Best Songs of the 1920s: #40 – 31

My Blue Heaven - Gene Austin

40. “My Blue Heaven” by Gene Austin

This quaint slice of simple domesticity was released by Gene Austin in 1928 and immediately became the best-selling record of all time. Featuring cello, piano, birdsong and close-mic’d crooning, “My Blue Heaven” is a song that makes you appreciate the little things in life. The sound quality may be dated, yet the overall effect remains timeless.

39. “Dippermouth Blues” by King Oliver

Joe “King” Oliver began his career in Louisiana before taking his uptempo Dixieland sound to Chicago, Illinois in the late 1910s. With Louis Armstrong as his apprentice, King Oliver pretty much invented jazz as we know it today. “Dippermouth Blues” (dedicated to and named after Armstrong) is a perfect example of everything the new genre had to offer: raucous energy, spirited collaboration and talented musicianship. The highlight comes when Oliver delivers a blistering solo on his signature muted cornet.

38. “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole” by Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson was a God-fearing evangelist who possessed an apocalyptic style of gospel blues. His full-bodied voice was powerful enough to shake the ground and his slide guitar technique was uncommonly strong and agile, able to glide over an entire melody just by plucking one string. Johnson was a true original, and “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole” perfectly embodies his revelatory approach to music.

37. “Sally Gooden” by Eck Robertson

It’s sometimes easy to forget that country music finds its roots in instrumental folk music. Texas fiddle player Eck Robertson helped bridge that gap. Originally released in 1923, “Sally Gooden” combines rural Western idioms with Civil War-era melodies (Robertson’s father was a Confederate veteran). The result is an all-American raga that dances and drones, with Robertson’s fiddle sawing its way into country music history.

36. “Black Beauty” by Duke Ellington

Jazz music was very much still a young, developing genre in 1928. Nevertheless, Duke Ellington was already decades ahead of his time. For example, “Black Beauty” is a mid-tempo swing number that sounds like it could have been recorded in 1958. In direct contrast to the fast-paced dixieland style of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, the somber melodies of “Black Beauty” represent a shift toward mood instead of musical improvisation.

35. “Stringin’ the Blues” by Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang

Jazz music isn’t defined by trumpet, saxophone or clarinet; it is defined first and foremost by rhythm. Take “Stringin’ the Blues,” for example: Joe Venuti’s violin and Eddie Lang’s acoustic guitar are just as “hot” as the brass ensembles of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Bunk Johnson. By bridging country/folk instrumentation with jazz traditionalism, Venuti helped popularize the genre across cultural boundaries.

34. “Candy Man” by Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt was one of the greatest fingerstyle guitarists in American history. He developed a melodic, syncopated style that took influence from a broad range of regional scenes, including Eastern Tennessee, Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. Likewise, his smooth singing fit in perfectly with his relaxed brand of country blues. “Candy Man,” which is about a group of townswomen falling for a well-endowed gigolo, is one of Hurt’s timeless classics.

33. “Charleston” by James P. Johnson

James P. Johnson was the last great ragtime pianist but also the first great stride pianist. Through his innovations, he bridged the gap between eras and genres. He also provided the unofficial theme song for the Jazz Age with “Charleston.” The song’s high-spirited energy and danceable rhythm embodied the 1920s to a tee.

32. “Snag It” by King Oliver

Featuring a start-stop beat with a galloping rhythm, “Snag It” is fun, inventive and filled with glissandi’d soloing. One of King Oliver’s most recorded tunes, it represents the absolute pinnacle of Dixieland jazz technique.

31. “James Alley Blues” by Rabbit Brown

Not much is known about Richard “Rabbit” Brown, other than the fact that he was probably born in New Orleans in 1880 and his composition “James Alley Blues” was included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music compilation in 1952. Despite the obscurity, “James Alley Blues” remains one of the most modern folk songs from the 1920s, a timeless paean to changing times and days gone by.

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