Friday, February 24, 2012

Yes, I’m a closet 1940s Music Fan! Are you?

The 1930 US Federal Census asked if each household had a radio.  This is a fun thing to look up when you are researching your ancestors in the 1930s.  On the 1940 census households weren’t asked about radios, but you can tell from history books that this was the “Golden Age” of radio.  There were radio shows based on comedies, mysteries, drama and music.  There were variety hours hosted by stars from Hollywood.  By the 1950 census, television would be making its first transmissions into houses across America.

Several years ago I bought a “demonstrator model” car.   It came “as is” with XM satellite radio.  I wasn’t going to renew the six month free subscription, but at the end of the six months I had fallen in love with channel 4 which plays music from the 1940s.  I was happy to send in a check for the next year, and the next year, and the next…

Can you blame me?  As a historian and genealogist I find the 1940s music station endlessly fascinating.  I was born in the 1960s, when Rock and Roll ruled the airwaves.   When I listen to the 40s channel I hear World War II songs, and recordings of Bob Hope entertaining the troops, but also music of a bygone time.   There are Latin beat songs about vacationing in Cuba (I wish!) played by Desi Arnaz long before he was Lucy’s husband.  Folk music in the 1940s was played by Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and was gaining In popularity before they were hushed in the 50s when the Red Scare called some of these musicians subversives.

I especially love the songs my father, uncle and grandmother sang from the 1940s.  All of them have now passed away.  It is always poignant to hear “Mairzy Doats” in my car now, because that was the one my Dad would sing at the top of his voice in our old station wagon when I was a kid.  My Uncle Bob knew all the lyrics to “Der Fuehrer’s Face”, even though it seemed slightly naughty to us kids because of the rude noise (I think you would call it a raspberry or a Bronx cheer) that accompanied each chorus.  My grandmother would sing “I love you a Bushel and Peck” .

One of my favorite stories about my Dad is from his only trip to England.  They visited a World War II British airbase and my Dad broke into “On a Wing and Prayer” and had the whole tour bus singing along with him.  The Americans all sang “White Cliffs of Dover” and “There’ll always be an England”, much to the delight of their British bus driver. All these wartime songs were from the 1940s. This is a story I'll pass along to my descendants!

Do you have memories of folks in your family tree singing some of the whacky songs from the 1940s such as “Boogy Woogie Bugle Boy” or “Chickery Chick”?   The classic “I’m My Own Grandpa” was first recorded in 1947, and should be the official anthem for genealogists.

My favorite thing about the 1940s music is that it was beginning to break the color barrier.  Before this time period, there was a definite market for white listeners and a separate music genre for people of color.  But in the 1940s everyone listened to the Mills Brothers sing “Glow Worm”, ballads by Nat King Cole or the blues performed by Louis Armstrong.  After swing music ushered in Rock and Roll in the late 1940s, the color barrier was broken down even further by groups playing each other’s music.  By the 1950s, Elvis Presley had fused black and white music together into Rock, and by the 1960s music was no longer seen as “black” or “white”.

I can also hit channel 82 and listen to the Classic Radio Shows like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen or The Shadow, and I’m back in the Golden Age of radio again!

The 1940 census doesn't ask about radios, but it will include some new questions such as:

Was this person employed in emergency work (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc)?  Remember this was still the Great Depression era.
Is this person seeking work?
Income for the twelve months of 1939 
Residence in 1935 (great question to track migration patterns in families!)
There is also a supplemental section where two people on each page are asked an additional list of questions, hopefully one of those two people is from your ancestral family! 


If you don’t have satellite radio, here are some links to 1940s music:

Music of Your Life on the internet at

The UK 1940s Radio Station, complete with music and old commercials

Old Time Radio shows (Comedy, Detective, Mystery or Drama)

Click here to find out more about the 1940 US Federal Census release on 2 April 2012 

Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Heather--

    Another great post. I, too, also love music of earlier eras, although I am more a fan of 'twenties and 'thirties tunes. One quibble (but we genealogists love our facts): your grandmother would not have been singing "A Bushel and a Peck" in the 'forties, as it was written for "Guys and Dolls," which opened in late 1950.
    Robert Burnett

  2. Great post! I love 1940's music, too. I also listen to old radio shows via iTunes. They have old episodes of comedies, mysteries, and westerns. All free.

  3. This is an awesome post, Heather! I know what I'll be listening to on April 2nd now:-)

  4. Another great radio show is "The Swing Years and Beyond" which is broadcast on Seattle's KUOW and is available both by streaming and on podcasts.
    This show plays music from the 1920s thru the 1950s and has turned out to be a favorite show of mine. The host, Amanda Wilde, is fabulous!

  5. Thanks, Wendy for the link to more music! and thanks everyone for your comments.

  6. Great post, Heather! My parents were and are huge music fans. They were born in the 20s and loved all types of current music until about the 1960s and "those damn hippies"!!! So I grew up with 30s, 40s, 50s, show tunes, all that stuff and love it! This post brought back lots of memories, especially my mom singing in the kitchen!

  7. Heather - great post. As a singer in various choruses over the years, I've actually sung some of these. I remember my mother singing some of these. For variety, I occasionally enjoy that "40's on 4" channel on Sirius-XM too, though my 15-year-old son finds it funny.

    I don't know when it's from, but a favorite of my dad's was "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On the Bedpost Overnight"

  8. Actually, the 1940 Census DID ask whether there was a radio in the household. It wasn't asked on the population schedule (like in 1930), but instead was asked on the new housing schedule which was destroyed before filming.

    Joel Weintraub
    Dana Point, CA

  9. I loved your post. I also love 40's on 4 and the classic radio station. Many of the 40's songs were used in the 50's and 60's music, most you don't even recognize.
    There is a country song by Lionel Cartwright, "I watched it all/on my radio" that really explains how the radio was for everyone before TV. I can picture everyone sitting around the radio set and seeing the world.

    Barbara Murphy

  10. YES, I love the music of the 1940's-- particularly swing. My parents were kids in the 40's, and remember listening to radio shows and bands. They didn't come of age till the 50's, and Dad remembers how popular Frank Sinatra when he (my Dad) was in high school. He remembers his music teacher at Boston Latin pronouncing Sinatra's singing voice "flat as a pancake", ha.

    Great post, Heather!