Milestone Recordings in American Music


An Ending and a Beginning (1939)

As the decade drew to an end, 1939 was a light year for the blues in general, but the following two classics are heavy-hitters: a haunting, posthumous Delta ballad and a riveting folk-blues debut.

Robert Johnson
Love in Vain Blues(Vocalion 04630, 1939)

This posthumous single is Johnson’s most lovely recording, and one of the greatest odes to unrequited love in the history of the blues. Like so many blues songs, the story it tells is simple on its surface, but the delivery adds a depth of emotion that words cannot convey. Johnson plays a simple melody and keeps a slow, steady beat on guitar while calmly singing the melancholy lyrics about a departing lover: “When the train rolled up to the station, and I looked her in the eye / Well, I felt lonesome, I was lonesome, and I could not help but cry.” The emotional highpoint comes at the end when Johnson softly wails several wordless lines (save for the name of the departing lover: “Ooo, Willie Mae!”), before ending the song with a matter-of-fact statement: “All my love’s in vain.”

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Kindhearted Woman Blues” (Vocalion 03416, 1937)

Lead Belly
Gallis Pole(Musicraft 227, 1939; Negro Sinful Songs, Musicraft 31, 1939)

John Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbetter while the latter was serving a sentence for attempted murder at the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana. Ledbetter, who went by the nickname Lead Belly, was a jewel of a find, a gifted singer and twelve-string guitarist with a diverse repertoire of folk and blues songs, many of his own composition. Once out of prison, he began a long recording career that established him as one of the most influential folk singers in history.

“Gallis Pole” is one of his best and most influential early recordings, and would later inspire Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole.” It is a good demonstration of Lead Belly’s ability to interweave spoken and sung parts and evolve lyrical and melodic themes throughout the course of a song. The story itself is fascinating (a jailed man tries to raise enough money to bribe his way out of being executed), and the performance is mesmerizing: a fast, ever-changing rhythm on guitar married to increasingly frantic vocals.

~ You may also like: Lead Belly, “Alberta” (unreleased ARC recording from 1935; Includes Legendary Performances Never Before Released, Fantasy F-24715, 1952)


Vocals in the Spotlight (1939)

The following tracks all share one thing in common: exceptional vocal performances that transcended the expectations of their time. Whether adding vocals to a beloved instrumental, forging a new vocal group style, crafting a timeless classic or breaking the mold for singing cowboys, these recordings are all worth repeated listens.

Larry Clinton and His Orchestra featuring Bea Wain
Deep Purple (Victor 26141, 1939)

Larry Clinton was the first to record the standard “Deep Purple” with lyrics, and the result was one of the loveliest pop singles of the big band era. Much of the credit is due to singer Bea Wain in what may be the most expressive performance of her career. Her voice is simply amazing here, wrapping itself around the lyrics like deep purple silk – soft, billowing and fluid. In the end, neither the music nor the lyrics make a lasting impression: all you remember is that luxurious voice.

~ You may also like: Bea Wain, “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” (Victor 27445, 1941)

The Ink Spots
If I Didn’t Care(Decca 2286, 1939)

The Ink Spots
My Prayer(Decca 2790, 1939)

The Ink Spots were the first of what would become a tradition of African American vocal groups that would set the stage for doo-wop in the 1950s and soul in the 1960s. Building on earlier vocal traditions, including the novelty “jive” that had become popular among small, jazz-oriented groups, the Ink Spots developed their own style of romantic, expressive ballads. These two records from early in their career are great examples of their style.

“If I Didn’t Care” was the group’s first big hit. The wonderful vocals alone would most likely have cemented this in musical history: over light, jazzy accompaniment, tenor Bill Kenny sings in a subtly quivering falsetto over top-notch harmony humming from the others. But the additional touches make this song even more remarkable. The first is a persuasive spoken interlude by bass Orville “Hoppy” Jones, something that would become a trademark for the group and served to “break down the wall” between band and listener, making the song that much more intimate. The second added touch is the remarkably harmonious group scat singing at the very end, which mellows a convention of jazz into something new, accessible and exciting.

