Editors’ Note:Peter Stampfel has been expanding our definition of folk music and popular song for more than half a century as a member of the Holy Modal Rounders, in his solo projects and as a collaborator on work with the Unholy Modal Rounders, Jeffrey Lewis, and many others. The following piece of writing, conceived as liner notes to his ongoing project of recording a song for every year of the twentieth century, is published here as part of the Journal’s commitment to regularly feature the voices of performers—and as a pragmatic, giddy take on how far pop music’s essential qualities might stretch without snapping.

While stoned on weed in the early aughties, I got the idea of learning a song from each year of the twentieth century. I had many reasons: I wanted to get my hands on all those basic musical structures and incorporate the knowledge of how to construct them into my skill set. I also wanted to show people of all ages what the century’s music was like. The hours it would take to listen to them all would be a kind of total immersion in the whole damn century. I’d come out of it with greater historical insight, or maybe a headache. Or something.

My criteria for choosing the songs:

  1. I had to adore the song. Some years, I couldn’t find one I adored, but I did find damn fine period pieces. “Ida,” from 1903, is an example of one I like but don’t love. But it has a nice catchy tune, and is indeed a damn fine period piece.

  2. The song had to be catchy—indeed, had to repeat-in-your-ears-in-the-most- delightful-way catchy. You will find that a surprising number of these songs find their way into your head.

  3. As much and as often as possible, the song had to resonate with the general feeling of the year it was written. It had to feel like that year. Sort of. You know? Look up your birthday year song!

  4. I had to be able to play them and pull it off, which was a serious consideration. By 1980, playing new music was harder. I was 42 and would be doing the music of people younger than I was, and increasingly so as the twenty-first century approached. Few geezers sing the songs of youngsters as well as Johnny Cash did, and that was one of my touchstones in choosing the 100. I was shooting for that level.

  5. They had to all be 10s. (Except “Ida,” which is a 7)

  6. Couldn’t be either too well known or too obscure.

Two factors made choosing songs of the ’80s and ’90s harder for me. So much more music was released than ever before and I listened to the radio less. There was a lot going on under my radar.

As the twenty-first century rolled on, Taylor Mac did a much more ambitious version of my idea—a 240-song history of the U.S. That’s 1776 to 2016. It culminated in a nonstop 24-hour show featuring every song. The ones he chose often emphasized general social history as it passed by. I saw nine hours of it, and it’s the only show I’ve ever seen that hit me as hard as Hamilton. I pray recordings of the whole show will become available. I’ve been unable to find a list of all his song choices, but so far I’ve found four that we share: “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” (1908), “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” (1910), “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (1922), and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973).

Behold! Da Hunnert!

1901/“I Love You Truly”

1902/“Under the Bamboo Tree”

1903/“Ida”

1904/“Toyland”

1905/“Whistler and His Dog”

1906/“Nobody”

1907/“School Days”

1908/“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”

1909/“Ace in the Hole”

1910/“Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”

1911/“Put Your Arms Around Me Honey (Hold Me Tight)”

1912/“Ragtime Cowboy Joe”

1913/“Row Row Row”

1914/“By the Beautiful Sea”

1915/“They Didn’t Believe Me”

1916/“Poor Butterfly”

1917/“Look For the Silver Lining”

1918/“Till We Meet Again”

1919/“Stumblin’”

1920/“Swinging Down the Lane”

1921/“Charleston”

1922/“I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”

1923/“Let The Rest of the World Go By”

1924/“Somebody Loves Me”

1925/“I Never Knew”

1926/“Who?” (Stole My Heart Away)

1927/“Blue Skies”

1928/“My Heart Stood Still”

1929/“Wedding of the Painted Doll”

1930/“My Ideal”

1931/“Out of Nowhere”

1932/“Home”

1933/“Lazybones”

1934/“Moonglow”

1935/“East of the Sun”

1936/“The Way You Look Tonight”

1937/“Where or When”

1938/“My Reverie”

1939/“They Say It’s Wonderful”

1940/“Indian Summer”

1941/“Oh, Look at Me Now”

1942/“I Remember You”

1943/“Pistol Packin’ Mama”

1944/“Long Ago and Far Away”

1945/“Love on a Greyhound Bus”

1946/“All Through the Day”

1947/“How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”

1948/“Blue Shadows on the Trail”

1949/“Slipping Around”

1950/“It Isn’t Fair”

