December 1, 2023

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100 Years Ago ⁠— The Songs of 1923

In the last decades of the 19th century, the ability to record sounds changed everything and between 1901 and 1920, record players worked their way into most households. Just 100 years ago, radio came into being and the art of silent film disappeared. As the music industry massively expanded, the music of the greats was catapulted into the everyday and the most important product of the music business was no longer sheet music, but records. And with these records, we gained the ability to carry with us, and venture into the past in a new way.

As we move into the 2020s we are able to queue up century-old performers with ease. Through these recordings, we can hear how, despite the fact that the ’20s were ruled by segregation and racist sentiments, the most popular music of the era was heavily influenced by the work of black performers who created and defined ragtime, jazz, and blues, and how their work continues to be the most relevant of the time today.

So in honor of the new year, and to look back on how much the world has changed (and stayed the same), here are 10 hits from 1923 celebrating their 100th birthday.

“Down Hearted Blues”

Down Hearted Blues” was composed by Lovie Austin and co-written with American jazz singer Alberta Hunter. Lovie Austin is considered one of the best female jazz-blues pianists of the classic blues era and even led her own band. In this song, a woman laments how hard it is to “love someone when that someone don’t love you”.

Bessie Smith made the song a hit in 1923. It was her first recording, backed by “Gulf Coast Blues”. Accompanied solely by the great Clarence Williams and released with Columbia Records, the record sold over 780,000 copies in the first six months, making her famous.

Listening to her century old recordings it is easy to understand why Smith was dubbed “Empress of The Blues”. Her powerful voice, dripping with feeling, attitude, and passion, transcends the crudeness of 1923’s recording abilities. Singing about universal truths and connecting to audiences across the nation, she shook people up, despite common hesitations towards listening to black singers.

For 100 years, Bessie Smith has inspired some of the most famous singers such as Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, and Nina Simone. And, immortalized in recordings, she will be able to affect, move, and influence for centuries more. Her lasting effect is showcased with this record, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock” and in 2006, Smith’s rendition received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

“Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye”

In the early 20th century, singer Al Jolson was known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” and his renowned charisma comes through in this song. Written by Gus Kahn, along with Ernie Erdman, and Danny Russo, this track is remembered as one of the greats. Swinging with big horns, strings, and Jolson’s booming, extroverted voice, one can easily imagine flappers dancing in speakeasies as the people of the 1920s throw care to the wind.

Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye,” though originally recorded in 1923, was made popular again by Jolson in The Jazz Singer, (the film that effectively ended the silent film era) where, performing in blackface, he played a talented jazz singer. This aspect of his career has negatively impacted his legacy, as the racist and harmful implications of blackface are increasingly understood.

However, during the 1920s, blackface was still very much in favor, and much of Jolson’s success was found through blackface minstrelsy and performing traditionally African-American jazz and blues, popularizing it for white American audiences who would not have listened to black artists.

“I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Banana Blues”

In the early 1900s, songwriters were nearly as famous as singers. People didn’t expect singers to write their own songs the way we do today, and often there are several writers credited to a song. This American novelty song (made famous by Eddie Cantor) was written by James F. Hanley with lyrics by Lew Brown as a follow up to Frank Silver and Irving Cohn‘s hit “Yes! We Have No Bananas” from the Broadway revue Make It Snappy.

Frank Silver’s inspiration for the song is said to be a Greek shopkeeper who began each sentence with an affirmative “yes!” But the joy of Brown’s version is that it seems to be about how much of an ear-worm Silver’s version was!

I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Banana Blues” is reminiscent of many tunes from the era, but around half way through, Cantor is joined by a small choir before a policeman comes onto the track and threatens to kick them off the street corner. It’s a fun break in the already silly song and further ties the tune to its Broadway roots.

Lew Brown, credited on this song, was one of the top Tin Pan Alley lyricists. In 1929, Brown made his first film with Ray Henderson called The Singing Fool starring Al Jolson as a black faced minstrel. The film is credited with cementing the popularity of American “talkies” and musical movies. Despite his great success in both the film and music industries, the fact that many of the people he worked with and wrote for were active in the world of blackface minstrelsy leaves somewhat of a stain on his legacy.

“Gulf Coast Blues”
Though not her biggest hit (even of the year),”Gulf Coast Blues” hit no. 5 on the charts this year and is a great example of her talent. Accompanied solely (yet again) by Clarence Williams on piano, Smith throws her voice from her body with graceful power, weaving and stretching the melody through William’s piano licks.

Unfortunately, while Smith was becoming a star, her record label was taking advantage of her. As she was unable to read, they had her sign a contract that gave her a mere $200 per record, despite her selling millions. She was offered no royalties and was forced to make her living through live performance. In doing so, however, Smith became the richest African American performer of her era.

Disparities in artists’ contracts continue to be more than common today. And though anyone can get a bad deal in this business, systemic educational and economic disparities cause people of color to be more vulnerable. Flash forward to 2020 when Megan Thee Stallion revealed the details of her own shady contract when she was bizarrely barred from releasing new music by the label she had signed with.

According to a report by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at U.S.C., about 47 percent of credited artists of the top songs since 2012 have been people of color, quite the improvement since 1923. However, they also found that the lack of diversity within the power structure of the industry itself to be quite alarming with Black people holding just 7.5 percent of all executive positions.

“Swingin’ Down the Lane”

Isham Jones was one of the most prolific songwriters of his time, working with many of the biggest names in the industry, including Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and Woody Herman. In collaboration with lyricist Gus Kahn, he wrote some of the most well-known jazz standards of today, including “It Had to Be You”. Initially, however, he found fame as a legendary conductor, leading one of the most popular dance bands of the ’20s and ’30s.