~ You may also like: The Ink Spots, “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)” (Decca 3379, 1940)

“My Prayer” is even lovelier than its predecessor, an unabashedly sentimental record that takes full advantage of the group’s dreamy harmonies. Once again, Hoppy Jones gives a spoken interlude, but instead of introducing something new, he merely repeats the lyrics from the first verse, underlining their importance: “My prayer is to linger with you / At the end of each day in a dream that’s divine / My prayer is a rapture in blue / With the world far away and your lips close to mine.”

~ You may also like: The Ink Spots, “Java Jive” (Decca 3432, 1940)

Judy Garland
Over the Rainbow(Decca 2672, 1939)

There was a distinctiveness to the way that Judy Garland annunciated sounds, as if the song within was bursting through and it was all her mouth could do to sculpt it into words as it passed by. Her big, bright voice on “Over the Rainbow” is even more remarkable when you consider that she was only sixteen when she recorded it. Taken from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, both song and film have endured as timeless classics. Garland would star in several more hit Hollywood musicals, but she would never top the inspirational performance she gives on this record.

~ You may also like: Walter Huston, “September Song” (Brunswick 8272, 1938)

Gene Autry
Back in the Saddle Again(Vocalion 05080, 1939)

Gene Autry began his career as a straightforward country singer, but he would soon become Hollywood’s number-one singing cowboy. “Back in the Saddle Again” is his signature song and a great example of why he made such a believable cowboy. His voice is strong and pleasant, but never flashy, and his inviting southern plains accent and everyman delivery are instantly ingratiating. The bouncing, western swing-inspired music gives the record a certain rough-around-the-edges polish, and the lyrics are the kind of fun, lighthearted cowboy material that audiences ate up: “I’m back in the saddle again / Out where a friend is a friend / Where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly gypsum weed / Back in the saddle again.”

~ You may also like: Gene Autry, “The Last Round-up” (Banner 32886, 1933)


Jazz Evolving (1939)

In 1939, big band jazz was making its mark on the American musical landscape, but jazz had not decided to sit still. Out of the limelight, jazz artists were continuing to push boundaries, as they had done from the beginning. The following tracks show the result of some of that innovation and the hints of things to come.

Coleman Hawkins
Body and Soul(Bluebird B-10523, 1939)

Recorded as an afterthought, “Body and Soul” is a sublime masterpiece and the single greatest accomplishment of Coleman Hawkins’ distinguished career. The song was already a pop standard, and remains so, but Hawkins’ performance is far from definitive, having less to do with the song itself than with the style and mood of his playing. With minimal accompaniment, Hawkins’ tenor saxophone paints a picture as revolutionary for the jazz world as Louis Armstrong’s groundbreaking work more than a decade prior. Hawkins follows the harmonic structure of the song perfectly, so that one could easily imagine the lyrics being sung along, but he improvises the melody so much that it is hardly recognizable as the same song. This would become the norm in modern jazz, but it was all but unheard of in 1939. And yet, unlike the harsh, confused reaction that bebop would elicit a few years later, Hawkins’ style is so endearing that this approach is instantly accessible. His soft tone is comforting and his rich improvisation is conducted with a gentle grace so smooth that a listener might be persuaded to think that this was the original melody all along. Even towards the end, when the saxophone squeaks for dramatic effect, it is spellbinding rather than jarring. It is a stunning performance, one that really wouldn’t be matched again until the “cool jazz” movement a decade later.

