10. Harry McClintock, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”
Victor 21704, 1928 · mp3
Apparently there have been other recorded versions of this song; I can’t imagine why. From the moment I heard its opening notes over the credits of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which I had dragged my brothers to see simply because the title was a Sullivan’s Travels reference), I knew I was in the presence of a unique and self-sufficient work of American art. McClintock’s voice, humorous but set at a patient, hardwon distance, the simple guitar figure, and the lyrics of the song itself — if he didn’t write it (and there’s no real evidence either way, as naturally there wouldn’t be for a hobo song), somebody with a genius talent for choosing the right image for the meaning at hand did — conspire to create something preternaturally accessible to even a modern audience yet tough enough to withstand repeated exposure to critical ears. I’m told it’s become something of a children’s song over the past several years, but that just irritates, because leaving out the cigarette trees and streams of alcohol (can’t let our children entertain the notion that people enjoy, or even engage in smoking and drinking, the horror) leaves out something crucial in this hobo’s Paradise, and even violates its spirit. The land of Cockaigne can have no restrictions, or it’s not Cockaigne; more to the point, people who have no reason to fear short-handled shovels, railroad bulls, or the turk who invented work don’t deserve to dream of the Mountains. In addition to being a country-music broadcasting pioneer — he’s another early country & western musician who’d spent time as an actual cowboy — McClintock was a labor organizer and prominent member of the Industrial Workers of the World who knew the value of class solidarity and of giving the underdog a chance to speak for himself. (His “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” not to be confused with the Rodgers & Hart-written Al Jolson song of the same name, was in fact a sarcastic working-class response to capitalists’ accusations of laziness and spendthriftiness.) “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” may not exist, but the impulse to build a society where no one is forced to dream of it remains.
9. Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra, “Riverboat Shuffle”
(Hoagy Carmichael/Dick Voynow/Irving Mills)
Okeh 40822, 1927 · mp3
This is the record that made me understand jazz. Partly because its sections and the development of the themes are so obvious that even an ignoramus like me can figure out to what’s going on, but also partly because of the imagination, freedom, and wit of the playing. This was the greatest collection of white jazz players in the early history of the form, and obviously not to take away anything from the black men (and women) who developed, and were still developing, jazz, but it was also one of the most forward-thinking jazz groups in the country, at least for a while. The guy with his name on the session, Trumbauer was one of the most influential saxophone players of his generation, an inspiration to Lester Young among others; you can hear him on the second primary solo playing a C melody saxophone, which is somewhere between the usual alto and tenor saxes. Bix Beiderbecke, his friend and close associate — they’d come up through the same Midwestern white jazz circles and routinely played together on record and in larger orchestras like Whiteman’s — plays cornet and takes the first primary solo, where his delicate phrasing and the way he seems to be playing in a less headlong, more thoughtful song than the rest of the band comes as a stroke of genius among the rest of the hot, caterwauling clatter. Eddie Lang (who else?) is the one taking those guitar breaks up top, and outdoing himself in the process, and Bill Rank is the trombonist who takes a couple of brief spots. The band is rounded out by Irving Riskin on piano, Chauncey Morehouse on drums, and there may possibly be (I can’t quite tell) a clarinet (Don Murray) and/or an alto sax (Doc Ryker) in there as well. A lot of credit goes to Bix, who arranged his buddy Hoagy Carmichael’s tune — very nearly the first thing he’d ever written — with a keen sense of stop-start dynamics and a highly developed sense of space. Jazz was edging into sophistication here, which the big band era would develop more fully, concurrently with the small-combo ethos that would more or less set the tone for the remainder of the music’s history.
8. Gene Austin, “My Blue Heaven”
(Walter Donaldson/George Whiting)
Victor 20964A, 1927 · mp3
I can no longer remember where I read the postulation that “My Blue Heaven” is not a song about conventional domestic bliss, but about a ménage à trois (it requires a frankly peculiar reading of “just Molly and me, and Baby makes three”), but now I can’t get it out of my head whenever I listen to the song. The one positive effect it has is that it turns Gene Austin’s somewhat drippy delivery into something effortlessly sly; he now has the sound of a guy getting away with something. But. Anyway. This recording of “My Blue Heaven” was the biggest-selling pop smash of its era, selling over twenty million copies by some estimates (though as ever, others disagree). The Texas-born Austin, who ran away to join vaudeville in his teens and whose light, clear tenor was credited by (among others) Bing Crosby with beginning the crooner revolution, found himself suddenly rich. He bought a custom-built yacht, named it the My Blue Heaven, and promptly got caught up in a hurricane on its maiden voyage; the press reports of his death in the the storm sent the sales of his latest hit skyrocketing. They didn’t slow down when he returned, only slightly the worse for wear, after having listened to several hours of his obituary on the ship’s radio while drinking steadily and trying to keep his pregnant wife out of hysterics. (God, I love a good anecdote.) But for our purposes, neither his personal drama nor any after-the-fact imputations about the song really matter: what does matter is the wordless warble he takes in the middle of the song, and we can see now how deeply jazz had soaked into the collective unconscious of popular entertainment. Gene Austin was the stuffiest, squarest popular singer around (unless you count holdovers from the wax-cylinder era like the ubiquitous and godawful Billy Murray, or Classical Voices like John McCormack), and even he couldn’t help throwing a little swerve — a tad unimaginative perhaps, but serviceable — into his delivery of a standard-issue Tin Pan Alley bit of fluff. And then the producers go ahead and overdo it by tacking on a bit of fake birdsong onto the last chorus, which sure, it points to the future of artificial sound in pop music, Joe Meek and Jack Nietzsche and Timbaland passim. It’s the biggest pop song of the decade, and the rules of pop it follows are already clearly recognizable even today.
