XXVI: 1926

 

On Structural Repetition, Puckish Spirits, and Erotic Energy

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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. [...]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’a 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

  1. Julio de Caro y su Orquesta Típica: “Farolito de mi barrio”

  2. Maffia-Laurenz, Dúo de bandoneones: “Allá en el bajo”

  3. Ignacio Corsini: “Siga el corso”

  4. Carlos Gardel, guitarras de Barbieri y Ricardo: “Oro muerto”

  5. Libertad Lamarque: “Botellero”

  6. Zeca Ivo e Orquestra: “Gaúcho velho”

  7. Sylvio Vieira: “Ai xixi”

  8. Aracy Cortes: “Petropolitana”

  9. Artur Castro: “Copacabana”

  10. Sexteto Boloña: “Échale Candela”

  11. Mariachi Coculense de Cirilo Marmolejo: “El gavilancillo”

  12. Emilio Tuero: “Mocosita”

  13. Pilar Arcos: “El tango de la muerte”

  14. Ramoncita Rovira: “El tango de la cocaína”

  15. Pepe Marchena: “La hija de Juan Simón (Milonga)”

  16. Dr. Lucas Junot: “Fado de Coimbra”

  17. Daniele Serra: “Amor gitano”

  18. George Formby: “John Willie's Jazz Band”

  19. Seamus O'Doherty, “Danny Boy”

  20. M. Maurice Chevalier et Mlle. Yvonne Vallée: “Moi j'fais mes coups en d'sous”

  21. Mistinguett, accompagnée par le Jazz Fred Mêlé du Moulin-Rouge: “Il m'a vue nue”

  22. Emma Liebel: “Gigolo”

  23. Yvonne George: “J'ai pas su y faire”

  24. Gesky: “Une petite femme dans un grand lit”

  25. Damia: “Hantise”

  26. Claire Waldoff: “Raus mit den Männern ausm Reichstag”

  27. Pawlo Humeniuk z akompan. Cymbaly: “Tanec pid werbamy”

  28. Dave Tarras: “Dovid'l basetzt die kalleh”

  29. Lucy Levin: “Ikh ken fargesn yedn nor nit in dir”

  30. Achilleas Poulos: “Nedem geldem Amerikaya”

  31. Dalgás: “Melemenio”

  32. Marko Melkon: “Shed araban taksim”

  33. Sadettin Kaynak: “Nâr-i hicrane düşüp”

  34. Fritna Darmon: “Aroubi Rasd Eddil”

  35. Amare Bhalobese: “Pankaj kumasr mallick”

  36. Hirabai Barodekar: “Sakhi mori rumjhum (Durga)”

  37. Keaumoku A. Louis: “Kuu Iini”

  38. Bertha "Chippie" Hill: “Trouble in Mind”

  39. Victoria Spivey: “Black Snake Blues”

  40. Ma Rainey with her Georgia Band: “Sissy Blues”

  41. Bo Weavil Jackson: “You Can't Keep No Brown”

  42. Bessie Smith: “Lost Your Head Blues”

  43. Blind Blake: “Early Morning Blues”

  44. Leo Reisman and His Orchestra: “Alabama Stomp”

  45. Ted Lewis and His Band: “Blues (My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me)”

  46. Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra: “The Stampede”

  47. King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators: “Snag It”

  48. Joe Venuti (Violin) and Eddie Lang (Guitar): “Stringing the Blues”

  49. Johnny Hamp’s Kentucky Serenaders: “Black Bottom”

  50. Coon-Sanders Orchestra: “Brainstorm”

  51. Dixieland Jug Blowers: “House Rent Rag”

  52. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra with vocal chorus: “The Birth of the Blues”

  53. The Revelers: “The Blue Room”

  54. Harry Richman: “Muddy Water”

  55. Esther Walker: “Ya Gotta Know How to Love”

  56. Ruth Etting: “’Deed I Do”

  57. Al Jolson with Carl Fenton’s Orchestra: “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along”

  58. Frank Harris: “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!”

  59. Annette Hanshaw: “Kiss Your Little Baby Goodnight”

  60. Jack Smith (The whispering baritone): “Cecilia”

  61. Gene Austin: “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”

  62. Miss Lee Morse and Her Blue Grass Boys: “Where'd You Get Those Eyes?”

  63. George Olsen and His Music with Vocal Refrain: “Who”

  64. Fred and Adele Astaire (George Gershwin at the Piano): “I'd Rather Charleston”

  65. George Gershwin: “Sweet and Low Down”

  66. Dock Walsh: “In the Pines”

  67. Uncle Dave Macon: “Rise When the Rooster Crows”

  68. Nugrape Twins: “I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape”

  69. Chris Bouchillon: “Talking Blues”

  70. “Uncle Bunt” Stephens: “Sail Away Lady”

  71. Arizona Dranes: “It’s All Right Now”

  72. Rev. J. M. Gates: “Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting”

  73. Taskiana Four: “I Shall Not Be Moved”

  74. Hopi Indian Chanters (Group of M. W. Billingsley): “Chant of the Snake Dance”

[100 records of 1926]

 

XXV: 1925

 

On Structural Compromises, Anatomical Detail, and Muttering “Hotcha"

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1. Bessie Smith, Organ and Cornet Accomp.: “The St. Louis Blues”

Recognized even in its moment as the shining cathedral of the First Age of Jazz, the marvel of this record only increases as we drift further from it in time. W. C. Handy’s structural compromises underlie everything, of course: timeless blues verses jury-rigged to a Tin Pan Alley middle eight, dateline 1914. Then there’s Fred Longshaw’s stately harmonium, enveloping the lament in funereal bathos while lending it churchly grandeur; and Louis Armstrong’s bright winding cornet, offering peppery comment and owl-wise commentary on the lyrics. But the center is Bessie Smith’s heroic bawl of a voice, eternal and true. It had been the blues scrubbed palatable for white folks way back in ’14, but Black genius made it forever their own. [...]

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2. Fred Longshaw: “Chili Pepper”

The only record Fred Longshaw cut under his own name included this dazzling piano workout, halfway between the intricacies of stride and the jungle funk of boogie-woogie (the more conventionally ragtime “Tomato Sauce” was the B-side). Longshaw was the leader of Bessie Smith’s touring orchestra, and a mildly successful songwriter in his own right, but his lasting legacy would be the 20 or so sides on which he supported more famous performers: Smith, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Lonnie Johnson. 1925 was just the beginning of the glory years of solo piano recordings as a coherent pop form, offering three-minute slices of thrill in a way entirely unimaginable  today, now that the piano means history and formalism rather than flashy modernity.

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3. Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five: “Gut Bucket Blues”

We’ve heard him as sideman and soloist on records for two years, but he steps into the bandleader role here, and will never look back. Shouting out his bandmates Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), Kid Ory (trombone), Lil Hardin (piano), Johnny Dodds (clarinet) while they play down and dirty solos just as casually and funkily as if he were emceeing a New Orleans gig rather than the formal studio environs, he’s a giddy delight. Then, satisfied with their greasy run-throughs, he finally takes a mellifluous trumpet solo and is shouted out himself, presumably by Ory. The final chorus is a duet with Dodds, who has switched to alto sax: from stank to swank, a portrait in miniature of jazz to date.

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4. Naftule Brandwein’s Orchestra: “Naftule, shpiel es noch amol”

Meanwhile, the sun begins to set on the recording career of another peerless, genre-defining instrumentalist who made New York his adopted home in his twenties. “Naftule, Play It Again” finds the fiery, unpredictable clarinetist in a reflective mood, running through variations of his own devising rather than playing a standard dance in what would later be described as the klezmer canon. His band chants the title to him, the trombone smears and the woodblock rattles in an  old-fashioned ragtime style, a ragtime to which he had grafted the whirls and ecstasies of Bessarabian freilach music, a ragtime which is now disappearing from the New York streets as the generations shift and a newer, flashier, more controlled music takes the stage.