~ You may also like this stunning, unaccompanied recording: Coleman Hawkins, “Picasso” (Mercury 2073, 1948)

Willie “The Lion” Smith
Echoes of Spring(Commodore 521, 1939)

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoft Smith, nicknamed “The Lion” because of his bravery while serving in World War I, is one of the giants of the stride piano style, along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. His 1939 solo recordings, and particularly “Echoes of Spring,” are considered the high point of his career. “Echoes” is a remarkably light recording, so pleasant that it is easy – at least for a while – to overlook just how talented and sophisticated a pianist Smith was. With a steady, meandering bass line from his left hand, his right hand produces a lovely, tinkling melody on the high notes. About a minute and a half into the song, his right hand gets more adventurous and opens up new perspectives on that melody. Smith even throws in occasional booming, discordant notes that are completely unexpected and yet do nothing to diminish the song’s loveliness.

~ You may also like: Willie “The Lion” Smith, “Finger Buster” (Commodore 521, 1939)

Art Tatum
Tea for Two(Decca 2456, 1939)

“Tea for Two” is Art Tatum’s most enduring recording, a work that manages to dazzle with its display of technical prowess while simultaneously retaining the charm of a lovely ballad. Like Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” this record finds the lead improvising greatly, but where Hawkins created an entirely new world out of an old song, Tatum starts with the original melody, drives it into new possibilities with flashes of virtuosity, and then brings it ever so gently back to familiar territory again. In doing so, he creates a perfect framework for his unique talents, an arena where he can show off his abilities – things other pianists just can’t do – while staying grounded and accessible to an audience looking for a more gut-level connection. For one example, listen to the final half-minute, where a fast, free-form improvisation slows into a melodic and sentimental conclusion, while never quite losing its sense of spontaneity and wonder – ultimately resembling, but not quite matching, the original melody.

~ You may also like: Art Tatum, “Willow Weep for Me” (live: April 2, 1949; Gene Norma Presents an Art Tatum Concert, Columbia GL 101, 1952)

Sidney Bechet Quintet
Summertime(Blue Note 6, 1939)

“Summertime,” with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, is one of American music’s most enduring jazz and pop standards, and there are many top-notch renditions of it to chose from. One of the best is undeniably this instrumental Sidney Bechet recording from 1939. Bechet seizes upon the song’s underlying bittersweet tone and brings it to the surface with a soprano sax solo of exquisite depth. He shows great restraint, using the entire length of a 12" single to explore the song in greater detail while slowly building tension throughout. Even when that tension finally spills over into a wailing release, Bechet plays it close to the chest, muffling the volume and turning the emotion back in on itself.

The simple, spare accompaniment makes a wonderful companion to Bechet’s playing. Big Sid Catlett’s drums and John Williams’ bass measure a steady, plodding beat, with the drums becoming noticeably more forceful at times in parallel with Bechet’s playing. Meanwhile, Teddy Bunn’s guitar quietly picks out a bluesy countermelody that further fuels the song’s emotional fire. In all, it is a deeply intimate and beautiful performance and one of the best recordings of Bechet’s distinguished career.

~ You may also like: Tommy Ladnier and His Orchestra featuring Sidney Bechet, “Really the Blues” (Bluebird 10089, 1938)

Billie Holiday
Strange Fruit(Commodore 526, 1939)

I honestly don’t know how Holiday sang this song without getting choked up in the process. Such is the power of her performance that I find myself knotted up with anger and sadness every time I listen to it. The song’s subject matter is the lynching of African Americans throughout the segregated South: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The seemingly na├»ve lyrics paint an absolutely horrifying picture, and Holiday’s matter-of-fact delivery serves to underscore the heartbreaking sarcasm. Her voice only betrays emotion at the very end, as it rises dramatically to paint the final image of this “strange and bitter crop.”

Although Holiday’s voice is lovely as ever, that loveliness stands in stark contrast to the evil she sings about, and the impact of this reveals the underlying frustration and anger of the entire African American community. Holiday took a lot of criticism for performing such a controversial song, but a more powerful statement against this injustice was never made.

~ You may also like: Billie Holiday, “Gloomy Sunday” (Okeh 6451, 1941)

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