The twentieth century in music brought in a modern world that was fragmented in many directions at once. Thanks to recording technology, it was a musical world that was preserved for us to still hear today. Before the twentieth century, the only ways to preserve music was to write it down as best as possible, or by keeping alive an aural tradition by teaching the next generation to sing the same songs. With the invention of sound recording, we can actually hear all of the nuances of musical performance as it existed at that moment in time. This was a huge evolutionary leap, and the sounds of music grew in a multitude of ways.
Let’s take the year 1929 as an example, and listen to a selection of things that could be heard at that time. One of the first selections that comes to my mind when you mention the year 1929, is the great Duke Ellington’s time at the Cotton Club in Harlem. This stint was early in Duke’s career, and lasted only a few years. This is very artful music of the big band era. Here is a recording with three tunes, “Jungle Nights in Harlem”, “Saratoga Swing”, and “Haunted Nights”
Also in jazz, the great Louis Armstrong was growing in importance as a singer, as well as a trumpeter. 1929 saw Satchmo record “When You’re Smiling” for the first of several times in his career. The double entendre of the record for me is that Pops himself had a famous smile, and his singing always seems to inspire a grin for those who listen to him.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 had lots of people singing the blues, continuing for many years into the Great Depression. In the Mississippi Delta, lots of blues singers were being recorded, and those records sold throughout the American South. One of the most popular blues records that year was “That Crawlin Baby Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
One of the most influential musicians of the day was the blues and folk singer Charlie Patton. Just a few years ago, the great Bob Dylan released a song paying tribute to Patton. Patton had to be one of the more organized musicians of his day. Instead of just wandering around the Mississippi Delta looking for places to play, he actually had scheduled gigs from place to place. His recordings are more essential listening from the Delta.
Elsewhere in the world, Arnold Schoenberg was causing a stir by throwing out tonality and writing music using his twelve-tone system. Schoenberg was in full serial dodecaphonic mode in 1929 when he wrote the Piano Piece Opus 33a. Arnold had turned Vienna and the rest of the classical music world on its ear by “emancipating the dissonance” and writing music that did not center around one home note. At first listen, this may sound like chaos, but it is highly ordered music around a structure that keeps all twelve tones of the chromatic scale circulating all the time. I love this video, because of the way it demonstrates the critical nature of using multiple colors of highlighters to analyze Schoenberg’s music.
In Russia, a young Dmitri Shostakovich was a rising star in the Russian musical world. He hadn’t yet felt the full oppressive force of the Stalinist dictatorship that would haunt his whole existence. His opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, wouldn’t get him in hot water with the Party for another 5 years. In 1929, Dimitri was finishing his third Symphony, with a vocal finale either celebrating or satirizing the revolution. (It’s sometimes hard to tell with Shostakovich).
Heading back to where we started, in New York City, the Kern and Hammerstein musical “Show Boat” was in its second year on Broadway. This was near the birth of a whole new genre, the Broadway musical, something different than opera or light operetta. It is an entirely different category of musical theatre that has reached millions of people. One of the biggest hit tunes of “Show Boat” is “Ol Man River”
In the world of motion pictures, both sound and technicolor were now available for films, ending the career of more than one silent movie star. 1929 was near the beginning of the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, where the major studio system dominated the production of movies. The Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929 went to “The Broadway Melody”, the first time the award was given to a sound movie. One of the popular tunes to come out of that movie was “You Were Meant For Me”
This has been just a handful of things that could be heard around the world in 1929. The selection of examples is of course weighted to the stuff I am familiar with, but that is my privilege because it’s my blog. Please feel free to share your favorite examples of music from 1929 by posting your comments.