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5. Joseph Cherniavsky and his Yiddish-American Jazz Band: “Chasene niginim”

Brandwein had played in Jewish Polish violinist and composer Joseph Cherniavsky’s ensemble before forming his own orchestra where he could be the star: his replacement was his junior by ten years. Dovid Tarraschuk, a Ukrainian-born musician, had played in the Tsar’s army before escaping to New York after the Revolution and renaming himself Dave Tarras. Cherniavsky, too, was classically trained—his violin teacher had been Mischa Elman’s—and he was in demand in the booming Yiddish theater scene of the Twenties. This recording is subtitled “incidental music from Ansky’s ‘The Dibbuk’,” and as a portrayal of a wedding ceremony gone horrific in the classic Gothic Yiddish play, it’s little short of masterful, as Tarras’ keening clarinet whirls with regimental precision.

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6. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: “Charleston”

The pinnacle, in several ways, of dance-band recording during the 1920s. Composed by underacknowledged genius of Black music James P. Johnson, “The Charleston” was introduced in the all-Black musical Runnin’ Wild, giving musical formalization to moves with long roots in Black vernacular dance: the Charleston would become the signature dance of the Twenties, beloved and reviled by all the right (and wrong) people. The record, though, is more even than that: a perfectly-balanced artifact of state-of-the-art technology, one of the first great electrical recordings, as shown off by the anonymous voice muttering “hotcha” close to the mike, the kind of under-the-breath vocals which would never have been picked up by an acoustic horn. Ferd Grofé’s lush,  hall-of-mirrors orchestration is gravy.

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7. Al Jolson with Carl Fenton's Orchestra: “I’m Sitting On Top of the World”

It’s been years since we’ve heard from Mr. Jolson in these pages, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t one of the biggest stars on the planet throughout. But although his live shows were still electric thanks to his dynamism and raw talent for entertainment, he was no longer the startling thunderbolt of the 1910s, but a known quantity, easily parodied and harder to integrate into the rapidly-evolving jazz spirit of the era. Why see him black up on the Great White Way when you could just as easily carry on up to Harlem and see the real thing? This Tin Pan Alley fluff represents his compromise with the period: jaunty (white) optimism, rather than self-parodic (minstrel) sentimentality, was the way forward.

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8. Eddie Cantor: “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)”

Eddie Cantor, though, could still play the juvenile. Better acquainted with the spirit of the age, he'd limited his blacking up by now—after playing Bert Williams’ son, there was nowhere left to go—and his nervous schlemiel delivery was a perfect fit for the fast-paced syncopated pep of the period’s pop. As a record, “Susie” is as daring as US pop got in 1925, the upward trombone smears responding lasciviously to Cantor’s half-frightened, half-orgasmic “oh!”s, and lyrics about a liberated flapper with none of the standard fig leaves insisting on her chastity. It’s still a wholly adolescent version of sexuality, but the literary half of the nation was coming to grips with adolescent sexuality, thanks to Scott Fitzgerald.

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9. Lee Morse and Her Blue Grass Boys: “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”

But though Eddie Cantor still played the juvenile, he was by this time a family man. The legend is that another of the decade’s signature pep-fueled tunes was written when songwriters Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn visited the Cantor home and were taken by the herky-jerky rhythms of one of his daughter’s mechanical toys. But though the Donaldson-Kahn team is important to history, it’s the singer who demands attention. With her unique sobbing delivery and the unrestrained vocalese which leads her to shriek a trumpet line decades before Stan Kenton, she is one of the major if under-recognized singers of the century, a missing link between the refined showbiz traditions of yore and the honky-tonk and rock n’ roll to come.

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10. Ethel Waters: “Dinah”

After Jolson and Cantor had finished wowing ’em in the packed theaters, patrons of the Broadway temples would flock to the late-night supper-clubs where jazzier (read: Blacker) sounds prevailed. Even at that, the Plantation, atop the Winter Garden Theatre at Broadway and 50th, was something special: decorated like an Art Deco dream of minstrelsy, it was normally ruled by Florence Mills, but when she jaunted off to England in 1925, Ethel Waters was her hand-picked replacement. “Dinah” was introduced there, a sort of minstrel echo: the Southern locale, the longing for reunion, the Dixie eyes were all vintage Stephen Foster. But the focus on romantic desire rather than poisonous nostalgia, and the no-fooling tenderness of Waters’ delivery, wash it clean.

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11. Art Gillham: “Hesitation Blues”

It’s fitting that the first person to cut an electrically-recorded side for a major label was what a later generation would call a hipster, even, in Norman Mailer’s curdled phrase, a white Negro. When Art Gillham and two St. Louis cronies decided to join a band and light out for Los Angeles, they passed the long dull train ride by composing new verses in a standard blues formula. The resultant sheet music, a novelty with little relation to actual blues, had circulated for eight years when he sang it on the radio on a dare. Gillham’s thin, quavery  voice, “hesitating” piano style, and soft drawl was startlingly intimate on the radio, but couldn’t be recorded acoustically: crooning, too, is faux-Black.

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12.Ramoncita Rovira: “Fumando espero”

The first of this year’s records not recorded in New York, it is an important landmark in two nations’ musical history. A tango about the consolations of tobacco compared to a lover who leaves his lady waiting, written by two Barcelonans for the daring Spanish stage of the 1920s, it would have a long life both in its home country and in Argentina, where it was quickly adopted by the generation of tangueros interested in creating a more personal, modern, and psychological tango. But its most famous Spanish incarnations during the Franco years would omit the verse which suggested that the smoking was post-coital, intact in this first recording by one of the greatest Catalan stars of copla, Spanish music-hall.

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13. Agustín Magaldi: “Canillita canillita”

From modern, international, psychological tango to traditional sentimental street-level tango: “Canillita canillita” is in the tradition of “Minguito” from all the way back in 1911, a tear-jerking song about a newspaper-selling urchin (“canillita” is slang for newsie) without a home to return to, and who, like the flower to which he is compared, is fated to die early. Magaldi is one of the first male voices to launch a serious challenge to the dominance of Carlos Gardel in the arena of tango recording: he was an avowed sentimentalist, a crooner whose sobbing delivery, as in the final chorus here, was not limited to tangos, but won popularity with the Buenos Aires public  in waltzes and rural gaucho songs as well.

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14. Ignacio Corsini: “Luna gaucha”

The other great challenger to the crown of Gardel was Ignacio Corsini, born in Italy but raised in rural Argentina, who claimed his falsetto was learned from the birds of the pampas. Written by two Uruguayans, José María Aguilar and Atilio Supparo, “Luna gaucha” isn’t a native pampas song, but the Argentine equivalent of a Tin Pan Alley song about the true hearts that beat only for each other out west of the Mississippi. It’s hokum on the page, but Corsini’s singing abjures sentimentality á là Magaldi: although the lyrics paint flashes of a picturesque tryst by moonlight, his dispassionate voice reminds the listener that it is all taking place under the cover of darkness, and to fear the worst.

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15. Carl T. Sprague: “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”

The North American cowboy, meanwhile, was much more of a sentimentalist in fact than in fiction: although the dime-novel and movie legend made him invariably lantern-jawed and masculinely stoic, the songs sung at prairie campfires were as sentimental as any sung in the nineteenth century. Witness Carl T. Sprague, genuine cowpuncher from Texas, whose debut recording is a tearjerker about a boy on a cattle drive who takes a fall from a horse and (cue waterworks) will not now see his mother back in Dixie as he planned once the driving season was over. True, Sprague doesn’t milk the pathos: the corrido-like insistence of the guitar keeps too strict time for that. But the song itself is purest parlor mush.

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16. Ernest V. Stoneman: “The Titanic”

The cowboy, legend aside, was part of a broader society, a relative cosmopolitan as comfortable in the Midwestern stockyards as on the Southwestern range. The Appalachian poor, by contrast, were much more isolated and so their music was more eccentric and identifiably regional—yet it too was not unaffected by the outside world. Ernest Stoneman, patriarch of a musical family which would be eclipsed by another of his own discovery, gives a grave reading of a folksong (likely originally Black American) about the thirteen-year-old tragedy which has been a symbol of the hubris of technocratic Western Civilization ever since; his flinty voice accompanied by autoharp and harmonica, he sounds neither sunk in bathos nor stern in judgment, merely a witness.

