42nd Street  

The Encyclopedia of American Songs and Musicals

in the "Thirties"

The bitter year


 1   Adopted by the Navy since 1916, Star-Spangled Banner officially becomes the national anthem. This patriotic song was composed  in 1812 during the war against England. Meanwhile, the Great Depression begins to spread across Europe. President Herbert Hoover suggests limiting the effects by a moratorium on the war debts but talks never end and the project passes only late in the year. This arrangement does not ultimately result and the European  countries are bogged down one after the other in the economic downturn.  But it is still in the United States that the situation remains the most worrying. Growing voices urge Congress to decide emergency measures to support farmers and jobless.

Faithful to his doctrine, Hoover shows voluntarism but is mistaken again by excessive optimism, repeating the worst is over. These are however not less than 2200 banks that went bankrupt in 1931 and the average household income literally collapsed in the spring.

 2  After a series of delays and a stream of ineffective measures, President Hoover reacts finally by investing public capitals at the level of 2 billion dollars in a vast program of works. The project is ambitious but arrives a bit late. It indeed seems unlikely that the voters see renew him for a second term.  In 1931, one worker on four has lost his job, hordes of hoboes strive to find elsewhere better living conditions by travelling cheap in the freight railing across the country; the "Okies", these modest farmers of the Middle West abandon their ungrateful lands and leave for exodus, their luggage loaded in old bangers,  hoping to recover in California. The novelist John Steinbeck told their story through the Joad family, tragic heroes of The  Grapes of Wrath (released in 1939), just as the photographer Dorothea Lange through her striking portraits.


 3  In spring, within the confines of Alabama occurs a sad event which will soon be called the case of the Scottsboro Boys. Nine African-American boys from 12 to 20 years old are charged with raping the day of March 25, two young women in the train connecting Memphis with Chattanooga. The charge comes by the way of a group of white youths complaining to have been molested and thrown outside the train by the Blacks. Warned of the dispute, the local shĂ©riff stops the train and arrests the alleged perpetrators who, tried fortnight later, are all sentenced to death quite so expeditiously by the Court of Scottsboro.

The verdict is so merciless that the NAACP

(National Association for the Advancement of

Colored People) and the Communist Party

appeal. The following will last more than 

 twenty years.

Other highlights of the year :

in New York,  the gigantic work of the

Empire State Building is completed in May;

the cartoonist Chester Gould invents the

character of Dick Tracy and Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years in prison by the

Chicago court for tax evasion.

Incidentally, it is perhaps a random effect if in 1931 is released  Alka Seltzer,

a well appropriate drug with the "hangover" that lasts since 1929.

           Flying High (MGM)

  4   Director : Charles Reisner

Actors : Bert Lahr, Charlotte Greenwood, Pat O’Brien, Kathryn Crawford (who performs “We”ll dance until the dawn”written by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh )

Screenplay : Buddy G. DeSylva; Music : Ray Henderson ; Choreography : Busby Berkeley.

The movie is about a rather messy love story between a bit insane airplane mechanic  (Bert Lahr) and a crazy waitress (Charlotte Greenwood). Apart from the unavoidable comical outcomes of some actions, it is the talent of the choreographer Busby Berkeley that already holds attention. His vertical handling of the camera on top of the dancers swirling like propellers in their vaporous outfits does not lack originality as well as his way of composing suggestive ways to dance. Busby Berkeley already displays some of the characters that will be found in most of his productions of which an irrepressible nostalgia for the time when he was an instructor of the armies.  In testify his propensity to enhance the aesthetics of the parades and uniforms. 

                                  Bing Crosby, singer of the year

 7   His program on CBS lasts only a quarter of an hour every other week but it fills up with listeners. Bing Crosby has just signed, besides, with Brunswick for a series of recordings which will become all hits at the time of their release. With him begins a new era of the popular music which will result to give prominence to the singer.

It will not be a question any more as for Bessie Smith of confronting to the musicians and asserting herself by the power of her voice nor as for most of vocalists there to content themselves  with a fast performing overtaking barely the minute.

Bing Crosby also takes advantage of the last technological innovations in sound recording to set a new style, thus preceding the generation of the "crooners" which is going to

snap up the music market until the 60s. Vocalist but also actor, he acts regularly in shorts supervised by Mack Sennett in which he highlights the extent of his talents, marrying with the same success the directory of the emotion to that of humor.

1931, a year in music


 5   In 1931 was released the first 33 rpm 1/3, but few will be however those who can afford the new necessary equipment. The good old 78 rpm still has good days ahead. It's the same for television which makes its appearance at the same moment but will remain for a long time a totally unreachable experimental equipment.

Two artists create the event in this year of "depression": Cab Calloway who  currently shares  the  Cotton Club limelight  with  Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby whose soloist career is looking very promising. Thanks to him, the vocalists will find a worthier place in the bands. It has been effectively a moment since  they are relegated in the background, in an almost frustrating anonymity. For a track which lasts on average three minutes their performance is counted in some dozens seconds only, hardly the time for a quick verse. Lyrics are from the left side and the vocalist is so secondary that he lends himself to no personalization, no effects, no drama, as if only instrumental improvisations were of interest. As a pernicious effect of the Tin Pan Alley's grip on songwriting, the voices are standardized and have somehow lost in depth. It returns to audacious singers to jostle this routine, finally! And the radio will be a great springboard for them. According to statistics, nearly 16 million American homes have at this time this new ether which is radio, making consequently growing the broadcast advertising incomes while they collapsed at the same time in the paper press.

   Cab Calloway is an amazing entertainer in any points of view. He possesses the elegance and extravagance, he knows how to call the audience as a witness but also to set it on fire. He dances, he sings, he surrounds himself with the best musicians and thrills the Cotton Club with songs like Minnie The Moocher and Hi-de-Ho Man originally composed for the Betty Boop animated cartoon. The refrains are easy to sing along by the audience which becomes a component of the musical stage. Blanche Calloway, his sister, also records with him while his show goes live twice a week on the radio. This program also has the side effect of being the first to break the color barrier on a national station.


   Meanwhile, Duke Ellington has left the Cotton Club in which he feels more squeezed. He now wants to bring his music to a wider audience. Bing Crosby lands at the same time in most American homes. He has humor and a real stage presence but it is above all by his voice that charm operates. He upsets for that standards of  popular song by appropriating the latest technological advances in studio recording. Far from the musical stage where it is often necessary to struggle facing instruments even if it means losing his vocal quality, the padded studio and especially new ribbon microphone allow to give to it a characteristic warm and fluid colouring effect of " Crooning " .Since he signed with Brunswick Records, practically all are the songs that become hits. Simply include "Sweet and Lovely," "I'm through with love" "Out of nowhere" or "I find a million dollar baby."

