The news was bad: The Depression. Unemployment. War.
But the music of the big bands helped folks forget all that for a while. "Gotta Date with an Angel." "Stardust." "Green Eyes."
Twelve, fourteen, maybe twenty musicians would load up a bus, doing one- or two-nighters in hotels and dance halls around the country.
Couples would dance or crowd around the stage; the leaders were heroes: Benny Goodman. Count Basie. Glenn Miller.
Now, forty years later, big bands are back. Not like they used to be, maybe, but in enough places around town so you can hear their music almost every day of the week.
"I don't know exactly why it is," said Al Kessler, program manager of WEAM-AM, which switched from playing standard rock music to that of the big bands. "Since we've gone big-band [about 3 1/2 months ago], the response has been great. Big-band music seems to flourish when things aren't going too well. It's not downer type music."
At the Port O'Georgetown, in Canal Square, Ed Walker was spinning the memories one recent Sunday night.
"Okaaaay," he tells couples huddled at little tables. "Here's one by Ray Conniff. Ray, who once did some arranging for Artie Shaw." He pushes a button on a console in front of him on to turn on the record player, snaps his fingers lightly and leans back. "Bah-bah-bah, bah-bah-bah, bah-ya-ya," he croons along with the Ray Conniff singers.
He and engineer Al Freedman, both big-band record collectors, have been spinning disks together for about five years. They just began Sunday-night sessions at the Port O'Georgetown about two weeks ago and will be at the Black Horse Tavern on Friday nights starting at the end of May.
"We get people doing the samba!" says Freedman excitedly. "When's the last time you saw someone doing the samba?"
For them it's four hours of playing music they know well, singing along and moving with the beat. For the people who listen, says Walker, "it's a lot of hold 'em and kiss 'em music they love. The term 'big-band' encompasses a lot," Walker explained. "basically, it's a group of at least 12 musicians who play arranged pieces. It's a real team effort and the result is a precise sound."
Walker was a teenager in the late 1930s. "It was hip then to know who played trumpet on what record," he said, "like knowing who plays in the Jefferson Starship today."
About five years ago he was about to give away his thousands of big-band records when he was tapped to do a Sunday morning show on WMAL.Now there's a Big Band Society (the 1,200 members in Washington are the "Ed Walker chapter") and a radio slot on WAMU-FM, too.
"We get people who remember the music themselves, and young people who yearn for the 'good old days,'" said Walker. "The music is sweet or it's swing and it makes people feel good."