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17. Uncle Dave Macon: “Old Dan Tucker”

Pay attention to his spoken introduction. “I used to just play the imitations, but now I’m going to give you the variations” is as succinct a description of what happened in American music between 1885 and 1925 as any other: though Uncle Dave would surely have disclaimed any relationship to jazz, his giddy, chalky version of the primordial minstrel tune (“Old Dan Tucker” was the signature hit of the Virginia Minstrels, the original Irish-American blackface troupe who were the rock stars of the 1840s), introduced by a few clawhammer bars of “Casey Jones,” is perhaps the closest recorded music comes to hearing the original American sin and salvation, white imitating Black imitating white imitating Black, all the way to Perdition.

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18. Papa Charlie Jackson: “Shake That Thing”

Another monumental first slides in here: the first male self-accompanied blues singer, a formulation which will come to eclipse the actually-original female blues singer in the popular imagination, as the blues get fenced off from pop music, and as pop music becomes just another stick with which to beat women. But this song too is pop: Ethel Waters and Clarence Williams covered it the same year, and it would come to be a standard in the years when rhythm was grafted onto blues. Not that Papa Charlie, who was born in New Orleans and latterly a resident of Chicago, doesn’t have plenty of rhythm all on his own: his banjo, strummed rather than plucked, is sharp as an electric guitar.

19. Sexteto Habanero: “Maldita timidez”

Just as monumental is the first recording of a Cuban son sexteto, the format by which the son (later to be misnamed rumba in the US) became not just the dominant music of Cuba but one of the peerless musics of the world. The Sexteto Habanero was founded in 1920, led by bassist Gerardo Martínez (though it sounds like he may be playing the traditional botija, or musical water-jug, here); the other instruments were guitar, tres, maracas, bongo, and clave. The heavily polyrhythmic nature of son music makes it one of the most African of Afro-Latin musics, but the dreamy melody by composer Carlos Valdez Brito, sounding here in strings and vocals, make it also one of the most beautiful.

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20. Fernando e o coro do Jazz Band Sul Americano de Romeu Silva: “Corta saia (É lá)”

The greatest composer of what might be called the prehistory of samba, Sinhô (José Barbosa de Silva), has not been heard here since 1917’s landmark “Pelo telefone.” But as the Twenties march on, the comic bestiary in the lyrics of carnaval samba “Corta saia (É lá),” or “Short skirt (there it is),” suggests newer freedoms, which may not just be limited to the topsy-turvy world of Carnaval in future. The band led by Romeu Silva was one of the most popular Brazilian orchestras of the period, only “jazz” in the broader international sense which meant any modern vernacular dance music: singer Fernando de Albuquerque is cheerful but anonymous, soon to be displaced by savvier, smoother, and more streetwise samba voices.

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21. Maurice Chevalier: “Valentine”

No nation was more eager to embrace the new freedoms symbolized by the Twenties than France. Maurice Chevalier, all of thirty-seven in 1925, had by now entirely grown into the persona of the dapper, whimsically elegiac roué he was to inhabit for the rest of his career. “Valentine” is one of the signature tunes of that career, a nostalgic look back at a middle-aged man’s first love affair, with lyrics far more anatomically detailed than anything that would be recorded for mass consumption in English for another forty years. That it wasn’t scandalous, just one of the many cabaret hits of the day, is symbolic of the reasons why US writers hoping to escape Puritanism and commercialism flocked to Paris.

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22. Mounira al-Madiyyah: “El-kukayīn”

Differences in permissibility of subject matter are cultural far more than they are moral: here, the brightest star of Egyptian light theatrical entertainment sings a comic, slangy song about the joys and miseries of cocaine written for a topical revue in 1919 by the late Sayyed Darwish. The chemical isolate of the coca leaf had been manufactured since the 1860s, but it was only in the early 1900s that Western authorities, prompted by highly racialized fears, began to crack down on its distribution and sale as a dietary supplement like tobacco, caffeine or alcohol. The streets of Cairo, of course, needed no Washington or London jurisprudence to intone gravely about trafficking, addiction and overdoses: as Mounira sings, ain’t life funny.

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23. Tamara Tsereteli: “Dorogoi dlinnoyu”

The chaotic early Soviet period, in which nobody yet knew what was Marxianly permissible, saw one of the most prolific, ingenious, and bitterly contested artistic flowerings in the twentieth century, a chaos that would all too soon be brought to close by the idiosyncratic but brutally enforced aesthetics of the Stalin era. This nostalgic romans (later known to the West as “Those Were the Days”), with its dreamy memories of old sleigh rides, would become famous as an exile’s anthem when Alexander Vertinsky recorded it in Paris in 1926, but the first recording was by the Georgian-born contralto in good standing with the regime Tamara Tsereteli. Anyone, even a Marxist-Leninist, can feel sorrow for days which will never come again.

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24. Gertrude Lawrence: “Poor Little Rich Girl”

1924 had been the annus mirabilis of George Gershwin, and if 1925 wasn’t the annus mirabilis of a singer-actor-composer-lyricist-impresario-wit born in the London suburbs a year after Gershwin, it wasn’t for lack of trying. He’d been writing and staging shows since 1918, but in 1925 four separate musicals plus straight drama The Vortex all premiered in the West End, while he and his songs took center stage in André Charlot’s revue on Broadway. Ingenue Alice Delysia introduced this song in On with the Dance, but it was Gertrude Lawrence, Noël Coward’s no-nonsense muse, who gave the definitively straight-faced reading of a lyric which applies music-hall puns to crushing condescension toward the glib jazz-hungry posturing of Britain’s aristocratic Bright Young Things.

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25. Marcelle Meyer: “Trois mouvements perpétuels”

Exactly halfway through 1925, the brilliant, eccentric French composer Erik Satie died. His music will remain a touchstone throughout the century to come, but as of his death was limited to published sheet music and live performance. One of his favored pianists, however, did record in 1925 this performance of a work deeply influenced by Satie. Self-consciously fragmentary and airily melodic, Francis Poulenc’s early, irreverent work (the pun in the title is lost in English) is among the most delightful in the French canon. Like the rest of the modernist collective Les Six, some of whose work will appear here in years to come, his debt to impish Satie is enormous, but there are also surprisingly solemn glimpses of eternity.


 

XXIV: 1924

 

On Charismatic Flash, Unrecordable Voices, and the Eternal Allure of Paris

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1. Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra (The Composer at the piano): “Rhapsody in Blue”

The classical music that made classical music redundant, the pop that made pop pretentious. It can be hard sometimes to hear the jolt of the new after it’s been encrusted over by nearly a century of sickly suave orchestral iterations, endless afternoons in high school band practice, and bland self-congratulatory  flag-waving. Neither a rhapsody nor a blues, a jumble of themes bolted together by charisma and flashy playing, made to order on a flimsy premise for a showman who believed his own hype, a musical joke transformed into an expression of the neurotic, sentimental, glad-handing, and above all expansive civilization which calls itself American—when you scrape all the history away you arrive at this record, lean, fast, struggling through the shellac to be heard. [...]

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2. Cliff Edwards (Ukelele Ike): “Fascinating Rhythm”

It was 26-year-old Gershwin’s annus mirabilis: not only did he compose the first immortal American concert piece, but his first smash hit musical comedy Lady, Be Good (lyrics by brother Ira) debuted on Broadway, making stars of the brother-sister act who played the leads, two Nebraskan hoofers who’d changed their name from Austerlitz to Astaire. The ringer in the show was top vaudevillian Ukulele Ike as a comic relief butler who plunked and warbled with a sort of outrageous pep: his “trick voice” singing, imitating a muted trumpet, was one of the pathways that the showbiz tradition of improvised vocalizing took on its way to jazz scatting. As a song, “Fascinating Rhythm” is about the shock of the new, modernist pop for the flapper era.

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3. Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, vocal chorus by Eva Taylor: “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird”

While Gershwin and the Astaires sold out audiences downtown, an uptown cabaret was the hottest ticket for revelers seeking a more racially charged atmosphere: Florence Mills, part diva, part sprite, had won attention in Shuffle Along and now headlined her own show, Dixie to Broadway, at the Plantation Club. Her own studio tests of her signature song have vanished, her high, thin voice deemed unrecordable, but her vaudeville sister in arms, Eva Taylor (wife to jazztrepreneur Clarence Williams) cut the record with two New Orleanians on horns: a young Louis Armstrong on cornet, and a prematurely middle-aged Sidney Bechet on high, fluttery soprano sax, imitating the bird trills which were part of Florence’s own act. The song’s cornball, but protests racial injustice on the sly.