Bing Crosby invited himself in the intimate family by providing to everyone the feeling to sing only for him, in the manner of a true confidant. His popularity is such that from September he has his own show on CBS radio. He will serve very fast as reference to a young artists' generation eager to sing like him. Crooners with a velvet voice will not be long to make the conquest of the female audience. Russ Columbo, for example, is only 23 years old but he already worked in the band of Gus Arnheim and had a go at the movies but it is however thanks to his voice that the future seems to smile to him. Having the style and a look appropriate to seduce, he has contracted with RCA Records since his first broadcast on NBC radio.

  10  Big bands adapt more or less well to the crisis even though operating costs reduce the number of tours. Some orchestras are rather discreet waiting  for better days and if we found still at the forefront those of Isham Jones, Bert Lown, Fletcher Henderson and Gus Arnheim, the repertoire loses consistency and no one dares taking too much risk. Hunting in new songs remains however open  especially when they are to become hits. Paul Whiteman, for example, seizes All of me that have just written Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons. He recorded it with Mildred Bailey, a 23-year-old vocalist who was introduced to him by Bing Crosby at the time of the Rhythm Boys (actually, singer Belle Baker would have been the very first to have recorded this song but without leaving any trace). Other young musicians take advantage of this period

of uncertainty to launch out alone in the adventure. This

is particularly the case of Benny Goodman, a 22-year-old

Chicago native clarinetist who records When your love has

gone virtually the same time as Louis Armstrong and

Ethel Waters.


Having spent three years trying to get a place in

New York, the brothers Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey

record on their side together  with the Boswell Sisters

a series of outstanding songs. The musical scene

effectively seems to look younger; the Mills Brothers for instance, four young men who sing while imitating instruments with their voice excited so much the CBS manager Willam Paley that he did not wait the release of their first recording to broadcast them on the radio. The effect is so convincing that many listeners are bluffed, persuaded to hear a saxophone, a double bass and a clarinet.

Kate Smith, a young curvaceous singer also makes promising debut for the radio. She is quickly reported by her outspokenness and feeds already controversy with That's why darkeys were born, a song on living conditions reserved for African Americans.

About musicals, Fred Astaire is back on the Broadway stage alongside her sister Adele in a new show, The Bandwagon.  Music and lyrics are from Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz; Leo Reisman conducts the orchestra. The duet Astaire shines as usually and the comedy remains displayed for more than six months. Among the tunes called to achieve posterity is already sketching the unforgettable Dancing in the dark.

The musicals,on the other hand, hardly catch on screens. While there were more than sixty productions in 1929, they are only 15 in 1931, and worse,  all are not American. Flying High only manages to stand out but the genre is slowing ominously while ironically the film industry is  quite well doing. There are other categories that appeal to the viewer as the romantic realism of Charlie Chaplin in City Lights,  the unbridled whimsy of the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business, or the shudder guaranteed in Frankenstein and Dracula.

The essential hits of the year (1)

  01 – Bing Crosby (Tacoma (WA) 1903 - Madrid (Spain) 1977) â€“ Out of Nowhere 

    3:12 (Edward Heyman, Johnny Green)

       Recorded in 1931 for Brunswick Records , it is the very first track directly released by Bing Crosby. 

    02 – Guy Lombardo (London (Canada) 1902 - Houston (TX) 1977) feat. Kate Smith             (Greenville (VA) 1907 - Raleigh (NC) 1986) â€“ River, stay away from my door  3:09 (Harry Woods, Mort Dixon) - a  symbolic allusion to the devastating floods of the Mississippi River which also can hurt the hearts..

03 – Cab Calloway (Rochester (NY) 1907 - Hockessin (DE) 1994) â€“ Minnie the Moocher 3:14 (Cab Calloway, Clarence Gaskill, Irving Mills)

04 – The Boswell Sisters (Formed in New Orleans (LA) 1925) – It’s the girl 3:08 (Abel Baer, David Oppenheim)

05 – Isham Jones (Colton (OH) 1891 – Hollywood (FL) 1956) feat. Frank Sylvano â€“ Good night sweet dreams 3:11(Bert Kempfaert, Herbert Rehbein)

06 – Mildred Bailey (Mildred Rinker – Tekoa (WA) 1907 – Poughkeepsie(NY) 1977) with Matty Malneck Orchestra(Newark (NJ) 1903 – Hollywood (CA) 1981) –- Georgia on my mind 3:22 (Hoagy Carmichael)

07– The Mills Brothers (formed in Cincinnati (OH) 1924) – Tiger rag 1:49 (Eddie Edwards, Harry Da Costa, Henry W. Ragas, James

    LaRocca, Larry Shields, Tony Sbarbaro)

One of the most played jazz standards, it was recorded for the first time in 1917 by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band led  by Nick LaRocca.

    08 – Louis Armstrong (New Orleans (LA) 1901 – New York (NY) 1971) – The peanut vendor 3:35 (L. Wolfe Gilbert, Marion Sunshine, Moises Simons)

Known originally under the title Il Manisero, this Cuban hit had been first created in 1927 by the vocalist Rita Montaner and

covered by Louis Armstrong in New York in 1930, arousing by the way a new interest for the "South American" style. 

09 – Russ Columbo (Camden (NJ) 1908 – Hollywood (CA) 1934) – All of me 3:05 (Gerald Marks, Seymour Simons)

10 – Rudy Vallee & His Connecticut Yankees (Island Pond (VT) 1901 – Hollywood (CA) 1986) – Life’s just a bowl of cherries 2:53 (Lew Brown, Ray Henderson)

11 – Ozzie Nelson (Jersey City (NJ) 1906 – Hollywood (CA) 1975) – Truly I love you 3:05 ()

12 – Ethel Waters (Ethel Howard – Chester (PA) 1896 – Chatsworth (CA ) 1977) – Shine on Harvest moon 2:59 (Jack Norworth, Nora Bayes)

The essential hits of 1931 (2)


























 12   01 – Bing Crosby – I found a million dollar baby (in a five and ten cent store) 3:05 (Billy Rose, Harry Warren, Mort Dixon)

Song created on Broadway for the musical Billy Rose's Crazy Quilt and performed on stage by Fanny Brice.

02 – Cab Calloway – The Hi-De-Ho man 2:57 (Buster Harding, Cab Calloway, Jack Palmer)

 03 – The Boswell Sisters with The Mills Brothers  – Old man of the mountain 3:11 (Victor Young, William J. Hill)

The Old Man of the Mountain was the nickname given to a rock protruding from a cliff  in New-Hampshire  whose shape vividly evoked the profile of an Indian Nashua. This one became the symbol of the State but the rock collapsed in 2003.

04 – Louis Armstrong – Lazy river 3:06 (Hoagy Carmichael)

05 – Blanche Calloway Her Joy Boys (Baltimore (MD) 1902 - Baltimore (MD) 1978) – I’m gettin’ myself ready for you 3:04 (Cole Porter)

Song written for The New Yorkers, a musical show released on Broadway in December, 1930.

