100 favourite songs from the 1920s

July 15th 2012

The first commercially licensed radio broadcast in America went out in 1920. By 1922 there were 600 radio stations in the US. Between 1923 and 1930, 60% of American families purchased radios. Meanwhile as music publishers turned their attention from selling sheet music to making records, phonograph production rose from just 190,000 in 1923 to 5 million in 1929. In the first half of the decade sales were poor as the quality compared unfavourably to radio, but after 1925 recording techniques improved and sales picked up. The most popular songs were now selling in their hundreds of thousands.

Change was in the air. Many Americans now owned cars, radios, and telephones for the first time. In 1920 the 19th Amendment had given women the right to vote, but women’s liberation did not stop there. The 20s was the age of the flapper, of women who wore their skirts and their hair short, who sought excitement, and whose behaviour was as unconventional as their fashion.

The hunger for change was reflected in music, and nowhere more so than in jazz. The first jazz record was released in 1917 and the 20s was to see some of the greatest jazz music ever made as virtuoso performers like Louis Armstrong, Jabbo Smith and Johnny Dodds were playing with wonderful abandon. Across the States and over in Europe of dance bands were playing to packed houses, playing all the latest hits, copying their heroes, and picking up on new trends. New dance crazes like the Charleston and the Shimmy sprang up overnight, and the music and the dancing was fast and furious – it was young peoples music.

Blues music was also new and popular, and interestingly many of the early blues singers were women. White folk musicians were doing fine things with the banjo and the fiddle. Jimmie Rodgers walked into a recording studio one day and country music was born. Argentinian tango music was booming in America and Europe; while Jewish immigrants from places like Poland and Russia were introducing western countries to the delights of klezmer.

The songs on this list are chosen from the period 1921 – 1930. The aim was to have one song per artist – but this was not straightforward, as many artists recorded under a variety of band names and aliases, and it was common for musicians to do sessions performing with other bands. The rule of thumb was one song for each band leader or headline artist, but I’ve had to be flexible. Links to Amazon are provided where available. Please leave your comments at the foot of the page.

100. Mother McCollum – Jesus Is My Air O Plane 1930

These gospel singers are crazy !

99. Dr Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters – Billy in the Low Ground

Allmusic.com : “This old-time string band was led by one of the great country harmonica players, who also happened to be a physician and a graduate of Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. His group was known as the Augmented Orchestra when it arrived for what would be the historic first ever broadcast for the Grand Ole Opry, but disc jockey, promoter, and host George Hay insisted the group change its name to the Possum Hunters in one of his typical attempts to establish hick personalities for his performers. The good Dr. Bate was told to dress in overalls when he played his harmonica, and his ukulele-strumming daughter Alcyone Bate Beasley was forced into the kind of rustic gingham dress that no self-respecting Nashville city slicker would have been caught dead in. Dead, no, but live on the Opry, yes.”

98. Frank Jenkin’s Pilot Mountaineers – Railway Flagman’s Sweetheart 1929

Folk/country band from Virginia which included the prolific Ernest Stoneman.

97. Dock Boggs – New prisoner’s song 1929   Dock Boggs

Appalachian banjo player who briefly quit his job as a coal miner to become a professional musician – until the Depression came along.

96. Dinny (Jimmy) Doyle & Larry Griffin – Let Mr McGuire Sit Down  V/A Ballinasloe Fair – Early Recordings Of Irish Music In America 1920-1930

Traditional Irish song, later recorded by the Clancy Brothers under the title Mick Maguire.

95. Carolina Tar Heels – There Ain’t No Use in me working so hard   V/A Serenade The Mountains: Early Old Time Music On Record, CD B

This was an early Tar Heels recording, before Clarence Ashley joined the band. Dock Walsh plays banjo and Gwen Foster harmonica.

94. Breaux Frères – Tiger Rag Blues

The group who did the first recording of the cajun standard Jolie Blonde (not on Spotify unfortunately)

93. Bobbie Cadillac – He throws that thing    Texas Girls 1926-1929

Obscure piano blues from Texas.

92. Frank Crumit – Abdul Abulbul Amir  1927    The Gay Caballero

You can’t but love lyrics like this – “Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk, With a cry of “Allah-Akbar!” And with murderous intent, he ferociously went for Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.” Originally a poem by Percy French.

91. Paul Specht and his Orchestra – Sweet Music 1929   V/A Love Songs Of The 1920s

Popular dance band who are little remembered now, but in 1929 they got to play for Herbert Hoover’s inaugural ball, and it’s claimed they were the first orchestra to play in a motion picture with sound.

90. Isa Kremer – Oy, Avrom 1928

An émigré from revolutionary Russia, Kremer recorded this in New York. The title translates as Oh Abraham. The older woman is still deeply in love with her husband, whom she reminds of their youthful romance, ending each stanza with a kiss.

