American popular music from the 1930's reflects the cultural and social conditions that shaped the American identity during the period. For the purposes of this academic endeavor, the term "popular music" applies to any music in any genre from a select time frame that aspired to and achieved popularity with a particular audience. The popular music of the thirties can be used as a lens to better understand the collective memory of the American people during a decade marked by the Depression, emerging technologies and the growing population of cities as many Americans relocated from rural areas. The music in these pages is in many ways reflective of how Americans imagined themselves during this period. It is important to note that all of the songs posted here were originally released as phonograph records, and as such were the products of an industrial process that shaped this imagination of national identity.
On this site, the decade of the 1930's is divided into two halves, 1930-1934 and 1935-1939, for the music of the period lends itself to such a division. Over the course of the thirties American taste in music changed dramatically. In the mainstream it moved from the bland and unchallenging "sweet" sound of Guy Lombardo and the Jazz Age dance bands to the more rhythmically involved and aggressive horn arrangements of the bandleaders of the Swing Era such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and many others. The first collection of songs, from 1930-1934, features regionally popular artists performing vernacular material. These performances were recorded during the initial wave of interest in "race records," "hillbilly," and "ethnic" music by major recording companies that led to the search for "new" performers throughout the southern and western states until the economic strain of the Depression precluded such endeavors. The jazz and blues selections in the first set of songs clearly demonstrate the emergence of significant musical forms with selections by pre-swing greats Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. The second set of songs from the middle of the decade to the end represents the emerging modern forms of American popular music. One can hear the fine-tuning of rhythm and blues in works by Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Cleo Patra Brown. The swing era is realized with recordings of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Stars on the silver screen and in the sound booth, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland let us know of an alliance between the Hollywood machinery, the record industry and radio that grew in strength and influence as the decade wore on. The trademark sound of the Glen Miller Orchestra "Moonlight Serenade" would provide a generation with musical memories of American life during the Second World War.
Before embarking on your aural journey, please view the site map made available first for suggestions and technical notes on how to best view this site and its contents.