06 – Ozzie Nelson – Dream a little dream of me 3:07 (Fabian Andre, Gus Kahn, Wilbur Schwandt)

The first recording of a hit that will be many times covered .

07 – The Dorsey Brothers with the Boswell Sisters – Roll on Mississippi  2:55 (James McCaffrey, Eugene West, Dave Ringle)

08 – Jack Teagarden (Vernon (TX) 1905 - New Orleans (LA) 1964)  – I got the Ritz from the one I love 3:26(James Brockman, Leonard Stevens)

09 – Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians feat. Kate Smith – Too late 3:12 (Edward Nielson, Sy Oliver)

10 – Ted Weems (Wilfred T. Weymes – Pitcairn (PA) 1901 -Tulsa (OK) 1963) feat. Parker Gibbs – Walkin’ my baby back home 3:23 (Fred E. Ahlert, Roy Turk)

11 – Ethel Waters – Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone 3:17 (Sam H. Stept, Sidney Clare)

12 – Joe Venuti & His New Yorkers (Philadelphia (PA) 1903 – Seattle (WA)1978) – Out of Breath 2:57 (Johnny Mercer)


                The artists of the year

11   Born in London (Ontario), Guy Lombardo was only 12 years old when he started playing with his brothers in the amateur band led by his father. He did not moreover delay creating his first band with few classmates. He first recorded in Richmond (IN) in 1924, in the studio where has just preceded him the famous trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Taunted by the jazz purists but praised by most of the audience, he distinguishes himself by one elegant and refined musical style which forsakes the improvisation to favor the melody. His debut on the radio in November, 1927 and his good humor provides him a renown which will not flag any more. He will even become  an institution thanks to the unavoidable broadcast of his annual Christmas concert at the head of the Royal Canadians.


Thanks to River Stay ' way from my door and Too late, Kate Smith signs with Guy Lombardo two of the best hits of the year. The young vocalist began to record in 1926 but her career really started hardly one year ago after her meeting with Ted Collins, the manager of Columbia. Already admitted for her outsize measurements (as small as round) she hosted  from 1931 her own series of broadcasts on NBC where she distinguished herself by her straight speaking.




  13   Cab Calloway is headlining the Cotton Club where he continues to perform as a showman of exception. Minnie the Moocher that he records in 1931 quite as The Hi-De-Ho man appear undoubtedly among his reference hits.

By the way, Minnie is a "red hot hoochie coocher", that in slang, we would call a hooker but she is also a poor big-hearted girl (that she has as big as a whale) who failed in Chinatown (where she has been led by her bloke, a “cokie” named Smoky) to kick the gong around (smoking opium).

She has no longer than her dreams to live the promised life and become deeply rich. This song illustrates an episode of Betty Boop during which she ran away from her family. During her reckless escape, she faces a series of ghosts  which make her so scared in performing her song that she runs a full speed to find the family home, "Home, sweet home"

The essential hits of the year (3)
























14  01 – Gus Arnheim & His Cocoanut Grove Orchestra feat. Bing Crosby – I surrender dear 3:04 (Gordon Clifford,Harry Barris) - song from the movie of the same name starring Bing Crosby

02 – Cab Calloway – Trickeration 2:55 (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler)

03 – The Boswell Sisters – Shout, sister, shout 3:14  (Alex Hill, Clarence Williams, Tim Brymm) -  Recording conducted by Victor Young. Among the musicians appear Joe Venuti on violin and Eddie Lang on guitar.

04 – Jack Teagarden – I’m sorry, dear 3:01 (Charles Tobias, Harold Weeks, Raymond Scott)

05 – Rudy Vallee – As time goes by 1:55 (Herman Hupfeld)

Song composed for the Broadway show Everybody's Welcome. It remained at that time rather confidential before reaching posterity while being the main track of Casablanca, the famous movie released in 1942 starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

06 – Ruth Etting (David City (NE) 1897 – Colorado Springs (CO) 1965) – Overnight 3:07 (J. Leslie McFarland)

07 – Gus Arnheim feat. Donald Novis (Hastings (England) 1906 – Norwalk (CA) 1966) – Sweet and lovely 3:31(Gus Arnheim, Harry Tobias, Jules LeMare)  

08 – The Dorsey Brothers with The Boswell Sisters & Benny Burigan – I thank you Mr Moon 3:15 (Abel Baer, David Oppenheim)

09 – Ted Lewis (Circleville (OH) 1890 - New York 1971) – One more time 2:27 (Buddy DeSilva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson)

10 – Paul Whiteman (Denver (CO) 1890 – Doylestown (PA) 1967) feat Mildred Bailey – Home 3:20 (Harry Clarkson, Peter Van Steeden)

11 – Russ Columbo – Prisoner of love 2:56  (Clarence Gaskill, Leo Robin, Russ Columbo)

12 – Hoagy Carmichael (Bloomington (OH) 1899 6 Rancho Mirage (CA) 1981) – Stardust 2:27 (Hoagy Carmichael, Mitchell Parish)

And so was born one of the most popular songs of the  20th Century.

With It’s the girl, the Boswell Sisters show once more the extent of their vocal potential and their ability to appropriate all the styles. The final is a wink to the city of their debut, New Orleans. From 1931, the three sisters recorded willingly with other singers or other groups as the Mills Brothers. 

  15  Born on the North West coast in the State of Washington, Mildred Bailey began there as singer of jazz and blues. Thanks to her brother Al Rinker, she made first the acquaintance of Bing Crosby, one of the members of The Rhythm Boys before meeting Paul Whiteman with whom she started singing in 1929.  She wasted no time to enjoy the public who heard her regularly on the radios and recorded from this year for Eddie Lang and Frankie Trumbauer. Her soft crooning style

combines both the fragility of youth to intonations resolutely jazz, her rendering of Georgia on my mind being a good example.

 Isham Jones and Gus Arnheim have the abilities to take over the songs that they include in their repertoire by offering truly sophisticated arrangements. It is not by chance that Bing Crosby, in his early career, chose them both to orchestrate his own tracks.


The Mills Brothers

are the true revelation of the year. Coming from Piqua, Ohio, the four brothers, John (guitarist and bass, aged 20), Herbert (tenor, 18), Harry (bariton, 17) and Donald (tenor, 15 ) started children to sing in the local churches. It is by chance that, having mislaid his kazoo, Harry someday takes place at the microphone and begins

imitating the sound of the trumpet. The performance is so convincing that the quartet decides to pursue the experience.

Guitar remains their basic rhythm instrument whereas they imitate double bass, trombone and other saxophone. The brothers are also to become masters in the scat-style, this way of improvised singing by non sense syllabes. After a very noticed broadcast, they sign with Brunswick for several recordings including the famous performance of Tiger Rag that makes them immediately famous. They do not delay becoming the idols of the public and record with The Boswell Sisters the sparkling Old Man of the Mountain.

