UKULELE MUSING 36, 7 SEPTEMBER 2019—“SIDE BY SIDE,” AND “AIN’T WE GOT FUN”—GOOD TIME SONGS OF THE 1920S!
During the so-called roaring ‘20s jobs were plentiful for men and available for women who had to work for a living. Confidence and prosperity were in the air and the Great Depression of the ‘30s was years away. Still, a few songs reflected the simple things of life—just having a good time, just getting by, not going it alone. A couple of songs in our Yellow Book remind us of this musical point in history: “Side by Side,” and “Ain’t We Got Fun.”
One of the simplest songs in our Yellow Book—easy to play and telling a simple story—is the 1927 tune “Side by Side.” This was written by Harry Woods (1896-1970), a Massachusetts native and Tin Pan Alley songwriter of many of the so-called standards that were first recorded in the ‘20s.
Nick Lucas, 1940s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjNX_gayY1E&t=30s
A couple of other tunes he wrote that show up in our books are “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobin’ Along,” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”
He composed his songs on the piano despite the fact that a birth defect had left him with a deformed left hand. Amazing!
A Harvard graduate, Woods lived on Cape Cod until drafted into the Army for World War I. It was during that time he developed his talent for songwriting.
Once again, a fun recording of “Side by Side” was made by our old acquaintance Cliff Edwards, better known as “Ukulele Ike.”
Ukulele Ike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0lwl4eu0HM
Needless to say, dozens of other performers recorded the song all the way into the 1990s. With simple lyrics and a simple beat, it was a favorite “shuffle dance” duet on the vaudeville stage.
Here are a couple of more “off the wall” takes on this simple tune!
The Beatles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afxtvVViXvM
Moving on, “Ain’t We Got Fun” is a jaunty foxtrot recorded a few years earlier with music by Richard Whiting (1891-1938) and lyrics by Raymond Egan (1890-1952) and Gus Kahn (1886-1941)—all stalwarts of the Tin Pan Alley music scene during the Jazz Age and beyond.
1920 Recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y041-eT6QrI
Both of our songs use abrupt, colloquial—even ungrammatical—phrases.
Piano Roll with Verses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haFzMBk4fXI
Because of its universal theme, a variety of timely verses have been added and subtracted by performers over time. Both songs, despite their jocularity, reveal a certain resignation to economic forces beyond the control of working people.
It’s a small step from “Ain’t we got fun,“ to “The rich get richer and the poor get laid off.” Still, the singers will survive “side by side.”
A good read on this topic is “The Poets of Tin Pan Alley,” by Philip Furia—a little-studied genre of American literature. The film “The Great Gatsby” dealt with this era and used these songs in the soundtrack.
Great Gatsby: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1AcnI0B2-o
Whiting, Egan, and Kahn collaborated on many, many popular songs including “Ukulele Lady,” and “Japanese Sandman” just to touch on a few.
Here’s how some fellow ukers had fun with this one.
So, here we have a couple of simple songs that reflect the optimism—despite the uncertainties—of the so-called sweet old days. What will the songs of today tell our grandchildren—uncertainties despite optimism?