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Ten Swing and Big Band Era Songs 1910s–1940s

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Liz has been an online writer for over nine years. Her articles often focus on music and culture of the 20th century.

The saxophone was heavily featured in music of this era

The saxophone was heavily featured in music of this era

By virtue of my own age, these are songs I have no right to know (they belonged to my parents' era). But, while I was growing up, they were often played and enjoyed in our household.

I fondly recall gatherings with aunts and uncles, where Mitch Miller records, and the accompanying lyric sheets, would be passed around and we'd all “sing along with Mitch.”

Swing and Big Band Era Songs 1910–1940s

  1. "Harbor Lights"
  2. "Aura Lee"
  3. "Chattanooga Choo-Choo"
  4. "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B"
  5. "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar"
  6. "I've Been Working on the Railroad"
  7. "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"
  8. "There Is a Tavern in the Town"
  9. "Silver Threads Among the Gold"
  10. "It's Only a Paper Moon"

1. "Harbor Lights"

Released: 1937

Originally sung by: Frances Langford

Written by: Hugh Williams with lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy

This 1937 song was originally sung by Frances Langford. The music was written by Hugh Williams with lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy, a northern Irish composer. It's unknown whether or not the lyricist bears any relation to the Kennedy clan of U.S. politics.

I saw the harbor lights

They only told me we were parting

The same old harbor lights that once brought you to me

I watched the harbor lights

How could I help if tears were starting

Goodbye to tender nights beside the silvery sea

— Hugh Williams, "Harbor Lights"

2. "Aura Lee"

Released: During the Civil War

Originally sung by: Unknown (made famous by Frances Farmer and Elvis)

Written by: Unknown

Originally a Civil War song, it was re-popularized in the 1936 film, “Come and Get It,” when it was sung by Frances Farmer. If the tune sounds familiar to you, despite its age, that's because it was “stolen” by Elvis Presley for his song “Love Me Tender.”

Musical history is full of composers “borrowing” melodies from each other. This goes all the way back into the classical era.

As the blackbird in the spring

'neath the willow tree

sat and piped I heard him sing

praising Aura Lee.

— Unknown, "Aura Lee"

3. "Chattanooga Choo-Choo"

Released: 1941

Originally sung by: Glen Miller Band

Written by: Mack Gordon and Harry Warren

Written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, this song was originally performed by the Glen Miller Band in the movie “Sun Valley Serenade.”

Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?

Track twenty nine, boy you can gimme a shine

I can afford to board a Chattanooga Choo Choo

I've got my fare and just a trifle to spare

— Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, "Chattanooga Choo-Choo"

4. "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B"

Released: 1941

Originally sung by: The Andrews Sisters

Written by: Don Ray and Hughie Prince

Written by Don Ray and Hughie Prince in 1941, it was first sung by The Andrews Sisters. This trio of women are probably among the most famous of the swing and big band era. They have many popular tunes to their credit. However, they are probably best known for "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B," which was a massive success.

He was a famous trumpet man from out Chicago way

He had a boogie style that no one else could play

He was the top man at his craft

But then his number came up and he was gone with the draft

He's in the army now, a-blowin' reveille

He's the boogie woogie bugle boy of Company B

— Don Ray and Hughie Prince, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B"

5. "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar"

Released: 1940

Originally sung by: The Andrews Sisters

Written by: Don Raye, Ray McKinley and Hughie Prince

Written by Don Raye, Ray McKinley, and Hughie Prince in 1940, this song was sung by The Andrews Sisters. There are definite similarities between this song and the later "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." While they're not quite the same melody, and they are in a different key, they still sound very much alike.

It was rather common during that era for many of the "boogie-woogie" songs to have the same feel. However, in this case, both songs were written by the same composers, so the similarity is understandable.

In a little honky-tonky village in Texas

There's a guy who plays the best piano by far

He can play piano any way that you like it

But the way he likes to play is eight to the bar

When he plays, it's a ball

He's the daddy of them all

— Don Raye, Ray McKinley, and Hughie Prince, "Beat me Daddy Eight to the Bar"

6. "I've Been Working on the Railroad"

Released: 1864 (first recorded in 1927)

Originally sung by: Unknown

Written by: Unknown

The first known edition of this song was published in 1864. The first known recording was by Victor Records in 1927. The verses vary regionally. In some cases, some rather "R" rated verses are used in place of the original lyrics.

It has been recorded in every style imaginable. There's a John Denver version, an Alvin and the Chipmunks version, and even a nursery rhyme version for kids.

I've been working on the railroad

All the live long day

I've been working on the railroad

Just to pass the time away

Can't you hear the whistle blowing

Rise up so early in the morn

Can't you hear the whistle blowing

Dinah, blow your horn

— Unknown, "I've Been Working on the Railroad"

7. "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"

Released: 1949

Originally sung by: Richard Hageman

Written by: Richard Hageman

This song hails from 1949, and was featured in the RKO technicolor movie of the same name, directed by John Ford, and starring John Wayne. It was the first of Ford's three Oscar wins.