4. Rosa Henderson and the Choo Choo Jazzers: “Hard Hearted Hannah”

Like “Blackbird,” “Hard Hearted Hannah” was written by white Tin Pan Alley hacks as a parody of Black life which Black performers turned into creative expressions of Black life. The singer most associated with the song, Margaret Young, was a white woman bawling faux-blues in the pattern of Marion Harris’s early work; but my favorite version is by Rosa Henderson, one of the great largely-forgotten female blues singers of the 20s. She digs into the vaudevillian swagger of the song, the lyrics’ larger-than-life portrait of a maneater, but the relish in her voice makes this no warning to piously virginal lads, but a celebration of a woman’s spectacular revenge. In a lifetime of perpetual masculine threat, turning the tables—if only in art—is sublime.

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5. Bessie Smith: “Hateful Blues”

But a class division was emerging among blues singers, between those who sang white men’s songs and those who did not. One of the compensations Bessie Smith earned by having been the Empress of the Blues for years before she condescended to step before a recording horn is that her catalogue was immediately composed of top-shelf Black blues composers. “Hateful Blues,” like many of her 1924 records, was written by Perry Bradford, then famous as the writer (or perhaps the compositor) of “Crazy Blues.” But what makes the record fascinating is the unusual accompaniment: New York violinist Robert Robbins, whose only recording credits are this handful of Bessie Smith sessions, creates a haunting but unmistakably rural soundtrack which would inspire genre-agnostic fiddlers like Bob Wills.

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6. Uncle Dave Macon: “All I’ve Got’s Gone”

The trickle of recording interest in the (white) rural Southern and Appalachian musical circuits which had developed out of sight of the Northern urban show-business centers begins to pick up steam; banjoist and singer Uncle Dave Macon, an “old-time” medicine-show and rural vaudeville performer from Nashville (note the town), whose repertoire included nineteenth-century minstrel tunes as well as Scots-Irish reels, Black work songs, Baptist hymnody,  and songs of his own composition, or at least of his own stitched-together pattern. “All I’ve Got’s Gone,” cut at his first recording session in June 1924, was notated as “comedy” on the label; to modern ears it sounds more like a proto-rock blues, the plucky defeatism of Bert Williams mingled with the stark, pugnacious delivery of bluegrass to come.

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7. Vernon Dalhart: “The Prisoner’s Song”

There never was any pure, unadulterated country music free from the taint of commercialism, show business, or city slickers looking to horn in on the racket. Texas-born Vernon Dalhart had both herded cattle and attended the Dallas Conservatory of Music, and sang light classical and pop tunes on record since 1916. When he lucked into a million-selling record as a sort of genteel cowboy singer (to the endless frustration of generations of rare 78 collectors who barked their shins against crates of his well-worn discs in every tin shack in the remotest South), his polished baritone rendition of a prison-yard lament, bending notes only around the edges, was both entirely inauthentic and an aspirational sound to white poverty, prefiguring the countrypolitan of decades to come.

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8. Alcides Briceño y Jorge Añez: “El novillo despuntado”

Minstrelsy gone feral, scrubbed-up blues, Scots-Irish velocity, and parlor song sentiment: there’s one more ingredient in the gumbo that makes up country music, and it’s the least acknowledged of them all: the immense variety of crude, earthy, elegant, sentimental, and regionally inflected music sung in Spanish on both sides of the Rio Grande. “El novillo despuntado” (the dehorned steer) is one of the great cowboy corridos, traced to the northern Mexican state of Sonora, but otherwise unattributed; it’s seemingly been recorded by every norteño act ever. In one of its earliest recordings, Briceño and Añez, Victor’s house Latin-American duo, give a lonesome rural spin, with dragging violins against corrido guitars, to the timeless lament over a lost, defenseless ox which then evokes a lost love.

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9. Juan de la Cruz y Bienvenido León: “Que partes el alma”

The classic era of Cuban son gathered strength throughout the early 1920s: duet partners Juan de la Cruz (tenor and clave player) and Bienvenido León (baritone and maracas player) had been making trova (guitar-accompanied traditional Cuban song) records for a decade, but their 1924 recordings, cut in an unusual international session by Edison in New York, with intricate guitar accompaniment by Alberto Villalón, are redolent of the modern, street-level son then being developed in Havana by transplants from the island’s Oriente plantations. Unpolished but rhythmic, with a strong melodic sense and powerful harmonies, the trio created a ragged but deathless  performance here. It’s not their last: we will hear from them in years to come as part of the decade’s most legendary Cuban music collective.

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10. King Oliver, Piano Accompaniment Jelly Roll Morton: “King Porter”

One of the last of the first generation of jazzmen makes a belated appearance in these pages. Ferdinand LaMothe, who changed his name to Morton to avoid disgrace to his Creole family after they threw him out for being a piano professor in Storyville whorehouses, published the first sheet-music jazz back in 1915, “Jelly Roll Blues.” The original “King Porter (A Stomp)” was a solo piano cut he made in July 1923. This duet toward the end of 1924 is practically a supergroup recording: two legends convening for a single two-sided disc for the tiny, experimental Autograph label, owned by a Chicago electrical engineer. It is the first electrically-recorded record we’ve heard, and the sudden sonic intimacy of cornet and piano opens a new world.

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11. Ma Rainey Acc. by her Georgia Band: “See See Rider Blues”

Regardless of how it’s spelled, Ma Rainey’s signature tune “See See Rider” is one of the most frequently recurring tunes of the twentieth century, thanks to an indelible blues melody and the power of Rainey’s collection of scattered blues imagery. Heartache, regret, renunciation, and murderousness each take their turn in her verses, delivered with her typical warmth and ease: you may not believe that she feels these emotions in the moment, but that’s not the point of her art: she’s singing them as an incantation, to protect the hearer from the trouble they describe. The emotional heft in the song, the whirlwind of feelings, are left to the wailing, barnstorming band, featuring Louis Armstrong on cornet, Buster Bailey on clarinet, and Fletcher Henderson on piano.

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12. Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra: “Copenhagen”

Georgian college graduate Henderson had been playing as a pick-up studio performer accompanying blues singers since 1920; but in 1924 he began leading his own band: Armstrong on trumpet, Bailey on clarinet, and most crucially, Don Redman on saxophone and arrangements. “Copenhagen” was a dance-band tune composed by Midwesterner Charlie Davis; the arrangement recorded by the white Ohio jazz band the Wolverines (remember them) made it a minor hit. But when Redman’s intelligent arrangement, contrasting funky, slippery solos with composed full-band orchestrations, had been waxed, the ambition and scale of dance-oriented jazz reached a new level. “Copenhagen” might be the first swing record: at least its rhythmic charge is a world beyond what the bland, white Synco-Pep bands then blanketing the nation could have achieved.

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13. Marion Harris: “It Had to Be You”

Perhaps the most innocuous, even soporific, standard in the entire pre-rock Tin Pan Alley catalogue, the long zombie life of “It Had to Be You” is as good an argument as any for Why Punk Had to Happen, assuming the likes of Louis Jordan and Hank Williams were punk. (They were.) Even here, at its inception, “It Had to Be You” is more of a dreamy reverie than the sprightly fox-trots for which bandleader and composer Isham Jones was known. Its chords are sturdy enough to build eternal illusions on, and Gus Kahn’s unpretentious but seamlessly-rhymed lyrics are generalized enough to nurse any era’s self-delusions. Easy listening before any listening was particularly hard, but pretty enough to evoke a vanished romanticism for decades to come.

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14. Georgius: “Les plus bath des javas”

There were only seven years between them, but George Job (Georgel) and Georges Guibourg (Georgius) represent different generations in French popular song. Georgel was in the line of Belle Époque peacocks like Félix Mayol; Georgius was a Modern, comfortable with the faster pace and sharper wit of the Twenties. “Les plus bath des javas” was his biggest hit, a satirical narrative about two denizens of Paris’s underworld who turn to prostitution and theft, punctuated by the ironic “Ah-ah-ah, listen to this, isn’t it  pleasant? It’s the prettiest java!” The “java” was the characteristic Parisian dance of the 1920s, close-held with small steps, intensifying the sexual excitement of the fox-trot and other modern dances. Georgius’ performance, however, belongs more to the music-hall than to the  dance-hall.

