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Playlist for The Adventures of the Flash Gang


by Sandra Waugh and Melanie Murray Downing

Our middle-grade trilogy began as a lark—two authors in a writers group decided to co-author the sort of grand adventure they loved as children. The story needed a quirky, memorable, lovable heroine and an unlikely hero—not strong or confident or an overtly natural leader. Extra points if they were orphans. And it needed a dark and gloomy setting, perfect for danger, mystery and vanquishing very bad guys.

Enter be-spectacled, weak-lunged Lewis and the tutu-wearing, starry-eyed Pearl who dismantle a pro-Nazi plot in 1935 Pittsburgh with help from streeter friends Mac and Duck. The Great Depression, with its food lines, shanty towns and hollow-eyed people whose lives had suddenly imploded, was the perfect setting. And Pittsburgh specifically fit the bill for the world we aimed to create with its great steel factories belching endless ribbons of poisonous smog, its wonderfully steep ridges and numerous bridges across three converging rivers. It had rickety wooden staircases, back alleys, grim skies…we could go on!

And thus, THE ADVENTURES OF THE FLASH GANG (Episodes One and Two out now) was born.

Our story begged for a soundtrack that represented those powerful times, with music that would help us define our characters, hear their voices, feel their postures and gaits; music that would enhance our research, offer insights to the sentiments of an impoverished population and inspire certain scenes. We wanted songs that were popular, the ones whistled on the street. We wanted the sad songs of hardship, but also the bright and happy songs that aimed to cheer up a struggling population. We pulled from jazz, musicals, folk and spirituals. We hope you enjoy these as much as we do.


Pretending, inspiring…

“Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” Rudy Vallee, from George White’s Scandals of 1931   

Ahh…Rudy Vallee, America’s heartthrob! Telling us not to take life too seriously during the depths of terribly hard times.

“We’re in the Money” from the film “Goldiggers of 1933”.  

You grin just listening to this—those lovely tinny voices, but Busby Berkeley’s amazing choreography is a plus! Mac and Duck definitely did a jig to this as they pinched a coin or two.

“In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town” Ted Lewis

In 1932 it’s rather odd that he’s wistfully crooning about a shanty. But we imagine this was to make hardship feel noble.

“Inka Dinka Doo” 

This was written in 1933 but here is the iconic Jimmy Durante, in the movie Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), grinning from ear to ear the whole time. Our dear Duck would have whistled along.

“You’re the Top” COLE PORTER OF COURSE! Pure joy. Written for the musical Anything Goes. 1934.  

If we have Cole Porter, we have to include Fats Waller. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was co-written for the musical Connie’s Hot Chocolates, retitled Hot Chocolates when it moved to Broadway in 1929—it performed there from June to December that year, straddling the October stock market crash. The difference between its opening and its closing nights must have been stunning. This one is Waller playing piano.


Honest, wishful, dreaming, asking…

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” 1931. Bing Crosby sings this classic. The title says it all.

“Hobo’s Lullaby” Goebel Reeves (1934).  

Reeves sings in this one, but this next clip, a contemporary video with Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, is so heartfelt, it became our favorite.

“Big Rock Candy Mountain”  Harry McClintock 1928.

We don’t know if McClintock is the original writer/composer, but this may be the earliest recording of this song. Wishful dreaming—this one’s for Mac.

“Waitin’ for a Train” Jimmie Rodgers  

There is another recording of Rodgers singing this in 1928. This one is later, but so nice to watch him serenade his grandmotherly companion. We picture these small entertainments, simple acts like singing for one another, as bright lights in dark times.


The music that put us in the story-writing mood, where we pictured our characters beyond their scenes

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Elsie Carlisle. 1934.

We picture Pearl singing this, because, as she will tell you, she is an expert at singing. And she most surely would have seen the film Roberta with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and would have decided she was also an expert at dancing.

And if we mention Fred Astaire, we have to mention the Nicholas Brothers! This is the sort of music we hear our Gang pulling their food heists to! From 1934.

The incomparable Louis Armstrong with “Tiger Rag”, 1933. Such infectious energy. This tune makes us picture the streeters escaping from coppers down back alleys.

“Stompin at the Savoy”

While we’re still dancing, this link is to Benny Goodman performing Edgar Sampson’s 1933 composition. Everyone will recognize this jazz tune, named after the Harlem nightspot. This one goes to the swanky William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh with its posh Urban Room on the top floor.

“Can the Circle Be Unbroken” The Carter Family. 1935. Melanie loves this one! This was originally a hymn from the early 1900s, but AP Carter gave it a new lyric and his version has become a stalwart of the folk and country music scenes. The melancholy plea as the singer mourns his deceased mother, combined with the harmony, which to us always signified the strength one finds in their family….This pretty much represents all the feelings of our young Flash Gang orphans.

And finally, we cannot leave this era without mentioning Shirley Temple. Here is the classic “From the Good Ship Lollipop” from the 1934 film Bright Eyes.

Admittedly Melanie and Sandra have deep disagreements here. Sandra is certain Pearl would have found Shirley Temple insufferable. But Melanie is convinced that Pearl with all her wealthy connections would have met her, very possibly held her as a baby, whispering in her ear that she would be a star. Both writers agree, though, that Lewis would rather see a Tarzan film.


Sandra Waugh is the author of Lark Rising and Silver Eve, books 1 & 2 in the Guardians of Tarnec series published by Random House. Prior to taking up the pen, Sandra was an actress, most notably a co-founder and one-time artistic director of Echo Repertory, a not-for-profit women’s theater company based in New York City. She holds a B.A. in English from Bryn Mawr College, a black belt in Nia and 500-hour yoga teacher certification, the latter two she sometimes teaches when not writing. Sandra lives in rural Connecticut with her husband.

Melanie Murray Downing, writing as M.M. Downing, is a freelance editor and author who has been previously published at Harlequin and HarperTeen (under the pseudonym Claire Ray.) She has a B.F.A. from New York University and worked for six years at Warner Books and Grand Central Publishing. She lives in New Jersey.

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