1951/“Jezebel”

1952/“Night Train”

1953/“Tennesee Wig Walk”

1954/“Hearts of Stone”

1955/“Shambolar”

1956/“I’m In Love Again”

1957/“Chicken Baby Chicken”

1958/“Rave On”

1959/“Handy Man”

1960/“Running Bear”

1961/“Moon River”

1962/“I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”

1963/“Mama Didn’t Lie”

1964/“The Years”

1965/“Concrete and Clay”

1966/“Along Comes Mary”

1967/“Waterloo Sunset”

1968/“Goodbye”

1969/“Log Cabin Home in the Sky”

1970/“Let’s Work Together”

1971/“Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep”

1972/“Eyes Eyes”

1973/“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”

1974/“September Gurls”

1975/“Tangled Up In Blue”

1976/“I Wanna Be Your Boy Friend”

1977/“2 4 6 8 Motorway”

1978/“Have You Ever Fallen in Love”

1979/“I Will Survive”

1980/“Girls Talk”

1981/“Dancing with Myself”

1982/“Steppin’ Out”

1983/“Swingin’”

1984/“You Take Me Up”

1985/“Drink American”

1986/“My Hometown”

1987/“Don’t Dream, It’s Over”

1988/“Everybody Knows”

1989/“She Drives Me Crazy”

1990/“Women and Men”

1991/“Texarkana”

1992/“Laura the Horse”

1993/“Loser”

1994/“Earth to Grandma”

1995/“Common People”

1996/“Wannabe”

1997/“The Way”

1998/“Tubthumping”

1999/“In Spite of Ourselves”

2000/“Yellow”

In 2002, I talked to Mark Bingham about the project, and he agreed to record, mix, play on, and produce the whole damn thing. None of this would have ever happened, or even begun, without him. My gratitude is boundless.

Though this project was about American music, it came to include occasional music from the U.K. because how, for example, can 1967 not be “Waterloo Sunset”?

The liner notes will ultimately be a crowdsourced Facebook site. Here is the first batch:

1906, “Nobody”: music Bert Williams, 1874–1922, lyrics Alex Rogers, 1870–1936

Like most of the pre-rock songs in this project, I first heard it on the radio. (I also saw Bob Hope perform it in a 1955 movie, The 7 Little Foys.) The song struck me as being way more powerful than most of the stuff I was hearing on the radio. And of all the 100 songs I chose, this was the one of the ones that fooled me the most. I assumed it was written in the late teens or early ’20s, so when I found out it was from 1906, I realized how advanced it was compared to its contemporaries. I wasn’t aware of Bert Williams until the ’70s or ’80s. W.C. Fields said of him, “The funniest man I ever saw—and the saddest.”

He was born in the Bahamas and brought to the U.S. at the age of 11. He first found recognition as part of a duo, Williams and Walker. He went solo in the early aughties, by which time he was one of the biggest stars in vaudeville. You could say he was the first black superstar. But he had to hire a white man to pretend to be his manager, because theaters wouldn’t put money in a black man’s hand.

According to the New York Daily News of the time, Actors Equity declared a strike against New York stage productions on August 23, 1919, which closed pretty much every theater in town. Bert Williams reported for work that night to a darkened theater because he wasn’t in Equity, didn’t know about the strike, and nobody told him. Despite 20-plus years as one of the most successful and respected stage performers in New York, he had never been invited to join. But W.C. Fields petitioned on his behalf, and in August of 1920, he became the first black member of Actors Equity. There had to be a Bert Williams song in the first decade of the twentieth century, and despite the fact that the song is nonstop unhappiness and desperation, it’s a joy to sing.

1908, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”: music Albert Von Tilzer, 1878–1956, lyrics Jack Norworth, 1879–1959

Everyone thinks this song and ball games have been together forever, but the first time was prior to the opening game of the Los Angeles Prep baseball season in 1934. It has become one of the most performed songs in history. All but forgotten is the intro part:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said, “No
I’ll tell you what you can do
Take me out to the ball game. . .
The second verse ends with:
When the score was just two to two, Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song
Take me out to the ball game. . .

And I wondered: is this the first mention of cheerleading in a popular song? I did a little research and found that the first cheer is reported to have been cheered during a football game at Princeton in the 1880s. Not long after, Princeton formed an all-male “pep club.” Men dominated cheerleading until World War II, and then, as happened with just about every profession during that war, women filled the vacancies. The rest is history. But it all began with Katie Casey.