7. The Masked Marvel, “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues”
Paramount 12805B, 1929 · mp3
Charley Patton (I’m going with record-label convention on this, though apparently he spelt it “Charlie”) was about two generations too late to be the first bluesman, but he’s closer to our modern conception of the bluesman than anyone else who’s appeared on this list so far: a poor black man from the Mississippi Delta who developed a method of slide guitar that is as much about piercing attack as about mournful grace — the flip side of this record was called “Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues.” It’s no longer the showbiz blues of St. Louis or Memphis or New York: it’s the down-and-dirty, mud-under-your-fingernails and a-mixture-of-anguish-and-rage-in-your-throat Delta blues. Patton mentored John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf, played with Son House, and crossed paths with Robert Johnson, placing him firmly in the rock-canonical line of thunderous influence (hell, John Fogerty paid for his headstone), but unlike the bluesman of rock & roll legend, he wasn’t an itinerant musician hopping from town to town and playing for whoever would listen; he was a Southern black institution, playing at plantations and taverns with plenty of publicity and packed audiences everywhere. He was also a canny, theatrical showman, playing his guitar behind his head and on his knees, and bellowing his lyrics with a powerful voice whose gritty roar was a seminal influence on the young sharecropper Chester Burnett. He was 38 by the time he cut his initial records, and would only live another five years before heart disease took him in northern Mississippi. “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues” was issued under the name “The Masked Marvel” as a promotional stunt for Paramount; people who bought the record were supposed to write in with their guesses of who the marvel was (of course, to figure it out you’d have to have heard Paramount’s other Patton recordings — ka-ching) and if correct, they’d get a free Paramount record of their choice. Whether anyone actually won anything has failed to come down to us, but ain’t that the American way: a song about the economic devastation and masive black poverty caused by the boll weevil destroying cotton crops (which played a role in inspiring black migration to the north, among the results of which was the Harlem Renaissance itself) is used to make a crass buck for a record company; because no matter what sales figures have been lost to time, I can guarantee that Patton never saw a dime.
6. Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, “Crazy Blues”
Okeh 4169, 1920 · mp3
You’re not gonna believe this, but at one point in American history it was widely considered more appropriate for white women to pretend to be black and sing blues songs on record than for black women to sing them. The reasoning behind this is entirely unrecoverable today; apparently it had something to do with white women simply being better at singing, which just sounds stupid in a post-Ella, post-Aretha, post-Mariah world, but the Jim Crow atmosphere of the day was so thick with nonsense, lies and double-talk that it’s impossible to know what white people really believed versus what they just said because they held all the cards and didn’t have to think about it. Anyway, a hefty Jewish woman who called herself Sophie Tucker was by far the most popular of what they called “coon shouters” in the teens, a vaudeville headliner and sex symbol — or symbol of female sexuality, which isn’t really the same thing — whose size and broadly exaggerated style of showmanship could be safely laughed at. She had had a massive hit with a song by an African-American gentleman named Shelton Brooks, “Some Of These Days,” and her recording company was eager to have her repeat the success; they scheduled studio time for her and another young black songwriter, Perry Bradford, who had had a moderately successful Harlem musical and might be on the cusp of breaking big. But Tucker had to cancel at the last minute, and Bradford convinced the boys up top to give a young black woman who had wowed ’em in the Harlem musical a shot instead. She did okay, and the records did okay, and they booked her for a follow-up. Now, Mamie Smith was not a blues singer; she was a vaudevillian just like Tucker who sang blues songs and embryonic stage jazz as part of an overall act, but she was an good Cincinnati Ohio girl, and an entertainer to boot. But she was game, and Brooks had a song called “Crazy Blues” that had some good lines, and had a bunch of musicians that had come up in Jim Europe’s military band (the proto-jazz combo of the teens), and they recorded it in August of 1920, and wow! David Wondrich calls it “the most riveting recording of American music the recording industry had yet produced,” and it is, the players all over the place like real jazz cats should be, not lurching along in some European approximation of timekeeping, but stomping, swerving, and leaving Mamie plenty of space to belt out lyrics like “gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop; get myself a gun and shoot myself a cop” — holy shit folks, this is the real deal. The genie was out of the bottle and suddenly record companies discovered that there was a black market to sell this stuff to, and the floodgates were opened. After Mamie Smith, anyone could record, and did. And the face of American culture has never been the same. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s a good song in its own right. I often find myself humming “there’s a change in the weather, change in the deep blue sea,” a lyric with Biblical overtones. But yeah, historical importance too.)
