What kind of music moved people to get up and dance way back, about 80 years ago?
Popular music from the 1930s meant every bit as much and maybe more to the people who tapped their toes to the tunes that hit the airwaves.
Back then, there were no televisions, computers, or videogames to keep people occupied.
Popular 1930s Music
The average person listened to the music on the radio as a huge part of his daily recreation, and going to the dance halls was a favourite experience for couples in love.
Rhythm, Blues, and Soul
If you know your history of blues music, you know in its purest, most original form it came wailing from the hearts and souls of the eighteenth century slaves in America’s Deep South. Their field hollers evolved into chants about their woes while they worked, and their songs diversified into spirituals, ballads, and blues.
The Ink Spots—the fantastic foursome of Deek Watson, Bill Kenny, Charlie Fuqua, and Hoppy Jones—were among the first black musicians to be widely accepted by both black and white audiences.
While their music roots were the blues, they also specialized in plaintive ballads that would eventually lead to rock and roll. One of their best-known hits, near the top of many top-100 lists, was If I Didn’t Care, followed a few years later by My Prayer, released in 1939.
Jazzin’ It Up
As the blues developed into cyclic rhythms, musicians of the 1930s like Billie Holiday burst onto the scene.
Lady Day cut her music teeth on songs from the famous Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith—who also inspired another little singer with a big voice some forty years later named Janis Joplin. In the late 1920s Holiday was raped by a neighbour at age 12, earned her keep through prostitution, and then got out of jail before she was 15. S
he burst onto the night club scene as the decade began, working with legends like Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman. Some of her best-known tunes are still played at weddings today, like The Way You Look Tonight, a song made famous by Fred Astaire but which she sang with Teddy Wilson.
In 1936, she may not have been the first person to record the sultry Summertime—Bob Crosby beat her to it five months earlier—but she was one of the best.
Big Time, Big Bands
The vibrant sound of jazz fought its way out of the back rooms of nightclubs onto the big scene when big voices like Holiday’s paired with big sounds from Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and others. Before long it evolved into the Big Band rhythms of Swing.
Where did it come from? Louis Armstrong told Bing Crosby on Crosby’s radio show, “Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation, then they called it ragtime, then blues, then jazz. Now, it’s swing. White folks – yo’all sho is a mess!”
Clarinetist Benny Goodman, who joined the American Federation of Musicians at the age of 14, led the first jazz band ever to send out sounds over the seats in Carnegie Hall. One of his earliest hits in the 1930s was He’s Not Worth Your Tears. He had Billie Holiday on vocals in Riffin’ the Scotch. By the mid-1930s, the smooth sound of Big Band was as clear as Goodman’s clarinet in Moonglow.
Count Basie, born William Basie in 1904, was taught piano by his mother and cut his music teeth figuring out accompaniments to the silent movies at the local Bijou. He loved the sound of brass, and he featured a couple of tenor saxophonists and also went heavy on the trumpets in his best sounds, including the smooth One O’Clock Jump.
By 1939, Glenn Miller had emerged on the scene. Even though he was a latecomer to that era of music, his In the Mood is considered by many to be the number-one hit of the 1930s.
So Many Others
How can you honour the music of the 1930s without mentioning Ella Fitzgerald? As a little girl she wanted to be a dancer, but she kept getting caught up in the music of the time, and at the age of 17 she won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
You have to include George Gershwin, who gave us a Rhapsody in Blue long before he won an Academy Award for the 1936’s silky You Can’t Take That Away From Me. Cab Calloway introduced us to Minnie the Moocher in 1931. He taught us The Jumping Jive before we were even hep cats. Ethel Waters, Artie Shaw, and so many others paved the way for the musicians who would turn the tide of music in the 1940s down yet another road.
But in the 1930s, those were the sounds that reigned.
If you want to find out more about 1940’s music, check out this post.
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