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by Rachel Devitt

June 14, 2013

The 50 Best Songs of 1939

by Rachel Devitt  |  June 14, 2013

The Great Depression -- a period when to be American meant to know struggle -- was on its last legs. World War II -- a period when Americans banded together to create a culture of Americanness that still impacts us today -- was just beginning. So it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that one of 1939's top songs was a little ditty called "God Bless America." Written by Irving Berlin in 1918, the song became a huge hit when dramatic alto Kate Smith recorded a swelling, soaring version of it in '39.

Still, significant change and cultural shifts were afoot, and you could hear it in the music. Hokey, wholesome pop songs were still a hot commodity, whether they were being churned out by Kay Kyser, The Andrews Sisters or "hillbilly" folkies like Hoosier Hot Shots (whose claim to fame in '39 was "From the Indies to the Andies in His Undies"). But mainstream pop was also flooded with big band and swing, courtesy of major players like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and golden-era tunes like "Begin the Beguine," "Body and Soul" and "Moonlight Serenade."

In fact, many of the names we continue to put up in lights when it comes to jazz were on the scene in '39: Stride piano greats like James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith were still tickling the ivories. Cab Calloway (whose orchestra featured a young Dizzy Gillespie) was still tearing it up in New York. Louis Armstrong released one of the most significant recordings of his career, his beloved version of "When the Saints." And legends like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton were getting some seminal recordings made -- and, more significantly, playing everywhere. It was a moment in music that saw both the development of a canon of jazz standards and a path laid for experimental genres like bebop in the '40s.

Jazz also overlapped with other genres: Artists like Xavier Cugat and Cuarteto Caney (featuring a young Machito, father of Latin jazz) were drawing connections between swing and Latin dance styles. And thanks to composers like Cole Porter, both Broadway and movie musicals were flooded with jazz-friendly standards and jazz-hued crooners like Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. And over in country territory, artists like Bob Wills, The Light Crust Doughboys and the Sweet Violet Boys were pairing big band-style jazz with hoedown twang to make Western swing.

Country music in general was developing into a rich range of genres capable of speaking to the hopes and concerns of Americans. Roy Acuff and other Opry stars were solidifying Nashville's role as country's royal kingdom. Meanwhile, "hillbilly" musicians sang the struggles of poor rural existence, like life as a "Kentucky Miner's Wife." Recordings by folk blues legend Leadbelly also laid the foundation for decades of folk singers to come.

Even Hollywood was getting in touch with its rural routes, thanks to Gene Autry and other "singing cowboys." The movie industry's relationship to popular music strengthened considerably in the late 1930s: Many of the day's biggest stars were triple threats who sang, acted and danced their way across Broadway stages, Hollywood movies and recording studios. And movie musicals were major ticket items: Perhaps the biggest song of the year was Judy Garland's plaintively dreamy "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz.

But in keeping with the social rumblings that challenged the legacy of slavery and racism that underlay the all-for-one Americanness on the surface of pop culture, we open this playlist with Billie Holiday's powerful, pensive "Strange Fruit." And we close it with Marian Anderson's "Ave Maria." The black opera singer performed that song on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at a concert she gave there after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall, prompting many powerful women (including Eleanor Roosevelt) to resign their DAR membership. Anderson's concert and Holiday's song not only helped lay the groundwork for the coming Civil Rights Era, they challenged the jingoistic, monotonic notion of "Americanness" "God Bless America" seemed to offer.

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