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Afterglow Jazz and American Popular Song

Popular Song On the Picket Lines

A look at "social significance" music from the 1930s and 40s that alluded in humorous, overtly political, or poignant ways to issues and problems of the times.

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Work Pays America

Photo: Public domain

The Works Progress Administration employed artists through its Federal Writing Project and Federal Theater programs, but it also came in for some satire from Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers.

“Popular Song On the Picket Lines” features “social significance” music from the 1930s and 40s that had a political message behind it in one way or another, or alluded in humorous or poignant ways to issues and problems of the times.

Many artists in those years were involved with politics and ideological organizations or movements, often referred to as the Popular Front–much of this activity spurred on by the challenges that the Great Depression had brought to America.

Some of the country’s most popular songwriters and performers composed and recorded social-significance songs, including Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway.

In addition to music from Popular Front musicals such as Meet the People, Pins and Needles and The Cradle Will Rock, we’ll also hear Billie Holiday performing a live version of the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit,” and an even earlier anti-lynching song written by Irving Berlin and sung by Ethel Waters.

Listen to an NPR story about the song Strange Fruit.

Read about the social-significance musical Meet the People.

Special thanks to members of the Yahoo Songbirds listserv.

Music Heard On This Episode

Meet the People
Dick Powell — Du Barry Was a Lady (Rhino Handmade, 2004)
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Meet the People
Dick Powell — Du Barry Was a Lady (Rhino Handmade, 2004)
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Sing Me a Song With Social Significance
Nancy Stearns — Sing Me a Song With Social Significance...Or Not (Nancy Stearns, 2006)
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Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
Bing Crosby — American Songbook Series: E.Y. Harburg (Smithsonian, 1994)
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Slumming On Park Avenue
Mildred Bailey — Complete Columbia Recordings (Mosaic, 2000)
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One Big Union For Two
Cab Calloway — V. 2: 1935-1940 (JSP, 2003)
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Doin' the Reactionary
Cab Calloway — V. 2: 1935-1940 (JSP, 2003)
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When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich
Ella Logan — American Songbook Series: E.Y. Harburg (Smithsonian, 1995)
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The Eagle and Me
Carmen McRae — American Songbook Series: E.Y. Harburg (Smithsonian, 1995)
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Ten Cents a Dance
Anita O'Day — Anita O'Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart (Verve, 2004)
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It's the Same Old South
Count Basie — America's #1 Band (Columbia/Legacy, 2003)
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Jump For Joy
Duke Ellington — Never No Lament (RCA, 2003)
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Suppertime
Ethel Waters
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Strange Fruit
Billie Holiday — Jazz at the Philharmonic (Polygram, 1994)
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F.D.R. Jones
Ella Fitzgerald — The Early Years, Part 1 (GRP, 1997)
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W.P.A.
Louis Armstrong & the Mills Brothers — Complete Decca Sessions 1935-1946 (Mosaic, 2009)
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Nickel Under the Foot
Olive Stanton — And the Cradle Will Rock
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Joe Worker
Mickie Grant — And the Cradle Will Rock
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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