1910, “Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life”: Victor Herbert, 1859–1924

Herbert was born in Vienna and came to the U.S. with his opera singer wife in 1886, just a year after Bert Williams’ arrival. He started out as a cellist and ended up writing hundreds of compositions. I have a sweet spot for many of his songs. His music fell out of favor after World War I, when jazz was popular—he was about as non-jazz as you could get. But he was also one of the founders of ASCAP:

A contender for corniest song ever. The first time I heard it, I cringed. Eventually, almost inexplicably, love blossomed. Ah, sweet mystery.

1914, “By The Beautiful Sea”: music Harry Carroll, 1892–1962, lyrics Harold R. Atteridge, 1886–1938

I was going to say that everybody knows this tune. It’s been used in countless movies (Some Like It Hot, among them) and TV shows, not to mention its having been played tens of thousands of times on merry-go-rounds nationwide. Still, I’ll bet a lot of youngsters have never heard it. Until working it out on a juke—a steel body ukulele tuned like a banjo—I never realized how fun it was to play and how truly fine the words are. One damn jolly song.

I’d like to be
Beside your side
Beside the sea
Beside the sea side
By the beautiful sea

1918, “Till We Meet Again”: music Richard A. Whiting, 1891–1938, lyrics Raymond B. Egan, 1890–1952

My mom used to sing this song. As a child, she played ukulele and sang it as a duet with her sister, Jeanette. But I never heard the intro until I worked it out. Like many introductory parts of songs, it’s largely forgotten, but the well-known section of the song is still often used as the last dance at old-time ballroom dances.

In 1918, a Detroit theater held a contest for a war song. Remick’s Music asked its employee, Whiting, to enter the contest. He and lyricist Raymond B. Egan worked on “Till We Meet Again” but didn’t think it was good enough and threw it away. His secretary took the song out of the garbage and entered it into the contest—and of course it won. It also went on to sell over eleven million copies of sheet music, the most of any song before or since. Being about a soldier and his sweetheart in 1918 certainly helped.

His daughter, Margaret Whiting, became famous for singing it during World War II and went on to a long career. Her father’s “My Ideal” became a sort of theme song for her.

Besides writing two of my favorite songs, “Beyond The Blue Horizon” and “My Ideal” (my song pick for 1930), Whiting wrote a song called “Rock And Roll,” which was sung by the Boswell Sisters in a 1932 movie called Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round. It was probably the first use ever of the phrase “rock and roll.”

Lyricist Egan wrote, among others, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “Japanese Sandman,” and “Sleepy Time Gal.”

1923, “Let the Rest of the World Go By”: Ernest Roland Ball, 1878–1927

Another one mom used to sing at home and with my Aunt Jeanette. I only heard them sing together once, in Milwaukee in 1951. They sang in loud, clear, lovely voices. I forget who sang melody and who sang harmony, but they sounded beautiful together. Years later, I asked them to sing again, but Jeanette said her singing days were behind her. I found that sad and scary. I do have somewhat of a sentimental streak, and this song pushes a lot of my buttons, and I love the melody.

Ball’s most famous song was, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” He wasn’t Irish, but he wrote a number of Irish-themed songs, which include “Mother Macree” and “A Little Bit of Heaven.”

His grandson is Ernie Ball of guitar string fame.

1925, “I Never Knew (That Roses Grew)”: music Ted Fio Rito, 1900–1971, lyrics Gus Kahn, 1888–1941

Here’s a beauty I never heard as a kid. There’s these two 1000-song fakebooks from around 1950, from which I learned the chords to many songs. I went through all 2000 songs looking for good ones that I didn’t know. Didn’t find many, but this is one and “Blue Champagne” (1945).

Fio Rito wrote many of my personal favorites, like “Willow Weep For Me,” “Temptation,” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” three amazingly beautiful constructions.

Gus Kahn was prolific as well, writing classics like “It Had To Be You,” “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” another last dance favorite.

1926, “Who?” (Stole My Heart Away): music Jerome Kern, 1885–1945, lyrics Otto Harbach, 1873–1963, and Oscar Hammerstein II, 1895–1960

Jerome Kern is my favorite songwriter of the Great American Songbook era.

