1940s music was constantly changing. It was the dawn of bebop and later of swing. But it was also a time of tremendous political change, and as The Second World War unfolded, some of the best songs from the 40s commemorate that war.
Here are some of the most popular and best-beloved 1940s songs.
White Christmas by Bing Crosby
Perhaps the most popular song from the 40s is Bing Crosby’s rendition of ‘White Christmas.’
Irving Berlin, who wrote ‘White Christmas’ was Jewish, but that didn't stop him painting an intimate and nostalgic picture of the holiday season.
The song was originally part of a musical called ‘Holiday Inn,’ now infamous for its use of blackface.
The song was also the centerpiece of the 1954 reworking of ‘Holiday Inn,' called ‘White Christmas.'
Notably, the standout song in both musicals is Berlin’s classic Christmas song.
Stardust by Artie Shaw
Stardust was composed in 1927. It was immediately popular and quickly became part of The Great American Songbook.
But it wasn’t until Artie Shaw played the song on his clarinet that it rose to stardom. By 1939, Shaw was a man of musical note and virtuosity. His improvisations and solos garnered all kinds of attention.
‘Stardust’ was no exception, except in one particular. Shaw was famous for improvising without notes, something few jazz artists risk doing. But Shaw sketched a musical outline for the ‘Stardust’ improvisation. It’s a testament to the complexity of the improvisation Shaw did this.
Sentimental Journey by Les Brown and Doris Day
Les Brown and his band had been trying to record this song from the 1940s for years by the time the 1944 collaboration with Doris Day occurred.
The problem was the 1942-44 musicians’ strike. The musicians took exception to popular record companies’ distribution of royalty payments. Consequently, no one could record or release new music until the strike ended.
‘Sentimental Journey’ was the ideal new recording for Les Brown and his fellow musicians. The instrumentalization is bold, brassy, and snappy in a way that popular 40s music needed to be. On vocals, Doris Day’s vocal color gives the song the warmth and intimacy it needs to keep listeners engaged.
Body and Soul by Coleman Hawkins
‘Body and Soul’ was written collaboratively by John Green, Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton.
‘Body and Soul’ was a favorite as soon as it debuted in the 1930s. The familiar chord progressions made it easy to sing, with the notable exception of the bridge.
Hawkins’ artistic rendition stands out because he and his musicians barely sketch the famous melody. Instead, they use those predictable chords as the foundation of extravagant and nuanced improvisation. It was bold, daring, and still one of the most famous 40s song renditions there is.
As Time Goes By by Dooley Wilson
‘As Time Goes By’ is another song composed in the 1930s. But it became famous overnight when Dooley Wilson sang it in 1942 for the film ‘Casablanca.’
The song soon became so synonymous with Warner Brothers that modern audiences are more likely to recognize it as the musical cue that introduced several Warner Brothers films.
Originally, Herman Hupfeld penned ‘As Time Goes By’ with an introduction that contextualized the ensuing verses and chorus. However, Wilson never sang it, and after his version took the music world by storm, neither did anyone else.
Take the A-Train by Duke Ellington
No list of 40s music is complete without mentioning ‘Take the A-Train.’ Although Billy Strayhorn wrote it, the song was the signature song for Duke Ellington’s band.
The story is that Ellington hired Strayhorn to write new music for his band as they traveled the country. Arranging to meet with Strayhorn, Ellington gave him directions to help the composer navigate New York, and these began ‘Take the A-Train.’ The rest, as they say, is history.
This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie
The 1940s are best remembered for their swing and bebop, but jazz wasn’t the only music to come out of the era.
In 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote ‘This Land is Your Land.’ Ever one with a cause, the song was a musical retaliation against what Guthrie perceived as the condoning of an unequal distribution of American wealth in songs like ‘God Bless America.’
That Old Black Magic by Glenn Miller
Harold Arlen wrote the music to ‘That Old Black Magic,’ and Johnny Mercer penned the lyrics.
