In the early 20th century, popular music began to take its shape as the recording process became more of a reality and the ballad evolved into jazz, blues and hillbilly (country). Jazz became clearer with the Dixieland jazz of the late teens and early 20s, blues began to take shape in the 20s and hillbilly, (yes, until the late 40s, country music was referred to as hillbilly music, which makes quite a bit of sense when you think about it) began in the 1920s as well. A little bit later in the 20s, a “boogie woogie” song happens, and to me, that’s the birth of rock and roll because it escapes balladry in a way the blues and hillbilly couldn’t. Jazz was doing its own thing back then, just as it’s doing its own thing now, and very rarely crosses over into that “popular” music genre. Whether you want to call it pop, or rock or whatever, that nice combination of a hook, lyrics and good accompaniment, really starts to take off in the 20s, when blues and hillbilly begin to take shape.
Now, the Top 30 Songs between 1900, and 1929:
30. My Man – Fannie Brice (1921) – (Ballad, Show Tune)
I don’t really consider “show tune” a true genre of music. The stage predates popular song so maybe I’m being disrespectful, but this isn’t about opera, recitals or jazz hands. A “show tune” is based on a performance so it’s basically like saying MTV is a genre of music because of the video accompaniment. That being said, this song has pretty good balladry and seeing I haven’t been around long enough to see any shows from the early 1920s, it definitely stands alone as a song.
29. Crazy Blues - Mamie Smith (1920) – (Ballad, Show Tune, Blues?)
Despite “blues” being in the title of the song, not really a traditional blues song that would come out on the heels of this one.
28. King Porter Stomp – Jelly Roll Morton (1924) – (Piano Jazz)
The early part of the 20th century had people just wailing on pianos and rock and roll never would have happened without it.
27. Bye Bye Blackbird – Gene Austin (1926) – (Ballad, Crooner)
Maybe this is the beginning of crooners, who knows. I’m 35 right now, soon to be 36, and I’m still hopefully at least two decades away from wanting to listen to it for any purpose whatsoever. Until the late 40s though, crooning basically had no competition when it came to popular music. Imagine that, a few decades of crooners with very little alternative. Shiver.
26. Makin Whoopee – Eddie Cantor (1928) – (Ballad, Show Tune)
To be honest, I just ranked this song this high because it’s nice to see people talking about sex in 1928.
25. Sally Gooden – Eck Robertson (1922) – (Hillbilly)
First “country” artist to be recorded. This is a great fiddle jam.
24. Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do – Bessie Smith (1922) – (Ballad, Blues)
I guess she’s the beginning of the blues. That being said, “blues” to me has some bad ass guitar involved, and we’re still not quite there yet.
23. Pony Blues – Charley Patton (1929) – (Blues)
This is more of what I consider blues than Bessie, but it’s later in the game as well.
22. Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Fats Waller (1929) – (Jazz)
This song is really good, but more importantly, we have our first “Fats” and great usage of apostrophes. Nothing like an apostrophe to make up for a lack of good diction. The blues wouldn’t be the blues without apostrophes.
21. West End Blues – Louis Armstrong (1928) – (Jazz)
Ah, Louis Armstrong, the father of Jazz. It’d mean a little more to me if he had actually ever written a song I liked.
20. Black and Tan Fantasy – Duke Ellington (1927) – (Jazz)
At this point it’s clear that I’m just not a huge jazz fan, aside from the prank call in episode 8F08 of the Simpsons when Bart finally gets foiled.
19. Wildwood Flower – The Carter Family (1929) – (Hillbilly)
Before the Brady’s, and the Partridge Family, you had the Carter family, who were the fathers … er, mothers … er, the family of Family acts. Not sure how that works, but you get what I’m saying.
18. Little Old Cabin in the Lane – Fiddlin John Carson (1923) – (Hillbilly)
I’m not sure when it happens exactly, but at some point in the 20s, the idea of a “popular” song gets much bigger. There’s a noticeable difference in this hillbilly song than what the Carter Family was doing years later.
17. In the Jailhouse Now- Jimmie Rodgers (1928) – (Hillbilly, Blues)
Looking at Wikipedia, this is another song that comes out of the Vaudeville performances of the early 20th century. A great origin of catchy tunes in the early 20th century are these performances which sure, many are show tuney, but I was surprised to find out this Oh Brother, Where Art Thou gem was a theatre song.
16. Downhearted Blues – Bessie Smith (1923) – (Blues)
Kinda redundant, no?
