A Depression- Era Playlist

Poet David Lehman provides a list of his favorite songs from the 1930s, including works by Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and others

Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen is best known for composing the songs for the film "The Wizard of Oz." Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

An excerpt from A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken/Nextbook):

As with cities, whole decades have their ideal playlists. Dorothy Fields would have had a box seat in the theater of my heart if she had done nothing else but write the words for Jimmy McHugh’s music in “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.” A true Depression-era song, it would anchor my list of songs from the 1930s, in this order:

1. Fred Astaire, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” music and lyrics by Irving Berlin

2. Ginger Rogers, “The Gold-Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money),” music Harry Warren, lyrics Johnny Burke

3. Bing Crosby, “Pennies From Heaven,” music Arthur Johnston, lyrics Johnny Burke

4. Lee Wiley, trembling and throaty with “The Street of Dreams,” music Victor Young, lyrics Sam M. Lewis

5. Bing Crosby again, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” music Jay Gorney, lyrics Yip Harburg

6. Louis Armstrong, “I Gotta Right to Sing The Blues,” music Harold Arlen, lyrics Ted Koehler

7. Nat King Cole, or maybe Rosemary Clooney or Maxine Sullivan, “My Blue Heaven,” music Walter Donaldson, lyrics George White

8. Barbra Streisand, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” music Milton Ager, lyrics Jack Yellen (FDR’s campaign song in 1932)

9. Judy Garland, “Get Happy,” music Harold Arlen, lyrics Ted Koehler

10. Barbra Streisand, “Happy Days Are Here Again” and Judy Garland, “Get Happy,” sung as a duet

11. Lena Horne, “Stormy Weather,” music Harold Arlen, lyrics Ted Koehler

12. Sinatra’s 1954 cover of “Wrap Your Troubles in Drams,” music by Harry Barris, lyrics by Koehler with Billy Moll

13. Ella Fitzgerald or possibly the Art Tatum piano instrumental, “Paper Moon,” music Harold Arlen, lyrics Yip Harburg

14. Sarah Vaughan, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, baby,” music Jimmy McHugh, lyrics Dorothy Fields

15. Judy Garland again, “Over the Rainbow,” music Harold Arlen, lyrics Yip Harburg

16. Judy Garland and the gang on the yellow brick road and the quest to see the wizard, music Harold Arlen, lyrics Yip Harburg

17. Tommy Dorsey orchestra with girl chorus, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” music Jimmy McHugh, lyrics Dorothy Fields

What a fine story those songs would tell. About a fellow who has the right to feel lowdown and sings about it down around the river, and the song itself lifts his spirits, and one day he’s going to get happy, look skyward, and walk in the sun once more.

By my reckoning, Jewish songwriters figure in the composition of all but two or three of the sixteen Depression-era songs on my playlist. And this to me makes perfect sense. These songs about American promise and optimism, evoking the vision of the founding fathers, exist in precise opposition to the suicidal darkness and fog of prejudice that swept over Europe in the 1930s, the “dishonest decade,” as Auden designated it in his poem, “September 1, 1939.”

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