  16  Russ Columbo has  already several movies to his credit when his manager, convinced that he has the voice and the charm to become a popular star, decides to feature him in New York in a radio broadcast on NBC. The result is immediate. Russ quickly signs with RCA and sees his popularity suddenly growing with an almost exclusively female audience. In order to hit the headlines, he also lends a few love affairs with actresses as Greta Garbo or Pola Negri whereas on singing, his agents have no respite to arouse the competition with Bing Crosby.


The sound of the South





























 17  01 –Blind” Willie McTell (Thomson (GA) 1901 – Amon (GA) 1959) Southern can is mine 2:58 (Willie McTell)

Gone blind during his childhood, Willie McTell shows very early his attractiveness for guitar. He goes to his mother’s  death on the Georgia roads where he occurs as a travelling singer and records his first album in 1926 in the Victor’s studios, Atlanta. He creates with his guitar " 12-string " a very personal style blending in a harmonious way the rough agreements of the traditional blues and the more sophisticated "ragtime" music key of the East Coast  (called Piedmont Blues and characterized by the use of the thumb to play the bass note (strings EAD).


02 – Lonnie Johnson (Alonzo Johnson – New Orleans (LA) 1899 – Toronto (Ontario) 1970)Uncle Ned, don’t use your head 3:36 (Lonnie Johnson)


 03 – Jimmie Rodgers (Meridian (MS) 1897 – New York 1933)  – Looking for a new mama 3:14 (Jimmie Rodgers)

Jimmie Rodgers undergoes a difficult time in 1931. His records are little sold due to the crisis but it is especially his health that worries him. Quite a sick man, he has to cancel several concerts and to refuse to play in a  movie.


04 – Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas – Algiers (LA) 1897 – Memphis (TN) 1973)I’m talking about you 2:45 (Ernest Lawlars, Minnie McCoy) 

Memphis Minnie (of her real name Lizzy Douglas) is one of rare

female blues singers to stand out in a background mastered

by men. She begins to occur in night clubs where she asserts her

generous and blazing style before marrying in 1929 the guitarist

Kansas Joe McCoy with whom she lives in Memphis.

The young couple do not delay getting noticed by an agent of

Columbia who releases their first "hit", Bumble Bee. They leave a

little later to settle down in Chicago.


05 – The Carter Family (Formed in Virginia, 1926 –

performing Alvin P., Sara & Maybelle Carter) – Lonesome valley 2:42 (A.P. Carter)

















18  The Carters acquired some popularity since the release of their first record. The trio including Alvin P. Carter (violin),  his wife Sara (autoharp) and their sister-in-law Maybelle (guitar) specialized in a folk register inspired by the traditional song of the "Mountain". They show a quite remarkable  originality within a musical universe mostly in the grip of  jazz and more locally blues by revitalizing in their way a stylistic repertoire inherited from past generations.


06 – Charley Patton (Bolton (MS) 1891 - Indianola (MS) 1934)Dry well blues 3:21 (Patton) 

Called the "Father of the Delta Blues", Charley Patton is 40 years old in 1931. They say that he also has some Cherokee blood. He learnt during his youth the guitar with Henri Sloan, a semi legendary figure of the Delta and was made a big name in his native Mississippi by handling this instrument with an incredible virtuosity.

Peppery, rough, instinctive, he plays mainly in  juke joints where people press to clap to the stunts he performs with his guitar and the amazing sounds he manages to extract. His modest fees will never allow him however to take out of poverty.



07 – Skip James (Nehemiah Curtis James – Bentonia (MA) 1901 – Philadelphia (PA) 1969)I’m so glad 2:50 (James)


  20  Skip James has already held several jobs when he performs his first audition in Jackson ( MS). He played the organ in the church where his father was a preacher but also worked in the plantations and was even an occasional bootlegger. He first tried the piano but finally chose the guitar where he excelled at the fingerpicking. He went in 1931 to Grafton, Wisconsin, to make his first recordings  in the Paramount studio, asserting a style characterized by an eclecticism alternating in a personal way traditional blues, spirituals and fashionable tunes. His  music is poorly sold however in this period of crisis and Skip gives up temporarily the blues to lead the paternal church choir.


08 – Gene Autry (Tioga Springs (TX) 1907 – Los Angles (CA) 1998)Do right daddy blues 2:45 (Autry)

Born into a modest family of Texas ranchers, Gene Autry was first employed as a telegrapher in Tulsa (OK) by the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway where he spends his downtime to sing and play the guitar. He went to New York on the advice of a customer to be auditioned in the studios of Victor Records but failed to convince their manager Nat Shilkret. Performing on the local radio in Tulsa, his vocal duet with Jimmie Long accompanied by two steel- guitars was instead greeted with enthusiasm. He recorded for Columbia in 1929, then moved to Chicago to host a radio broadcast. He also worked in New York, where he made a series of recordings in the hillbilly style including the famous Do Right Daddy blues.

The term "hillbilly" is linked to traditional rural white music. It was first used to characterize in a derogatory manner poor and uneducated farmers in deep America but has gradually dissociated itself from

this simplistic interpretation akin to the Country Music and represent a certain image of the Southern States and their cultural values.


09 – “Blind” Willie Johnson (Marlin (TX 1902 – Beaumont (TX) 1947) The  soul of a man 3:15 (Willie Johnson)

Although it is difficult to know how Willie Johnson became blind, it is certain on the other hand, that his father knew how to take advantage of this weakness to earn money by making him play the guitar on street corners. He recorded since 1927 his own songs for Columbia,  standing out by their rather committed lyrics and a very structured music that he performs with a sometimes angry voice, barely tempered by the discreet echoing intonations of his wife Angeline.



10 – The Allen Brothers (Formed in Chattanooga (TN) 1923) Chattanooga mama 3:33 (Allen Brothers)









































At 30, Louis Armstrong has no longer anything to prove. He just has to take over all the songs of some and others by giving free rein to the whim of his performance so that the magic operates. His mastery is such as he can afford to evolve towards a resolutely uncluttered musical style and only retain the essential substance. He also benefits of the invention of the ribbon microphone to give some more depth to his so characteristic gravelly voice.

He has experienced during his childhood poverty as well as abandonment, violence and resourcefulness. With a father missing without leaving a forwarding address and a mother driven to prostitution to feed the children, the young Louis had learned early on to bring some money home. He delivered for that coal to Storyville, the “red-light” district of New Orleans dedicated to the pleasures and where music was heard night and day. It is in this context that he proved his ability to cornet and found himself with other children to play on street corners. He was 13-year-old when he was hired at night  in a local band while continuing to deliver his coal the day. It was during one of his performances on stage that he was

noticed by the trumpeter King Oliver.

This one took him under his wing and taught him music theory before to give him his place in Kid Ory's band. Louis seized the opportunity offered to him to impose his style characterized by an original sound and a vocal performance like no other.