89. Lonnie Johnson & Clarence Williams – Wipe It Off 1930   Lonnie Johnson Vol. 5 1929 – 1930

Bawdy duet by Johnson and Williams, with James P Johnson on the piano. Lonnie Johnson was a hugely influential blues guitarist, but he also tried his hand at other genres in the course of a long career.

88. Elsie Carlisle – I love My Baby 1926    V/A Charleston – Great Stars Of The 1920s

Manchester lass Elsie Carlisle was one of the most popular radio stars in England in the 1930s, and was appropriately known as “Radio Sweetheart Number One.”

87. Ace Brigode & his 14 Virginians – Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby 1925    V/A The Roots of Steampunk 1903-1929

Music by Walter Donaldson and lyrics by Gus Kahn. Over the years this song’s been covered in many different genres.

86. Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight – Franklin Street Blues 1927    V/A New Orleans : Where Jazz Is Born

Authentic New Orleans jazz.

85. Tanz-Orchester Geza Komor – Bimbambulla

Géza Komor was a Hungarian Jew who performed in Berlin until Hitler’s rise to power forced him to return to Hungary.

84. Sam Lanin & His Orchestra – Am I Wasting My Time On You

Sam Lamin was a band leader who recorded with many different musicians and under numerous band names and aliases. For a while his band was called Ipana Troubadours as a result of a sponsorship deal with Bristol-Myers which made Ipana toothpaste.

83. The Charleston Chasers – Here Comes Emily Brown 1930   The Charleston Chasers 1929-1930

According to redhotjazz.com, “The Charleston Chasers recording sessions were often a pseudonym for Red Nichols Five Pennies, but the name was used by Columbia for various other outfits”. On this session the vocalist is Eddie Walters, Phil Napoleon is on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Benny Goodman on clarinet, Babe Russin sax, Ward Lay bass, Arthur Schutt piano and Stan King drums.

82. Robert Wilkins – That’s No Way To Get Along 1929   V/A Century Of The Blues – The Definitive Country Blues Collection

In 1935 Wilkins’s wife became seriously ill, so Wilkins did what any good husband would do and offered his life to God in exchange for that of his wife. Sure enough, his wife survived and Wilkins kept his pledge and became an ordained minister. Later he wrote new religious lyrics to some of his songs, so this one became Prodigal Son. In 1968 the Rolling Stones covered Prodigal Son on their Beggars Banquet album, and the Rev Wilkins earned a prodigious amount of money.

81. Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra – Somebody Stole My Gal    Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra: 1930-1932 

Moten was a jazz pianist from Kansas City. Count Basie played in his band for a few years before forming his own band : this track is notable for scat vocals by Count Basie.

80. Bessie Brown – Song from a Cotton Field 1929   V/A Tight Women and Loose Bands 1921-1931

Jazz / blues singer from Cleveland Ohio, accompanied here by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra with Coleman Hawkins on sax.

79. The Brox Sisters – Kentucky’s Way Of Saying Good Morning 1925

Before the Andrews Sisters, even before the Boswell Sisters, there were the Brox Sisters. It’s very difficult now to get hold of any recordings by them, let’s hope someone is looking into this, because their harmonies were the tops.

78. Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band – Over In The Gloryland 1927   V/A New Orleans Jazz Of The 1920s 

Along the Mississippi and nearby rivers, steamboats offered dance excursions, which provided employment for many New Orleans jazz musicians. Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band, and Oscar Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra were among the riverboat bands.

77. Jack Jackson – Flat Tire Blues 1929

One of the very first artists to record in Nashville, in 1928, were the Binkley Brothers Dixie Clodhoppers (Amos & Gale Binkley and Jack Jackson). Here Jackson tries some solo yodelling.

76. Art Shryer’s Yiddish Orchestra – Czortkow’er Chusid   V/A Classic Yiddish Klezmer Vol. 3 1925-1928

Early American klezmer band.

75. Clara Smith – Strugglin’ Woman’s Blues 1927   The Essential Clara Smith: 1924-1929

Popular and successful blues singer. On this track she justifies her tag as Queen of the Moaners.

74. Uncle Dave Macon – Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train 1930   The Definitive: Uncle Dave Macon

I found surprisingly few 1920s protest songs. This response to the Wall Street Crash is perhaps more social commentary than proper protest song : “Now I could’ve been a banker without the least excuse, But look at the treasury of Tennessee and tell me what’s the use. We lately bonded Tennessee for just five million bucks, The bonds were issued, the money tied up, and now we’re in tough luck.”

73. Émile Vacher – Reine de Musette  1927   V/A Les Inoubliables De L’accordéon Vol. 2 

Accordion waltz from France.

