Gene Austin – My Blue Heaven (1927, Victor)
Why It’s Perfect: Crusty old people love to talk about how “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” as if this is inherently a bad thing; would you really want to go back to condoms made out of pig intestines? What the codgers do have right, though, is that there really isn’t pop music like this anymore, simple yet bittersweet, intimate and serene. The lyrics of My Blue Heaven are a sort of domestic idyll, and, to listeners at the time, Gene Austin’s soft, willowy delivery bespoke nothing more than the contentment of a father with a young family. It’s not like times were much simpler then; young fathers sweated to pay bills, lamented the loss of their independence, dallied with other women and faced all of the other challenges men do today. The difference was that the pop music of the day spoke to different ideals, and songs tended to play out their scenarios with a sort of unvarnished sentimentality. Today, we only hear music like My Blue Heaven in contexts which play on its nostalgic value, such as oldies radio, period films and advertisements. Eighty years of unease, sexual transgression, “You” marketing, racial integration and ambiguity in our songs have made it so we hear in the emotional sincerity of My Blue Heaven shades of sadness and reflection which were not present when it was recorded.
Far from harming the song, the years have made this tune all the stronger. Austin was among the first performers to grasp the potential of the electric microphone: it allowed a performer to sing quietly and still be heard in the cheap seats on the vaudeville circuit. There are nuances to his schoolboy croon which allow him to imbue somewhat soporific lines like “What makes the world go round? Nothing but love” with meaning, and in the way he wordlessly sings the melody during the bridge there is a relaxed grace that would be impossible were he forced to holler like contemporary vaudevillian Al Jolson. Instrumentally, Austin is primarily accompanied by a lightly shuffling piano which echoes the vocal melody, while legendary conductor Nat Shilkret sketches out a gorgeous string accompaniment which is both moving and understated, capturing the joy intended by the composers and the increasing sense of wistfulness which the ensuing years have created.
Listening to it now, even the crackle and hiss of the disintegrating recording adds to its soft focus bliss. Heaven is yours where this is.
Defining Moment: The bridge, where Austin sort of scats along with the string section. It fills my heart.
Other Great Songs by Gene Austin: Gene Austin was one of the most popular recording artists of the early 20th century, with My Blue Heaven in particular smashing sales records. Other great hits by Austin include Bye Bye Blackbird, Carolina Moon and The Lonesome Road, the last of which he composed himself. All are worth your time if you enjoy this era of pop music.