He left New Orleans in 1922 to join King Oliver in Chicago where he very fast looked like a phenomenon. He recorded his first songs the following year and moved then to New York to work beside Fletcher Henderson, revered at the time as the most prominent bandleader. This one taught him first of all some discipline and allowed him to become familiar with other instruments. Louis Armstrong  however returned soon to Chicago where  his wife Lil ' was looking for a soloist on trumpet for her own band. He found there in particular the trombonist Kid Ory and the clarinetist Johnny Dodd. Become in few years the most required star of jazz, he was quickly thought as an icon with thousands of young musicians seeing him as the embodiment of the new music. Having separated from his wife, he played a time with Earl Hines in a famous Cafe held by Al Capone in 1929 and returned to New York to appear in the casting of the successful show Hot Chocolate. He performed some time after at the Connie's Inn, the Cotton Club competitor, with a series of songs written especially by his friend Hoagy Carmichael

 19  A native of Vermont, Rudy Vallee counts among his ancestors French Canadians and Irish. He decided at age 15 to get into the army to fight in Europe as the war rages on. He lies to it on his birth date but the ploy being soon discovered, the young apprentice soldier is sent back to his family after 41 days in service. Both clarinetist, saxophonist and drummer, he moved to London to play in the orchestra at the Savoy. However, the musicians deter him from singing because of a voice they consider too frail and slightly "tremulous" best able to perform ballads than jazz tracks. He nevertheless

insists and finally signs his first recording contract in 1928 with Columbia. Rudy Vallee is known for being not only the true initiator of the "crooning", an intimate vocal style favored by the use of micro and particulatly suited to radio, but also the first "pop star" able of mobilizing the crowds to each of his appearances and trigger a genuine hysteria.



Ozzie Nelson left football to devote himself exclusively to the music when falls the Great Depression. He already plays the saxophone but prefers to take the risk of creating his own band and finds himself, with a boost of fate, elected orchestra of the year by the readers of the Daily New York, before Paul Whiteman. He soon asserts a style both simple and effective, as well as personal vocal qualities.

  21  Born in a poor family of the Baltimore suburb and married at 13 to an abusive man, Ethel Waters was just 16-year-old when she got her first contract singer on the vaudeville stage. She occurs in Chicago, goes down to Atlanta and crosses  

Bessie Smith who,

regarding her as a

potential competitor, asks

her not to sing blues when

she performs at the same place.

En 1919, Ethel Waters finally

settled down in Harlem and

started to have a name.

Classified in the category of

blues singers, she also

recorded with Fletcher

Henderson  in a primarily

jazz repertoire. After

experiencing the Broadway

stage, she recorded many hits and performed alongside Duke

Ellington. Her career is already well advanced in the early

1930s and her popularity acquired.

 The female voices of 1931


 23  01 - Mildred Bailey with Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra - "All of Me"

02 - The Boswell Sisters  - "Shout, sister, shout"

03 - Kate Smith - "Too late"

























04 - Ruth Etting - Out of Nowhere

Considered the most significant

torch singer of the time, Ruth

Etting certainly reached in 1931

the peak of her career.

She is 35 years old but her

remarkable beauty allows her to

be once again the star of the

Ziegfeld Follies, the most

prestigious review on Broadway.

She sang especially for the

occasion "Shine On, Harvest

Moon", a standard introduced on

the same stage in 1918 by Nora


When she was 17, Ruth left her

tiny town in Nebraska to attend

the Chicago Art School but

the millinery career that she

 has chosen drives her

ultimately to the nightclubs of

the city where she occurs

occasionally as singer and dancer.

This is where she gets acquainted

with Martin Snyder, aka "Moe the

Gimp" , a mobster who soon

becomes her husband. He will

mobilize his relationship to

launch her career, starting with radio shows and a contract with Columbia. But her appearance in 1927 on the Broadway stage made her truly known to the public. Ruth Etting had therefore one hit after the other. She is especially the star of major productions such as Simple Simon and Whoopee! and also shoots for musical shorts in Hollywood. The tremendous success of The Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 will also be the last, unfortunately, Florenz Ziegfeld his creator coming to die a few months later.

05 - Marion Harris - He's my secret passion

In 1931, Marion Harris, dubbed by NBC "the little girl with a big voice" shares her time between broadcasts alongside including Rudy Vallee and London City where she obtained a commitment of several years.

06 - Blanche Calloway with Her Joy Boys - I'm getting myself ready for you

Blanche Calloway, Cab’s elder sister must perhaps with the fame of his brother being unfairly underestimated. She is indeed the first woman to have conducted an exclusively male band. She made her first recordings in 1925 and sang with Louis Armstrong before forming her own group called the Joy Boys.

07 - The Boswell Sisters & The Dorsey Brothers - "Roll on Mississippi"

08 - Ethel Waters - "Don't talk about me when I'm gone"

09 - Ruth Etting -"Overnight"

Jazz is mourning


 22  The cornetist and pianist Bix Beiderbecke died in New York on August 6th at the age of 28. This exceptionally gifted self-taught musician was inspired by Louis Armstrong to create a " legato " smooth style with the melancholic accents. Outstanding soloist, he was also the first one to break with the "blues" spirit which at the time ran through jazz by incorporating into his musical aesthetics the influence of classic composers like Debussy and Ravel.

He plays from 1927 in the band of Paul Whiteman but his health quickly declines due to his addiction to drink.

In the midst of Prohibition, the alcohol that he manages to get is mostly bad liquor and its consequences ruinous for the health. After a while hospitalized, he sets up a new band and composes with zeal but his lack of attendance condemns him to a certain wandering.

The crisis has thrown dabbling musicians outside the orchestras and living meager fees, Bix Beiderbecke can no longer face the debts which accumulate. He had only hardly the time to be close to the first steps of swing of which he contributes nevertheless to lay the foundations when he succumbs to a pneumonia.






He is not yet known to a wide public but his untimely death made him fast a true legend. He becomes somehow the cursed genius, a romantic hero sacrificed on the altar of business interests.

Bix Beiderbecke - Singing The Blues

The essential hits of 1931 (4)
























25  01 –  Louis Armstrong – When your lover has gone 3:02 (Einar Aaron Swann)

This song introduced the same year by Gene Austin was performed in Blonde Crazy, a movie directed  by Roy Del Ruth starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell. 

02 – Cab Calloway – Stardust 3:30 (Hoagy Carmichael, Mitchell Parish)

03 – Mildred Bailey – Wrap your troubles in dreams 3:07 (Billy Moll, Harry Barris, Ted Koehler)

04 – Russ Columbo   â€“ Guilty 2:51 (Richard A. Whiting, Hary Akst, Gus Kahn)

05 – The Dorsey Brothers & The Boswell Sisters – An evening in Caroline 2:47 (Walter Donaldson)

06 – Ethel Waters – Shine on harvest moon  3:29 (Nora Bayes, Jack Norworth)

07 – Red Nichols & His Five Pennies feat. Dick Robertson – I Got Rhythm 3:01 (George & Ira Gershwin)

Fine cover of the song introduced by Ethel Merman in A Girl Crazy, the musical written by the Gershwin brothers and released the same year on Broadway.

08 - Blanche Calloway & Her Joy Boys - It's right her for you (Perry Bradford)

09 - Ted Lewis & His Orchestra - I'm just a gigolo (Irving Caesar, Julius Brammer, Leonello Casucci)

10 - Freddie Rich (Warsaw (Poland) 1898 - Los Angeles (CA) 1956) & His Orchestra feat. Helen Rowland - You call it madness (Con Conrad, Russ Columbo)

11 – Ruth Etting – Out of nowhere 3:19 (Edward Heyman, Johnny Green)

12 - Benny Goodman & His Orchestra feat. Paul Small - If you haven't got a girl (Roiz Davis, Rudy Vallee)

In spite of a first recording released in 1926, Ruth Etting became initially recognized for the quality of her shapes during  her performance on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927.

                                   A Cleveland pendant la Grande Ă©pression

The "Tin Pan Alley" label


  24   Tin Pan Alley is the name given to the 28th street in New York City where concentrated at the end of the 19th century most of the music publishers. It should at the time come out of it what looked like a strange cacophony but it is behind these walls that shaped the soul of the modern American music.

The publishers there enjoyed their heyday. Before the records and the radio supplant it in the 20s, the score market was a thriving and lucrative industry. All professional and amateur musicians had by these means the opportunity to stay at the top of the new trends and fashions.

Tin Pan Alley gradually became the reference regarding musical creation. The publishers employed songwriters under contract from which they required to be in tune with the tastes of the public. They kept for that not only the accounts of sales but tested the songs before their publication  with a panel of artists and listeners. The promotion of the new tracks was then insured in shops or theaters by musicians and contractual vocalists. With such a system, the song ceased being only an art to become an industry. Voices rose up to condemn this drift but time proved them wrong. Too busy to settle their accounts with each other, the critics of the time remained deaf to the universal message that sent Tin Pan Alley and the timeless values ​​that it suggested. Being attuned to the tastes of the public, it was supposed to respond with a kind of consensuality avoiding to talk about  the worries of everyday life but rather of happiness, love, dreams and nostalgia. This is certainly the reason why the style has been so long successfull thanks to major composers as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harry Warren and Hoagy Carmichael.







The America's Sweetheart of Song


  27    For a  personality such as Ruth Etting, being married to a Chicago 'hood' offered perhaps some advantages but also came along with some inconveniences. She had married Martin Snyder aka "Moe The Gimp" (because of a light infirmity) in 1922 and this one made the most of his relations to open her the doors of studios. She had however to wait a few years before her talent is recognized. Singer, actress, dancer, Ruth began in Chicago with radio broadcasts before trying her chance in New York.






















She was around thirty when she came to be involved by Florenz Ziegfeld to appear on Broadway in one of his unmissable Follies. It is argued, however, that in spite of the recommendation of Irving Berlin, it was less for her voice than for her legs that she had the honor to perform.  Ziegfeld was a real maker of stars and his show aimed before any glorifying " the American Girl ". Peggy Shannon, Alice Wilkie, Nora Bayes, Fanny Brice had been in particular the symbolic stars of the Follies during the years 10 and 20.

Ruth Etting became a Ziegfeld Girl for the first time in 1927, beside Eddie Cantor, Cliff Edwards and the Brox Sisters. She then starred in the musical Whoopee! (again with Eddie Cantor as partner) and Simple Simon alongside Ed Wynn. The public was repeatedly impressed by her beauty. She subsequently shot into Hollywood musical shorts and even had the opportunity to appear in 1930's Broadway's Like That, a 10-minute movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Despite the ambitions of her unruly husband, she remained however confined to supporting roles.

Tin Pan Alley, the New-Yorker workshop of music hits


  26   Irving Berlin (Israel Isidore Baline - Russie 1888 –New York City, 1989)

The little Isidore was only 6-year-old when his family hastily had to leave for the United States and flee his native Belarus torn by a violent wave of anti-Semitism. His father was a cantor in the synagogue but he found in New York only a miserable job in the Lower East Side where the Balines lived in an unsafe building, without heating nor even without glass windows. Isidore was just 13-year-old when his father died and he had to drop out to find what to feed the family. The living conditions were then awful for many families of Jewish immigrants and the young people were willing to accept the most menial tasks to earn few dollars.

It is selling newspapers that he began to get noticed thanks to the songs that he used to improvise from the events.

Irving managed not without any trouble to get hired as waiter in a Cafe of Chinatown. This is where he had the opportunity to practice the piano. His career really took form from 1909 after he had got acquainted with young best-selling authors as Edgar Leslie and George A. Whiting and was accepted within lyric writers' team of the Ted Snyder Company. The publication two years later of Alexander's Ragtime Band propelled him at once in the firmament. This song was a so considerable event that the criticism left even surprise. It was quickly exported all over the world making Irving Berlin an international star at the age 25.


When the United States entered the war, his popularity was such as he was raised at once to the rank of sergeant in the US Army with for only mission to write patriotic songs. He joined Tin Pan Alley after the demobilization to become one of the most iconic figures there even more symbolic that he composed not only his music but  wrote also the lyrics. Most of his songs became immediately hits and were the object of numerous covers. Let us quote for  memory What' ll I do? introduced by Paul Whiteman in 1924, Blue Skies performed for the first time by Ben Selvin in 1927, the famous Marie written in 1929 and of course the unavoidable Puttin ' On the Ritz released in 1930 in the movie of the same name.

28    Harry Warren (Salvatore Antonio Guaragna – Brooklyn (NY) 1893 – Los Angeles (CA) 1981)

Born in a modest family newly arrived from Italy, he had to his father to Americanize their surname when his children were still young. This one played the accordion and it is under his conduct that the small Harry began to learn music. He also sang in the parish choir but soon opted for the drums. Become professional a musician from the age of 14, he left middle school to occur in the traveling band of his father-in-law. He decided then to learn the piano

and found a job within the Studios of the Vitagraph Motion Picture, what allowed him to meet the actors. He played then in a regular way as pianist in theaters before joining the U.S Navy in 1918.

It is from this time that he wrote his first songs. He made a hit in 1922 with Rose of the Rio Grande and appeared after this date one of the most popular songwriters on Broadway before his career involves him towards the film and the Warner Brothers studios.


Dorothy Fields (Allenhurst (NJ) 1904- Nex York City, 1974)

Of Polish origin, her father was originally a vaudeville actor before becoming one of the producers of Broadway. She practiced at first in teaching before launching out in 1928 into the writing of songs and worked from then on in a regular way with the composer Jimmy McHugh.

Jimmy McHugh (Boston (MA) 1894 – Bervely Hills (CA) 1969)

Trained pianist , he began his career at the Boston Opera before working for the Irving Berlin publishers company. Settled in New York from 1921, he had then the opportunity to work with the foremost lyricists of the moment as Ted Koehler, Al Dubin or still Harold Adamson. He composed in particular for several musicals  of the Cotton Club and chose from 1928 to form a duet of authors with Dorothy Fields.

