The Most Radical Song in History

A tremendous source of frustration in my life concerns the following sequence of events.

I’ll be playing an early recording of a Cole Porter song from the late 1920s or early 1930s, or perhaps a daring song from a soundtrack from an outrageous Busby Berkeley movie.

I’ll be absolutely thrilled at the sheer radicalism of the text and the beat, the edginess of the topic which covers issues considered “adult only” today, and I love to imagine the world being born in that period and how utterly new and startling it must have been. Such a window into a time not unlike our own!

Technology was reaching the world in a new way and composers and singers were reveling in the new opportunities. It was only two generations earlier when pop music was a Souza march or a filiopietisic love song played on a piano at home. Back then, the only serious innovations in popular music (ragtime) were found in places you weren’t supposed to be.

But in the 1920s-30s, there was this explosion of artistic energy, all tied up with protesting the regimentation of the world with socialism, fascism, and prohibitionism. Music was a sphere of freedom. It was bound up with dance and free association of persons, with a love of life despite the growth of despotism all around. It reflected urbanism, the desire of the new generation to escape the world their parents inhabited, to explore new forms of art and life, to embrace and live prosperously, and, above all, to decline to comply with the growing restrictiveness of regime politics.

I hear all of this in this music. It thrills and delights me.

But when I play it for others, the reaction is usually rather disappointing: “that sounds old.”

Well, it sort of does sound old. But old is not old-fashioned. Not if you listen carefully. There is liberation in this music and style. It cries with with a love for freedom despite what was happening to the world with the rise of every form of tyranny. Indeed, music was a great American contribution to the world.

Our dance music and jazz annoyed dictators all over the world (the Nazi’s ridiculous “war on jazz” was about as successful as the U.S. war on drugs.)

What song from this period is the best to illustrate what was going on and why it matters? My vote is the Benny Goodman performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” from 1937, featuring Gene Krupa on drums. The song itself was written a year earlier and first recorded by Louis Prima. Goodman went to Hollywood for his recording and the results are nothing short of classic.

It also represented a big push forward in technology. It was pressed on a 78-rpm record, one that you had to turn over to hear the entire song. The usual big-band chart of the time was 3 minutes long, a limitation of what could be distributed. But Goodman went all out with a version that lasted 8 minutes and 43 seconds. Nothing like this had been done until that point.

The song features every conceivable musical effect, many just outrageous. The trumpets use what’s called flutter tonguing to achieve a growling and animal-like sound. Descending passages in one side-melody employ a two-against-three motif that seems designed to capture the feeling of inebriation. The solos are long and dream like, and clearly improvised. There are moments that seem absolutely primal, with brass that nearly scream with excitement and abandon. Every new section seems to yell “you can’t control me” with ever more intensity.

Then there’s the speed of the song itself. It is very quick, so much so that dancing to it requires some real expertise. You have to stay cool but doing much in the way of turns and flips calls upon real physical energy and stamina. But the song is so upbeat and happy, the adrenaline that emerges makes it possible.

Underneath it is the driving, primitive drum beat provided by the great Gene Krupa. The drum in this song becomes an extended solo instrument, on par with any other. It seems to be waking something up within us, something calling on the broadest range of human experience.

More than any other feature of this song, the persistent, daring, pushy, and innovative drum work suggests a busting out of the confines in which the politics of the time were trying to place us. As freedom in the external world was declining, this music and this song in particular seem to be recreating the joy and liberty of life in musical form.

Consider the amazing distance, the vast gulf, that separates this song in 1937 from the music of 50 years earlier. There was nothing else like this in existence only a couple of generations earlier. It called on new talents, new sensibilities, a new way of dancing, a sense of daring defiance against the status quo.

Public life was becoming ever more restricted, censorious, regimented, and even tyrannical. But musical life was going in the exact opposite direction, as if to underscore that freedom, progress, and love of life cannot be crushed no matter what governments say.

“Sing, Sing, Sing” embodies this spirit more than any song of the period. It goes way beyond the comparatively stodgy “Pennsylvania 6500” and “Chattanooga Choochoo” of Glen Miller and other bands at the time. Even now it strikes the ear as radical, revolutionary, and insanely fun. This is why it has been featured in dozens of films, shows, games, and commercials over the last decades.

