America’s musical landscape in the 1930s included tried-and-true genres from the ’20s, like jazz and swing, and also ushered in new multi-media subgenres like musical films. Blues continued to influence listeners across the US, and big band orchestras still commanded large audiences.
Turn back time and check out some of the best 1930s songs below.
Over the Rainbow – Judy Garland
America fell in love with singer and actress Judy Garland when she starred in the fantasy-driven film The Wizard of Oz in 1939. ‘Over the Rainbow’ was written for the film by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and Garland performed it solo in the movie. Her stirring rendition helped ‘Over the Rainbow’ win Best Original Song at the Academy Awards and remains one of the most popular songs from “back in the day.”
Related: This song features on our list of the best songs about rainbows.
In the Mood – Glenn Miller
The jazz age extended well into the 1930s, and Glenn Miller’s playfully sexy big band tune ‘In the Mood’ was a bit controversial at the time. Released in 1939, the single took the top spot on the charts and remained one of the most popular orchestral songs well into the ’40s.
The Way You Look Tonight – Fred Astaire
One of the ’30s most popular actors, Fred Astaire, had the moves and voice to back up his acting chops. In the movie Swing Time, he sings the romantic ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ to co-star Ginger Rogers. In 1964, rat pack crooner Frank Sinatra resurrected this song with his own chart-topping version.
Related: Listen to Frank Sinatra’s cover on our playlist of the best love songs ever recorded.
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
Originally written as a poem by teacher Abel Meeropol, ‘Bitter Fruit’ was changed to ‘Strange Fruit’ when Billie Holiday adapted it to a song and recorded it in 1939. The song tackles the difficult subject of racism and violence in America. For more from the brilliant Lady Day, head over to our list of famous Billie Holiday songs.
Related: This song is on our playlist of injustice songs.
If I Didn’t Care – The Ink Spots
Before mailing it to a label for recording consideration, songwriter Jack Lawrence played ‘If I Didn’t Care’ for his friends, but none of them were fans of the tune. Despite their negativity, Lawrence had faith in the song. The Ink Spots ended up recording it, and the single gained a high status by selling over 19 million units. ‘If I Didn’t Care’ is also a Grammy Hall of Fame member. Decades later, it was featured in the 1994 hit film, The Shawshank Redemption.
Silent Night – Bing Crosby
One of America’s most famous Christmas carols was written by two Austrians, Franz Xaver Gruber, and Joseph Mohr, in 1818. The ballad is meant to send a message of universal peace to all. When in-demand actor and singer Bing Crosby released his version, it became a top hit and scored him over 10 million units sold.
Related: Have a relaxing evening with the best silence songs.
I’ve Got You Under My Skin – His Orchestra and Ray Noble
Composer Cole Porter wrote ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ in 1926 and turned the saying on its head with this gently flirtatious tune. While the saying generally means you’re irritated by someone, Porter’s song is about two lovers who are head over heels for one another. In 1966, Frank Sinatra released a cover version, becoming a regular on his set lists.
God Bless America – Kate Smith
When singer Kate Smith was looking for something patriotic to sing on her variety show in 1938, songwriter Irving Berlin made a few edits to the lyrics for his song ‘God Bless America’ and gave them to Smith for her performance. The song was so well-received that she released it as a single. It has since become one of the country’s most beloved patriotic anthems and is known as Smith’s “signature song.”
Related: Our list of the best American songs has even more patriotic songs.
Minnie the Moocher – Cab Calloway and Orchestra
The sad tale of ‘Minnie the Moocher’ follows a young belly dancer who gets into trouble while trying to make it in the world. Though the jazz-pop song is a bit of a sordid story, much of it contains slang terminology the average listener wasn’t privy to, so it never got censored. The song is now one of the most well-known “jive” numbers and is often remembered for Cab Calloway’s “scat” vocal skills.
Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing) – Benny Goodman
A swing-era classic, Benny Goodman’s version of Louis Prima’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)’ features clarinet, drums, and trumpet. Goodman extended the average length of commercial recordings at the time, and his take clocked in at over eight minutes long. His live version often went on for over twelve minutes.
Related: Check out more long songs to pass the time.
Begin the Beguine – Artie Shaw, Cole Porter, and Jerry Gray
“It brings back the sound of music so tender. It brings back a night of tropical splendor.” Written by Cole Porter in 1935 while on a pacific cruise, perhaps his tropical surroundings influenced ‘Begin the Beguine.’ This nostalgic number references a “beguine,” which brings back fond memories. A beguine is a dance that has been compared to the foxtrot or a “slow rumba.”
Related: Board the boat and enjoy this sailing music.
Night and Day – Leo Reisman and Fred Astaire
Though Frank Sinatra’s version of the charming orchestral ‘Night and Day’ is the most played contemporary version, the song’s origins date back to 1932 when Cole Porter wrote it for a musical. It became Porter’s signature track. When his biopic was released in 1946, it was titled after the hit song.
These Foolish Things – Benny Carter
“Oh! Will you never set me free?” A big band song featuring saxophone, bass, drums, and piano, ‘These Foolish Things’ is a 1930s classic by Benny Carter that has been covered by artists like Ella Fitzgerald. The tune finds the protagonist still heartbroken over a long-lost love and coming across constant painful reminders like her forgotten lipstick and airline tickets.
Related: If someone has broken your heart, you may appreciate the best heartache songs.
Wabash Cannonball – Roy Acuff
The Carter Family first released ‘Wabash Cannonball’ in 1932, but Roy Acuff’s subsequent version earned him the rare honor of releasing a single that sold over 10 million copies. The folksy song tells the story of an infamous freight train, the Wabash Cannonball Express, that traveled the Great Rock Island Railroad.
