On Structural Repetition, Puckish Spirits, and Erotic Energy
1. Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers: “Black Bottom Stomp”
Let joy be unconfined. In the decade since the Original Dixieland Jass Band exploded into raucous recording activity, the music which would soon be spelled “jazz” has shifted through all kinds of moods, proving its worth as a human music expressive of every possible tone or emotion rather than merely the funning, aggressive noise that white folks (including the ODJB) heard it as. It is 1926, and jazz is almost, at times, art. Which is an excellent moment for a one-time pimp and all-time raconteur annoyed at being left out of jazz’s origin stories to cut a record reminding everyone how great jazz can be when it’s a funning, aggressive noise: it’s wild, carefree, and rocking. [...]
2. Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five: “Heebie Jeebies”
Enshrined in the folklore of jazz as the moment that Louis Armstrong invented scat singing when his lyric sheet fluttered to the ground (a nice story, but improvised singing has existed forever, and Armstrong is obviously practised in the technique), “Heebie Jeebies” is more than the hook for a legend. Its gentle, meandering grind fascinates you long before Armstrong puts down his trumpet to sing, and the lyrics, borrowed from a comic-strip catchphrase (pace Billy DeBeck), were never the point: Armstrong proving himself a multi-instrumentalist, as handy with his throat as with a horn, is worth far more than the elided lyric. Then the coda, in which a muffed cue leaves a gap of endless funk.
3. Blind Lemon Jefferson: “Long Lonesome Blues”
Après Papa Charlie Jackson, le deluge: Southern Black bluesmen began to be recorded in volume in 1926, and among the earliest experimental sessions cut was this surprisingly rhythmic lament from the supreme fixture of Deep Ellum, the Dallas neighborhood of juke joints and high living which was one of the incubators of twentieth-century blues culture. Jefferson, whose biography is an index of half-truths and conjecture (born blind, or not, in 1893, or not), was not long for this world: but before he died in 1929 he cut enough records to make himself, and the strange dusty music he sang in his slow, high voice and picked on his guitar one of the wonders of the world.
4. Fréhel accompagnée par Michel Peguri: “Musette”
From Deep Ellum to a Parisian faubourg may seem a radical transition in class terms, but that’s because French musette has become so standardized and officially nostalgic (as, indeed, have the blues) that its underclass origins and scandalous reputation—nineteenth-century Parisian aristocrats went slumming in bal-musette houses the same way wealthy New Yorkers visited Harlem cabarets in the 1920s—have been obscured. Fréhel had grown up singing on the streets, and her unhappy life (she attempted suicide at 19, when a not-yet-famous Maurice Chevalier left her for Mistinguett) informed her performances as much as any blues shouters’. This thumping waltz, in which the spirit of musette is personified as a provocative, independent woman, is almost autobiography.
5. Madalena de Melo: “Quem mais jura”
Another nineteenth-century European underclass music which would find a new life thanks to twentieth-century broadcast and recording technology, fado was born in the slums and docks of Lisbon, the ancient center of a powerful if fragile empire, and Moorish, Jewish, African, indigenous Brazilian, and Romani influences have been claimed for its development. As structurally repetitive as the blues, it’s similarly a music of disconsolation and regret. Madalena de Melo was hardly an established fado star when she became one of its first recording artists—she first sang in public in 1926. But her clear diction and throbbing voice superbly communicate the betrayal in this song, half of an old Portuguese proverb: “Who swears most, lies most.”
6. Umm Kulthum: “Ya karawan”
Enter the fourth pyramid of Egypt. 1926, the first full year of electrical recording, has treasures yet to deliver to us, but the enclosure in shellac of one of the century’s greatest voices is a jewel: her first great record, composed by Ahmed Sabry Al-Najdi with lyrics by poet Ahmed Rami, her most frequent collaborators of the 1920s. Al-Najdi would later request her hand in marriage because his compositions had made her famous, and when she refused, he stopped working with her: she became even greater while he descended to relative obscurity. “Ya karawan” uses the image of a curlew (a symbol of Egyptian literary independence) as a symbol of the singer’s devoutness and spiritual tranquility.
7. Marika Papagika: “Elenaki”
Meanwhile, the queen of New York café-aman song—Greek-language songs from the Ottoman-era diaspora in Asia Minor, since the end of the War consolidated into the nation-state of Turkey and intolerant, to say the least, of non-Turkish ethnic identities, which is why she’s in New York rather than her birthplace in the Aegean—sings one of her most powerful laments, a traditional ballad whose title is a diminutive of Eleni, the modern Greek version of Helen. Like all girls in traditional songs regardless of culture, she’s in trouble, or she is trouble; συ με πότισες φαρμάκι., “you have drunk poison,” goes the refrain, while the keening violin and haunting, resonant cimbalom provide their own ghostly commentary.