It’s a masterpiece, and maybe the most radical song ever performed.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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16 comments

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  • Without question the best version of Sing, Sing, Sing is “The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall” version:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPNbCbZb32Y

    The song as performed that evening in 1938 was by far the most inspired. The main reason was the piano playing of Jess Stacy; he played one of the greatest jazz solos of all time that night. Here is how that piano solo was described by Jazz historian Whitney Balliett in his book American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz:

    “But in spite of himself, Stacy did take a famous solo. It came about accidentally, during Goodman’s bellwether 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. The band was nearing the closing ensemble of its elephantine showpiece, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” when, after a Goodman-Gene Krupa duet, there as a treading-water-pause, and Stacy, suddenly given the nod by Goodman, took off. The solo lasted over two minutes, which was remarkable at a time when most solos were measured in seconds. One wonders how many people understood what they were hearing that night, for no one had ever played a piano like it. From the opening measures, it had an exalted, almost ecstatic quality, as it if were playing Stacy. It didn’t, with its Debussy glints and ghosts, seem of its time and place. It was also revolutionary in that it was more of a cadenza than a series of improvised choruses. There were no divisions or seams, and it had a spiraling structure, an organic structure, in which each phrase evolved from its predecessor. Seesawing middle-register chords gave way to double-time runs, which gave way to dreaming rests, which gave way to singsong chords, which gave way to oblique runs. A climax would be reached only to recede before a still stronger one. Piling grace upon grace, the solo moved gradually but inexorably up the keyboard, at last ending in a superbly restrained cluster of upper-register single notes. There was an instant of stunned silence before Krupa came thundering back, and those who realized that they had just heard something magnificent believed that what they had heard was already in that Valhalla where all great unrecorded jazz solos go.”

    Besides the Stacy piano solo near the end of the recording, I recommend paying careful attention to the way Stacy “backs” Goodman’s preceding clarinet solo. In Balliett’s book Stacy speculated that the reason Goodman allowed him to perform such an unusually long solo was because of the way he had backed Goodman in Goodman’s own solo. If you listen closely, you can hear Stacy’s beautiful playing in the background during Goodman’s sole.

    This 1938 Carnegie Hall recording of Sing, Sing, Sing, is one of the greatest Jazz recordings of all time.

  • Without question the best version of Sing, Sing, Sing is “The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall” version:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPNbCbZb32Y

    The song as performed that evening in 1938 was by far the most inspired. The main reason was the piano playing of Jess Stacy; he played one of the greatest jazz solos of all time that night. Here is how that piano solo was described by Jazz historian Whitney Balliett in his book American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz:

    “But in spite of himself, Stacy did take a famous solo. It came about accidentally, during Goodman’s bellwether 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. The band was nearing the closing ensemble of its elephantine showpiece, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” when, after a Goodman-Gene Krupa duet, there as a treading-water-pause, and Stacy, suddenly given the nod by Goodman, took off. The solo lasted over two minutes, which was remarkable at a time when most solos were measured in seconds. One wonders how many people understood what they were hearing that night, for no one had ever played a piano like it. From the opening measures, it had an exalted, almost ecstatic quality, as it if were playing Stacy. It didn’t, with its Debussy glints and ghosts, seem of its time and place. It was also revolutionary in that it was more of a cadenza than a series of improvised choruses. There were no divisions or seams, and it had a spiraling structure, an organic structure, in which each phrase evolved from its predecessor. Seesawing middle-register chords gave way to double-time runs, which gave way to dreaming rests, which gave way to singsong chords, which gave way to oblique runs. A climax would be reached only to recede before a still stronger one. Piling grace upon grace, the solo moved gradually but inexorably up the keyboard, at last ending in a superbly restrained cluster of upper-register single notes. There was an instant of stunned silence before Krupa came thundering back, and those who realized that they had just heard something magnificent believed that what they had heard was already in that Valhalla where all great unrecorded jazz solos go.”

