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Best Songs of the Last 100 Years

March 11, 2010

We thought about a challenging question....what is the best "pop" song (no definition offered) of each decade of the last 100 years?


I know little as to who made records in these years, and who kept sales records. This is the era of sheet music for home use around the piano, rather than the radio. I cannot nominate a specific performance, but I can name a song: "Over There" by George M. Cohan, in support of our troops during World War I, including my Uncle Bill, who fought in France, then came home and ruined his life with excess alcohol. It would make no sense for Cohan to have written this song and for no one to have put it on the older, thick, one-sided 78 rpm's of that time. Who had a "hit" with it? I do not know. I do know that I was dimly aware of its existence from young childhood, but only really understood it when I saw the 1941 James Cagney film "Yankee Doodle Dandy" which was a biography of Cohan. I think the song was also used in another Cagney movie, this one directly about the first war, called "The Fighting 69th." I saw both films on TV when I was maybe 10, around 1955. "Over There" was useful when we entered World War II as well, before the songwriters got going on themes explicit to that conflict. I am sure that several enduring love songs were written and recorded in that decade, but "Over There" stirrred the macho in me in the pre-teen years.


For me, this one was easy. In 1928, Paul Robeson, the great singer/actor/negro activist from my part of New Jersey, went to England to sing "Ol' Man River" in the London production of the musical play "Showboat." It had premiered on Broadway in NYC the previous year, without Robeson. Paul recorded the song in '28 at Abbey Road Studios, and re-recorded it later in America. It became his signature song, and he performed it right up until his concert retirement in the late 1960's. Sometime in the '40's, he changed one line of it to make it a civil rights statement of self-defense. As a Robeson fan since I was 14 in 1959, his versions of "Ol' Man River" played a large part in my musical, political, and social growth.


Many good songs were created during the Depression, to reflect hard times or take one's mind off of them, but my nominee is a bit different. I will name "Gospel Ship" by the Carter Family, recorded in 1935. This Appalachian hymn was unknown to me until I heard it on an early Joan Baez album around 1962. It became my favorite track on that LP, and led me to buy six or eight more of her albums, and to research the Carter Family and finally hear the original. Now, 45 years later, I don't care about Joan at all, but I own six Carter CD's and listen to the best of them frequently. Just as Robeson's "Ol Man River" led me into the world of Broadway and film musicals, "Gospel Ship" led me into listening to many more "spirituals", both black and white, and many more mountain singers.


Dozens of fine lyrics and good records produced in this decade. I could have named something by Sinatra, or a Big Band, or a Beebop small jazz combo, but I finally settled on: "Grand Coulee Dam" by Woody Guthrie, first recorded in 1944, the year I was born. He wrote it while being paid to promote the Bonneville Power Adminstration in the Pacific Northwest. (Even though he also wrote "This Land is My Land" Guthrie was no environmentalist tree-hugger. He was for union jobs and industrial production to win World War II and defeat Facism. "Grand Coulee" some of his finest poetry, and out of all the 200 or so songs of his I've ever heard, has to be in my top few favorites. I first heard it, probably, on a Kingston Trio record in the late '50's, but the version that nailed me was Cisco Houston's, on the "Cisco Sings Woody Guthrie" LP that Vanguard put out just before Cisco's death in the early '60's. I never heard a better rendition than his. Cisco's Woody LP led me to study Woody's own records and life, and that adventure led to my introduction to so many other singers and places and political movements.


Again, there were dozens of songs that meant a lot to me. I was six to sixteen during these years. I began 1950 entranced by Gene Autry's recording of "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" and ended it buying albums by The Modern Jazz Quartet and the Broadway cast of "My Fair Lady." I picked "Everyday" by Buddy Holly. I like almost everything by him, and I own everything by him, and I grieved at his death. I still play all my Buddy CD tracks every February, the anniversary of his fatal plane crash. He was MY rock idol, because I looked nothing like Elvis, but something like Buddy in those days. "Everyday" was the 1957 or '58 flip side of "Peggy Sue." I have stood in the studio where it was recorded, in Clovis, NM, and stared at the instruments and microphones used to make those recordings. Growing up in New Jersey, I never dreamed that would ever be a place I'd see with my own eyes. Buddy's music comforted me in my teen anguish more than the work of any other single performer in those years, and since.


Gosh, I was won over by the Beatles, increased my jazz knowledge, got into urban protest folk music in a big way, stayed current with Broadway, and bought my own classical and country albums for the first time. There are again many, many possible nominees. However, I settled on Johnny Cash's version of "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" from 1965. I had been a fan of Johnny's since "I Walk the Line" back in 1956, but "Ira Hayes" was written by NYC folkie Peter LaFarge, and Johnny's hit version led me into Peter's world, and into studying the Native American side of the settlement of the West. I held Custer as a hero until this time, but after some scholarship, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse became less than villains. "Ira Hayes" also led me into reading about World War II, and a special interest in the Battle of Iwo Jima. I've now read six books about that fight, dozens more about the war, seen three fictional films about the battle and two docume ntaries, and had a father-in-law for seven years who fought there.


I was in my late 20's, got married, divorced, married someone else, had my first child, moved from NJ to NM to Hawaii in these years. Not much time for the pop charts. I chose as my song "Time Passages" by Al Stewart. It was a hit in 1974, although I did not get introduced to it until about 1983. However, falling in love with that song led to buying many Al Stewart albums, which gave me countless hours of pleasure, and several history lessons, since his real specialty was not short songs about romantic relationships, like "Time Passages" but long ballads about obscure historical events. He was and is a strange writer, not everyone's cup of tea, but I have greatly enjoyed knowing his work.


For this decade, I have to name a little-known concept album rather than one song, but I will choose one song from it to put on the "100 years" CD. The LP and now finally CD is "The Legend of Jesse James." It came out in 1980, created by a British producer named Paul Kennerly. He wrote a bunch of songs explaining the origins, acts and fate of Missouri outlaws Jesse and Frank James from the 1860's-1880's. He recruited Johnny Cash, Levon Helm, Emmy Lou Harris, and other country singers to be on it. It is historically accurate. The guy had never left England at the time he composed these songs, and it's an amazing job he did. On my CD, I'd put "High Walls" in which Levon Helm (formerly of "The Band") portrays Jesse James vowing never to be taken by the law alive.


Same as above: I have a favorite album made in 1997, and I'll pick one song from it. The CD is "Songs of the Hawaiian Cowboy" on Warner Brothers records, with a variety of artists. I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for three years, and these songs are from that area. My choice for my CD is "Hawaiian Roughrider" which is sung by Bill Aliloa Lincoln, in Hawaiian.


Back in 2004, Rural Rhythm Classics label put out a various artists CD titled "Outlaws, Renegades and Rogues." There are 25 songs by soloists and groups from bluegrass western, and Southern Mountain backgrounds. All of them are excellent performances, but I would take "The Legend of Billy the Kid" by J.E. Mainer & The Mountaineers. It is a lyric about the famous NM killer that I'd never heard before, and by the far the best of all the songs ever written on that topic that I had heard. Again, it is historically accurate, which is tough to do in song form.

My choices may not fit the customary definitions of "pop music" but they are popular with me, and would make a CD I would play many times, with joy.

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