8. Rosita Quiroga: “La musa mistonga”
Tango, the rhythmic underclass music of Argentina, has been a more or less constant presence in these pages since the late 1900s, and we’ve even heard from Rosita Quiroga, the queen of tango arrabalero (neighborhood tango, with “hood” connotations) before. But this, her first electric record, on which she can sing in her natural tensely emotional register, accompanied only by the strict timekeeping of guitars, is still a new beginning. Rumpled poet Celedonio Flores gives her a sarcastic, defiant lyric celebrating the muse of the down and out: tango is being reclaimed for the streets, from the cosmopolitan polish and prissy refinements of the Gardels and Magaldis who would make it just another bel canto.
9. Sexteto Occidente: “Miguel, los hombres no lloran”
Similarly, we’ve heard elements of great Cuban vernacular music for a long time. But now a landmark Cuban vernacular band appears for the first time: an integrated band in every way, led by the great guitarist and singer María Teresa Vera, with Ignacio Piñeiro on bass and Julio Torres Biart on tres and, here, songwriting. The combo didn’t last long: Piñeiro would form the era-defining Sexteto Nacional within a year, and Vera would be largely forgotten as one of the prime movers of Afro-Cuban music in the 1920s, but they recorded a handful of platters in New York in 1926, immortalizing them and the son sexteto style which would soon take the world by storm.
10. Fernando: “Papagaio”
Brazilian samba, too, has been heard here frequently, although never in its fully unadulterated street-music form. This isn’t that either: it’s crooner Fernando de Albuquerque being backed by Romeu Silva’s Jazz Band Sul Americano again; and composer João da Gente was a jack-of-all-trades who also worked in the theater and as a journalist. The decade will turn before we hear legitimate Afro-Brazilian samba with the full rhythmic bateria; but in the meantime this insouciant song claiming the parrot as the colorful, puckish spirit of carnival is great theatrical pop-samba, which wouldn’t necessarily have been distinguished by contemporary audiences from North American jazz or Rioplatense tango; underclass music never sparks nationalist pride until it’s safely nostalgia.
11. Sam Manning’s Orchestra: “Oh, Emily!”
Another of the immense gifts given to us by the advent of electrical recording is calypso. Caribbean recordings from earlier in the twentieth century had appeared fitfully; and bandleaders like Lionel Belasco were massive draws around the world. But authentic Trinidadian calypso, sung by the same performers who would battle each other for supremacy during Carnival celebrations on the island, is still some ways off. In the meantime, Sam Manning, who has been a fixture in New York performing “West Indian jazz” for much of the decade, gives us our first electrified taste of the irrepressible, constantly moving island sound which will do so much to shape the sound of the century still to come.
12. Sol Hoopii’s Novelty Trio: “Farewell Blues”
Hula music, too, has been silent in these pages for years, as the mid-1910s fad for all things Hawaiʻian petered out. But it’s roaring back to life, as a new generation of Hawaiʻian performers, assisted by the clearer tones and subtle distinctions of electrical recordings, overhauls the dreamy sound of the slack-key guitar for a Jazz Age generation. Lap steel virtuoso Sol Hoʻopiʻi, who has been performing nightly in the California movie colony for two years, records under his own name in 1926, and one of the records he cuts is a cover of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings’ 1922 “Farewell Blues,” by this time a standard in hot jazz circles. And he smokes it.
13. Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers with Riley Puckett: “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane”
Through the early 1920s, Atlanta had been a more important country-music nexus than Nashville, and Georgia fiddlers were of national prominence. James Gideon Tanner, who had won every state fiddling competition Fiddlin’ John Carson hadn’t, made his first electrical recording with his full band, with the blind Riley Puckett on guitar and lead vocals, here. The song is an 1880 minstrel tune written by a Black man, James. A. Bland, whose lyrics merge secular hell-raising with sacred security in a way that may have been meant for comic effect at the height of minstrelsy (and even by the Skillet Lickers, whose caterwauling backing vocals don’t sound particularly reverent), but ring curiously profound to modern listeners.
14. Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers: “White House Blues”
Historical memory is strange; this recording, which takes the singing of a folk song about the 1901 McKinley assassination as an occasion for a banjo and fiddle workout while Poole intones the lyrics in a cryptic deadpan, has been taken as a song in support of the New Deal by generations of listeners, even though Coolidge was in the White House (and not particularly doing his best) in 1926, and Poole did not live to see FDR. There was no tighter band in hillbilly music than the North Carolina Ramblers, whose drive and energy was fully Jazz Age even if their repertoire was old-time; Poole’s baseball-broken picking hand made for an original and impressive technique.
15. Sippie Wallace: “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman”
This Chicago-based blues singer was born Beulah Belle Thomas in Arkansas and raised in Houston, where she ignored her church rearing and snuck out to tent shows with her brothers; before long she was playing them. She would be long-lived enough to have a second career in the blues revival scene of the 1960s, where her self-assured double entendres—she was one of the few female blues singers of her generation to write her own songs—were better appreciated as the art they were. A masterful blues poet, she has the word “tight” run through a gamut of meanings here: it represents loyalty, earning power, competence, fearlessness, and (if there was any doubt) sexual allure.
16. Mlle. Joséphine Baker: “Brown Eyes”
The supreme symbol of the Jazz Age in retrospective memory, if not so appreciated in her own country at the time, saunters blithely onto record here, accompanying herself on ukulele and warbling a Tin Pan Alley ditty in her inimitably careless fashion, burbling nonsense instead of the sheet-music lyrics half the time. Not that her primary audience would mind: the Parisian crowds who flocked to her shows and made her immortal took her as a petite sauvage whose African ancestry gave her a connection to primitive artistry which more civilized Europeans had lost; wordless vocalizing was just further proof of her innately musical nature—and besides, the English lyrics were equally gibberish to French ears.
17. Nick Lucas: “Bye Bye Blackbird”
The most characteristic crooner of the Twenties, whose light touch and hushed guitar style would fall out of fashion in the hepper, more swinging Thirties, Nick Lucas was perhaps the perfect interpreter of this particular era of Tin Pan Alley nonsense, which organized itself semi-unconsciously along racial lines: a refined, optimistic, and wholly “clean” white version of vulgar, realistic, and bawdy Black music. His guitar playing is familiar with jazz—the minor-key introduction here is a small masterpiece of mood—but his singing is pure whitebread. Which makes him an major figure in the subterranean story of Italian-American jazz and pop: he was born Dominic Lucanese in Newark, and an eleven-year-old is listening in Hoboken.
18. Frank Crumit: “Mountain Greenery”
One of the most important partnerships in the annals of U.S. theatrical songwriting announces itself here, with the most absurd little fillip of a scene-setting ditty. “Mountain Greenery” was written for the 1926 edition of the revue The Garrick Gaieties, presented by “The Theatre Guild, Jr. Players” (including a young Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner), and light comedian Sterling Holloway sang it in his hoarse tenor. Richard Rodgers’ melody is airy and inventive, but it’s Lorenz Hart’s lyrics, with their showoff rhyme patterns and cynical, witty references that really shine. Recording industry lifer Frank Crumit even sings the often omitted verse which makes light of Biblical and Persian literature in his easy, nonchalant rendition.
19. Gertrude Lawrence: “Someone to Watch Over Me”
Aware that younger teams were taking the field of which they had been the undisputed masters for the past several years, the Gershwin brothers added a new arrow to their quiver: not content to endlessly reproduce the light, insouciant jazz-inflected songs of 1924’s Lady, Be Good, they reworked an uptempo dance song into this ballad of deep feeling and plaintive directness for 1926’s Oh, Kay!, book by Bolton and Wodehouse, whose work with Jerome Kern had virtually created the form. (The “man/some girls think of as handsome” line is very Wodehousian.) English soprano Gertrude Lawrence introduced it on Broadway and in the West End, and her slightly starchy rendition still communicates the song’s longing.
20. Ethel Waters accompanied by Will Marion Cook’s Singing Orchestra: “I’m Coming Virginia”
If the white-written “Dinah” had been minstrelsy redeemed by Black tenderness in Waters’ 1925 recording, “I’m Coming Virginia,” composed by Black theatrical giant Donald Heywood with lyrics by one of his few predecessors in stature, Will Marion Cook, was in precisely the same line, with its nostalgia for “dear old mammy tunes." But Ethel Waters, once more, finds greater depth in it than Al Jolson would: and backed by Cook’s Singing Orchestra (at long last, electrical recording granted an aging Cook the elbow room his monumental, multilayered arrangements required), she makes it into a kind of secular spiritual. Virginia the Southern state merges into Virginia, a beloved girl, and both into a state of grace.