Five of my 100 songs are Kern’s (and, by the way, Jerry Garcia was named after him). Otto Harbach mentored Oscar Hammerstein II and advocated the radical idea that in an American musical, the songs should all further the plot and characterization, in the manner of Gilbert and Sullivan. Kern, Hammerstein, and Harbach put the philosophy into practice in Show Boat, which also had the distinction of being the first “serious” musical.

“Who?” was written for the 1925 Broadway musical Sunny. While fooling around with the banjo, I found this song really worked well in G tuning, and I started playing around with it. In very little time, I was deeply in love. This is one of several I had worked out before I conceived the project.

1928, “My Heart Stood Still”: music Richard Rodgers, 1902–1979, lyrics Lorenz Hart, 1895–1943

Rogers and Hart started composing together when they were students at Columbia University. “My Heart Stood Still” was written for the 1927 Charles Cochran review, One Dam Thing After Another. They had to purchase their own song back for $5000 so they could use it later that same year, in A Connecticut Yankee, a musical based on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It went on to become a jazz standard. What a powerful beauty.

1931, “Out of Nowhere”: music Johnny Green, 1908–1989, lyrics Edward Heyman, 1907–1981

These two guys also wrote “Body And Soul” and “I Cover The Waterfront.” (Whoa.) Green also wrote the Betty Boop theme for the Fleischer cartoons. Heyman wrote “When I Fall In Love.” Both of them were prolific.

“Out of Nowhere” is considered a jazz standard and has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Dave Brubeck, and Coleman Hawkins, to name but a few. It was also Bing Crosby’s first big hit record.

1941, “Oh, Look At Me Now”: music Joe Bushkin, 1916–2004, lyrics John DeVries, 1915–1992

Arguably, this is the song that launched a young Frank Sinatra’s career. Bushkin was a jazz pianist who wanted to live to 88, since there were 88 keys on the piano. He did it. This was DeVries’s first lyric, but he was mainly a visual artist and designed some of the very first LP album covers, as well as the interiors of many jazz clubs, like the Famous Door and Eddie Condon’s on West 54th Street.

I put this song into a sort of galloping hillbilly rhythm (basically, boom-tiddy boom-tiddy). The first country/pop mashup I heard was by Jo Stafford, in her persona as “Cinderella G. Stump.” As “Cinderella,” she used Fio Rito’s “Temptation” and it became “Tim-Tay-Shun.” It was one of my primal influences.

For this recording, I hillbilly-ized it like I did “Goldfinger” and “Midnight In Paris” a few years ago.

1942, “I Remember You”: music Victor Schertzinger, 1888–1941, lyrics Johnny Mercer, 1909–1976

Infodump alert! This melody has a bunch of strange shit about it. I first heard it in 1963, sung by Frank Ifield, an Australian, but I had no idea how old it was until years later. I thought it was a new song, or at least a fairly recent one. Unlike any of the songs here, it could have been written during any decade from the ’30s to the 1960s. This melody has one of the strangest, most eerie vibes I’ve ever heard. I wish I were capable of writing something similar.

Schertzinger was a four-year-old violin prodigy who went on to play with John Phillip Souza’s band. In 1916 he was commissioned by Thomas Ince, the film producer/director, to compose music for the silent film Civilization. He would continue to do music for films as well as write, direct, and produce them for the rest of his life.

Johnny Mercer had no formal music training, but he wrote 1,500 songs over the course of his career. He was from Savannah, Georgia, and was one of the few white composers of the period who acknowledged being heavily influenced by black musicians. As a young man he bought records by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, among other black artists. He teamed up with Hoagy Carmichael in the ’30s. “Lazybones,” my 1933 song, was his first hit. The two of them also wrote “Skylark,” a personal favorite of mine. He also wrote “Moon River,” my 1961 song. Allegedly, he wrote “I Remember You” for Judy Garland, who, it’s said, he had an affair with when she was 19 and engaged to David Rose.

1943, “Pistol Packin’ Mama”: Al Dexter, 1905–1984

“Pistol Packin’ Mama,” the first country song I ever heard, is said to be the first crossover country hit of World War II. (I heard it about the same time as I heard “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere”—definitely from the same period.) Dexter had a big hit with it and later in the same year Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters put the song in the number one spot.

According to the 11 October 1943 New York Times, after the Yankees took the world championship back from the Cardinals, “songs boomed across Yankee Clubhouse in boisterous victory demonstration,” including “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” which they’d “adopted as their marching chorus for this year.”