72. The Skillet Lickers – Dance All Night With A Bottle in Your Hand   The Skillet-Lickers Vol. 1 1926-1927 

One of the most important and commercially successful string bands of the era, The Skillet Lickers from Georgia were a collection of top musicians centred around Gid Tanner, Clayton McMichen and Riley Puckett. One thing that marked them out from other string bands was the inclusion of three fiddle players.

71. Hattie Hudson – Dog Gone My Good Luck Soul 1927    Texas Girls 1926-1929 

Piano blues from Dallas Texas.

70. Clarence (Tom) Ashley – Coo Coo Bird 1929   V/A Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian Folkways

A clawhammer banjo player, Ashley rearranged this traditional song for the banjo. It was his most popular song, but the 1929 Columbia recording doesn’t really do it justice. After the song was rereleased on a Folkways compilation in the 1950s, folk collectors came looking for Ashley and asked him to record again. He agreed, but Coo Coo Bird wasn’t on his first album, as he was determined to get it perfect this time. Eventually in 1961 he recorded a version with Doc Watson backing him on guitar which captured the beauty of the song.

69. The Original Memphis Five – Hootin’ de Hoot 1923   The Original Memphis Five Collection Vol. 1  1922-1923

Early jazz band led by Phil Napoleon and featuring Miff Mole on trombone. They were from New York, not from Memphis at all

68. Sippie Wallace – I’m A Mighty Tight Woman 1929    V/A Dirty Blues Licks

“I’m a real tight woman, I’m a jack of all trades. I can be yo’ sweet woman an’ also be yo’ slave”. Accompanied here by the clarinetist Johnny Dodds.

67. Edith Wilson – My man is good for nothing but love 1929   V/A Tight Women and Loose Bands 1921-1931

Not all female blues singers followed the “screamin’, hollerin’ and cryin” path set by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Edith Wilson was a “cabaret blues” star who worked the theatres and the nightclubs and was just as happy singing show tunes as more traditional material. As this song shows, she wasn’t short of attitude.

66. Ruth Etting – Back in Your Own Back Yard 1928   V/A The Roaring 20s

Sweet nostalgiac record. Etting’s home life was nothing like as idyllic as you might suppose from these lyrics. Her husband and manager was the Chicago gangster Moe Snyder, known as The Gimp. After their divorce in the late 30s he followed her to California and shot and wounded her then boyfriend.

65. BF Shelton – Pretty Polly 1927   V/A Bristol Sessions Vol. 1

Track from the famous Bristol Sessions in Bristol, Tennessee which launched the careers of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. BF Shelton however, who worked at the time as a barber, was never to record again.

64. Packie Dolan – A Drink in the Morn    Ballinasloe Fair – Early Recordings Of Irish Music In America 1920-1930

Irish music hasn’t changed all that much : “Oh, a drink in the morning is good for the sight, and twenty or thirty between that and night. Drink it up, go to bed and just think it no sin to get up in the morning and at it again.”

63. Carlos Gardel – La Cumparsita 1928    Coleccion Original

Gardel was a celebrated Argentinian tango singer, and this is one of the most famous tangos.

62. Carl T Sprague – Following the cow trail 1925  V/A Western Cowboy Ballads & Songs 1925-1939 

As the first recording artist to make cowboy songs his speciality he’s quite an important figure in country music, but his rough rustic style is a long way away from the sanitized Nashville sound.

61. Original Dixieland Jazz Band – Bow Wow Blues 1921  Original Dixieland Jazz Band Selected Favorites Vol. 1

The band that released the very first jazz record – Livery Stable Blues – in 1917. It went down a storm, and the jazz age was born. Judging by this track, they also had a sense of fun.

60. Bill and Belle Reed – Old Lady And The Devil 1928   V/A American Folk Music

Husband and wife duo who recorded one session in Tennessee in 1928, creating this American folk classic, and were never heard of again.

59. Red Allen & his New York Orchestra – Longin’ for Home 1929   Henry ‘red’ Allen & His New York Orchestra 1929-1930

If Louis Armstrong was the greatest trumpeter of the age, New Orleans’s Red Allen was a worthy rival. This ensemble also includes Charlie Holmes on sax, Luis Russell piano, Will Johnson guitar, and the guest vocalist is Sweet Peas Spivey, younger sister of Victoria Spivey.

58. Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys – My baby just cares for me 1930   Show Tunes of the 1920s Vol. 2

Later adopted by Nina Simone as her signature tune, the song was written in 1930 for the film Whoopee! by Walter Donaldson with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys was one of the many names that Ed Kirkeby recorded under.