Related: Need more folksy tunes? Check out the most popular folk songs.
King Porter Stomp – Benny Goodman
A jazz standard by Benny Goodman that became one of the swing era’s most influential big band tunes, ‘King Porter Stomp’ did more than just become a hit song in the 1930s. It also set the tone for future swing artists who sampled the chord progressions, rhythm, and structure for their own songs.
Puttin’ on the Ritz – Harry Richman
A nod to the famous Ritz-Carlton hotel can be found in Harry Richman’s danceable hit ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz.’ A slang term from the 1930s meant to signify someone who’s getting dressed up to go out, renowned composer Irving Berlin wrote the tune in 1929, but it didn’t catch on until Richman included it in a movie by the same name in 1930.
One O’Clock Jump – Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Harry James
The Recording Industry Association of America later recognized this Count Basie tune as a “Song of the Century.” Blending jazz and blues genres together, Basie’s tune featuring piano, saxophone, and bass is a dynamic roller coaster of riffs performed by his band.
A Tisket, a Tasket – Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb Orchestra
After winning a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in New York, drummer Chick Webb offered Ella Fitzgerald a place with his band. From there, she co-wrote ‘A Tisket, a Tasket’ with songwriter Van Alexander, a modern take on the famous nursery rhyme. The 1938 release ended up being Fitzgerald’s first big hit.
Stormy Weather – Ethel Waters and Leo Reisman
“Stormy weather since my man and I ain’t together; keeps raining all the time.” Lyrically driven with a soaring strings section to back up her commanding voice, Ethel Waters’ ‘Stormy Weather’ is an unrequited love song full of classic metaphors. The protagonist uses bad weather to signify her pained emotions since her lover has left her.
Related: Get cozy and enjoy these stormy weather songs.
Body and Soul – Coleman Hawkins
Several writers had a hand in penning ‘Body and Soul’ for British actress and singer Gertrude Lawrence. The tune was later brought to America when Libby Holman performed it on broadway. The jazz standard was later used as the theme song and score music for the 1939 boxing film of the same name.
Thanks for the Memory – Bob Hope, Shirley Ross, and Shep Fields
“That weekend at Niagara when we hardly saw the falls.” A one-word change in this lyric by Leo Tobin was a hard-fought battle. A call and response song between two lovers, the original lyric was supposed to say “…when we never saw the falls,” but producers felt “never” was too suggestive. Bob Hope and Shirley Ross sang ‘Thanks for the Memory’ in the musical film The Big Broadcast of 1938, one installment of several included in a variety show anthology.
Caravan – Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Band leader Duke Ellington first started to make waves in the early 1920s, and he continued to dominate the big band and jazz scene well into the 1930s. His tune ‘Caravan,’ written with Juan Tizol, had an exotic feel thanks to his orchestra’s riveting performance. Filmmaker Woody Allen used the song in two of his films, and in 2014 it was an important part of the movie Whiplash.
Recommended: Our selection of the best Duke Ellington songs.
The Peanut Vendor – Red Nichols
American composer Red Nichols released a slew of well-regarded jazz tunes in the 1930s and gained widespread popularity in Europe. His playful song ‘The Peanut Vendor’ features long, vibrato-filled lyrical phrases interspersed with his expertly delivered cornet solos. The cornet is a shorter and wider brass instrument similar to the trumpet.
Deep Purple – Larry Clinton & His Orchestra and Mary Dugan
Victor Records continued to put out hits into the 1930s, and ‘Deep Purple’ was one of them, staying at the top of the charts for nine weeks. Though several versions of the song have been recorded, Larry Clinton’s was the most popular. Clinton and his band released the single in 1938, featuring big band vocalist Beatrice Wain.
Related: See more songs with color in them.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds – Sons of the Pioneers
“Lonely but free, I’ll be found drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.” Sons of the Pioneers band member Bob Nolan wrote ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ and in 1935, it became a famous track after being included in country-western star Gene Autry’s film by the same name. Country-western music continued to rise in popularity in the 1930s after making a splash on commercial music scenes in the ’20s. Western Writers of America dubbed this song one of their top 100 songs of all time.
Boogie Woogie – Tommy Dorsey
Originally a hit for Pinetop Smith in the ’20s, his ‘Boogie Woogie’ single gave way to a whole new genre which would ultimately be appropriately named “rock n’ roll.” Tommy Dorsey also recorded this early rock hit and released his version in 1938.
Cross Road Blues – Robert Johnson
The folklore behind the near-mythical bluesman Robert Johnson is front-and-center with his tune ‘Cross Road Blues.’ The legend goes he met the devil while traveling throughout Mississippi, and he traded his soul so he could become an infamous blues guitar player. His unexplained early death at just 26 years old added to his legendary status.
Related: You’ll want to hear the greatest blues songs.
Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By) – The Carter Family
Classic country artists, including Roy Acuff and Johnny Cash, have all had a hand in performances of one of country music’s most popular spiritual songs, ‘Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By).’ Describing a story in which family members divide up belongings of the matriarch of the family who has passed away, The Carter Family’s first release of this notable recording was in 1935.
Related: Head over to our list of famous gospel songs.
I’m in the Mood for Love – Little Jack Little and Louis Armstrong
First released in 1935, actress and singer Frances Langford would often sing ‘I’m in the Mood for Love’ for troops overseas during World War II. Fellow actor and singer Bob Hope often paired up with Langford for overseas shows, and he always said when she performed this tune, it was a “show-stopper.”
I Can’t Get Started – Bunny Berigan
Famed musicians Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin collaborated while writing ‘I Can’t Get Started.’ The song didn’t start making the rounds until trumpeter Bunny Berigan released his own version, becoming an instant classic among serious musicians of the jazz genre. Berigan’s version, released in 1937, was eventually inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.