Originally, ‘That Old Black Magic’ was part of the film ‘Star Spangled Rhythm.’ John Johnson sang it while Vera Zorina danced.
The song’s popularity ensured that several singers covered it. Some of the best-known include:
- Judy Garland
- Gordon Jenkins
- Glenn Miller Orchestra
Glenn Miller’s version, with its striking orchestration, remains the most familiar version to jazz aficionados, but the status of ‘That Old Black Magic’ as a jazz standard ensures there’s no shortage of versions to listen to.
Some Enchanted Evening by Perry Como
‘Some Enchanted Evening’ was the brainchild of musical duo Rogers and Hammerstein. They wrote the song for part of the musical ‘South Pacific.’
The combination of lyricism and romanticism in ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ made it an instant hit when it debuted late in the 40s.
The other fun bit of trivia about ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ is that it’s a verb song. Each verse is replete with verbs like:
People Will Say We’re In Love by Bing Crosby and Trudy Erwin
The 40s was a great age for the musical. ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ is another Rogers and Hammerstein offering, this time from ‘Oklahoma.’
Part of this song from the 40s’ enduring genius is that it pokes fun at carefully constructed societal convention and courtship. As the reluctant lovers spar, each gives the other a list of Dos and Don’ts to keep local gossip to a minimum.
It’s romantic, it’s playful, and its accessible tessitura means anyone can try singing it.
I Love You for Sentimental Reasons by Nat King Cole
Ivory ‘Deek’ Watson’ wrote ‘For Sentimental Reasons’ for the Ink Spots, but when people think of this popular 40s song, they think of Nat King Cole’s smooth tenor singing it.
Cole is primarily associated with jazz, but his early career involved a variety of crooning songs, and ‘For Sentimental Reasons’ is one of the best examples. It’s intimate, romantic, and has just enough eclectic piano chords to keep the harmony interesting.
Straighten Up and Fly Right by Nat King Cole
Speaking of Nat King Cole, ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ was his signature piece.
The lyrics come from a sermon anecdote Cole’s father used when he preached, about a buzzard with a penchant for offering flights to unsuspecting animals, only to throw them overboard and eat them. A monkey eventually outwits him.
Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree by The Andrews Sisters
The Andrews Sisters were a popular swing group throughout the 1940s. One of the hallmarks of their music is their familial harmonies. Their vocal lines interweave and blend in a way a choir of unrelated singers would struggle to replicate.
The natural optimism of ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’ combined effectively with those harmonies and the nascent swing tradition to make it a memorable song from the 1940s.
White Cliffs of Dover by Lisa Martin
In contrast to the jaunty melody of ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,’ ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ offers a slower-paced war-era song from the 1940s.
The inspiration for the song came from the ongoing battle of Britain that saw the Luftwaffe and British airplanes flying over Dover.
The lugubrious melody paints an idyllic picture of peacetime.
It also hearkens back to the English pastoral that made people like Vaughn Williams or Edmund Spencer famous.
Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk
There are many songs from the 1940s, but none of them gets recorded as often as ‘Round Midnight.’
It’s spikier than something like ‘White Cliffs of Dover,’ and Monk wrote ‘Round Midnight’ when he was 19. He reworked it over the years, integrating things like Dizzy Gillespie’s famous introduction and cadenza for brass. But even before incorporating these, it was a success.
All the Things You Are by Miles Davies
Written for the musical ‘Broadway Rhythm,’ ‘All the Things That You Are’ quickly jumped from musical number to jazz standard. In addition to Miles Davies' adept rendition, it was a favorite with jazz greats:
- Tommy Dorsey
- Artie Shaw
- Ella Fitzgerald
These days you hear the chorus of this song from the 1940s more than you hear the verse. It’s a shame because ‘All the Things That You Are’ makes compelling use of the circle of fifths, and transposes the repeated A verse up a fourth.
But whether you listen for the musical nuances of the melody, there’s no denying this example of 40s music stands the test of time.
