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by Chuck Eddy

May 20, 2013

The 50 Best Songs of 1929

by Chuck Eddy  |  May 20, 2013

Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.

Our "image of the jazz age," A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times film review of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, is "increasingly fuzzy." Unsurprising, given that fewer and fewer people who were alive then still are now, and only a fraction of those have memories and hearing intact. If you were 16 on October 29, 1929, when the '20s effectively ended -- old enough to both comprehend Wall Street's collapse and enjoy the era's musical soundtrack -- you'll be 100 before 2013 is over.

Yet if these 50 songs are any indication, 1929 was as musically exciting as any year ever. Jazz, blues and country ("hillbilly" then) were still young; they'd all been recorded in some form since the late '10s, but in 1929 they were still defining themselves, often ignoring boundaries between. Jazz seeped in everywhere, including the best Tin Pan Alley pop: 26-year-old Bing Crosby's version of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love" was one smoking record, thanks to The Dorsey Brothers, who contributed even hotter brass backing to blackface Georgian Emmett Miller's "Lovin' Sam (The Sheik of Alabam)."

Yeah, blackface: In some circles, the 19th century hadn't died. Barnstorming medicine shows still provided work for white string and black jug bands, and minstrel and ragtime influences remained audible. Traditionalists like the Carolina Tar Heels and G.B. Grayson, compiled 23 years later on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, still recited murder and work ballads from the early 1800s. Country singers -- Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Poole, 22-year-old Gene Autry -- mimicked the blues.

Though really, at this point, the main thing distinguishing "country" from "blues" was skin color. Delta originators like Charlie Patton and African American hokum songsters like Bogus Ben Covington sound at least as close to those aforementioned hillbillies as to Bessie Smith or Ethel Waters, whose show blues had begun crossing over to Broadway and Hollywood. Actual jazz artists -- Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller -- were reaching pop audiences as well. Prohibition, in effect since 1920, was hell on the respectable concert industry but did foster an appreciation of underground speakeasy race music.

You can hear stirrings of rock 'n' roll on this playlist -- in the mingling of white and black rhythms, in Pinetop Smith's and Cow Cow Davenport's boogie-woogie piano, in blues acts like Memphis Minnie introducing classics like "When the Levee Breaks." Female impersonator Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon, meanwhile, raps his "Jive Man Blues," four decades early. Parallel traditions are sampled, too: Cajun, Hawaiian steel guitar, late-period British music hall, Balinese Gamelan (recorded for the first time), Mexican proto-narcocorrido (Trío Garnica-Ascencio's "La Marihuana").

But of course, on Black Tuesday, everything crashed. A few selections here (from Bessie Smith, Bentley Boys, Almoth Hodges) express palpable economic desperation, and the mix ends with two dark if ultimately hopeful spirituals. But probably only "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," which Blind Alfred Reed shellacked in early December 1929, was a direct comment on the Great Depression rolling in. The exuberance of the rest of this music might hint at what was lost.

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