57. The California Ramblers – Vo do do de o Blues 1927   Jazz Classics

Novelty song written by Jack Yellen and Milton Ager and recorded by numerous artists in 1927 alone, usually under the title Crazy Words, Crazy Tune. The California Ramblers who came from Ohio (where else ?) featured the talents of jazz cornettist Red Nichols.

56. Coletha Simpson – Black Man Blues   V/A Blue Girls Vol. 1 1924-1930

She’s a bit of a mystery : just a handful of tracks on compilations of rare blues music, no information about her anywhere. Her voice is raw and creased with feeling.

55. Geeshie Wiley – Last Kind Words Blues 1930   V/A 40 Delta Blues Gems

Haunting blues classic by an obscure Mississippi singer/guitarist who recorded only a handful of tracks.

54. Mike Markel’s Orchestra – Flamin’ Mamie 1926  V/A Jazz Age Chronicles Vol. 6: The Song Hits of 1926

Paul Whiteman and Fred Rose wrote the racy lyrics : “She’s Flamin’ Mamie, a sure fire vamp, the hottest baby in town … She carries fire insurance on every thing she wears. When it comes to lovin she’s a human oven, It’s so hard to understand. It may sound funny, but baby money burns right in her hand.”

53. Barbecue Bob – She’s coming back some cold rainy day 1930  Blues Essentials

Georgian bluesman who played a 12 string guitar. The tune is very similar to Sittin’ on Top of the World by The Mississippi Sheiks (#15).

52. Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten – You Ain’t The One 1928    V/A Harlem Big Bands

David Sager : “an insouciant melody with a hip lyric almost irresistibly tossed off here by Monette Moore (with some engaging fiddling by Edgar Sampson behind her). Perhaps the thing most will remember about this recording is the stabbing, biting trumpet of Jabbo Smith, then only 19 years old and with so much to say musically. But we also should not ignore the inventive drumming of the little-recorded George Stafford. Uneasiness pervades, however, due to the band’s rushing the tempo. In just over three minutes, they pick up about 24 beats per minute by the end of the performance.”

51. Louisiana Rhythm Kings – Basin Street Blues 1929   Basin Street Blues

Basin Street is in New Orleans, and the song was written by a New Orleans musician, Spencer Williams. Confusingly though, the Louisiana Rhythm Kings were based in New York. Jack Teagarden is on trombone and vocals, Red Nichols plays trumpet, Pee Wee Russell clarinet, Bud Freeman sax, Joe Sullivan piano, and Dave Tough the drums.

50. Chicago Rhythm Kings – Baby Won’t You Please Come Home 1928  V/A Jazz From The Windy City 1927 – 1930

Eddie Condon is on vocals, but is no match for Bessie Smith or Eva Taylor, who also recorded this song in the 1920s. He’s ably assisted though by Frank Teschemacher on clarinet, Muggsy Spanier cornet, Mezz Mezzrow sax, Jim Lannigan tuba, Joe Sullivan piano and Gene Krupa drums.

49. Jed Davenport And His Beale Street Jug Band – Beale Street Breakdown 1930  Jugband Specials – 25 Great Original Recordings 1926-1935

Beale Street is in Memphis. At least 8 jug bands were active in the city by the end of the decade. On this track Davenport works the harmonica like a man possessed.

48. Gene Autry – Frankie and Johnny 1929   A Yodeling Hobo (1929 – 1946) 

Signed with Columbia Records in 1929, so this was one of his first recordings. Later he would make his name as the archetypal singing cowboy but his early repertoire was more diverse. Frankie and Johnny is an an old folk song, now a famous murder ballad.

47. Mattie Delaney – Tallahatchie River Blues 1930  V/A 100 1920s Blues Classics

The Tallahatchie river is in the state of Mississippi, and was one of the areas affected by the floods of 1927. Mattie Delaney is one of a small number of female delta blues singers : sadly this is one of only two songs that she recorded.

46. Rev Sister Mary Nelson – Judgement 1927   V/A American Folk Music

It’s believed that Rev. Sister Mary Nelson was a store-front preacher from Memphis, Tennessee. This was her one and only recording session. The rough masculine voice comes as a shock.

45. Lily Morris – Don’t have any more, Missus Moore 1928   V/A Music Hall Greats Vol. 1

In researching this I listened to several British music hall songs and almost all of them were dire. (Also, the age of the music hall had all but ended by the 1920s.) This number though makes me smile every time. Morris was born in London in 1882.

44. The Clevelanders – Puttin’ On The Ritz 1930

An Irving Berlin song. Wikipedia tells me that the slang expression “putting on the Ritz,” meant to dress very fashionably. The Clevelanders was it seems a name of convenience for Jack Albin’s Orchestra.