The Surrey With the Fringe on Top by John Coltrane
‘Surrey With the Fringe on Top’ is yet another Rogers and Hammerstein piece that started life as a musical theater song and made the transition to a jazz standard.
This song from the 1940s is a delight sung straight, but Coltrane’s brassy improvisations reinvent the wheel in a way that’s musically engaging and easy to listen to.
The smooth, sliding instrumentation contrasts with the piano chords in a way that recreates the original duet while also playing with harmony. It’s a great 40s song for the casual or expert music lover.
My Foolish Heart by Gordon Jenkins
Victor Young and Ned Mears collaborated on ‘My Foolish Heart’ to be the musical lynchpin of a film of the same name. Margaret Mears sang the song for the 1949 film.
But the popularity of this 40s song outlasted the film, and in addition to Mears and Young, various jazz artists recorded versions, Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra among them.
Other famous artists to record the song include:
- Bing Crosby
- Bill Evans Trio
A String of Pearls by Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller and his orchestra recorded ‘A String of Pearls’ in November 1941, just before the musician's strike.
Jerry Gray wrote the music, and Eddie DeLong penned the lyrics. Since 1941, this song from the 1940s remains a staple of popular culture. You can hear it played in various films, including:
- Carnal Knowledge
- The Carol Burnett Show
- Dennis the Menace
- Revolutionary Road
When You Wish Upon a Star by Cliff Edwards
Another popular song from the 1940s was Disney’s ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’
The song appears in ‘Pinocchio,’ where Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket sings the melody.
In the film, the music plays over the opening sequence. Edwards also released a recorded version in 1940, where he sang with Julietta Novis and the King’s Men under the baton of Victor Young.
Paper Doll by The Mills Brothers
Johnny S Black wrote ‘Paper Doll’ in 1915, but it wasn’t published until 1930.
When The Mills Brothers recorded it in 1943, it jumped to sudden and immediate popularity, where it continued for the next 12 weeks.
For the Mills Brothers, this revitalized a floundering career. It has the distinction of being one of a handful of singles to sell over ten million copies.
Chattanooga Choo Choo by Glenn Miller
Composed by Harry Warden and with lyrics by Mack Gordon, ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ is another example of 40s music.
Specifically, it’s an example of 40s swing music. Glenn Miller and his orchestra brought the piece to popular notice when they played it for the film ‘Sun Valley Serenade.’
In testament to the song’s popularity, it was the first song to earn a Gold Record through the music recording certification program.
Let It Snow by Vaughan Monroe
Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ wasn’t the only Christmas song from the 1940s with staying power.
‘Let It Snow’ is another Christmas staple from the 40s. Vaughan Monroe made it popular when he recorded it in 1945.
Incredibly, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote this song not during a blizzard but at the height of a California heatwave.
Other popular recordings of this song include versions by:
- Frank Sinatra
- Dean Martin
- Jessica Simpson
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered by Vivienne Segal
‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ began life as a musical theater number from the Rodgers and Hart production of ‘Pal Joey.’
‘Pal Joey’ quickly faded into the theater background, but not so ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.’ Like other musical theater numbers before it, the song outlived the source material as a popular jazz standard of the 1940s.
Vivienne Segal first made the song famous. But as 1940s songs evolved, they became a staple for singers like:
- Doris Day
- Ella Fitzgerald
Brush Up Your Shakespeare by Cole Porter
Last but not least, it’s impossible to talk about 1940s music without mentioning Cole Porter. No one writes a lyric as wryly or wittily as Porter does and ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare,’ from the 1948 Musical ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is the perfect example.
Throughout this ribald duet, singers riff with abandon on Shakespeare play titles, and quotes, and even use Shakespearian nonsense words to eschew the censor.
Top Songs from the 40s, Final Thoughts
Songs from the 1940s vary. Some are jazzy, some are lyrical, and many have a nostalgic quality.
The 40s songs best-known today are the ones that have proved most adaptable to different singing styles and genres. Typically, they’re also songs with messages that endure, whether they’re about love, loss, or the holidays.