It made a big impression on me when I was about five years old. I found the idea of a woman waving a gun around most compelling.

1945, “Love On A Greyhound Bus”: music George Stoll, 1905–1985, lyrics Ralph Blane, 1914–1998, and Kay Thompson, 1909–1998

Another great forgotten song, and what a crew of composers! Blane and his partner Hugh Martin are credited with writing “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (though Martin says he wrote them by himself).

Stoll was another songwriter who’d been a violin prodigy. As a jazz violinist, he played with Bing Crosby among others. He was musical director at MGM for many years and hired the first black arranger there, Calvin Jackson, with whom he wrote the score of Anchors Aweigh. After he died, his Amati violin sold for $625,000, the highest price paid for an Amati at the time.

Thompson was an American author, singer, vocal arranger, vocal coach, composer, dancer, and actress, and with the conductor Lennie Hayton, she co-invented the Lucky Strike Hit Parade in 1935. It played the top ten songs every week and later moved to television. She also wrote the Eloise children’s books. When asked if the character was based on the young Liza Minelli, she replied, “I am Eloise!” She was also mentor of the young Andy Williams in the ’50s and early ’60s. Williams, half her age, said in his 2009 memoir that they had had a secret affair. Go, Kay! Go Andy!

1951, “Jezebel”: Wayne Shanklin, 1916–1970

Shanklin also wrote “The Big Hurt,” “Primrose Lane,” and “Chanson D’Amour.” He had a total of ten children with a total of three wives, which may—or may not—have had a hand in inspiring “Jezebel.“

It was a big hit for Frankie Laine. He recorded it with the Norman Luboff Choir and Mitch Miller and his orchestra. It reached #2 on the Billboard chart and was a million seller. I’ve always liked songs about bad women.

1954, “Hearts of Stone: Eddy Ray, 1926–, and Rudy Jackson (?)

Co-writer Rudy Jackson, not to be confused with the Duke Ellington clarinetist of the same name, was a member of the Jewels, who originally recorded it. The Charms had the big R&B hit, and many thought theirs was the original. But it being 1954, the white Fontane Sisters had the biggest hit and took it to #1. Then Red Foley recorded a country version, which was also a hit, and a long list of musicians and singers have recorded it since. I gave the song a rewrite. It’s better now.

Eddy Ray, more often known as Eddie Ray, went off to become vice president of A&R at Capitol/Tower, the first black executive of a major label. Eventually, he went even further when President Reagan appointed him commissioner and chairman of the U.S. Copyright Royalty Tribunal (CRT).

1956 “I’m In Love Again”: Fats Domino, 1928–2017, and Dave Bartholomew, 1918–

Not to be confused with Cole Porter’s song of the same name. Up to this point (spring 1956), the white cover of an R&B hit would always outsell the original version. But in this case, although the song was widely covered, none outsold Domino’s. A huge breakthrough. This was the year I had four new heroes: Little Richard, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino. I liked dozens of other R&B stars, but they were my main men.

Co-writer Dave Bartholomew started one of the first “jump” groups—small groups that played music you could dance to.

After World War II, the big bands faded fast when the crowds began to spend their postwar money on cars and appliances that had not been available before. At the same time, bebop replaced swing, and I had been under the impression that, for the first time, people no longer danced to jazz. But a Facebook “friend” informed me that the new postwar cabaret (sp) laws in New York City made dancing in clubs illegal, just as bebop was coming in. So, no dancing to bebop in New York. But in Detroit, among other places, hepcats were dancing to Charlie Parker, employing moves as wild and radical as the new music. I’d kill to have seen that. But dancing to the new jazz faded, until it even became uncool to tap your feet to the music.

1958, “Rave On”: Buddy Holly, 1936–1959

Truthfully, I never heard this song, one of his greatest, until the ’70s. I loved his music, but never bought any of his albums. What can I say about Buddy Holly? I once had a dream that I was back in 1959 trying to talk him out of taking the plane. In 1960, I also dreamed I was trying to talk Jimmie Rodgers into going into a TB treatment facility. He was in an expensive car and waved me off, just like Holly.

1969, “Log Cabin Home In The Sky”: Mike Heron, 1942–

This song was recorded by the Incredible String Band on their album Wee Tam and the Big Huge and is the second non-U.S. song in this project. The ISB made a number of great albums in the ’60s and ’70s, and I like the twist this song gives to the 100.

