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by Chuck Eddy

July 16, 2014

The 50 Best Songs of 1937

by Chuck Eddy  |  July 16, 2014

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.

In Europe and Asia, things were already heating up, cracking apart, turning downright ominous. But Germany invading Poland was still a couple years away, Japan attacking Pearl Harbor a couple more still, and Americans mostly had their minds on other things. As 40-year-old West Virginia white country blues troubadour Bill Cox made merry about in "Franklin Roosevelt's Back Again" (legal booze! no more breadlines!), FDR had just been re-elected on a landslide over Alf Landon in 1936, in the wake of his Second New Deal taking a bite out of the Great Depression. But in 1937 the economy receded yet again, and as often happens in times of hardship, music seems to have mostly reacted by giving people plenty to dance to.

The swing era was in full swing, and had been for a year or two. Big bands ran the gamut from society sweet (Guy Lombardo's politely unswinging Royal Canadians) to jumping hot (most of the others on this playlist, to varying degrees). Benny Goodman, one of the most popular bandleaders in the land, racially integrated both his big band and small ones, helping to pave the way for Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board of Education. His nearly nine-minute "Sing, Sing, Sing," with its extended Gene Krupa tom-tom cavalcades, was an extreme-length gambit, maybe the world's first 12-inch dance single, albeit at 78 RPM on both sides of the disc.

Goodman, like fellow maestros Artie Shaw and cartoon-quacking experimentalist prankster Raymond Scott, was a second-generation Russian Jewish American; the parents of ex-vaudeville-belting Sophie Tucker ("The Last of the Red Hot Mamas") hadn't quite made it out of Russia to the U.S. when she was born in 1887. One wonders what they thought of the Andrews Sisters' 1937 debut hit, a cheerful interpretation of the Yiddish "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," or the fact that the young protagonist of Cab Calloway's "Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm" was named Yasha. Shaw's theme song "Nightmare," meanwhile, was an exercise in gloom.

Global influences in Western music didn't stop there, even beyond this mix's four selections from Brazil, Cuba and Argentina. Cowboy sweetheart Patsy Montana's "Pride of the Prairie" had an oddly Eastern European rhythm under Alpine yodeling; the Jolly Boys of Lafeyette's cajun breakdown harked back to Scotch-Celtic reels. Bing Crosby's first Academy Award-winning song, "Sweet Leilani," from Waikiki Wedding, was a cover of a number by native Hawaiian lap steel king Sol Ho'opi'i, whose technique also hugely influenced country guitarists of the day. Adolph Hofner's western swing was steeped in Czech, German and Hawaiian influences. Duke Ellington's "Caravan" was a Middle Eastern-tinged tune composed by Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol and later interpreted by exotica originator Martin Denny.

Jazzwise, Ellington, Goodman and Shaw are only the tip of 1937's iceberg. There's Count Basie's revolving-riffed signature "One O'Clock Jump"; Dizzy Gillespie's fiery recording debut in "King Porter Stomp"; Louis Armstrong's Top 20 rendition of Irving Berlin's Stephen Foster-interpolating 1911 "Alexander's Ragtime Band" … and honestly, if you include music on the blues/jazz cusp (Georgia White, Billie Holiday, Bunny Berigan's "Blues," Ivie Anderson's song from the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races) and the voraciously jazz-absorbing, mostly Texas-based country subgenre western swing (nine songs or thereabouts -- including four-part-harmonizing California cowboy band Sons of the Pioneers, fronted by Roy Rogers before he took that stage name, covering a 19th-century Negro spiritual), well over half of this playlist qualifies under the jazz banner. Bob Wills gets two picks, mainly because "Steel Guitar Rag," often credited with introducing electric guitar to a mass U.S. audience, really belongs to 20-year-old Leon McAuliffe. Roy Acuff's "Steel Guitar Blues" soon followed suit -- as did Al Dexter, whose "Honky Tonk Blues" also introduced a phrase and concept that would help dominate country's next few decades. (Naturally, his wife doesn't appreciate him coming home late.)

The rowdiest, smokingest, and -- judging from song titles -- truckingest western swing here comes from the Modern Mountaineers and Wood Chips, two combos led by Cab Calloway-referencing, Fats Waller-worshipping, cannabis-imbibing teenage Houston hepcat Smokey Wood. "Keep On Truckin'" is about "kickin' the gong around"; "Everybody's Truckin'," beyond its unsettling mentions of Harlem "darkies," is about everybody doing something that rhymes with "truckin'." As such, it connects with a certain risqué bent running through much of 1937's best music: the rude boudoir blues of Big Bill Broonzy's "Horny Frog," Lil Johnson's "Meat Balls" and Georgia White's "Rock Me Daddy"; Fats Waller rapping that you should "check your weapon at the door" and "grab anybody's daughter"; hillbilly-charting post-vaudeville/proto-Spike Jones novelty noisemakers the Hoosier Hot Shots embracing nudism and Costa Rica liquor; Bob Wills laughing about a fortune teller who read his mind then slapped his face; and North Carolina minstrel throwbacks the Callahan Brothers and future Texas Dixiecrat governor and senator W. Lee O'Daniel carrying blues-hokum bawdiness to a Southern cracker crowd (the latter with a cover of a song by future Louisiana governor and fellow segregation apologist Jimmie Davis -- sorry folks, America is a complicated place).

All this in the year when the presumably virginal if condescending-to-short-people Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- represented here by Italian American voice actress Adriana Caselotti's Protestant-ethicized "Whistle While You Work" -- became Hollywood's biggest blockbuster yet, with America's first soundtrack album no less. Ivie Anderson, Louis Prima and Cab Calloway were still scat-singing; "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (Fred Astaire via Ira and George Gershwin, the latter of whom died that July) and "The Lady Is a Tramp" (Sophie Tucker via Rodgers and Hart) were spoofing class differences. Schools exploded or ignited in Estonia and New London, Tex., that spring, killing 17 and nearly 300 students and teachers, respectively, which probably made old-timey South Carolina sibling harmony duo The Dixon Brothers' "School House Fire" feel even more timely and tragic.

Nonetheless, when it comes to tragedy in the music of 1937 -- some would say tragedy in any music, ever -- it's hard to beat the Mississippi Delta blues of Robert Johnson, whose story has long been legend enough to overshadow his songs. Most of those were recorded around Thanksgiving 1936 in a San Antonio hotel room; more were waxed in a Dallas office building in June 1937, the year most of his records were released to the race music market. His life couldn't outrun the summer of 1938, which makes his recordings -- including the two that open and close this playlist -- even more like ghosts. Forget the cheesy sold-his-soul myths or numerological significance of his dying at 27 like so many rock icons later; his darkest lyrics basically let on that he's sure he's being chased, and his paranoia -- along with his beat and several of the songs themselves -- would last in popular music well into the 21st century. Still, Johnson is merely the most celebrated reason that the best music of 1937 sounds every bit as alive today as it did then.

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