21. Habiba Msika: “Ala sarir el nom dalani”
Where Umm Kulthum was the magisterial, intensely spiritual voice of a newly independent and self-consciously nationalist Egypt, Habiba Msika was the capricious, provocative voice of restless urban Tunisia under French colonial rule, a Jewish actress and singer who adopted the Arabic honorific Habiba (beloved) and cultivated a passionate male fanbase who called themselves the “soldiers of the night.” Sexually scintillating and heedless of conventions whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, she adopted trouser roles á la Sarah Bernhardt, playing Romeo opposite a female Juliet in 1924 and kissing her in defiance of the audience’s outrage. This recording, the title of which means “On my bed, spoil me,” pulses with erotic energy at an almost reckless pace.
22. Miss Riboet: “Dji Hong”
The recording activity of colonial Southeast Asia in the electrical era is still little documented and discussed, at least in English, and even when it is, primacy is often given to traditional folk or classical recordings rather than to early recordings of the syncretic populist forms which soundtracked mid-century colonial struggle. Miss Riboet was perhaps the biggest star in the-then Dutch East Indies, the diva of a massively popular Javanese theatrical troupe managed by her ethnic Chinese husband. Her records were so popular that they were the selling point for gramophones in the region; but only this dreamy Chinese-language song has been digitized; its flip side, the first kroncong (early Indonesian pop) record, remains unavailable.
23. Yun Sim-deok: “Saui Chanmi”
East Asian music is more fortunate, although this record too is the product of imperial occupation. Meiji Japan annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910, and its repressive administration was a preview of Shōwa-era imperialism. Yun Sim-deok, born in Pyongyang, trained as a soprano on Tokyo, but was unable to find work singing the Western classical canon; she was forced to turned to popular Korean music. She cut this song, “In Praise of Death,” set to an 1880 Romanian waltz, in Osaka three days before she and her married lover committed suicide by jumping from a ship between Japan and Korea. It was an immediate sensation, and is often cited as the first Korean pop record.
24. Hipólito Lázaro: “Nessun dorma”
With the 1924 death of Giacomo Puccini, the long line of Italian opera which forms so much of the basis of the Western musical canon came to something like a close; musical populism and the operatic tradition would rarely if ever be closely aligned again. And so this brooding aria, with its triumphant resolutions evoking the indomitable heroism of the human spirit, has lingered like the ghost of Romanticism through the uncertain dissonances and psychological fractures of twentieth-century art song. Few of Puccini’s heirs could honestly portray the contemporary world in the musically lavish idiom of Turandot, first performed in 1926. Spanish tenor Lázaro made the first great recording of “Nessun dorma,” though not the last.
25. Paul Robeson, Piano accompaniment Lawrence Brown: “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”
College football star, Phi Beta Kappa scholar, published poet, acclaimed orator, Columbia Law School graduate, and the most electrifying stage actor of his generation—all of this before he ever set foot in a recording booth. But in 1925 Robeson agreed to give a performance of Negro spirituals in order to raise money for a charity supporting single mothers, and his musical as well as dramatic talent was so undeniable (not to mention standing-room-only popular) that Victor offered him and his arranger and accompanist Lawrence Brown a recording contract posthaste. His patient, unadorned rendition of this, the most stark and moving song in the spiritual canon, with its subtle feeling for rhythm, is a powerful introduction.
26. Duke Ellington and His Kentucky Club Orchestra: “East St. Louis Toodle-O”
We have come full circle, from Jelly Roll Morton’s thrilling reinscription of jazz as hot, dirty, funky, rebellious fun to the most ultramodern and aesthetically sensitive experiment in jazz to date. Edward Ellington, whose faultless evening attire and courtly manners gave him an aristocratic nickname won in no cutting contest, has studied Ferde Grofé’s orchestrations for Paul Whiteman and Fletcher Henderson’s large-combo jazz. He lays down a bed of hushed reeds and lets Bubber Miles sputter freely on top of it, while the banjo chugs like an evening train, and the band hits a descending series of jerks on the corners. It’s not mere symphonic jazz, as middlebrow boosters say, but a new, sensuously yearning pop.
Appendix: 74 further masterpieces from 1926
For the next several years I’ll be rounding out the list to an even hundred at the end. This is my favorite period in recording history, and it coincides with an explosion in recording. All of the records below are well worth your time and attention, even though I didn’t manage to write about them as they deserve. The usual rules apply: principal performers don’t get more than one entry, songs can’t appear elsewhere in these pages, recording date rather than issue dates are what apply. I’ve no doubt got some errors of dating or orthography; I only read a few languages and one alphabet. They’re in an order that makes intuitive sense to me, though maybe not to anyone else, starting in Latin America and circling the globe to end in the United States. As above, so below: exactly one half of all the records listed are autochthonous to United States; all the rest are, to some degree or another, “world music.”