43. Lovie Austin & Her Blues Serenaders – Charleston Mad 1924   V/A The Best of Charleston

In the years after 1923, hundreds of songs were recorded trying to cash in on the new dance craze named The Charleston after James P Johnson’s original song. This number features Tommy Ladnier on cornet.

42. Victoria Spivey – How do They Do It That Way 1929   V/A Those Dirty Blues, Vol 1

Hard hitting blues singer. The lively trumpet playing is by one Louis Armstrong.

41. Ted Lewis & His Band – The New St Louis Blues 1926   Ted Lewis & His Band : Is Everybody Happy? (1923-1931)

This WC Handy tune is an essential part of any traditional jazz band’s repertoire. Ted Lewis himself is on clarinet and sax, Walter Kahn and Dave Klein on cornet, George Brunies trombone, Sol Klein violin, Dick Reynolds piano, Tony Gehardi banjo & guitar, Harry Barth tuba, and John Lucas drums.

40. North Carolina Cooper Boys – Red Rose Of Texas

String band from Lexington, North Carolina.

39. The Savoy Orpheans – Baby Face 1926   V/A British Dance Bands of the 1920s

British dance band, who were based as you might imagine at the Savoy Hotel, performing one of the top American hits of the day.

38. Fiddlin’ John Carson – Hell Bound for Alabama 1927   Fiddlin John Carson Vol. 4 1926 – 1927

By the time his opportunity came around to make a phonograph record, Carson “was fifty-four years old, had won the Georgia Fiddlin’ Championship seven times, and had a colorful reputation as a traveling performer who made a living playing and passing the hat when he was not working in the cotton mill, painting houses, or making moonshine”. Thankfully he could still play the fiddle, and any fiddler alive today would be happy to match this performance.

37. Blind Blake – Georgia Bound 1929  The Very Best Of Blind Blake

One of the most successful bluesmen of the 20s, he was a gifted and innovative fingerstyle guitar player sometimes referred to as the King of the Ragtime Guitar.

36. Annette Hanshaw – True Blue Lou 1929  Annette Hanshaw Vol. 6 1929

Song about a woman who sticks faithfully with a bad man : “He gave her nothing / She gave him all”. The lyrics (written by by Sam Coslow and Leo Robin) suggest she should be thought of as virtuous rather than foolish – but it’s a stretch, and that makes for an interesting tension in the song.

35. Washington Phillips – Denomination Blues, Pts 1&2 1927    V/A Early Gospel Greats

Texan gospel singer.

34. Ethel Waters & Her Ebony Four – Sweet Georgia Brown 1925   Best of Ethel Waters

Jazz standard. Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard wrote the music and Kenneth Casey the lyrics.
Waters was a black jazz singer whose struggles to achieve recognition in the white world of night clubs, Broadway, radio and films helped open many doors.

33. Naftule Brandwein – Vi tsvey iz Naftule der driter (Where there are two, Naftule is always the third) 1923  V/A 100 Traditional Yiddish, Hewbrew & Jewish Folk Classics

Born in Poland, he emigrated to the US at the age of 19. A self promoter, a colourful personality, and a brilliant and influential klezmer clarinetist.

32. Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra – Riverboat Shuffle 1927  V/A Hoagy Carmichael- The First Of The Singer Songwriters- Key Cuts: CD A- 1924-1929

Hoagy Carmichael’s first known tune. Trumbauer, Red Ingle and Don Murray play sax, with Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, Eddie Lang on guitar, Bill Rank on trombone, Chauncey Morehouse is on drums and Itzie Riskin on piano.

31. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers – If I could be with you one hour tonight 1930   Vocal & Jazz Classics – Vol. 2 (1928-1931) 

Jazz standard written by James P Johnson, lyrics by Henry Creamer. Vocals on this track are by George Thomas.

30. Meta Seinemeyer – Un bel di vedremo 1928    The Voice Of Meta Seinemeyer

German opera star with a piece from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (I believe she’s singing here in Italian rather than German, but I really can’t tell). In 1929 she died of leukemia at the age of 33.

29. Grayson and Whitter – Short Life Of Trouble 1928    The Recordings Of Grayson & Whitter

Two fiddlers, many of whose songs were to become bluegrass standards.

28. Charlie Patton – Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues 1929   Father Of Delta Blues

Charlie Patton is revered by blues afficionados more than any other, regarded as the true father of the Delta blues. He’s not an easy listen now, with his growling slurred voice and scratchy recordings. But the power of the music lies beyond the words : “Patton’s guitar style was primitive and raw on the one hand, and subtle and refined on the other. Patton played with a very aggressive and percussive style oftentimes accompanying melody notes by beating syncopated rhythms on the guitar. Patton’s voice is harsh and beautiful at the same time. Anyone who has listened to Patton knows that deciphering the lyrics can be practically impossible at times. However, the power of Patton’s voice, like his guitar, resides in the feel and the intensity rather than in the actual words song. At the same time, Patton’s lyrics are important because they present a historical document of the culture of his time.”