With this band, he released “Swingin’ Down the Lane,” one of the biggest hits of the time. The recording quality is rather crude, but the subsequent static adds a bit of nostalgia to the sunny instrumental and doesn’t take much away from the sweet, smooth, swing of the band.

Jerry Wallace created a vocal remake in 1960 which was also a great success, despite its annoying addition of upsettingly bright and disingenuous synths.

“You’ve Gotta See Mama Every Night”

Sung in 1923 by Marion Harris and Aileen Stanley and written by Billy Rose and Con Conrad, this tune is yet another where one can hear heavy African American influence. Accompanied by a small ragtime-y band that opens up in the second half, “You’ve Gotta See Mama Every Night” is a fun dance tune that details a wife’s wish to have a faithful husband who spends his nights with her and her alone.

In 1913, Conrad produced the Broadway show, The Honeymoon Express which starred none other than Al Jolson, though he was unknown at the time. Conrad had a fairly successful career in the music industry, and helped write and produce a few big hits of the time including “You’ve Gotta See Mama Every Night” before returning to broadway. Billy Rose is credited with writing some of the most timeless songs such as “Tonight You Belong to Me” which TikTok recently made popular once again.

Marion Harris was the first popular white Jazz singer of the era. Her use of what was called a “negro style” and extreme influence of contemporary black jazz garnered Harris great fame. While she was able to rise to stardom introducing jazz to white America, the Black songwriters and musicians who created the genre and the songs she sang, were often left behind. But her story is not a unique one. White artists across genres and time have similarly found success through the innovation and ingenuity of Black artists without giving credit where it’s due.

“Waitin’ For the Evenin’ Mail”

Marion Harris first recorded “Waitin For the Evening Mail” by Billy Baskette in May of 1923. A couple months later, African-American collaborators Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake took it on. While Harris’s recording (accompanied by horns and piano) is rather melancholy and slow, Sissle and Blake speed things up. Similarly to Bessie Smith’s hits of the year, Sissle is backed solely by Blake on piano. As Sissle sings of being behind bars, waiting for his sweetheart to mail his bail in, Blake’s joyful, swinging piano fills up any empty space, adding energy and playfulness missing from Harris’s initial recording.

Blake and Sissle collaborated on many projects. Their most famous, however, is probably the 1921 jazz musical revue Shuffle Along. It was the first musical written by and for African Americans and the first all-black show to reach the Broadway stage in over a decade.

“Beside a Babbling Brook”

The Roaring Twenties was a time of great and speedy change where the nation’s wealth more than doubled and more people lived in cities than on farms for the first time ever. Therefore, it is interesting that Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson slowed things down with this tune about a man who feels climbing the ladder of life “isn’t worth the worry and strife” and he would rather spend his time “beside a babbling brook” in the midst of nature.

This slow ragtime song is backed by Ben Selvin and his orchestra and sung by Irving Kaufman. Said to have perfect pitch, Kaufman was in high demand throughout the ’20s and ’30s while Selvin was the recording director at Columbia records.

Gus Kahn’s name might be familiar as he also wrote “Toot Toot Tootsie!” and often worked with Isham Jones. He is credited with writing many of the most popular American songs including “It Had to Be You,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “Carolina in the Morning” and many more.

“Barney Google”

Barney Google” is another Rose and Conrad song without the familiar jazz/blues feel. Originally sung by Ernest Hare and Billy Jones, this tune was based on comic strip character Barney Google who was created in 1919. The popularity of the song continued when the Andrews Sisters covered it in 1958. The one particularly joyful aspect of Hare and Jones’s version however is the way they lower and pitch up their voices in the second half pretending to be different people who know of Barney Google’s various talents.

Radio didn’t kick off until 1920 (just 103 years ago) and Hare and Rose found fame as a duo on the new platform as “The Happiness Boys”. By 1928, they were earning $1,250 a week, and were the highest paid singers on radio.

“Nobody Knows When You When You”re Down and Out”

While there isn’t a recording of Jimmy Cox performing the song, I still feel it has a worthwhile spot on this list, for no other song here is as easily tracked through time as this one. It was copyrighted in 1923 by Clarence Williams Music and was a hit then, though there was no recording of the song until 1927. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” became a jazz standard in 1929 when it was recorded by the amazing Bessie Jones.

Despite being recorded so long ago, the feeling and attitude in her voice remains pungent and raw. Unlike her other records on this list, Smith is backed by a small orchestra, complete with piano, horns, trumpet, and strings, though her voice takes more than center stage. Bessie Smith was so ingrained in the song and this version was so tremendously popular, it took over thirty years for someone else to take it on.

In the record, Smith sings of the fall of a millionaire who warns of the consequences of being careless with your money. This song ended up being prophetic of the Great Depression, the beginning of which would be marked just two weeks after the song’s release by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

In 1960, Nina Simone’s cover of the hit reached no. 23 on the Billboard R&B charts and no. 93 in the Hot 100. In her version, Simone ups the tempo and uses brush drums to change the feel to 6/8. A fuller orchestra comes in behind the vocals, bass, and drums around the halfway mark, before crescendoing magnificently through the rest of the song.

In 1970, Eric Clapton‘s Derek and the Dominoes, released their version of the song, calling back to the blues roots of rock. They electrified it, but kept up with Bessie’s original laid back feel. Adding slide guitar, bass, organ, and giving the solo section Bessie left open for the trumpet to the electric guitar, they transform the song into a modern rock ballad.

Though only three covers are listed here, there are dozens more in the archives.

Through these ten songs and their stories, we are just able to venture back 100 years. But the massive change and growth of our world in that short span is more than evident. Along with being a time of great social, political, and economic growth, the 1920s popularized the recording of songs. And since then, the music and voices of the past have been carried with us, moving through time, inspiring artists with each generation to make their own contributions to the history of song.

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