Julio de Caro y su Orquesta Típica: “Farolito de mi barrio”
Maffia-Laurenz, Dúo de bandoneones: “Allá en el bajo”
Ignacio Corsini: “Siga el corso”
Carlos Gardel, guitarras de Barbieri y Ricardo: “Oro muerto”
Libertad Lamarque: “Botellero”
Zeca Ivo e Orquestra: “Gaúcho velho”
Sylvio Vieira: “Ai xixi”
Aracy Cortes: “Petropolitana”
Artur Castro: “Copacabana”
Sexteto Boloña: “Échale Candela”
Mariachi Coculense de Cirilo Marmolejo: “El gavilancillo”
Emilio Tuero: “Mocosita”
Pilar Arcos: “El tango de la muerte”
Ramoncita Rovira: “El tango de la cocaína”
Pepe Marchena: “La hija de Juan Simón (Milonga)”
Dr. Lucas Junot: “Fado de Coimbra”
Daniele Serra: “Amor gitano”
George Formby: “John Willie's Jazz Band”
Seamus O'Doherty, “Danny Boy”
M. Maurice Chevalier et Mlle. Yvonne Vallée: “Moi j'fais mes coups en d'sous”
Mistinguett, accompagnée par le Jazz Fred Mêlé du Moulin-Rouge: “Il m'a vue nue”
Emma Liebel: “Gigolo”
Yvonne George: “J'ai pas su y faire”
Gesky: “Une petite femme dans un grand lit”
Claire Waldoff: “Raus mit den Männern ausm Reichstag”
Pawlo Humeniuk z akompan. Cymbaly: “Tanec pid werbamy”
Dave Tarras: “Dovid'l basetzt die kalleh”
Lucy Levin: “Ikh ken fargesn yedn nor nit in dir”
Achilleas Poulos: “Nedem geldem Amerikaya”
Marko Melkon: “Shed araban taksim”
Sadettin Kaynak: “Nâr-i hicrane düşüp”
Fritna Darmon: “Aroubi Rasd Eddil”
Amare Bhalobese: “Pankaj kumasr mallick”
Hirabai Barodekar: “Sakhi mori rumjhum (Durga)”
Keaumoku A. Louis: “Kuu Iini”
Bertha "Chippie" Hill: “Trouble in Mind”
Victoria Spivey: “Black Snake Blues”
Ma Rainey with her Georgia Band: “Sissy Blues”
Bo Weavil Jackson: “You Can't Keep No Brown”
Bessie Smith: “Lost Your Head Blues”
Blind Blake: “Early Morning Blues”
Leo Reisman and His Orchestra: “Alabama Stomp”
Ted Lewis and His Band: “Blues (My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me)”
Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra: “The Stampede”
King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators: “Snag It”
Joe Venuti (Violin) and Eddie Lang (Guitar): “Stringing the Blues”
Johnny Hamp’s Kentucky Serenaders: “Black Bottom”
Coon-Sanders Orchestra: “Brainstorm”
Dixieland Jug Blowers: “House Rent Rag”
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra with vocal chorus: “The Birth of the Blues”
The Revelers: “The Blue Room”
Harry Richman: “Muddy Water”
Esther Walker: “Ya Gotta Know How to Love”
Ruth Etting: “’Deed I Do”
Al Jolson with Carl Fenton’s Orchestra: “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along”
Frank Harris: “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!”
Annette Hanshaw: “Kiss Your Little Baby Goodnight”
Jack Smith (The whispering baritone): “Cecilia”
Gene Austin: “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”
Miss Lee Morse and Her Blue Grass Boys: “Where'd You Get Those Eyes?”
George Olsen and His Music with Vocal Refrain: “Who”
Fred and Adele Astaire (George Gershwin at the Piano): “I'd Rather Charleston”
George Gershwin: “Sweet and Low Down”
Dock Walsh: “In the Pines”
Uncle Dave Macon: “Rise When the Rooster Crows”
Nugrape Twins: “I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape”
Chris Bouchillon: “Talking Blues”
“Uncle Bunt” Stephens: “Sail Away Lady”
Arizona Dranes: “It’s All Right Now”
Rev. J. M. Gates: “Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting”
Taskiana Four: “I Shall Not Be Moved”
Hopi Indian Chanters (Group of M. W. Billingsley): “Chant of the Snake Dance”