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15. Emma Liébel: “Pars”

We’ve gestured toward chanson réaliste before, but Emma Liébel is the first serious exponent of the form to appear here: she had been popular through the 1910s, but as popular song grew in ambition in the 1920s, she cut some of her greatest records shortly before her 1926 retirement due to tuberculosis. “Pars” (Leave) is less réaliste than universel: it was written by Jean Lenoir, and in Liébel’s voice is one of the great songs of renunciation. Her rich alto is one of the starting points for Édith Piaf, and the fully orchestral arrangement, muddy as it is due to the acoustic recording, is a distinctly European approach to popular song: free from the percussiveness of American (North or South) song, it lurches with her.

16. Grupo de Sebastião, Cantado por Francisco Alves e coro: “Miúdo”

By contrast, this Brazilian samba is for all practical purposes nothing but percussion: the chorus imitates the heavy bateria drumline of Carnaval sambas. Francisco Alves was one of the legends of the first generation of samba recording, whose first record was cut in 1919; only lack of space has prevented us from reaching him earlier. Still a young man, he will become the primary male voice of the Golden Age of Samba, the Brazilian equivalent of Carlos Gardel or Bing Crosby. But in “Miúdo,” written by Black sambista Sebastião Santos Neves, he’s upstaged by the chorus shouting out percussive triplets like “tam tam tam,” “bam, bam, bam,” and finally “ba-ta-clan,” which last is a reference to a local cabaret named after the famous Parisian venue.

17. Carlos Gardel: “Griseta”

It was not surprising that France held a romantic attraction to Americans of both hemispheres in the 1920s: after a decade in which clash-of-civilizations propaganda pitted elegant, poetic France against coarse, industrial Germany, Paris was the gathering place for would-be aesthetes and entertainers from around the world. “Griseta,” composed by Enrique Delfino along elevated harmonic lines rather than adapting traditional criollo tunes, with a lyric by Francophile José González Castillo which namechecks characters from classic bohemian novels by Murger, Prevost, and Dumas fils, was one of the most successful tangos in Argentina during the 1920s. Still, Gardel and his accompanists emphasize the tango rhythm so forcefully that no one could mistake it for a chanson: Buenos Aires has a romantic melting-pot elegance of its own.

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18. Marika Papagika: “I gineka pou skotoni”

Paris had also, as we have seen, played its part in popularizing the tango throughout Europe: as we move forward, many more countries than Argentina will be producing classic tango records within their own national traditions. Marika Papagika, the great Anatolian Greek singer based in New York, here sings a tango written by prolific Greek composer Themis Naltsas, the title of which translates as “The Woman Who Kills.” It’s less a murder ballad than a lament for a boy led astray, but it was a hugely popular song in the Greek world, recorded many times during the 1920s. Papagika’s recording was the first, and if the studio musicians render the tango rhythm rather flat-footed, it’s a fascinating instance of musical hybridity emerging into something new.

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19. Naftule Brandwein’s Orchester: “Wie bist die gewesen vor Prohibition?”

Five years into the Noble Experiment, it was obvious to all but the staunchest Drys that it was a failure. Indeed, Prohibition as a cultural force left remarkably little trace in the popular-song record, in which it was merely assumed that everyone was drinking just as much as they actually were, in the same way that subsequent waves of Prohibition would fail to prevent pop music celebrating pot, ecstasy, or lean. This freilach record, based on an old Ashkenazi dance tune, was originally recorded by accordionist N. Hollander in 1915 under a Yiddish title which translates as “Where were you when the money was gone?” Brandwein’s sly update of the title to “Where were you before Prohibition?” and his flashy, pirouetting clarinet, are thoroughly modern.

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20. Kandel’s Orchestra: “Die chasidim forren tsum Rebbin”

George Gershwin was not the only Jewish New Yorker adapting the vernacular music which surrounded him to more theatrical, extended compositions. Harry Kandel, who had studied at the Odessa Conservatory before emigrating to the US in 1905, had played in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and John Philip Sousa’s band before founding his own orchestra. He’s turned up here before, but this is perhaps his magnum opus, a twelve-inch record that stretches to over four minutes arranged as a miniature suite, with passages both spoken and sung. It was composed by Kandel as a virtuosic (and also comic) setpiece, and belongs to the tradition of Jewish theatrical music rather than klezmer. It was a last bow: Kandel retired in 1924 to run a music store.

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21. Niño de Cabra y Ramón Montoya, guitarrista: “Que te quise con locura (Malagueña)”

The first generation of flamenco musicians to record set a standard which later generations would find almost impossible to improve, although that wouldn’t stop them from trying. Cayetano Muriel Reyes, called Niño de Cabra, was perhaps the first great cantaor from the northern Andalusian city of Córdoba; flamenco had historically clustered around the more southerly cities of Granada, Seville, and Cadiz. This record, in which he sings against the playing of legendary flamenco guitarist Ramón Montoya, is a superb example of his style, both delicate and passionate, with a deep feeling for Montoya’s rhythm. Already in his fifties at the time of this recording, Niño de Cabra would live to see his old, traditional style (he was a student of Antonio Chacón) supplanted by upstarts.

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22. Olive Kline: “Indian Love Call”

The theatrical sensation of 1924 was the operetta Rose-Marie by Rudolf Friml, born in Prague but established on Broadway. An ingenuous, sentimental tale of love in the, uh, exotic Canadian Rockies, it was balderdash in specifics but beloved for Friml’s sumptuous, endlessly hummable score, which sounded to tired middle-aged ears as though the glory days of Franz Léhar and Victor Herbert had returned right in the middle of the honking, squawking Jazz Age. It was no mistake: impresario Arthur Hammerstein had shepherded The Merry Widow and Naughty Marietta to stage, and his fingerprints were all over Rose-Marie as well: his nephew, Oscar, was put to work on the book and lyrics. The lasting hit, through dozens of permutations and genres, was this weird fake-Native warble.

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23. Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers: “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel”

An African-American concert choir who sang as much for hire as for the glorification of the Lord, the Jubilee Singers were founded by choirmaster William C. Elkins, who had led the chorus in Williams and Walker shows—Payne’s identity has been lost to history. And Elkins himself wasn’t necessarily involved in this recording: the label notes Eloise Uggams as the choral director on this recording. Perhaps that’s her solo voice leading the chorus on this spiritual; in any case, the arrangement is so powerful that it sticks in the head as surely as any pop song: if you’ve heard this record, you’ll remember it forever. The group recorded secular material as well, even lending Negro authenticity to dance-band records, but this is their shining moment.

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24. The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski: “Afternoon of a Faun”

The Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé first sketched a poem about a faun’s idyll in 1865, and published it in its final form in 1876. The Impressionist composer Claude Debussy debuted his symphonic “Prélude” of the poem, which has been read as the first orchestral masterpiece of the twentieth century, in 1894. The Polish-Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed a ballet to Debussy’s music, imbuing his lithe, muscular body with the frank eroticism of the poem, in 1912. Each of these events was a shock to the Paris of their day; but by 1924, when after three attempts Polish-British conductor Leopold Stokowski finally engraved the Prelude onto disc, it had simply become part of the canon, lapped in erotic freedom by a newer and more loose-swinging generation.


 

XXIII: 1923

 

On Irreducible Particles, Rapid Assimilations, and Molasses Funks

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1. Billy Jones: “Yes! We Have No Bananas”

One of the four or five irreducible particles of the silliness of the Roaring Twenties, the folly of the années folles, the glitter of the Goldene Zwanziger, the keynote and image of all that was evanescent and soon to vanish, like champagne bubbles, in the era to come. A vaudeville routine sold as a Tin Pan Alley ditty, with a stop-start melody and nonsense refrain that captured a bluff, jaunty mood and lent itself to repetition, sawing relentlessly away with or without the lyrics kidding the incomplete Americanisms of the Lower East Side. But that kidding remains, a none too subtle reminder that the white majority would never consent to seeing immigrants as fully human. Nonsense in the United States is always political; perhaps that too is not unique to us. [...]