    Besides the Stacy piano solo near the end of the recording, I recommend paying careful attention to the way Stacy “backs” Goodman’s preceding clarinet solo. In Balliett’s book Stacy speculated that the reason Goodman allowed him to perform such an unusually long solo was because of the way he had backed Goodman in Goodman’s own solo. If you listen closely, you can hear Stacy’s beautiful playing in the background during Goodman’s sole.

    This 1938 Carnegie Hall recording of Sing, Sing, Sing, is one of the greatest Jazz recordings of all time.

  • ” It was bound up with dance and free association of persons, with a love of life despite the growth of despotism all around. It reflected urbanism, the desire of the new generation to escape the world their parents inhabited, to explore new forms of art and life, to embrace and live prosperously, and, above all, to decline to comply with the growing restrictiveness of regime politics.”

    From Wikipedia
    Goodman is also responsible for a significant step in racial integration in America. In the early 1930s, black and white jazz musicians could not play together in most clubs or concerts. In the Southern states, racial segregation was enforced by the Jim Crow laws. Benny Goodman broke with tradition by hiring Teddy Wilson to play with him and drummer Gene Krupa in the Benny Goodman Trio. In 1936, he added Lionel Hampton on vibes to form the Benny Goodman Quartet; in 1939 he added pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian to his band and small ensembles, who played with him until his death from tuberculosis less than three years later. This integration in music happened ten years before Jackie Robinson became the first black American to enter Major League Baseball. “[Goodman’s] popularity was such that he could remain financially viable without touring the South, where he would have been subject to arrest for violating Jim Crow laws.”[46] According to Jazz by Ken Burns, when someone asked him why he “played with that nigger” (referring to Teddy Wilson), Goodman replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again”.

  • ” It was bound up with dance and free association of persons, with a love of life despite the growth of despotism all around. It reflected urbanism, the desire of the new generation to escape the world their parents inhabited, to explore new forms of art and life, to embrace and live prosperously, and, above all, to decline to comply with the growing restrictiveness of regime politics.”

    From Wikipedia
    Goodman is also responsible for a significant step in racial integration in America. In the early 1930s, black and white jazz musicians could not play together in most clubs or concerts. In the Southern states, racial segregation was enforced by the Jim Crow laws. Benny Goodman broke with tradition by hiring Teddy Wilson to play with him and drummer Gene Krupa in the Benny Goodman Trio. In 1936, he added Lionel Hampton on vibes to form the Benny Goodman Quartet; in 1939 he added pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian to his band and small ensembles, who played with him until his death from tuberculosis less than three years later. This integration in music happened ten years before Jackie Robinson became the first black American to enter Major League Baseball. “[Goodman’s] popularity was such that he could remain financially viable without touring the South, where he would have been subject to arrest for violating Jim Crow laws.”[46] According to Jazz by Ken Burns, when someone asked him why he “played with that nigger” (referring to Teddy Wilson), Goodman replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again”.

  • You know, you don’t usually write odes to popular culture I actually love, but there you go at last. Love Benny Goodman, love Gene Krupa (and a lady, let me say * wolf whistle* he was fine). And that song is just perfection.

    My Grandpa loved jazz more than anything in the world. I often wish that not only could I time travel, but I could go back to a time when all the kids were listening to this hot, new, different, scary swing music. I wish I could forget for a minute all the music that came after and know what it was like to think this was the most daring, newest music around and that nothing that came after could ever be quite like this.

  • You know, you don’t usually write odes to popular culture I actually love, but there you go at last. Love Benny Goodman, love Gene Krupa (and a lady, let me say * wolf whistle* he was fine). And that song is just perfection.

    My Grandpa loved jazz more than anything in the world. I often wish that not only could I time travel, but I could go back to a time when all the kids were listening to this hot, new, different, scary swing music. I wish I could forget for a minute all the music that came after and know what it was like to think this was the most daring, newest music around and that nothing that came after could ever be quite like this.

  • This is actually a remake, isn’t it? Scott-Heron’s first album had a version of is song with some amazing conga drums and no bizarre flute. I don’t understand why this version has become more widely known, the original makes this sound lame.

  • This is actually a remake, isn’t it? Scott-Heron’s first album had a version of is song with some amazing conga drums and no bizarre flute. I don’t understand why this version has become more widely known, the original makes this sound lame.

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