15. See That My Grave’s Kept Clean – Blind Lemon Jefferson (1928) – (Blues)
This is what the blues is all about. Pitying your demise as a person. Blind Lemon Jefferson doesn’t get half the respect of Robert Johnson, but without Blind Lemon, you don’t have the blues … AND WHAT A NAME!!!!
14. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling – Chauncey Olcott (1912) – (Ballad)
It must be great to write a song that lasts 100 years and you can drink green beer to every St. Patty’s day.
13. Tiger Rag – Original Dixie Land Jass Band (1917) – (Jazz)
Yes, they originally spelled jazz incorrectly. Dixie Land Jazz wasn’t the beginning of jazz per se, but it was the first time it broke for that ultra-hipster World War 1 era crowd.
12. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out – Bessie Smith (1929) – (Ballad, Blues)
Good song, though the title doesn’t ring true today because everyone knows who Amy Winehouse is.
11. See See Rider – Ma Rainey (1924) – (Blues)
Now here’s a good mother for the blues. If her and Blind Lemon Jefferson ever had a boy, that child wouldn’t be black, he’d be blue, and man, would he play a bad guitar. A reason I love this song so much is because it was covered by the Grateful Dead as a traditional. Crazy how over the span of some 40 years, it went from “See See” to “C.C.” There’s no explanation of this, and any explanation one could provide would most likely push more useful knowledge out of one’s brain.
10. Handful of Keys – Fats Waller (1929) – (Piano Jazz)
There’s actually a badass change in this one out of nowhere, kinda crazy for 1929.
9. Statesboro Blues – Blind Willie McTell (1928) – (Blues)
It’s weird how these names like “Blind” aren't just clever names. Blind Willie and Blind Lemon Jefferson were both actually blind. The guitar must have been such a great outlet for them … but yeah, this is where that Allman Brothers song comes from.
8. Country Blues – Dock Boggs (1927) – (Hillbilly)
A phenomenal banjo player and did a great job of combining blues with hillbilly. You could say, he was the father of bluebilly.
7. Blue Yodel (T for Texas) – Jimmie Rodgers (1928) – (Blues)
It’s almost as if the Soggy Bottom Boys were based on Jimmie Rodgers, but I bet there’s a hodgepodge of old timey music that they’re based on. Old timey by the way, is simply a combination of blues, hillbilly and gospel. I haven’t touched on gospel at all yet because well, it’s gospel. This is probably the best time to mention yodeling. Can you imagine living in an era where yodeling was considered a great thing to do in a song? Only in Appalachia.
6. Big Rock Candy Mountain – Harry McClintock (1928) – (Hillbilly)
My most listened to song pre … wait for it, obviously 1930 … aww, only 1939. Stupid Judy Garland lulling me to sleep with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
5. Match Box Blues – Blind Lemon Jefferson (1927) – (Blues)
According to Wikipedia, these are actual rumors of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s tragic death in 1929:
- Jealous lover poisoned coffee
- Heart attack during snowstorm
- Heart attack being attacked by dog
- The book, "Tolbert's Texas," claimed that he was killed while being robbed of a large royalty cash payment by a guide escorting him to Union Station to catch a train home to Texas (yes, this was a direct cut and paste from Wikipedia … I feel like the Girl Talk of internet writing, thank god I don’t make money doing this).
4. The Entertainer – Scott Joplin (1902) – (Piano jazz)
This catchy jingle is the beginning of popular music. Every knows this song, and everyone can hum this song. This is what songwriting is all about, and for Joplin, it’s all done by himself on a piano.
3. Keep On the Sunny Side – The Carter Family (1928) – (Hillbilly)
This is basically “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” of the post depression 30s. Granted, I wasn’t alive back then, but I can’t think of a better theme song for its specific era than this one … aside from maybe “YMCA” for the cocaine driven early 80s.
2. Stagger Lee – Mississippi John Hurt (1928) – (Hillbilly, Blues)
This is probably my favorite song from this era. Yes, it’s another Grateful Dead cover, and you may ask, “Zach, you so crazy, why is this #2, if it’s your favorite?” Well, that’s because Pine Top needs more props than Mississippi John Hurt.
1. Pine Tops Boogie Woogie – Clarence “Pine Top” Smith (1928) – (Rhythm and Blues)
Already in 1928, we have basically an up tempo blues which is the foundation of rock’n roll. This isn’t the greatest song ever, but it is the first to speed up the blues genre and add that groovy piano boogie to it. This “groove” is what sexually repressed teens would be dancing to some 20 years later once they get that back beat.