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2. Clay Custer: “The Rocks”

The consensus among jazz scholars is that Clay Custer is most likely a pseudonym for the tune’s composer, but there are a few other Chicago-area pianists it could be, including his brother Hersal. Regardless, it’s the first disc on record to feature a walking bassline (so early in its development that it’s almost a stumbling one); this, combined with the previous year’s publication of “The Fives” from the same pen, is the birth of boogie-woogie piano. By decade’s end, the genre will have been fully formalized by pianists who all point to the work of Arkansas-born, New Orleans-trained, Chicago-adopted “Gut Bucket” George Washington Thomas as fundamental. Even apart from the all-important bassline, the chromatic opening trills and development of its themes—the rocks could be wave-dashed, or more euphemistic—give delight.

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3. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band: “Dipper Mouth Blues”

Seven years is a long time in pop, which hot jazz still is. The gap between the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s first recordings and the first sides made by Joe “King” Oliver’s band—who would undoubtedly have been one of the ODJB’s primary inspirations back when New Orleans was the quarantined heart of jazz, before it spread like a virus to infect the entire nation—would have been noticeable in any era, but a comparison between the two reveals that while the white boys got the energy and the raucousness right, they missed the funk and the communal interplay. Oliver’s muted trumpet solo isn’t just virtuosity: it responds to and is responded to by the rest of the band, including the young second cornettist, recently arrived to Chicago from New Orleans.

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4. Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra: “Elephant’s Wobble”

And just as the first true New Orleans jazz is waxed, so too is the first true Kansas City jazz: less molasses funky, more brightly riffed, with a hard-stomping rhythm that presages much industrialized pop to come, from Motown to techno. Bennie Moten, a nearly thirty year old pianist, composer and now bandleader who had knocked about the Missouri ragtime scene since his youth, scored his first recording date in St. Louis, with a band of Kansas City luminaries who individually hearken back to older forms, from Sousa’s drilled marches to Joplin’s ragtime of theme and recapitulation to Ossman’s savagely strummed minstrel banjo: but together, powered by the newly hot-running engine of jazz, they produce a gleeful, entirely modern sound that piledrives, lean and hungry for rhythm, into the future.

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5. Sylvester Weaver: “Guitar Blues”

Most discographies will note this as the first country blues record; but Sylvester Weaver was born and reared in Louisville, Kentucky, which if it wasn’t a New York-scale metropolis was still no dirt-road waystation; nor is it the Deep South. Like most of his Black peers making their way before recording horns in the years before the electric-recording boom, Weaver was an urban entertainer—his first recordings were as an accompanist to blues singer Sara Martin. His instrument was called a “guitjo,” a banjo body strung like a guitar, and his slide technique sounds particularly otherworldly on its resonant body. The technique has appeared before, as played by Hawaiʻian musicians and white southerners; but here the sound connects (on record) to the blues, and the echoes from it will be lasting.

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6. Os Oito Batutas: “Urubu”

We have heard the most prominent soloist in this supergroup before: choro composer and flautist Pixinguinha had already left his mark on Brazilian popular music in the 1910s. But when he joined seven other Black and mulatto choristas to form an eight-man group in 1919 so that a theater empresario would have an attraction in between showings of silent films, the result was a music that swung harder than traditional choro and even outpaced early samba: “Urubu” (the Guaraní word for vulture, and you can hear a wheeling, wing-fluttering flight in Pixinguinha’s flute) is just as modern, as dynamic, and as future-facing as any New Orleans jazz. In fact, musicians like Os Oito Batutas (the eight legends), demonstrate that the spirit of jazz was never exclusively a North American phenomenon.

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7. Rosita Quiroga: “Sollozos”

Two legends in the field of Argentinean tango make their debut with this recording: Rosita Quiroga, the music’s first great woman singer, born in the lower-class milieu to which a cosmopolitan like Gardel only pretended; and Osvaldo Fresedo, the song’s composer, who when he begins to record in his own right will become perhaps the most emblematic tango bandleader of the decade, with a long career to follow. “Sollozos” (Sobs), with a lyric by the composer’s brother Emilio, is one of the great tango songs, uncovering the everyday pathos within the music’s slinky passion. Quiroga’s direct, unadorned vocal style refuses self-pity even as her words ask us to pity her, and the harmonium which opens the recording casts the plucked guitars which accompany her throughout in the light of eternity.

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8. Carlos Gardel: “Alma porteña”

But as tango branched out into newly classed and gendered forms, Gardel the eternal cosmopolite continued to go from strength to strength. “Alma porteña” (Soul of Buenos Aires) is another of the deathless tango songs, in which the music itself is apostrophized as the cause, and cure, of all man’s ills. The mellifluous self-assurance in his baritone voice, the intricate backing of his accompanists Barbieri and Ricardo, and the swooping, tantalizing melody from Vicente Greco, who had been writing and performing tangos since the early 1910s, make a dazzling, almost overwhelming display of what I think of as Baroque tango, tango at its most self-important, self-mythologizing, and capital-r Romantic. If tango is une force qui va and Gardel is its prophet, why should we ever ask for anything more quotidian?

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9. Bessie Smith: “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home Blues”

Three long years after the record companies learned that there was a market for “race” (for which see blues) records, the most famous and well compensated blues singer on the Black vaudeville circuit finally signed a contract with Columbia to cut her first records, accompanied on piano by early jazz pianist and empresario Clarence Williams, who had published (and supposedly co-wrote) this song. Its co-composer, Charles Warfield, later complained that he was cheated, which was probably true enough: music labels had much to learn from sheet-music publishers on how to screw over their talent. But the song itself is just a trifle: what makes it stick is Bessie Smith’s full-lunged performance, too self-possessed to be melodramatic about missing her lover, but too serious about her heartbreak to treat it flippantly either.

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10. Ma Rainey with Lovie Austin and Her Blues Serenaders: “Barrel House Blues”

The blues singer who taught Bessie Smith to perform in public, and whose popular performances since the early 1900s in medicine shows, minstrel shows, and vaudeville had no doubt influenced white singers from Sophie Tucker to Marion Harris, also cut her first records for Paramount in 1923, at the age of forty-one. Accompanied by Chicago-based pianist and composer Lovie Austin and her hot jazz band, Rainey sings three verses that mock at Prohibition while reinforcing her own status as the elder stateswoman of the blues: the “Papa” of the song is presumably is Will Rainey, her husband, manager, and one-time partner, while “Mama” is herself, a creature of voracious appetite whose addiction to port, sport, gin, and “outside men” is a thorough rejection of a respectability that couldn’t touch her.

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11. Esther Bigeou with Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra: “West Indies Blues”

Anglo-Caribbean music has not appeared in these pages since 1915, but it didn’t go unheard, nor was its influence insignificant. “West Indies Blues” was written by the great Black jazz songwriter Spencer Williams, with funning lyrics by Edgar Dowell, in the wake of Jamaican-born Pan-African Black separatist Marcus Garvey’s conviction on trumped-up charges of mail fraud: the broad dialect Esther Bigeou, a New Orleans native, uses to caricature West Indian speech is, at this remove, indistinguishable from the Coon dialects white songwriters had been putting in the mouths of US-born Blacks for generations. Even so, the sheet music was subtitled “a calipso,” and though it’s not proper Trinidadian calypso, it’s played by people who have heard it: Armand Piron’s orchestra was one of the foremost Creole bands of New Orleans.

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12. Marion Harris: “Who’s Sorry Now?”

As the genuine articles began to take their rightful place before the recording horn, the white women whose imitations of blues shouters had made the racist recording market safe for the blues began to move into more genteel forms of music-making, where Black women presumably couldn’t follow. (We’ll see about that.) Marion Harris, a constant presence here since 1916, has never sounded more polished and inexpressive—which is to say, whiter—than when warbling this ditty by dilettante composer Ted Snyder (who we won’t see again) and Tin Pan Alley lifers, lyricists Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (who we will). A song of vindictive triumph paced like a parlor ballad, it retained enough kick thirty-five years later to jumpstart the career of a teenager who sang like a grown woman.