Cleveland (OH), 1931, a moment of togetherness around a warm soup. Crisis spares no social category, but the wealthiest.

Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey


 30  Born respectively in 1904 and 1905 in a mining town deep in Virginia, the two brothers had in front of them the way that drew their father with a merciless rigor. Both musician and conductor, this one had decided to make of his two sons  recognized cornetists and kept them under his rule until these decide to emencipate themselves and choose their own instrument. Jimmy turned to the clarinet and Tommy opted for the trombone. They knew already enough at age 17 to go and provide their services to the local radio stations. They so had their first hits from the late 20s  because not only for their virtuosity but also their creativity.

Tempted by jazz, they joined in 1924 the California Ramblers based in the time in New York and made in 1928 their first recordings, leaving the long over-subtle improvisations for a more structured, both tonic and melodic, seminal of swing.

The fact of playing together led however to a relentless competition. Both perfectionists, it gradually became obvious that each one needed to impose its own imprint on the group and that they would accordingly end up separating. This is what happened.


Ted Koehler (Washington D.C. 1894 6 Santa Monica (CA) 1973)

Working first as photoengraver, he entered the artistic carreer by accompanying silent

movies on the piano. He went then to Broadway where he quickly became known by

writing vaudevilles and producing shows for the nightclubs. He met there the composer

Harold Arlen with whom he was going to write numerous hits.

 29  Harold Arlen (Hyman Arluk – Buffalo (NY) 1905 –

New York City, 1986)

Born into a Jewish family, he learnt during his childhood to play the piano and entered the career by forming his own band. Appreciated as pianist and singer, he chose to go to New York in the early 20s where he accompanied vaudeville on piano. He performed on the occasion alongside Red Nichols, Joe Venuti or Leo Reisman for whom he started to perform tunes of his composition. He dedicated himself especially to song writing from 1929, when he decided to collaborate with the lyricist Ted Koehler.

Rube Bloom (Reuben Bloom – New York City, 1902-1976) – Talented pianist but also arranger, bandleader, singer, he was also a successful songwriter. He worked in particular beside Bix Beiderbeck, Joe Venuti, Ruth Etting and the Dorsey brothers as well as with several lyricists as Ted Koehler, Mitchell Parish or Johnny Mercer.


Mitchell Parish (Michael Pashelinsky – Shrevenport (LA) 1900 – New York City, 1993)

He was born shortly after his parents landed the ship which had led them from Lithuania to Louisiana. He left however soon with his family to live in New York where he continued his law studies. Attracted by the excitement which prevailed in Tin Pan Alley, he reached from his 19 years getting there a job of lyricist  and began to work in the creation of vaudeville. He wrote then for Broadway theaters in the point to be regarded in the early 30s as the foremost author of the New York  stage.



            Pardon Us


  31  Directed by James Parrott

Production : Stan Laurel, Hal Roach

Distribution : Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Screenplay : H.M. Walker

Music : Leroy Shield

Actors : Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, June Marlow

The double-act certainly the most hilarious but

also the most accomplished of Hollywood

remains undoubtebly the one who left most

traces in the memory of at least three

generations of viewers.

Laurel & Hardy have appeared till the

end of the last century among the most

familiar comic actors with the audience, all


All the more endearing that they always spent

for naive anti-heroes with a big heart, constantly

shaken by the events of daily life, they created

a kind of humor based on both the permanent antagonism of their personalities and a complicity of every moment. Between Stanley Laurel, slender, ethereal, often silly character sometimes even annoying but to whom chance always seemed to smile despite him and Oliver Hardy, fatman full of reason and artifice, with often twisted ideas but overwhelmed by a persistent bad luck, will reign throughout their career a form of indivisibility. Formed in the early '20s, the couple did not cease over time to shoot in movies, stringing jokes together to sometimes screaming with laughter wholly conquered dark rooms. They perfectly succeeded in adapting to talkies while preserving theatrics which had ensured their success during the silent era including this personal way to call the viewer as a witness by sending him occasionally a collusive eye wink . Laurel & Hardy however embodied characters too typified to venture into musical but they came with happiness from time to time complete their performances by a ditty.

Announced as their first  all-talking movie, Pardon Us takes place during Prohibition and tells the eventful journey of two improvised bootleggers who, having been emprisoned, succeed in escaping and take refuge made up as blackface among the workers of a cotton plantation. After the discovery of their plot, they are taken back to jail before being finally "pardoned" for having uwillingly, appease a mutiny.


The movie is punctuated by a number of tunes without real ambition but it is especially the performance quite in sensibility of Lazy Moon by Oliver Hardy that holds attention. He leaves a few while the comic repertoire to evolve in one romantic register which, if it replicates a stylisitic configuration proper to the time also appears unexpectedly as a timeless vehicle of emotion.


Stan Laurel (Arthur Stanley Jefferson - Ulverston, Lancs. (UK), on 1890 - Santa Monica (That) on 1965) - original Englishman, he worked with Charles Chaplin before leaving to the United States in 1916. He met in 1927 the producer Hal Roach who had the idea to form for the movies a double act with Oliver Hardy.

Oliver Hardy (Novell Hardy - Harlem (GA) 1892 - North Hollywood (CA) 1957 ) - this son of a Confederate veteran descending from one of the oldest family in Virginia attended the studios as a teenager. He worked for some time with Charles Chaplin and found himself in Hollywood in 1918 where he played for several years supporting roles in many comedy movies. 


Jazz and Blues, never crossing roads?


  32  Although jazz and blues draw most of their roots from the African musical tradition,

the basis of their approach would tend to oppose them.

Jazz grew in an urban environment, both cosmopolitan and exuberant whereas

blues kept the focus of rurality, crude and introspective. They were differentiated so often

in a simplistic way, considering in particular that jazz was played in group and blues

 as a recluse, that jazz gave priority to the music and blues to lyrics, etc...

These are commonplaces in the same way that one might say that jazz is an American

Africanized music and blues an African Americanized music.

Everyone knows that

 jazz and blues

were born within the

African-American community whose ancestors  had been since the XVIIth century extracted by millions from their homeland to be sold as slaves in the southern States. The allegedly civilizing law of the "Whites" had the effect of erasing most of their cultural references but essentials could be preserved in an informal way, such a particular vibration related to an indissoluble identity base. Over time, however, the people originated from Africa had no other choice but to integrate into the American nation with all violence and injustice consequential. Argue on the other hand that blues and jazz are at first outbreaks of African music is presumptuous. These two musical trends are born in America, although we recognize some similarity between the tradition of African singer peddling from village to village  news of each other and the traveling bluesman. Do not forget, however, that the Celtic bards did already the same in earlier times.