5. Mississippi John Hurt, “Avalon Blues”
Okeh 8759, 1928 · mp3
I don’t think there is, or can be, a vernacular musician as beloved, or as lovable, as John Hurt. His placid, thoughtful songs, with an amazingly sophisticated and lyrical fingerpicking style and gentle, unhurried singing, are among the treasures of American music, not to mention the blues. He chanced into recording in 1928, when a friend he sometimes played with recommended him to a talent scout for Okeh records. He recorded eight sides, only two of which were issued, but apparently did well enough to make a trip to New York to record another dozen songs, including this one. But after that there was nothing, and he went back to working as a hired hand and a tenement farmer in Avalon, Mississippi, where he would have been forgotten entirely. But then Harry Smith included his versions of the two most popular folk songs of all time, “Frankie” and “Stack O’ Lee,” on his Anthology Of American Folk Music, and folk revivalists hunted around and found his early recordings and were staggered by them, as well they should have been, because they’re peculiar monuments of grace in a field and region that very infrequently has any time for it. One of these revivalists, a musicologist named Tom Hoskins, used the clues in this song, a gorgeous blues ballad about being homesick while in New York, to track down Hurt at his farm in Avalon and bring him to the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, where he was a sensation. Hurt, a mild, self-effacing man, was astonished to discover that there was such a huge, appreciative audience for his music after seventy years of anonymity spent playing merely to please himself, and his gratitude and delight were infectious. He played festivals, he played stadiums, he played Carson. He passed away peacefully in 1966, and there’s a monument to him in Avalon near where he grew up. And he’s the main reason why I have no time for the idea that the blues are supposed to be synonymous with being badass. The blues are a vehicle for self-expression; sure, some badasses have played the blues, but so did Mississippi John Hurt. And he pwned them all.
4. Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, “West End Blues”
(Joe Oliver/Louis Armstrong/Clarence Williams)
Okeh 8579, 1928 · mp3
And jazz enters the thirties. Armstrong achieves the next step in the music’s evolution simply by slowing down the tempo of King Oliver’s original composition named for the West End of New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain, where dance pavilions, lake resorts and seafood restaurants had employed many an early jazz musician in the summer months, and then playing in a relaxed, nuanced fashion that on that last solo can take your breath away with its clarity and sensitivity. Though most of the attention given to the song tends to focus on the opening solo, an unpredictable volley of notes halfway between a cavalry bugle and a boot-scootin’ boogie, and which gave the first faint echo of jazz players’ willingness to depart not only from the original melody of a song (that is jazz) but even from its harmonic foundation. Without that solo, there’s no Charlie Parker, no John Coltrane, no Ornette Coleman, no Miles Davis; in other words, no jazz at all in the way we’ve come to understand the word. But it’s the closer-to-home innovations that interest me more: the light, airy touch of the main piece itself, the thoughtful, considered playing. It’s worlds away from the all-velocity, all-noise hot jazz that made Armstrong’s name, and the name of jazz itself even before that, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer hot. It’s a slow, sexy grind rather than a wham bam thank you ma’am, and it can get under your skin even more. This was the second version of the Hot Five that Louis Armstrong had put together (I used a picture of the first), with Earl Hines on piano delivering a wise, impressionistic solo and Jimmy Strong pacing Armstrong’s soft scatting with a dark liquid clarinet in the second chorus. Drummer Zutty Singleton’s woodblocks get the last word on the song and leaven it througout with an impish humor, and Mancy Carr’s banjo and Fred Robinson’s trombone do most of the rhythmic work, Robinson actually functioning as the bassist would in decades to come. Really, about half this list could have been Armstrong performances, and I’m not entirely comfortable with having this and “Heebie Jeebies” as the only ones with him as a leader — he’s frankly the most important figure in twentieth-century music, bar none — but then again I’m primarily a pop listener, not primarily a jazz listener, and I’m swimming in waters slightly too deep for me as it is.