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13. Sophie Tucker: “You’ve Gotta See Mamma Ev’ry Night (Or You Can’t See Mamma At All)”

Of course, La Tucker never followed the trends for white women singers. Now in her mid-thirties, she had built too firmly on a foundation of Coon shouting to move blithely into sweet girlish Tin Pan Alley fluff: but raucous faux-blues Tin Pan Alley fluff would do just as well. “You’ve Got to see Mamma” was written by popular hack Con Conrad (empresario Billy Rose is credited on lyrics), and in general outline it’s a good imitation of contemporary Black women’s songs, slightly saucy, humorously aggressive towards a wayward lover, and firmly self-respecting. But there’s no actual blues structure or emotion to it, which makes it all the better as a cloak for the indeterminately-raced Tucker to wrap herself in: big and brassy, but ultimately respectful of show-biz and social convention.

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14. Wendell Hall: “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’”

The ways in which the desiccated remains of minstrelsy were shaped and pounded into country music are a major part of the recording history of the 1920s. “Ain’t Gonna Rain” is considered a folk song (four years later, Carl Sandburg would suggest that it dates to the 1870s), but Hall, a Midwestern vaudevillian who performed under the legend “The Red-Headed Music Maker,” punches out the verses, with nonstandard vocabulary and Southern rural hokum straight out of Uncle Remus, in a minstrel-inflected screech and yowl, a sound which would migrate into the “high lonesome” style which will characterize honky-tonk. But he’s also very much of his time: his instrument was not the banjo but the ukulele, the portable if not particularly versatile instrument which gave a fizzy, irrepressible soundtrack to the 1920s.

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15. Fiddlin’ John Carson: “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Gonna Crow”

Après Eck, le deluge: country fiddlers were still major entertainers in the rural communities where they set and called the dances, and as the South urbanized, they grew into bigger stars thanks to old-time fiddling conventions. The fifty-something Carson, of Atlanta, was hot enough stuff that he was a local fixture on the new medium of radio and appeared in newsreels. A sharp-eyed Atlanta distributor cajoled Okeh’s talent scout Ralph Peer into recording him in a rare acoustic-era location recording, a makeshift studio set up in an empty Atlanta storefront. Peer wasn’t happy with the results (he’d do better later), but the record, “Old Hen” b/w “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” (see 1907), sold out at the next convention. No hero, as we’ll see, Carson nevertheless lasted.

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16. Asako Tanabe: “Sendo kouta”

As country music slowly pushes its way onto record, so too does the music frequently compared to it: Japanese enka, which (like country) originated in a specific milieu but has since broadened to mean any vaguely folkloric or traditional popular music. I’ve been unable to learn anything about the singer attributed here: 田辺朝子 is a common enough name that basic online searches are useless. But 船頭小唄 (often translated as “Ferryman’s Song”) was a major musical touchstone of the era, a street song which borrowed the melody of a Shinpei Nakayama composition. It became infamous in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake, said to have been predicted in the haunting, death-obsessed lyrics. A sentimental 1923 film of the same title inspired multiple recordings; this is the one posted to YouTube.

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17. Mounira al-Madiyyah: “Asmar malak ruhi”

1923 was the first full year of nominal Egyptian independence from the British “protectorate” which had begun in 1882 and was formalized during the War to break Ottoman power. Although the British occupation would not be entirely ended until 1953, the promulgation of the first constitution and the convention of the first parliament in Cairo is worth commemorating here, with the voice of the first Muslim woman in the modern era to come to prominence as an entertainer in Egypt: before her (as throughout North Africa and the Middle East), the profession was limited to Jewish and Christian women. أسمر ملك روحي was one of her signature songs, one that has had long echoes in Egyptian light-entertainment history: “Dark King of My Soul” is one way to translate the title.

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18. Muhammed Abd al Wahhab: “Ma niish bahebbek”

Egyptian popular music was still only just being born: the September 1923 death at the age of 31 of café singer and musical-theater composer Sayed Darwish, whose melodies (some of which we will hear in future) borrowed Western structures and sometimes instrumentation in a break with classical Arabic formulas, is a useful demarcation point.  Abd al Wahhab was a friend and close collaborator with Darwish in his last years, and would become perhaps the most important Egyptian popular musician of the twentieth century, but one. This early song, a light taqtuqa from the kind of genial musical romantic comedy which would come to form the backbone of the West and South Asian film industry, is an anti-love song performed in character as a rascal protesting (too much) that he only loves himself.

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19. Marika Papagika: “Opou dis dio kyparissia”

The Anatolian Greek singer Marika Papagika was by now more or less the undisputed queen of the ex-Ottoman diaspora in New York City, despite continued challenges from Kiria Koula. Within the next year or so she would even open the first café-aman (and behind authority’s back, a speakeasy) in the Western hemisphere; but here, with her husband on cimbalom and other immigrant musicians on violin, cello, and percussion, she sings a song which takes its title from the Greek folk air “When You See Two Cypresses,” but hares off in other directions in the singing. It’s called a Zeïmpekiko (Anatolian Greek folk dance) on the label, but scholars, noting the modern fusions which New World residence has imparted to Papagika’s musical ecosystem, have called it an early example of rebetiko.

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20. Naftule Brandwein’s Orchestra: “Doina and Nachspiel”

As we move further into the 1920s, the number of great recordings by the Eastern European Jewish artists who brought what we now call klezmer to the tenements of New York City will slowly decrease. Partly this is because of rapid assimilation and the inroads made by Jewish artists into mainstream US culture: the next generation of talented Jewish musicians were more likely to aspire to be Gershwin or Brice than Brandwein or Picon. But also, beginning in 1924, the country’s open (to Europeans) immigration policy was for the first time given a permanent numerical limit, heavily restricting (as it meant to) the number of new Jewish immigrants to the United States. There will be more klezmer records in future, but let this be a valediction for the first generation.

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21. Isa Kremer: “Dwie Guitarre”

But there was a whole constellation of global Jewish culture which the policies set by a know-nothing Congress could not touch. Isa Kremer, the great Russian Jewish soprano, was born to bourgeois parents in what is now Moldova, but was publishing revolutionary poetry in Odessa as a teenager. She debuted as an opera singer in Italy; within a few years, she included Yiddish folk songs in her concert repertoire, supposedly the first woman to do so. The Russian Revolution left her without a home (her family had backed the moderates), and her peripatetic concert schedule brought her to the United States in 1922, where she was acclaimed by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. This selection of Russian romans or “gypsy” music is illustrative of her clear voice and lively style.

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22. Pau Casals: “Kol Nidrei”

Another example of Jewish music having entered the concert canon: the German (Protestant) composer Max Bruch had composed this piece for cello and orchestra in 1880, the melody of the first section based on the Hebrew prayer recited during the evening service on Yom Kippur and that of the second on one of Isaac Nathan’s 1815 settings for Byron’s Hebrew Melodies. (Gentiles appropriating Jewish art and being reappropriated by Jews in turn has a long history.) The great Catalan cellist Pau Casals rendered it sensitively, accompanied only by Edouard Gendron on piano, for Columbia in 1923. In those years Casals was the preeminent cellist in Europe, recording in France and conducting an orchestra in Barcelona. An ardent Republican, he went into self-imposed exile when Franco came to power, and never returned.

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23. Marian Anderson: “Deep River”

Only two years out of high school, and still a decade out from becoming world-famous as the greatest African-American contralto of the twentieth century, Marian Anderson recorded her first sides in December of 1923. Her repertoire even then included this Harry T. Burleigh arrangement of a classic spiritual, which would become one of her signature songs. “Deep River,” with a stark simplicity of melody and lyric which contain entire implied universes of emotion and history, is one of the essential, irreducible elements of Black American art. Anderson’s early low, throbbing performance, recorded the same year that hot jazz and the blues fully came into their own on record, after some fifty years of what historians call the Nadir, an era of horrific violence and terrorism toward Black citizens, still resounds today.


 

XXII: 1922

 

On Cavalier Adoptions, Damned Conventions, and the Inertia of the Dispossessed

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1. A. C. (Eck) Robertson: “Sallie Gooden”

The story goes that the two Texans entered New York City in full fancy dress, 35-year-old Eck Robertson in a spangled cowboy outfit, and his 75-year-old partner Henry C. Gilliland in old Confederate Army togs, his own. They went straight to the Victor offices and insisted on cutting a record; whether because the talent manager thought he could sell it, or just to get the hicks out of the office, “Sallie Gooden” b/w “Arkansas Traveler” was the result. “Traveler” was the duet, “Gooden” a solo piece by Eck: and if it’s not exactly the first country record (studio professionals had been cutting Ozark reels and string-band minstrelsy for years), it’s the first made by genuine rural Southerners. Thirteen variations in three minutes: Robertson rarely recorded again, but he laid a pattern for all old-time to follow. [...]