 On the other hand,  the "Whites" took time to include the true wealth  represented  by the African music and the weight of its social role. Missionaries adapted it to the Christian liturgy to make a conversion means. It was enough to add to canticles some subtleties such as syncopated harmonies and

alternating choruses in the form of "call-answer” to create a kind inside which could identify the members of the African-American community.

The pace was typical of the songs that accompanied the life on plantations, expressing at the same time the line work and fatalism facing the unremitting effort, tiredness and suffering.

The exuberance resulted from moments of bliss when the assembly gave free rein to improvisation. Syncopated rhythm was consequently marked by clapping hands or stomping, forming a regular and progressive movement that allowed a song to last so indefinite and let the soloists and chorus leisure improvise lyrics. In contrast, the traditional music of the Whites, the "folk music" was far from having a so strong emotional character. It was structured by a score including a beginning and an end, leaving only its performers a relative freedom.

The Civil War resulted in abolition of slavery without improving the conditions of existence of the African-American community. It had however deserved to emancipate the musicians of the South and to allow the dissemination of new genres, until there unknown in the Northern States.

There were nevertheless many African-Americans already settled in cities as New York but they had mostly

given up their cultural traditions and adopted the practices of the Anglo-Saxon society,  itself heavily influenced

by the European fashions, as well in the opera and the operetta as in popular music.

The invasive movement of the musics from the South also evolved according to its spreading with the audience.

The African-American singers learnt to police the content of their texts of which the highly sexual nature was likely to

upset the ears of a white audience. They also had to moderate sometimes hysterical outbursts that concluded the

"spirituals" qualified by some from stinks of primitive savagery. Leaving the plantations where it was born,

the blues is urbanized, transposing into the ghettos of big cities a modernized echo of the laments of former

slaves, alternating between renouncement and uprising.

New Orleans, the craddle of jazz

 33   Founded in the mouth of the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans widely formed the ground on which could

develop a musical phenomenon as jazz, which we can say that it will remain on the major trends of the music

of the XXth century.

The city was, due to its location, at the crossroads of all the cultures which could be met on the American

continent. Built by the French, held a time by the Spaniards, returned to the French who had

ultimately sold it to the United States, the city sheltered confusedly surviving Indians of the former Mississippi

nations,  Mexicans of Hispanic culture, an important African-American community and a whole colonial society

arrived from all places in Europe.

New Orleans possessed its own upper-class

renowned for its refinement, but also a

cosmopolitan world where flourished

places of nocturnal adventures, theaters,

cabarets and a general atmosphere of

freedom and tolerance specific to Creole

Caribbean mind.

Forming an original blend of fortunate

and poor families, the city had not yet a

labor population and was not either

involved in the coercive system of

plantations. It lived exclusively on its

trade activity. All the cultures cohabited

with their traditions, celebrations and rituals.

From the mid-18th century, there was a palce in New Orleans called Congo

Square where one came to admire African dances and rhythms. A century later, the abundance of brass

bands (the famous marching bands), the wealth of colors and the numerous festivities (such as on famous Mardi Gras) peculiar to each ethnic groups formed through the city a so noisy melting-pot that the Puritan town council decided in 1897 to create a a neighborhood "red-light" district exclusively dedicated to the pleasure. While  musical parades continued to punctuate the events of city life, including funerals, with its brothels, its burlesque stages and other dance halls, the new Storyville soon became the largest employer of musicians in the city, adding to the powerful sound of brass that of the pianos, guitars, violins and other double basses. Bands played virtually seamless and black musicians, usually excluded from clubs reserved for whites had in these places the opportunity to unleash their talent and creativity. They were especially responsible for the introduction of syncopated rhythm and the share left to improvisation, thus giving birth to the New Orleans Sound, and by extension to jazz.



 34  Storyville was closed in 1917 by order of the Navy, what had for effect to scatter musicians to the four winds. They were likely to make their way north to Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago and of course New York City.

It then ensued a form of competition to know who of “blacks or whites” would be the first ones to promote jazz outside its bases. Pianist Jelly Roll Morton, cornetist Freddie Keppard, trumpeters King Oliver and Nick La Rocca were all in varying degrees amongst the pioneers of this time, not to mention Sidney Bechet and his clarinet who became famous by coming in February 1920 to give a first concert in Paris.

Unlike jazz which fantasy and tempo seemed to spontaneously attract the crowds, blues remained itself a good time confined to the plantations and rural communities. In fact it seemed like music shifted to the sometimes too explicit message, reserved to a targeted audience, performed by lonely songsters whose voice was lost in the hubbub streets or  juke joints backrooms, these makeshift establishments operated by African-American workers. When jazz was on the verge of becoming a referent music, blues struggled to exist. It was still in the opinion an evocation of the distant slaves lament, an expression of a a mainly black evil to live. Sought to know from whence came this qualifier of blues? The term refers to the singer Ma Rainey, who in 1902 had included in her repertoire a strange and sad song she had heard in a small town in Missouri. To those who asked what category she could have classified it, she once responded: "It's the blues". At the same time, the composer William C. Handy told he had crossed one night a mysterious character whose  guitar's sound had an unexpected resonance. He succeeded while making slide a blade along the strings. WC Handy was so upset that he spent the rest of his career trying to recreate that sound. Whether Ma Rainey and other founders of the genre, all summarized in fact what characterizes the spirit of blues: the existential evil. Powerful, pregnant, the raucous voice of blues oscillates between soul disorders and fleeting pleasures. It comes from a certainly well-defined culture but its problem is universal. Note that although the banjo was an instrument of African origin, it was judged so ungrateful and superficial that guitar was preferred. Paradoxically, the white rural music was later to take it over.

 35  Whereas the rhythm and the unbridled fantasy of  jazz seemed to make the unanimity, blues tried to justify its peculiarity by pretexting links with dark forces. Some bluesmen did not moreover hesitate to claim a devilish paternity, even going as far as confusing with Satan's embodiment this founding character taken out from nowhere who extirpated strange sounds from his guitar  with a blade of knife. Robert Johnson stated himself in the 1930s that his music resulted from a pact with the devil. This one obeyed nevertheless a well defined structure based in a practically constant way over a 12-bar progression whose William C. Handy told to be the inventor, from the 1910s,. He had actually composed a series of songs  as Memphis Blues, St. Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues all that worked on the same musical phrasing. Handy had certainly helped with his band to popularize the genre and created a real passion for blues, but what was there in fact comparable between elegant style so close to jazz and minimalism of musicians from the Delta (the cotton area located on the Mississippi River between Memphis and Louisiana) for which the guitar was already an instrument of luxury. Should it be conclude that there was a true and a fake blues, certainly not. Let's just say it already existed at the dawn of the 20s an urban trend open to other musical genres, and while hanging a traditional rural base from which emerged a few strong individuals.

Winslow Homer - The Cotton Pickers

Ma Rainey and her orchestra

42nd-street.fr - Gerard Tondu

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