, or worse, very boring. Billie could sing the Katz’s Deli menu and you’d be misty eyed by the knish and in full on tears when she got to the brisket. Think about it … she made a politically charged song about racism and lynching into a poignant, haunting lullaby that was a chart hit. In 1939.  This is not effected pain. This is earned. Covered by many popular artists over the years, the original, with it’s simple arrangement and mournful horn parts, remains a testament to what the human voice can do.

“Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland      

The Wizard of Oz was the Titanic of the Silent Generation, complete with a hit song that immediately transports you into the film every time you hear it. Celine warbles her “Near. Far.” nonsense and you’re throwing diamonds off a boat. Judy Garland hits the “why oh why can’t I” high notes and your surrounded by midgets and pee colored brickwork. The difference? Celine Dion sucks and Judy Garland was legit. The performance is stellar, but the song itself is simply great songwriting. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg created a simple masterpiece that speaks to everyone. If you say it doesn’t … you lie. Oh, and as for “cred” for you punk purists? Judy was plagued by alcohol and substance abuse, financial instability and owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. She struggled with drugs and alcohol for most of her life and died in England from a barbiturate overdose. She was way more punk than you.

Image result for 1939 gene autry“Back in the Saddle Again” Gene Autry

The original singing cowboy – this was his signature song and one that sort of sums up 30s and 40s western cinema. Before John Wayne and Clint Eastwood came along and just started killing everyone in sight, Gene was crooning love songs, getting the girl and exposing crooked politicians who were deliberately delaying passage of a flood control bill (Rovin’ Tumbleweeds, 1939). This song just whisks you away to where you sleep out every night and the only law is right. Whoopi-ty-aye-oh!

“Blue Orchids” by Glenn Miller

Hoagy Carmichael wrote a perfect little love song and handed it to Glenn Miller & his Orchestra (and a vocalist named Ray Eberle) who made it a classic. Sweeping orchestration leads us to where big band and crooning unite. The Glenn Miller Orchestra was your great granny’s Rolling Stones.

“Scatter Brain” by Frankie Masters Orchestra

This is an infectious little song with a looping melody line and quirky lyrics about being in love with someone who is bonkers. “You’re as pleasant as the morning and refreshing as the rain. Isn’t it a pity that you’re such a scatterbrain?” Two minutes and 41 seconds of mental health awareness from 1939! BONUS: close your eyes while listening and you’ll likely see a terrifying black and white cartoon.

Image result for 1939 The Ink Spots“If I Didn’t Care” by The Ink Spots

The Ink Spots are the very definition of smooth. The Morris Day & The Time of the 1930’s, this song in particularly was a quintessential bloomer dropper. From the first words: “Would my every prayer begin and end with just your name?” the tone is set. Your grandma and grandpa are about to get down to business in the Cabriolet. The 10th best selling single of all time, it sold 19 million copies in a year when the entire US population was only 130M.  That means 15% of the population owned this record. You need to thank Bill Kenny for your very existence.

Thanks for Everything by Artie Shaw

Bennie Goodman gets all the nods when big band clarinet is discussed but man, Artie Shaw could wail. This song captures a moment perfectly. An airy, flowing tune that hits all the marks. Add in the sincere, almost pleading female vocal with lines like: “I tip my heart to you,” and there you have it … a refined slice of pure class. Oh, and his drummer? Buddy Rich. Yeah, and he also worked with Billie Holiday for awhile (making him the first white band leader to hire a full-time black female singer) but she had to quit in 1938 due to hostility from audiences in the South. “Strange Fruit” starting to make sense now? And sass? Oh, yeah. He once said: “Benny Goodman plays the clarinet. I play music.”  In your face!

Image result for 1939 fishies“Three Little Fishies” by Kay Kyser

If you ever wake up in a dark basement, chained to a wall, and this is the song playing in the background … something very, very bad is about to happen to you. A simple kiddie tune in theory, this is the stuff of nightmares. The trumpet line alone seems to crawl into your skull and poke around with a hot spike. By the time we get to the creepy singing baby fishies and the lyric “Boop-Boop Dit-Tem Dot-Tem What-Em Chu!” the malice is palpable. I dare you to give it a listen and then get it out of your head.

(Hep Hep) The Jumpin’ Jive by Cab Calloway

No Cab Calloway? No funk. It’s that simple. This band (and this song in particular) took the big band style and added some stank. It’s all there if you listen closely … the Bootsy, the James Brown, the George Clinton … finely polished under big band orchestrations but just as dirty as the “Cold Sweat” that James would unleash 30 years later. The drumming is raw and inspired. Every solo rides along the rhythm like a tin can in a rain storm. Joe Jackson did an adequate cover in 1981 (his band nails it … the vocals … ehhhh) but this, the original, is where you want to hang your hat.

Body & Soul by Coleman Hawkins 

Image result for coleman hawkinsBefore jazz became a competition to see how many notes you could jam into each measure, and before the saxophone became a machine gun for John Coltrane to kill mortals with, there was this deceptive little ballad from Coleman Hawkins. Quite possibly one of the greatest saxophone performances of all time … and for all the wrong reasons. There is no muscle flexing display of technical might here. In fact, on first listen, it’s a simple tune with a simple melody line. Ah, but it’s deceptive. Underneath the gentle nature of this song are complex chord progressions, as well as strange and beautiful key and tempo changes.  It’s tightly structured but gives off an air of improvisational freedom. And that’s all before the bridge. That damn, unlikely, impossible bridge. The first 4 bars are a half-tone above the home key and the next 4 bars are a half-tone below the home key. Who does that? It’s a Picasso painting wrapped in a newspaper and one of the genuine “Aha” experiences in jazz.

That’s it. My “top whatever” list. Give some, all or none of these a listen. It’s my list and I stand by it. Good day, and a Boop-Boop Dit-Tem Dot-Tem What-Em Chu to you.

1 Response to “My Favorite Songs of The Year … if that year were 1939”

  1. 1 Ant
    December 22, 2017 at 6:39 am

    The Ink Spots are outstanding.

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