Jazz Age Songs About Tough Guys
February 13, 2020 7:37 AM   Subscribe

What are some songs about tough guys, fights, or fearsome figures that would have been recognizable in the U.S. prior to 1933? Details below.

Later examples of the kind of thing I'm looking for would be things like "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and "You Don't Mess Around with Jim", "Big Boy Pete" and "Big Bad John", "Amos Moses", "Big Iron", or "Mack the Knife". (I know "Mack the Knife" originated in the Threepenny Opera in '28, but even the earliest U.S. release is slightly too late for my purposes.)

So far I've only got "Stagger Lee" - what other jazz or popular standards am I missing? American Yiddish theater songs are in play too.
posted by northernish to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: John Henry? Library of Congress links to some versions here (lower right, "Related items").
posted by jabes at 7:56 AM on February 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's a little older than you're targeting and more celebratory of the office than the person, but first thought is Behold the Lord High Executioner from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (1885)
posted by SpiffyRob at 8:04 AM on February 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Depends on whether you are including folk/"hillbilly" for whatever purposes you are seeking this info - lots and lots of such songs including John Hardy, Jesse James, etc. etc. etc.
posted by sheldman at 8:12 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

"Pretty Boy Floyd," popularized by Woody Guthrie might be worth a listen. Also, possibly, "John Hardy" or "Frankie and Johnny?"
posted by eotvos at 8:23 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The song Jesse James was first recorded in 1919 per Wikipedia.
(When the Elton John song "I Feel LIke a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford" came out, I asked my dad who Robert Ford was. He said, "He's the dirty little coward that shot Howard and laid Jesse James in his grave", which is a slightly incorrect quote from that song.)
posted by FencingGal at 8:43 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Mack the Knife was written in 1928. Introduced to the US in 1933 when The Threepenny Opera opened in the US.

Probably not widely known prior to 1933.
posted by mygoditsbob at 9:03 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

"Frankie and Johnny?"

Frankie Baker was not a tough guy but was a woman and may well have been tough :)
posted by sheldman at 9:12 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm coming up blank but this may help: American folk songs rooted in real events.
posted by freya_lamb at 9:42 AM on February 13, 2020

Best answer: Railroad Bill. 1929 version.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:49 AM on February 13, 2020

I listen to a lot of old music (pre WWII). I have to say: Nothing is coming to mind outside the songs recommended here. Early popular music tended to have light themes. Folk and country music dealt with darker topics, but jazz? Jazz was fun. Not saying you won't find anything, but trying to say that I can't think of anything and I listen to the stuff a lot.
posted by jdroth at 11:56 AM on February 13, 2020

Best answer: John Hardy. Carter Family version
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:57 AM on February 13, 2020

Best answer: Like Frankie Baker, Minnie the Moocher was a woman, and 'the roughest, toughest frail'. Cab Calloway's 1931 recording was a colossal hit
posted by MinPin at 12:04 PM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older Is it possible to find a Suit Today -- Including...   |   Were gas stations open at night in the early 1970s... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.