27. Johnny Dodds & the Beale Street Washboard Band – Piggly Wiggly 1929  King of the New-Orleans Clarinet (1926-1938) 

Brilliant jazz clarinetist from New Orleans who played with all the top musicians of the day. In this ensemble his brother Baby Dodds plays washboard.

26. Alberta Hunter (feat Fats Waller) – Sugar 1927    Beale Street Blues

Born 1895, at age 12 Alberta Hunter ran away from her hometown of Memphis to go to Chicago to become a Blues singer. She found success in the 1920s when she was very active; continued to perform around the world in the 30s and 40s; then revived her career in the 70s and 80s.
Songwriting credits are shared by Maceo Pinkard (who also cowrote Sweet Georgia Brown), Edna Alexander and Sidney Mitchell.

25. Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers – Mint Julep 1929   Mister Jelly Lord Volume 2

Jazz pianist from New Orleans (though based in New York when this was recorded). The band are Jelly Roll Morton piano, Red Allen trumpet, JC Higginbotham trombone, Albert Nicholas clarinet, Will Johnson guitar, Pops Foster bass, and Paul Barbarin drums.

24. Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces – Croonin’ the blues 1929   V/A Harlem Jazz from the 20s 

Brilliant jazz trumpet player, ranked up there with the greats.

23. The Carter Family – Motherless Children 1929   The Complete Carter Family Collection, Vol. 2

Influential white folk group from Virginia. The song was first recorded in 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson and the Rev Gary Davis though I think its origins are much older. This version has a kind of dignity to it – it doesn’t demand your pity.

22. Duke Ellington Orchestra (feat Adelaide Hall) – Creole Love Call 1927   Duke Ellington (Amazing Collection) 

You can just see the record company execs eyes bulging. “Wordless lyrics ? Who’s gonna want to listen to that !” But it worked. And people liked it.

21. Libby Holman – There Aint No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of my Tears 1928   The Very Best Of Libby Holman

Fred Fisher wrote the song, which was later memorably covered by Norma Waterson. Holman was a Broadway star with a scandalous personal life.

20. The Boswell Sisters – Gee, But I’d Like to Make You Happy 1930    The Boswell Sisters Swing!

Their string of Billboard hit singles didn’t begin until 1931, after they’d started doing national radio broadcasts, but the sisters from Louisiana were already knocking off beautiful harmonies well before then.

19. Mamie Smith – Goin’ Crazy With The Blues 1926   V/A Jazz The World Forgot Vol 1

The first blues recording was Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1920. The Chicago Defender made much of the event : ““Well, you’ve all heard the famous stars of the white race chirping their stuff on the different makes of phonograph records … but we have never – up to now – been able to hear one of our own ladies deliver the canned goods.” It sold like crazy, and paved the way for an explosion of interest in the blues in the next few years. This is a later number, penned by Andy Razaf and JC Johnson.

18. Frank Hutchinson – Railroad Bill 1929   V/A Old Time Music from West Virginia 1927 – 1929

Hutchinson worked as a coal miner in Logan County, West Virginia where he learned the blues from black miners, and it’s said that he was the first white man to record the blues.

17. Charlie Poole & His North Carolina Ramblers – He Rambled 1929    Old Time Songs

In June every year music lovers gather in Eden North Carolina for the Charlie Poole Music Festival which is testament to the enduring popularity of the hard living banjo player. A sign has been erected in the town saying “Welcome to Eden: Home of Charlie Poole.”

16. The Rhythmic Eight – Tain’t No Sin 1930   V/A The Great American Songbook – Walter Donaldson (My Baby Just Cares for Me) 

Edgar Leslie wrote the music and Walter Donaldson the wonderful lyrics : “The polar bears aren’t green up in Greenland, They’ve got the right idea. They think it’s great to refrigerate while we all cremate down here. Just be like those bamboo babies, In the South Sea tropic zones. ‘Tain’t No Sin to take off your skin, And dance around in your bones.” The Rhythmic Eight was one of various band names used by the English bandleaders brothers Bert and John Firman.

15. The Mississippi Sheiks – Sitting On Top Of The World 1930  V/A The Roots Of Robert Johnson 

In the early 30s their songs which blended blues, folk and fiddle music were hugely popular, none more so than this, which has become an American classic.

