I hadn't heard much 1940's music apart from the obvious Vera Lynn and such until a couple of years ago, when a chance purchase of a load of sheet music at a car boot sale gave me the best music education I've had in a long long time. The original intent was that I would be learning to play the music and singing with an acoustic guitar in care homes – but there was a huge flaw in that plan – I'm awful socially and not very confident so I had immense trouble connecting with people. Yet I love old people, I guess I just didn't know what to say to many of these strangers in the homes. However, the education was amazing and one I continue on today. It has widened my already unimaginable breadth of music love. So in this piece I'm hoping to share with you this knowledge and open up a whole era of new music to you. I find that a lot of the music that is played from that era is generally the war time pieces – many of these have sad or profound lyrics which will hold a variety of memories for those who were alive at the time, but there is SO much more music that was around in that decade and I'm going to focus generally on the more upbeat and less known ones.
One of the first things that really confused me about the sheet music, was that on the recordings that I could find, the first part of many of the songs were missing – what looked like verses. It seemed that on the recordings was only from the 'refrain' section. I came to the conclusion that this was due to the length of time available on the records at the time and made the assumption that if you were able to attend concerts or shows you would have heard the full song. I guess it was the early 'radio version'.
The other thing I noted was that the way the songs were written was way different to how they are written now. Chords tended to be quite complicated by today standards – especially if you were in the guitar position – guitarists must have been proficient in bar chords and quick changes! But, why wouldn't they be, it wasn't that long since the music of the twenties with the strong jazz influences and the gradual decline in segregation laws and issues. Much of the forties music still has that strong jazz influence, in the use of the bands, the chords and sequences to the singing. However, you can also hear the start of what would become the swing and rock and roll eras that were to follow in the beats and the way some of the phrasing is sung. It was the perfect mix of cultures coming together.
Ok, so here's my first recommended listening. There's a few versions of this and a couple of really nice recent cover versions. 'A Little Bird Told Me' by Evelyn Knight and the Stardusters, released on Decca records in 1948. Let's talk about this piece while you listen. The piano base which runs throughout is a sort of cross between ragtime and jazz, it gives the piece bounce and makes you want to tap your feet and dance. I suspect there's a bass line in there from a double bass – because of course the bass guitar wasn't developed until the 1930's. There's the chorus of voice at the start and during the piece echoing lines and providing some interchange from the singer. Voice choruses were again very popular and this continued right into the rock and roll era and actually without it this piece would never worked as it didn't have the big band that many other pieces of the time had. This probably wasn't the only recording of course, it was most popular in the era for several people to record the same song and release it within months of each other. The Evelyn Knight was the most popular being the only one to reach number one. The lyrics are much lighter hearted than the war time pieces hence why I picked this as my first new favourite and I love the bridge; songs are just not written like that any more!
Another bouncy little ditty was 'Jingle Jangle Jingle' sometimes preceded by 'spurs that'. Considering the time for this one it was an incredibly jolly song – again recorded by many people and was initially used for a film called 'The forest rangers'. Apart from the toe tapping beat it also has that chorus sound that is familiar of the time plus the big band sound. It amazes me still how music producers at that time managed to get such a fantastic sound from wind instruments, capturing the brassy sound of the trumpets and trombones while getting the deep reedy sounds of the saxophones. Condenser microphones were only invented around 1916 and were relatively new – as was the recording equipment that went with it. If you think about it – there was an unbelievably steep upward curve in the development of technology around this time. To be able to get this sound onto a piece of plastic that was played by a needle and replicated in the home was an amazing achievement, but actually one that had been around for a while, even by the time the condenser microphones were developed.
Now for less of a toe tapping one and more of a 'smoochy' one. Not so much unknown – in fact probably very popular – although it depends on your definition of popular; I mean, I don't think most of my children's friends would have heard of it. Again, with multiple versions – 'Is you is or is you ain't my baby'. Written in the forties it's much more of the jazz genre and recorded by multiple people from 1943 right up to the present day. I know the Louis Armstrong version well (this is my favourite) but there are many others to explore – I do like listening to how other people sing or play other versions. It's also very interesting listening to how much music was available that wasn't to do with the war, yet we are often led to believe that's all that was written about. Don't get me wrong, there's also some fantastic war time music – but here we go back to my first article of music that is overplayed – while other music is forgotten; and for why? We'll never know!
In 1949 Perry Como released the song 'I don't see me in your eyes any more' – a love song with few lyrics about love lost and hoping for it to be rekindled. In this age there were quite lengthy instrumental bridges which was the case in this piece. A pleasant piece that I'm sure many a couple danced together to at some point. The sound of this one is different to the other examples I've picked, in that this one has a strong string section background. This is before the day of electronic music and what a wonderful and lucrative time for all sorts of musicians; there would have been there person who wrote the original music, then the person who arranged the score for the string section and then of course all of the section to record the music for the single. On top there would have been performances. In all of the music of this era there were a lot of instrumentalists and singers and the music industry was booming. It is slightly sad that we have lost a little of that in new modern music – do you agree? Perhaps not, but in my personal opinion I believe that music and musicians have become underrated. Is this because of the invention of more electronic music? Or because there's less money in the industry to pay musicians? For some reason there's less demand, and less money for the writers and musicians. It's almost become a free service. But, perhaps I shall do a completely separate article on that.
Well you know I like to throw odd things in here and there, make sure you're still awake. There is a purpose – Black eyed Susans are apparently a type of coneflower (google it). It is also, by chance the name of the song sung by Al Jolson in 1947. No doubt it was released by other people given the day – but I love this version recorded with what sounds like a full orchestra it's almost Disney in nature – you can just imagine a couple skipping up a road with smiles and a parasol and flowers and fields... or is that just me? Anyway, a jolly little piece, not toe tapping perhaps but happy, easy listening and maybe will make you sway a bit.
Anyway, do have a look around at some of these more forgotten pieces of music – there's some real gems out there and if you happen to pick up a bunch of old sheet music at a car boot use it as an opportunity to find some unknown pieces! Even if you can't read the sheet music, you can put the title in and see what comes up. The internet, is both a way of keeping some of this music from being sadly forgotten and also something that could be helping to destroy the industry, so like anything it has both sides of the coin. It would be a shame to completely lose any of the old music, especially when they've been recorded so many times by so many different musicians but because some of the musicians were less well known their versions have fallen by the way side. It's surprising how many remakes of music there are too and some are quite surprising. For instance, while listening to a jazz station the other day my ears picked out a piece that I really liked – I found it on the internet then a few days later found out it had been recorded way back by several other artists- yet I'd never heard it before. Don't you just love finding new music – it's like having an extra Christmas!