The Sounds of 1941: Popular Music in the Era of the Four Freedoms Speech

By Tyler Myers

Cast your minds back to an era before computers, when radio was king, with the sounds of the 1941.

Glenn Miller Orchestra, New York, N.Y., between 1938 and 1948.  William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Glenn Miller Orchestra, New York, N.Y., between 1938 and 1948. 
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

America was a different place 75 years ago and the popular songs of the time reflect the vast changes in American culture. Big Band and swing music dominated the American charts, jazz and Dixieland grew in popularity, and country music experienced a growing fan base. Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra all make an appearance on Billboard magazine’s newly minted “Music Popularity Chart” in 1941.

Portrait of Artie Shaw, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Portrait of Artie Shaw, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the Four Freedoms speech before a joint session of Congress on January 6, 1941 the number one single at the time was “Frenesi” by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra. “Frenesi” is Spanish for “frenzy,” which is a perfect description of world affairs at the time. Germany and Italy had already invaded almost all of Western and Eastern Europe and consolidated the Axis powers. Americans were conflicted over engaging in another world war, but by the end of the year, Congress will declare war on Japan and Germany and enter into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

FDR’s Four Freedoms speech in January and the Declaration of War in December act as bookends for 1941; a year that forever changed the course of world history. Take the opportunity to travel back in time and listen to the songs of a nation on the brink with our 1941 popular music playlist below.