Popular Music and Artists of 1936-38


As the 1930’s got into full swing, (pun only partially intended) the public began to warm to the previously “racy” notion of jazz. Condemned in the 20’s by prohibitionists intent on extinguishing the “sinful liquor music”, jazz defiantly captured the ears and souls of the American multitude and quickly became the hottest musical style in the business. Musicians of all cultural backgrounds made their mark with their uniquely varied styles and popular appeal. Yet, overall the majority of pop music of the late decade had a distinctly jazz-dipped flavor.

The Songs:

The majority of the chart toppers from ’36 to ’38 were first performed either on the stage or screen. Well-established composers such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwin Brothers had written dozens upon dozens of catchy, clever tunes for musicals. While many of these stage productions were then adapted for the screen, there were also a number of film musicals with scores written by the aforementioned composers.

The “hit” factor of these songs was with few exceptions the performer. Stars of stage and screen made songs famous because of their popularity. In other words, musicians’ success depended on the Star System, and the two facets of the entertainment industry worked in harmony (okay, a pun actually wasn’t intended that time…).

The Singers:

Often times the dynamic personalities and talents of the stars lifted the songs to a higher level of enjoyment, as with Fred Astaire’s performance of “The Way You Look Tonight” in the film Swing Time. While the songs themselves were brilliantly written, it was the whole package of performance (the star, the film composition, the orchestral arrangement, the story behind the song) that swept audiences away and shot the songs to the chart tops. 

Keeping Stage Door in mind then, it is safe to infer that this was the music the ladies of the Footlights Club likely enjoyed the most; young aspiring actresses would of course have their favorite stars of the stage or the screen, and these idols would croon their favorite tunes.

The Swing Era:

And there was yet another whole selection of pop songs that were written exclusively for the listening pleasure of the masses. I’ll open here with a quote (if only to keep things nice and academic): “The ‘Swing Era’ has been characterized…as that remarkable period in American musical history when jazz was synonymous with America’s popular music, its social dances and its musical entertainment” (Stowe). Big-band swing started revving its syncopated engine in 1930, with band leaders and their ensembles quickly becoming household names. With the Swing Era well under way by the late ’30s, musicians including Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey were fast cementing their place in American music history.

The Venues:

The New York venues for these artists became as well known as the performers themselves: one block in particular, 52nd between 5th and 6th, went down in East Coast history as “Swing Street”. The Onyx, Famous Door, Hickory House, the Yacht Club, and the Three Deuces were a few of the more choice establishments in which to hear everything from big band swing to modern jazz. Musicians from Harlem, as well as the aforementioned band leaders, premiered their best on 52nd street, and the legendary block saw the beginning of performers like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Most of these clubs were racially mixed, color becoming transparent once the notes started flowing. Though many of the popular big bands were all-white, some musicians, such as Benny Goodman, included black players in their orchestras.

The Swing Era Part II:

It is important to note that the jazz sub-genre of swing was more than simply a preferred musical style; it became a national phenomenon. This was in large part thanks to the cultural power of this music: lively, fast-paced, and celebratory, swing provided just the ticket to escape the pain of the Great War and the Depression. The dance style that evolved out of swing swirled into a sensation that swept every American from every walk of life off their feet. While big-band swing continued into the ’40s, (becoming a major historical pinpoint in America’s experience of World War 2), it reached its height of popularity from 1936-40.

The Music!

And now for your listening pleasure, I’ve provided links to a few of the chart toppers from ’36-38. See if you can pick your character’s favorite!

The Way You Look Tonight – Fred Astaire {1936}

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands – Marian Anderson {1936}

(Dear Mr. Gable) You Made Me Love You – Judy Garland {1937}

Sing Sing Sing – Benny Goodman and His Orchestra {1937}

Note: Sing Sing Sing is quite possibly the most famous Swing piece written, and represents the perfect rhythmic style and energy for swing dancing.

Whistle While You Work – Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) {1938}

Shortenin’ Bread – The Andrew Sisters {1938}

I have only included two songs from each year. If you don’t find your favorite here, take a look at ALL the hits here:



Baade, Christina. “Airing Authenticity: The BBC Jam Sessions From New York,

1938/39.” Journal Of The Society For American Music 6.3 (2012): 271.

Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

The Biography Channel website. Feb 14 2013.

Burke, Patrick Lawrence, (Author). “‘Come In And Hear The Truth’: Jazz, Race,

And Authenticity On Manhattan’s 52Nd Street, 1930–1950.” (2003):                    RILM

Abstracts of Music Literature. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

Martin, Henry, (Author). “Pianists Of The 1920S And 1930S.” Collected Work:

The Oxford companion to jazz. Pages: 163-176. (AN: 2000-56207). n.p.:        2000. RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

Pop Culture Madness. n.p. Web. 14 Feb 2013.

Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America by David W. Stowe

Review by: John White

             Journal of American Studies , Vol. 29, No. 2 (Aug., 1995), pp. 292-293

Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the British              Association for American Studies

Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27555958