14. Hoagy Carmichael & His Orchestra (feat Bix Beiderbecke) – Georgia On My Mind 1930  V/A Georgia In My Mind – Bix Beiderbecke 1929 – 1930 

Hoagy Carmichael wrote the music and Stuart Gorrell the lyrics, which could refer either to a woman or to the state of Georgia (which made this its official state song). Of the many excellentl covers, Ray Charles’s no 1 hit is particularly noteworthy.

13. Mississippi John Hurt – Ain’t No Tellin’ 1928   Candy Man Blues

Gentle country blues : he’s a gifted fingerpicking guitarist and he has a sweet voice.

12. New Orleans Bootblacks – Mad Dog 1926   V/A New Orleans Jazz

While Louis Armstrong was under contract with Okeh, members of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recorded a couple of sessions for Columbia in 1926 under the names New Orleans Bootblacks and New Orleans Wanderers. Personnel : Lil Armstrong piano, Johnny Dodds clarinet, George Mitchell cornet, Kid Ory trombone, Baby Dodds drums, Johnny St Cyr banjo.

11. Abe Schwartz Orchestra – Unzer Toirele 1928   V/A Yiddish Songs – Traditionals (1911 – 1950) Vol. 1 

Romanian musician who emigrated to the United States at the age of 18, where he was to become one of the most influential Jewish bandleaders and musicians of his day.

10. Irving Mills & His Hotsy Totsy Gang – Diga Diga Doo 1928   V/A The History of Jazz – New York, Vol. 1 

Music by Jimmy McHugh and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The female vocalist is Elizabeth Welch and the band include Jimmy McPartland on cornet, Fud Livingston clarinet/sax, Jack Pettis sax, Dudley Fosdick, mellophone, Vic Breidis piano/celeste, Perry Botkin banjo/ukelele, Eddie Lang guitar, Harry Goodman tuba, Ben Pollack drums.

9. Clarence Williams Blue Five – Everybody Loves My Baby (but my baby don’t love nobody but me) 1924   V/A 100 Vocal & Jazz Classics – Vol. 1 (1921-1927) 

Music by Spencer Williams and lyrics by Jack Palmer. Eva Taylor is the vocalist, Louis Armstrong’s on cornet, Aaron Thompson trombone, Buster Bailey sax, Buddy Christian banjo, and Clarence Williams himself piano.

8. Jimmie Rodgers – Waiting For A Train 1928   The Very Best Of Jimmie Rodgers 

Rodgers worked on the railroad from the age of 14, learning the blues from black workers on his crew. He brought a variety of influences into his music, which helped it to stand out from the crowd, though it’s surprising to learn that someone revered as “The Father of Country Music” had such a short career.

7. Tommy Johnson – Cool drink of water blues 1928   V/A Legends Of Country Blues 

Mississippi bluesman once heard, never forgotten, with his eerie otherworldly falsetto voice.

6. Bessie Smith – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out 1929   Jazz Heroes – Bessie Smith 

Jimmy Cox wrote the famous words, but the real story here is a woman raised in poverty who started off busking on the streets of Chattanooga, and who became the greatest blues singer of the era singing her soul out on record after record, and who is now an icon and an inspiration to so many people way beyond her home state.

5. Bascom Lamar Lunsford – Mountain Dew 1928   V/A Serenade The Mountains: Early Old Time Music On Record, CD B 

The mountain dew in question is Poitín (poteen), or Irish moonshine. It was outlawed in Ireland from 1661 to 1997, but illegal brews could reach up to 95% ABV. Although this song is referenced in Fairytale of New York by the Pogues I only recently heard it, so it came as a surprise that it’s so funny.

4. Blind Willie Johnson – Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground 1927   V/A Tom Waits’ Jukebox 

Captivating blues spiritual. As well as being one of the great bottleneck slide guitarists, Johnson was a street corner evangelist.

3. Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – West End Blues 1928   The Best of The Hot 5 & Hot 7 Recordings 

One of the most celebrated jazz recordings of all time : Louis Armstrong plays trumpet and throws in some scat vocals, Fred Robinson is on trombone, Jimmy Strong clarinet, Earl Hines piano, Mancy Carr banjo, and Zutty Singleton hand-cymbals. The music was written by one of Armstrong’s heroes, King Oliver.

2. King Oliver & his Orchestra – St James Infirmary 1930   V/A 100 Vocal & Jazz Classics – Vol. 2 (1928-1931) 

Besides tutoring the young Louis Armstrong, Oliver played with many of the greats, and they all looked up to him. Yes, Louis Armstrong’s St James Infirmary from 1928 is a masterpiece, but I’m beginning to think that Iike this even better. King Oliver, Red Allen and Bubber Miley play trumpet, Jimmy Archey the trombone, Bobby Holmes and Glyn Pacque clarinet/sax, Walter Wheeler sax, Don Frye piano, Arthur Taylor banjo, Jean Stultz guitar, Clinton Walker tuba, Carroll Dickerson violin, Frank Marvin drums & vocals.

