The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Am I Blue?

Am I Blue?

#97 / July 15 Podcast

No transcript...

Born in New York City in the waning years of the 19th century, Harry Akst started out as a vaudeville pianist, backing Nora Bayes as she belted out tunes like “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”

In 1916 Harry enlisted in the army, and while at Camp Upton in Yaphank, NY, on Long Island, he befriended another young composer, Irving Berlin. At the end of World War I, Akst and Berlin collaborated on the No. 2 recording of 1921, "Home Again Blues.”

Then in 1925, Akst teamed up with lyricists Sam Lewis and Joe Young, to write “Dinah,” one of the most recorded songs from the Roarin’ Twenties. As noted in last week’s podcast, "Dinah" was introduced by Ethel Waters at the Plantation Club on Broadway within a year of its composition. It went on to be recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker to Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers and the Boswell Sisters to Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk and Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli.

Enter “Am I Blue?”

So our Harry already was a well-established songsmith when four years later he wrote “Am I Blue?” Right off the bat, it was another hit for Ethel Waters, this time in 1929’s “On With the Show,” the first all-talking, all-color feature length movie in history.

“Am I Blue?" was Waters’ biggest hit (No. 1 for two weeks) and became her signature tune. Her Columbia recording, waxxed with a studio orchestra on May 14, 1929, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007.

Over the past 90+ years, Hollywood has fallen madly in love with “Am I Blue?” To date, the song has appeared in more than 40 movies, four in the year 1929 alone.

Our particular favorite is Hoagy Carmichael’s saucy 1944 performance of the tune for Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawks’ “To Have and Have Not.” More recently, the song has been used in “Funny Lady” (1975 ), “The Cotton Club” (1984 ) and this year’s “Downton Abbey: A New Era.”

It probably was the celluloid success of “Am I Blue?” that prompted Harry Akst’s decision to leave his native New York City for the West Coast, settling in Hollywood in the late ’20s to work on dozens of movie scores over the next three decades.

Harry even got a little screen time himself. You can catch glimpses of him as “Jerry” — rehearsal pianist, show pit orchestra conductor and concertmaster — in 1933’s “42nd Street.” (Some of the same footage also was used later in “Gold Diggers of 1937.”)

Multiple Genres

A wide variety of styles have been applied to “Am I Blue?” over the years.

Jazz artists from Billie Holiday to Grant Green covered it. Proto-rockers Eddie Cochran and Rick Nelson both recorded renditions in 1957. Rhythm and blues versions were done by Ray Charles in 1959 and Fat Domino in 1961. Many women song stylists -- Linda Ronstadt, Cher, Brenda Lee, Bette Midler, Dinah Washington, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Rita Coolidge — have covered the song. George Strait even had a No. 1 country hit with it.

Our Take on the Tune

A lot of those renditions presented the tune slowly and deliberately, but that’s not our style. Anyone who knows us knows The Flood is not really dirge-friendly.

In fact, years ago, our beloved co-founder Dave Peyton said that if The Flood had a spirit animal, it probably would be Leon Redbone. So, our take on “Am I Blue?” is how we imagine Brother Redbone would do it.

The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: