Milestone Recordings in American Music


It’s Been Good to Know You (1940)

The following recordings recount heartache in unassuming yet powerful ways. Although deeply personal, they also conveyed the full depth of despair of a nation grappling with nearly a decade of economic depression.

1940 Headlines … Great Depression continues … World War II: Germany occupies France, but is repelled by U.K.; tensions rise between Germany and neutral U.S. … First McDonald’s restaurant is founded

Bukka White
Fixin’ to Die Blues
(Vocalion 05588, 1940)

“Fixin’ to Die Blues” may be Bukka White’s best recording, a powerful, chilling blues that tells the story of a man facing imminent death. White sings in a repetitive style that invokes Memphis gospel, but the rapid tempo and quivering delivery imbue the song with desperation instead of hope, as do the stark lyrics: “Just as sure we live, sure we born to die / I know I was born to die, but I hate to leave my children crying.”

~ You may also like: Bukka White, “Parchman Farm Blues” (Okeh 05683, 1940)

Woody Guthrie
Talking Dust Bowl Blues
(Victor 26619, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1, Victor P-27, 1940)

Woody Guthrie
Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)
(Victor 26622, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 2, Victor P-28, 1940)

Before Woody Guthrie, folk music mostly concerned itself with universal themes or the recounting of old stories or historical events. Considering that the music was used as a means of oral history by poor, rural and often illiterate communities, that is not surprising. With the advent of recorded music and the increasing literacy and urbanization of the nation, Guthrie saw the potential of this simple, straight-forward music to speak to a wider audience and tell more personal, more immediate stories. His voice wasn’t polished, but it was steady and his slow, Oklahoma drawl added credence to his everyman tales. His writing was superb – from his witty, personable lyrics to his knack for simple, catchy melodies. Guthrie’s own career was cut short by Huntington’s disease; he stopped recording in 1956 and finally succumbed to the illness in 1967 at the age of 55. But his legacy looms large and he has been an influence on every folk singer since.

Guthrie used his music to draw attention to issues of importance to him. In 1940, that issue was the plight of farmers affected by the Dust Bowl disaster that had devastated crops throughout the Great Plains. Guthrie recorded 15 songs for Victor, 12 of which were released both as singles and as part of two collected “albums” of three records (six songs) each: Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1 and Volume 2.

One of the best tracks is “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” from Volume 1. Guthrie delivers a casual, spoken monologue, brilliantly matching his timing to the guitar accompaniment to make it simultaneously rhythmic and conversational. The performance works on so many levels. The lyrics tell a truly engaging and sympathetic story of man whose farm fails and is forced to “swap [his] farm for a Ford machine” and head to California in search of a better life for his family. And yet the story is far from morose. Guthrie’s charm and wit give the song balance and even allow for some humor to come through, adding warmth to the situation without ever losing sight of the underlying desperation. At the end, he gets in a subtle dig; while talking about how little he and his family have to eat, the narrator says of his supper: “Mighty thin stew, though / You could read a magazine right through it / I always have figured that if it had been just a little bit thinner / Some of these here politicians could have seen through it.”

~ You may also like: Woody Guthrie, “Do Re Mi” (Victor 26620, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1, Victor P-27, 1940)

Another great recording from Dust Bowl Ballads is “Dusty Old Dust” from Volume 2. A more traditional, straightforward song, it simply and directly recounts how the dust storms “Dusted us over and covered us under.” The song’s chorus, “So long, it’s been good to know you,” carries a dual meaning as people both fled from the dust storms and saw them as the end of the world.

~ You may also like: Woody Guthrie, “I An’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” (Victor 26624, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 2, Victor P-28, 1940)


War! 1940-1944

On December 7, 1940, the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, thus “waking the sleeping giant” and drawing the United States into World War II. Although those bombs at Pearl Harbor would be the only ones to fall on American soil during the conflict, the nation was shaken to its core. In the space of a few short years, everything would change, and those changes were reflected in the music.
Like the forgotten artists of the 1920s, a lot of 1930s artists would be left behind. The swing bands would soar to success, becoming the soundtrack of the war years. By the end of the decade, though, the changes to society and a resurgent economy would make large orchestras a thing of the past, and new sounds would be given a chance to flourish.

Technology, which had advanced at a snail’s pace due to the Great Depression for much of the 1930s, was suddenly put into overdrive to feed the war effort. Recording technology would be radically affected by the limitations and technological advancements brought about by the war. With shellac in short supply, record manufacturers would switch to vinyl. Long-playing vinyl “microgroove” records had been experimented with by RCA Victor in the early 1930s, but were discontinued due to the Great Depression. After the war, they were reintroduced by Columbia as 12" records running at 33-1/3 rpm, while RCA Victor introduced 7" vinyl microgroove records running at 45 rpm. Although 10" 78 rpm records (now also made of vinyl) would remain popular for decades, the longer playing time of the new formats opened up new possibilities such as single-disc record albums. (The first albums in the late 1930s had been similar to photo albums: bound collections of sleeves holding individual 78 rpm records.)

Prior to the war, the Germans had invented another recording format: magnetic tape. After Germany was defeated, Americans developed their own uses for the technology, using it first for recording and eventually for consumer playback media.

Technology wasn’t the only cause of changes to American music during the war years, though; society was changing as well. By the end of the war, industrialization had caused a massive population shift from rural to urban areas, and along with this new life came a desire for new sounds, laying the groundwork for electric blues, honky tonk, and rock and roll.

One of the biggest influences on American music during this time, though, was caused not by the war or shifting demographics, but by a disagreement over royalties. In August 1942, a recording ban was put in place by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), preventing many from recording until the strike ended in November 1944. While musicians could still play live shows or radio, the ban created a big gap both in the historical record and in the public consciousness. Because the ban applied only to instrumentalists, not vocalists, many record companies began recording vocal-only music as a way to skirt the issue. Whereas vocalists had always been an afterthought, this had the effect of making them the center of attention. By the time the ban was lifted, the paradigm had changed and big bands, while still popular for a while, would never again dominate the spotlight.

In October 1943, the AFM began allowing instrumentalists to record for special “V-discs,” which were only distributed to military personnel, not the general public. However, many instrumentalists were not captured on record at all during the strike, and so we have no window into the evolutionary process of their music. For example, after the ban ended, a new style of jazz called “bebop” would seemingly come out of nowhere. It had actually been a very organic extension of some trends in small-band swing music, but none of that process was ever recorded.

Like everything else in post-war America, bebop was a sign that nothing would ever be the same.

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