List Item: Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die
Mal hombre – Lydia Mendoza (1934)
What strikes me most here is that it is just her and her guitar. A simple but very heartfelt song about a titular ‘Bad Man’. I guess it’s on here because it was the start of the popularity of Mexican-Americans in the charts. Proof that girl power was around in music even back in 1934
Hula Girl – Sol Hoopii (1934)
Hawaiian music that apparently inspired a dance craze. Nowadays it feels more like music you would hear in Spongebob Squarepants. In fact, it might have been… might have to check that out. In any case, it is fun, toe-tapping and feels very much from the thirties. The twang is very proto-country, which is just strange to think that country musicians are unknowlingly playing guitars the Polynesian way.
Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By) – The Carter Family (1935)
Talking of country music, here is one of the other big influences on country music guitar playing. The song itself is about a funeral of a family member (a very country music topic) and features close harmonies by the then-current members of the Carter family. This is definitely before country and americana music split into the more distinct genres that we know of today.
Cross Road Blues – Robert Johnson (1936)
Sadly this is a rather poor recording from the man who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to become a better blues musician (thanks Coen Brothers that that nugget of information). A blues song about hitching a ride and all the associated troubles…
Hellhound on My Trail – Robert Johnson (1937)
…now this is a better recording. Feels like a continuation of the myth that Johnson perpetuated about his relationship with the ‘darkness’ and hell hounds. Listening to these it’s rather clear that he grew up in a rather fire and brimstone Christian area. Might be why those outside the area misconstrued these references for the so-called contract.
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday (1939)
The first truly iconic songs encountered on this list so far. The imagery of lynched African Americans as the titular ‘Strange Fruit’ made this a harrowing poem. Add a subdued backing track to the arresting vocals of Billie Holiday – well it makes you stop what you are doing and listen. Many songs in these days pulled their punches, but this certainly did not. The vivid describtions of bulging eyes and twisted mouths interwoven with what we would think of when seeing a tree ripe with fruit is astonishing. It’s sickening to think that things are still like this in some places. I just hope that this song forms part of the curriculum in the US because sometimes it is essential to remember things like this.
Over the Rainbow – Judy Garland (1939)
A nice antidote to ‘Strange Fruit’. Where the last song was despair and protest, ‘Over The Rainbow’ is all hope and dreams for the future. Whilst it is hopeful it is also distinctly bittersweet. At the end is the question of why can the singer not reach the rainbow when others can. Recovery had happened in America after the Great Depression, but this was still the era of the Dust Bowl where many Americans were struggling to fulfill the American Dream as promised to them. Thinking historically, it makes as much sense for them to be singing this whilst trying to comfort those who are descending into hopelessness.
The Gallis Pole – Lead Belly (1939)
After the previous two iconic offerings the next one was always going to fall a bit flat. The song itself, later covered by Led Zepplin as ‘Gallows Pole’ is interesting lyrically, but on the recording it is rather hard to discern what he is saying a lot of the time. This may be on the list becase Lead Belly is one of those big influences, but in terms of the song this is the first one where I am struggling for things to say.
Mbube – Solomon Linda & The Evening Birds (1939)
Most of us will know this song under the title of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. My ears perked up when this started because to hear something so familiar was rather unexpected. The fact that this song was stolen, became a huge success and the writer died pretty much penniless is appalling. I will not be able to watch that scene in The Lion King in the same way again.
Java Jive – The Ink Spots (1940)
This is a love song about coffee. After the more philosophical songs about death, hope and colonialism it is a refreshing way to end this batch of songs. There is no other layer to this song, it’s just about wanting a cup of coffee. This is something that really should have been the unofficial theme song of Gilmore Girls.