The other day my roommate said: “You listen to a lot of old music.” It made me feel weird. I never thought about it that way.
People often say then listen to “all” kinds of music. Most are full of shit. Someone might say they listen to “many” kinds of music because they listen to rap and alternative rock, plus classic rock and even techno and then reggae on top of that.
My standard for diverse taste in music requires listening to BOTH: (A) music in different languages and (B) music across generations.
Here are some of my faves from my grandparents’ generation.
Bessie Smith – St. Louis Blues
This song didn’t make the list just because it’s from my hometown and inspired the naming of our hockey team. It’s a sad song for sad times. The singer despairs over her philandering husband. It’s been covered by all the jazz greats, including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
Billie Holiday – Stormy Weather
Lady Day was probably the best female American vocalist of the last 100 years. She was also a hard partier who never slowed down until she was dead. But she left behind some of the greatest songs of all time.
Check out Strange Fruit, which is about blacks killed by lynching. The song stands as a top cultural artifact of that horrible phenomenon in American history.
Robert Johnson – Stop Breaking Down
Robert Johnson is the godfather of blues. Blues preceded rock and roll. When you hear people say black people invented rock and roll, of course they’re talking about Chuck Berry but they’re primarily talking about southern blues. So if you dig rock, recognize and pay tribute to its grandfather.
Duke Ellington – Mood Indigo
I started listening to jazz on public radio station KUVO when I lived in Denver, CO. Jazz is great for relaxing before bed. The more I got into jazz, the more I started following the 20th century greats. Duke Ellington was also known as a great gentleman.
Miles Davis – Blue in Green
Miles Davis is the most popular jazz artist. He’s proved the most timeless.
Edith Piaf – Autumn Leaves
I just discovered Edith Piaf in the last couple years. A gringa friend gave me a bunch of new music around Christmas 2008. I was playing my entire iTunes on random one night when an Edith Piaf song came on. Her voice was so beautiful I immediately dropped everything I was doing to find all her other songs. I Googled the French singer to read about her life and career. She’s unrivaled in mastery of the voice.
This song’s my favorite because it’s in English, but most are in French. There’s a scene in Saving Private Ryan where the American GI’s are occupying a destroyed French town and they come upon an old Edith Piaf record. They all listen and admire her talent.
My gringa friend was turned on to Piaf after seeing the 2007 biopic, La Vie en Rose. The French woman who played Piaf won an Academy Award for her performance. Another English track by Piaf, very rare, is I Shouldn’t Care.
Lotte Lenya – Alabama Song
Lotte Lenya, another vocal master, is from Austria. You’d know her as the creepy little old woman in James Bond flick From Russia with Love (Sean Connery days).
The version in my iTunes is much different than the embedded video, but not on YouTube. It sounds even stranger because she does it at a super high tone.
Frank Sinatra – If You Are But a Dream
Frank Sinatra’s more than played out. But he wasn’t cool because of New York, New York. He was cool because of beauties like this one.
Django Reinhardt – Belleville
Frenchman Django Reinhardt mastered the jazz guitar. When most people think of jazz, they think of horns. But jazz bands can have anything they want. They’ll bust out the flute, clarinet, harmonica, and of course stringed instruments.
Renato Carosone – Tu Vuò Fa’ L’Americano
Renato Carosone played the Napolese style of Italian folk music. I don’t believe he’s singing in Italian here but Napolese, but I’m not sure about that. This song’s about WWII-era Italians who acted like Americans (whiskey and soda and rock and roll).
I found this through the irresistible-on-the-dance-floor techno track that sampled it, We No Speak Americano.
Carmen Miranda – South American Way
The biggest Brazilian star of her generation, Carmen Miranda sings this in English. I don’t know how Brazilian this song is but I like it.
The Moonglows – Sincerely
Jerry Vale – Pretend You Don’t See Her
Jerry Vale, excellent singing and songwriting. Also from the GoodFellas soundtrack.
Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife
Peggy Lee – Fever
Nina Simone – Sinnerman
Nina Simone recorded all the way into the 70s, so not so old. But her style was and her influence on your favorite Soul and R&B artists immense. Half of her catalog is about civil rights and racial equality, which I’m all for but many of her songs are too intense. This is my favorite, but other must-listens are Feeling Good and I Put a Spell on You.
I once saw a color, full-nude photo of Nina Simone. She was sexy despite a completely untouched bush. Don’t know if the pic was real.
Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire
OK so Johnny Cash isn’t that old but I’m not familiar with the country music from before this time. I’m from Missouri and have generally not liked rural rednecks or their music for most of my life. But you gotta dig Johnny Cash. Check out his lesser known hit from the 90s, Hurt.
Patsy Cline was a mid-century Taylor Swift, doing country songs that captured the nation’s heart.
Junior Kimbrough – Meet Me in the City
This is actually from the 90s but it’s the kind of music people hear and say I listen to old music. Fat Possum Records discovered, signed, and recorded all these old black bluesmen from one of the poorest, countriest areas in the South: the Mississippi Delta. Some of these guys lived their entire lives with jobs like “Fisherman.” Junior Kimbrough was a John Deere salesman. Some Fat Possum bluesmen never knew they’d gain national notoriety, dying broke and unknown. Their music’s addictive, the kind of stuff that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
And you gotta love lyrics like these:
“You bett’ not let me catch you fuckin’ up. I’ma beat yo’ ass.”
That’s T Model Ford in “I’m Insane” off the album Pee Wee Get My Gun 🙂
R.L. Burnside is probably the best known for Fat Possum.
Squirrel Nut Zippers – Low Down Man
Another band inspired by old music and also makes people say I listen to old music. This is my favorite but more characteristic of their big band style is Prince Nez.
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