The 50 Best Songs of 1930
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.
Given that the stock market had crashed just two months before the start of the year, it's no surprise that so many of the most notable songs of 1930 -- or at least the ones that historians, collectors, collective memory, cinema and the Anthology of American Folk Music have assisted toward the surface -- comment on the economy. What's more surprising is how many of them find dark humor in it: old-timey North Carolina banjo man Charlie Poole being booted by his landlord for lack of rent payment in "It's Movin' Day" (revived a mere half-century ago by The Holy Modal Rounders); Gene Autry, still more hillbilly bluesman than Hollywood cowboy, sweeping motel floors in "Dust Pan Blues" just as the Dust Bowl was starting to rev up; string bands the Carolina Tar Heels ("Got the Farm Land Blues") and Buster Carter and Preston Young ("A Lazy Farmer Boy") counting corn crops withering away; mysterious proto-blues-style medicine-show hokum songster Lil McClintock losing his bed and frying pan to a debt collector in "Furniture Man"; minstrel-throwback country ancestor Uncle Dave Macon watching banks collapse and the infrastructure pork barrel run dry in "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravey Train." "Of all the times I've ever seen, we're sure up against it now," Uncle Dave rambles, but on some level, people seem to have been laughing about such misfortune.
Cannon's Jug Stompers in "Bring It with You When You Come" and Jimmie Rodgers, backed by Louis Armstrong's trumpet and Lil Hardin Armstrong's piano in "Blue Yodel No. 9," played the parts of hobos and bums -- Rodgers smarting off to a cop that his name could be found on his shirttail. In "High Water Everywhere," Delta blues founder Charlie Patton was still reeling from a 1927 flood. And guess what? Every performer I've named so far came from below the Mason-Dixon. Uncle Dave Macon had been fathered by a confederate officer in Tennessee in 1870, five years after the war ended. In 1930, the year Congress established the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, other Southerners both black and white sang about coping with the Depression (and depression) with illegal substances: "Prohibition has killed more folks than Sherman ever seen" since boozeless folks were turning to morphine and coke, warned solo Skillet Licker Clayton McMichen's delirium-tremens yodeler "Prohibition Blues"; in Memphis Jug Band's "Cocaine Habit Blues," Hattie Hart confirmed that she preferred white powder over whiskey and gin.
Up north and beyond, things were perhaps more sophisticated, even optimistic, if not so reliable about it. Think of sons of Russian Jewish immigrants Ben Selvin (leading his orchestra through future FDR campaign song "Happy Days Are Here Again") and Harry Richman (enraptured by snobs, swells, "lulubelles" and "high browns" parading through Harlem in top hats and spats in Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz"). Ruth Etting complained of taxi-dancing for dimes with "bowlegged tailors" and "rats from the harbors" in "Ten Cents a Dance." But even that wasn't nearly as decadent as Lotte Lenya back in Berlin as the Weimar waned, hunting down the next whiskey bar and little boy in Brecht-Weill's newly penned "Alabama Song." Meanwhile, in London's east end, 78-year-old (born 1852!) music hall dinosaur Charles Coborn was slurring about striking it rich in "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo."
Besides Coborn and Macon, almost every artist on this playlist had been born in either the final decade of the 19th century or first decade of the 20th. Carmen Miranda, just 21 and kicking off her Brazilian career in 1930, was probably the youngest, give or take a few barely recorded, little-known performers whose origins are difficult to track down: For instance, blues women Geechie Wiley (whose "Last Kind Words Blues" sounds completely doomed) and Louise Johnson, whose piano-pumped "All Night Long Blues," with her alleged boyfriends Charlie Patton and Son House raising hell in the background, barrelhouses exactly like its title promises.
Louise is one of four Johnsons here. She's joined by Jersey stride-piano composer James P. Johnson's post-ragtime "You've Got to Be Modernistic"; Louisiana-to-Missouri jazz/blues guitarist and clear Bob Dylan vocal inspiration Lonnie Johnson's hilariously nihilistic "Got the Blues for Murder Only" (partly about people in Mexico eating rattlesnakes and drinking gunpowder!); and Texas gospel/blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson's ferociously gruff and menacing biblical prophecy "John the Revelator," which must rank as one of the greatest songs ever about an author (John the Apostle) and which scores of modern artists have covered since.
"John the Revelator" follows three other 1930 religious numbers -- including one, the Eleja Choir's proto-juju "Jubilee Anthem," performed by an African Methodist choir in Nigeria. Evstratios Kalogeridou's "Malevitziotikos Horos" is a fiddle-dance jam from Crete; King Nawahi's "Honolulu Bound" a steel-guitared train-rhythm blues from Honolulu. Both of those make perfect sense alongside music coming out of Appalachia and the American South at the time. But "Fatal Flower Garden," by Nelstone's Hawaiians, is just some Alabama guys who learned Hawaiian steel guitar, albeit performing (get this) an American adaptation of a tragic British traditional ballad about ritual child murder that dates back six centuries or so, and originally qualified as blood libel before the Jewish antagonist was changed to a gypsy lady.
Hey, welcome to Old Weird America, folks. Tom Darby's "Frankie Dean," The Carter Family's "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man," and Texas cowhand Edward L. Crain's "Bandit Cole Younger" meanwhile report on more recent killings, bank robberies and mishaps of a fugitive nature that begat legends on American soil. In New York, D.C.-born Duke Ellington and Georgia-born Fletcher Henderson may have been getting ready to ring in swing, but the south was still knee-deep in barn dances and hoedowns -- old times. Not to mention hard times, obviously. But African American string band the Mississippi Sheiks were "Sitting on Top of the World" regardless, or at least their hit said so. And North Carolinians Hendley-Whitter-Small, who end this playlist, insist "A Pretty Gal's Love" was all they needed, because "I'd rather be happy than rich." Wonder if they continued to feel that way, as the Great Depression dragged on.