1970, “Let’s Work Together”: Wilbert Harrison, 1929–1994

Right, the Wilbert Harrison who did “Kansas City.” Originally recorded in 1962, the perfect version that Harrison released in ’69 was eclipsed by the less-than-perfect Canned Heat version.

1976, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”: Tommy Ramone, 1949–2014

Slowing it down and making it bluesy was Mark’s idea, and it took me a while to get used to, but I sure did. I had a bad case of the don’t-wannas in the mid-’70s regarding live music and never went to CBGBs to see them, or the Talking Heads, or Blondie. Whatta dummy. I did see Television and wasn’t that knocked out. But I played there a number of times with the Unholy Modal Rounders (1975−77). For the definitive take on punk rock on the Lower East Side, see the Jeffrey Lewis epic musical explanation on YouTube. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCYMFB7UPeY) It ends with the Ramones going to the U.K. and people are thinking: Punk is born. But Jeffrey says it was already a quarter-century old, beginning with Harry Smith’s arrival on the Lower East Side in 1950.

My take on punk is that it was a reaction to the often bloated arena rock that arrived in the ’70s and an attempt to get back to the simpler days of rock ‘n’ roll, only with a potty mouth. I felt the Fugs were the first punks—bad attitude, no musical knowledge, let’s write 60 songs, like “Coca-Cola Douche” and the immortal “Bull Tongue Clit.” Lewis predates them in his punk history with the Holy Modal Rounders (1963). I can live with that.

1980, “Girls Talk”: Elvis Costello, 1954–

I first heard the Linda Ronstadt cover of the Dave Edmunds cover of this Elvis Costello song. I thought, this is one of the most brilliant structures I‘ve ever heard. It felt like an airplane doing aerobatics, or a roller coaster. I love that the intro is in a different key, and I love even more that the instrumental break goes back to the intro key. I thought, I could never write something like this in a million years or even play and sing it. But 37 years later, I worked it out on banjo. I didn’t know it was an Elvis Costello song and was shocked when I heard his version, which I thought was much less interesting.

Back in the ’70s, a lot of people went on about how music had gotten so much worse than it was in the ’60s. In the ’80s, the same sort of peeps went on about the awful ’80s. Same deal in the ’90s, aughties (I’m glad this designation for the ’00s seems to be the one that’s taking hold, it was always my favorite), and on to the present. I still hear smart peeps and/or good musicians go on about all current music being crap. Sure, there’s always been crap music around, but I noticed in the ’50s that the top 30% of the top 100 hits had a higher concentration of good stuff than the bottom 70%. I’ve found this to be a constant. In any event, “Girls Talk” is as good as anything ever was or will be.

1994, “Earth To Grandma”: Music Randy Cheek, 1961–, Chuck Cleaver, 1959–, John Erhardt, 1960–, and David Morrison, 1966–, lyrics Cleaver

The Ass Ponys are out of Cincinnati and are a perfect example of Midwestern weirdness. As a Midwesterner for my first twenty years (believe me, it never goes away, nor would I want it to) I’ve always found the Midwest to be as strange/weird/uncanny as anywhere in the good old USA, in some ways a little more so. Re the grandma in the song, there are tens of millions like her, bless their tens of millions of souls. For me, this song embraces goofiness and celebrating the old folks at home. Deeply satisfying to sing.

While working on the hundred songs, I noticed a phenomenon I referred to as the spread, by which I mean the span of years in which a song, stylistically speaking, could have been written. “Nobody,” for example, had a spread from 1906, when it was written, to the early ’20s, when I thought it was written, unusually long for that era. Most songs from the first half of the twentieth century have a spread of 5, 10, or 15 years. But in the ’50s, with rock ‘n’ roll, it goes all weird. Most early R&B/R&R songs from the ’50s could only have come from the ’50s, a spread of two or three years being common. By ’62, rock had gone through a sea change, but still, the spread tended to be short. For example, I deeply love the R&B period, approximately ’59/’67, which is so dissimilar to what came before or after. But by the ’70s, there are songs that could have been written years later, although that mostly works backwards. For example, “Earth To Grandma” could have been written any time between the ’70s and the present. A number of 21st century songs could have been written in the 20th century. An occasional 21st century song could have been written in the ’70s, or even the ’60s

The first volume of The American 20th Century in 100 Songs will soon be released in vinyl on the Feeding Tube label.