1. Fats Waller – Ain’t Misbehavin’ 1929  Legends Of Jazz: Fats Waller – Ain’t Misbehavin’ 

A lot of jazz blues songs from that period were quite sexually suggestive, and female blues singers were always going on about cheating husbands, but this song proclaimed a simple message of fidelity which perhaps surprisingly became part of its appeal. Later on Fats Waller liked to say that when he wrote the song the reason he wasn’t cheating because he was in prison, but this is almost certainly untrue. In fact it seems it was written at one of their apartments in just 45 minutes by Waller and the songwriter Andy Razaf, but it’s become one of the most enduring songs from the 1st half of the 20th century.


  1. Wow – love your blog, and LOVE this post. So much work behind it, so thought I’d let you know how much it’s appreciated. Great, great stuff, thanks.

  2. A lot of work here, and all extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing your love and knowledge of these great tracks.

  3. I loved your blog! Thanks!!

  4. Oh how it takes me back to my youth. Tank You so very much and bless you.

  5. How glad I am that you have been put on this earth! Thank you for your research and passion for this music. Love your blog!

  6. this is very kind of you – many thanks x

  7. Fantastic music, I love the Jewish Kimer music . We don’t hear this anymore, what a loss!!!!!

  8. Re: ‘un bel di vedremo . . . ” it’s the first line in the aria, Un Bel Di, sung by Madame Butterfly in the opera of the same name. Madame Butterfly is assuring her maid that he English husband will come back to her “one fine day”. It’s a MUST in the repertoire of any lyric soprano.

  9. An eclectic collection. I like the jazz, popular dance bands and blues. Thanks for posting.

  10. fabulous

  11. Absolutely awesome collection, here. Thank you for you contribution in assembling this wonderful blast of American music culture!!!

  12. This is absolutely invaluable – fantastic!

  13. Thank you for this incredible resource of 20s music. I adore each and every song on your list.

  14. Great List!

  15. Oh thank you very much! How I really love this effort. Em tryin to find the easiest way of downloading this. How?

  16. Michael these are listen-only for a reason. You’re encouraged to go out and buy the tunes you enjoy – the great majority should be available on itunes / amazon etc.

  17. I am trying to find a copy of a song called Parted. My father in law who is 89 says his mum sang it to him. It is a song about adultery. I hope you can help me with this. From Gillian Fletcher.

    • Hi Gillian, the best version I have heard was from a man called Peter Dawson – it is beautiful and my father used to sing it to my mother. We played it at his funeral yesterday – not a dry eye in the house I also think the song could also mean parted as they have just been after 64 years of marriage.

  18. Hi Gillian, a quick search of the itunes store brings up versions by John McCormack, Webster Booth, Dennis O’Neill, Benjamin Luxon, Enrico Caruso, Peter Dawson, Richard Crooks, and others. There’s more information here – http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Readings/parted.html .

  19. i have tried my best to find a horse race song that i played on my mothers 78s about 70 years ago. i believe it was titled “bring home the bacon to me” and it may date to 1922. i will be very grateful for your help.

  20. One old bluessong stayed in my mind for 45 years. I haven’t found it yet. I thought the singer was Bessie Smith, but I’m not sure of it anymore. I was young when I heared it and my English was very poor. This is what I remembered:
    Wanting in, want it now, but it just seems that I’m
    On the outside of life and I’ll be till I die.
    Wanting keys that unlock what I never have known,
    Seeking answers to questions,
    And no one to show
    But I want in, I want in
    Look around you and see
    Maybe you, maybe you,
    Maybe you’ve got the key

  21. […] – Music to Die For – 100 favourite songs from the 1920s […]

  22. i love motherless children

  23. please relink all the tracks

  24. I made a Spotify Playlist of all these tracks (that were available on Spotify) Here > http://bit.ly/19swing20

    Apologies if the playlist is no longer available in the future. If somebody else wants to over responsibility please comment again with a new link.

    • Sorry if I did any mistakes, I just quickly & lazily created this playlist.

  25. This is fantastic information, thoughtful, nicely put together. Thank YOU!

  26. We’re now back online with tracks embedded from Spotify.

  27. An fascinating discussion is worth comment. I feel that you should write extra on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers

  28. I’m looking for a song with the lyrics: “The needle got caught on the broken half and kept playing and playing and playing”
    My mother said she loved this song and used to listen to it over and over again on the phonograph.

  29. Where is “If I could only Play a Concertina” ?
    – “I would woo her like a troubadour”.

  30. Outstanding list. Several great songs I recognize. Can’t wait to hear the ones I don’t. And thanks for keeping it all one page.

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