While this song came at the very tail end of the era, it was still wildly popular. Interestingly, it was used as a marching cadence by the military, but it was adapted for the film. It seems that the movie took its name from this song, rather than the other way around.

'Round her neck she wore a yellow ribbon

She wore it in the springtime and in the month of May

And if you asked her why the heck she wore it

She wore it for her lover who was far, far away

Far away, far away

— Richard Hageman, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"

8. There Is a Tavern in the Town

Released: 1880s

Originally sung by: Unknown (made famous by Rudy Vallée)

Written by: Unknown

This is an old U.K. folk song from the 1880s. In 1934, it was recorded on Victor Records by Rudy Vallée. He and his band cracked up laughing over the corny lyrics, so it was re-recorded (minus the laughter). However, record company decided later to release both versions.

For your amusement, I've included both versions below.

There is a tavern in the town, in the town,

And there my dear love sits him down, sits him down,

And drinks his wine 'mid laughter free,

And never, never thinks of me.

— Unknown, "There Is a Tavern in the Town"

Laughter version

Straight faced version

9. Silver Threads Among the Gold

Released: 1873

Originally sung by: Eben E. Rexford (made famous by Bing Crosby)

Written by: Lyrics by Eben E. Rexford and music by Hart Pease Danks

The song dates from a much earlier time. It was first copyrighted in 1873. It includes lyrics by Eben E. Rexford and music by Hart Pease Danks.

The version sung by Bing Crosby, which I've included below, is from 1947. His version has been replicated by numerous other musical acts. This caused the song to remain popular throughout the early 20th century.

But, my darlin', you will be as you will be

Always young and fair to me

Yes, my darlin', you-ou will be-ee-ee

Always young and fair to me-ee

— Lyrics by Eben E. Rexford and music by Hart Pease Danks, "Silver Threads Among the Gold"

10. It's Only a Paper Moon

Released: 1932

Originally sung by: made famous by June Knight, Paul Whitman, and Ella Fitzgerald

Written by: Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose

Written by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose, this song first appeared in 1932 for a failed Broadway play called “The Great Magoo.” Later, it was resurrected for Take a Chance, a 1933 movie staring June Knight and “Buddy” Rogers.

The most popular version of this song was recorded by one Paul Whiteman, (also released in 1933). It's popularity during, and after, WWII stems from recordings by the late great Ella Fitzgerald. Another famous version that was released during this time was by the Benny Goodman orchestra, whose vocalist Dottie Reid sang the song.

The version below is from a 1945 recording by Ella Fitzgerald.

I never feel a thing is real

When I'm away from you

Out of your embrace

The world's a temporary parking place

— Lyrics by Eben E. Rexford and music by Hart Pease Danks, "It's Only a Paper Moon"

© 2019 Liz Elias

Comments

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 30, 2019:

Thank you, Mark. I'm pleased that you enjoyed this article, and I appreciate your leaving a comment.

Mark Tulin from Ventura, California on March 30, 2019:

I love your selection of songs here and your exposition on each.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 27, 2019:

Hi Patty,

Thanks so much for your enthusiastic comment! (Takes deep bow...) I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. It was fun to write and research.

I'd forgotten some of them myself, but while looking up the original ones I planned to write about, I saw links to the others and it sparked my memory.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 27, 2019:

I am impressed with this list! -- We learned to sing "Aura Lee" early in elementary school and I completely forgot about it until I read this article. Never heard "Harbor Lights", so was glad to hear it here. Wonderful collection of historic songs!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 27, 2019:

Hi Ruby,

Thanks very much for stopping by. It's always interesting to see which artists speak to different folks! ;-) I'm glad you enjoyed this retrospective.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on March 27, 2019:

I remember most of these songs. I know that Bette Midler didn't do " Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" first, but I loved her version best. I enjoyed reading your look back at some great songs and era.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 27, 2019:

Hi Bill,

Yep, I grew up on these as well; but we had the Sing Along With Mitch LPs--my dad refused to have a TV, on the grounds that the commercials insult your intelligence...he was right! ;-) I still like Mitch Miller too!

Hi Mary,

LOL What a hoot! I don't know which is worse--repetitive singing of a song with several verses, or singing the interminable "99 bottles of beer on the wall..."

My dad had a different song, though, it was "99 blue bottles" and the tune was different, as was the tempo; it was prettier, almost like a ballad in feeling. Maybe someday if I get brave, I'll record a few lines of it. ;-) All the same, yes, they all get old on a long car trip.

It sounds like you had a great time visiting your grandparents!

Mary Wickison from Brazil on March 27, 2019:

When I was young, we used to sing "I've been working on the railroad', any time we had a long car journey. After a 5 hour drive, it gets a bit old. LOL

I remember several of these songs. When we went to visit my Grandparents we went to a 'social gathering' at the local community center for seniors. I remember thinking, how boring it was going to be.

I could believe how much we all enjoyed it.

A great list of songs.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 27, 2019:

I grew up on this in the 1950's. My parents loved the Big Band sound....and of course "Sing Along With Mitch" was one of their favorite tv shows.....and truth be told I still love the sound. :)