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2. Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra: “Society Blues”

Meanwhile, the first genuine Black New Orleans jazz records were recorded in the sleepy backwater then still becoming the cinematic boomtown of Los Angeles, California, to be sold out of a store also owned by the proprietor of the recording studio. Edward “Kid” Ory was a successful Creole jazz trombonist whose band had included King Oliver and a young cornetist named Armstrong back in the Crescent City; he had decamped to the West Coast after Storyville’s closure in 1917, and the band he put together in the Golden State was, if not the toast of Rampart Street, respectable. Ory would wend to Chicago within the next few years, where he would fall in with old Orleanian friends, but that’s a story for another time. “Society Blues,” halfway between classy and kidding, is mellow as a porch conversation.

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3. Alberta Hunter: “Down Hearted Blues”

Another legendary figure of twentieth-century music bows onto the stage. Alberta Hunter, who was born and bred in Memphis but made her name in Chicago, is of the generation of performers who, like her fellow Southern-born, Northern-famed peers Ethel Waters and Florence Mills, fell halfway between the stools of cabaret and the blues, and was nearly forgotten by a history that prized the blues over cabaret and (which would come to mean the same thing) men over women. She had already toured Europe to great acclaim by the time she settled down to a Harlem club gig and cut this immortal blues, co-written with pianist (and possibly sometime lover) Lovie Austin. The following year, the century’s most famous blues shouter would notch it as her first smash record, but Hunter’s sly, sashaying take emphasizes its essential theatricality.

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4. Marion Harris: “I’m Just Wild about Harry”

The biggest hit from Shuffle Along, the all-Black musical which took New York by storm in 1921 and kickstarted a decade of Black excellence, “I’m Just Wild about Harry” took a year to get onto record. Partly the delay served to deracinate the tune, to transform it from an unembarrassed declaration of Black love (it was originally written as a waltz, in an even more overt challenge to racial norms) to a raggy burst of pep that anyone, in these dance-band days, could turkey-trot or whistle: F. Scott Fitzgerald coined “the Jazz Age” in 1922, the perfect descriptor of such cavalier white adoption of Black forms. Marion Harris had always sung Black, sometimes exaggeratedly so, but only the broad syncopation and extra pep of the last few choruses gestures in that direction here; she simply sounds American.

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5. Ed Gallagher and Al Shean: “Oh! Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean”

The background hum to popular culture in the 1920s—as it had been since the 1880s—was vaudeville, the stage circuit mechanism by which the entire country absorbed roughly the same songs, dances, slapstick, patter, and acrobatics as the big cities, though delayed. Ephemeral by design, but calcified enough that the right act could get forty years out of the same routine, the ethos of vaudeville was desperation; you never knew what would work, so you played as broad as possible. Gallagher and Shean, an Irishman and a German Jew respectively, reportedly loathed each other, but their shared song, as tightly structured as a sonnet, was bigger than either of them: they could and did swap out verses every time, which makes this double-sided record’s domestic-abuse and skin-color jokes revealing as an indication of what sold.

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6. Jack Buchanan: “And Her Mother Came Too”

While the Broadway theatrical songwriting machine was entering its second decade of eminence, its West End equivalent was rather more sedate. The young British songwriter who posed the greatest challenge to the imported Berlins, Kerns, and Gershwins was Welshman Ivor Novello. “Keep the Home Fires Burning” had been a wartime favorite, but it was in the 1920s that his songwriting really bloomed. This entry, on the surface a mere one-note mother-in-law joke in age-old music-hall tradition, has a more nuanced harmonic structure than strictly necessary, and especially given eternal Drones Club habitué Jack Buchanan’s urbane, ever so slightly camp delivery, the joke destabilizes, becoming less about a too-enthusiastic chaperone and more like a Wodehousian parody of Vincent O’Sullivan’s classic 1912 Decadent novella The Good Girl, about a simpleton increasingly entangled by a family of moral vampires.

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7. Sara Martin: “Tain’t Nobody’s Bus’ness if I Do”

On the right hand side of the label is printed the legend “Contralto Solo / Piano Accomp. by T. Waller.” And so another of the giants of early jazz piano bobs to the surface here, accompanying Miss Sara Martin, one of the half-dozen or so essential blues-not-blues singers of the decade, on a song that will become an urban blues standard, evolving in many directions over the course of the century. But here, in its original ragtime-blues form, written by African-American songwriter Porter Grainger and Mamie Smith sideman Everett Robbins, “Nobody’s Business” is a perfect marriage of defiant, antisocial (because society is dangerous) blues tradition and Tin Pan Alley hokum, setting the template for the theatrical blues tradition of the 1930s and 40s which songwriters like Harold Arlen or Hoagy Carmichael would turn into vernacular American pop.

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8. Lucille Hegamin and her Blue Flame Syncopaters: “Aggravatin’ Papa (Don’t You Try to Two-Time Me)”

In fact, some white songwriters were there already. Composer J. Russel Robinson, a Hoosier, was a ragtime pianist who had supplied W. C. Handy’s publishing company, and lyricist Roy Turk was a New York native whose slangy, sentimental songs helped to define the Jazz Age. Three years earlier, “Aggravatin’ Papa” might have been a Coon song—the Southern setting, the stereotypically trifling man, the understated threats of violence could all have been delivered by a blackface singer for laughs—but instead Black singers and players adopted it and turned  it into a blues standard, starting with Lucille Hegamin. Her delivery, using the blues trick of repeating the end of a line where a solo would otherwise go, is cheerful, almost delighted to tear into the juicy threats she’s making, while her Syncopaters swoon woozily around her.

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9. Trixie Smith and the Jazz Masters: “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)”

The confluence of the words “rock” and “roll” in such a way that makes it obvious they were already conjoined in a familiar phrase decades before they got pinned to a backbeat is perhaps the least noteworthy thing about this record. Trixie Smith was a genuine Southern Black singer, born and raised in Georgia, but not a gutbucket blues singer: her upbringing had been genteel, and her singing, as here, tended toward the light and winsome. Nevertheless, “My Man Rocks Me” is among the first great single-entendre blues records, so hot (though entirely by implication) that a parental warning logo would have had to be slapped on it in the CD era. Written by Chicago-based songwriter and publisher J. Berni Barbour, it’s performed here at such a languorous drag, with a deep-stroking trombone, that it’s practically tantric.

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10. Eva Tanguay: “I Don’t Care”

In 1922 she was forty-four and long past her wasp-waisted prime; but back when she was the chaotic, hair-flowing, man-eating, lung-bursting Quebecois-born sensation of the Naughty Oughts, she hadn’t bothered to step before a recording horn, and so this is all we have of her: her signature song, some fifteen years late. But if this is a shadow of her former self, what must she have been like in her strength? Her voice is blown out, her tempos all scattered as the studio musicians attempt to keep up with her lurches from faux-maudlin verses to the roaring, flippant chorus, still as strong a fuck-you to the propriety, daintiness, and demureness of the ideal woman as it ever was. If the fuck-you sounds rather more ghostly today, it isn’t because women are expected to care any less.

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11. Georgel: “La garçonne”

But the “I-Don’t-Care Girl” had been a model for a whole generation of women now reaching adulthood who disdained the voluminous skirts and hairstyles of their mothers. The flapper, as she was known in English, had her equivalent in every nation: but when Victor Margueritte’s sensationalistic lesbian 1922 French novel La garçonne was bowdlerized into English the same year, it was called The Bachelor Girl. The topical song of the same name by Vincent Scotto (lyrics by a pair of hacks) sneers at women who bob their hair, dress in mannish attire, and choose not to flirt with men, predicting a lonely, cruel dotage for any woman who doesn’t embrace motherhood. Georgel’s rendition was a hit, but the last verse was often omitted, and the androgynous garçonne’s sleek, stylish, and damn-the-conventions poise became a decade’s aspiration.

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12. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”

Having come into a minor fortune on the unexpected success of “Swanee,” the young, prolific, and ambitious composer George Gershwin soon found himself writing music for George White’s Scandals, meant as stiff competition for Ziegfeld’s Follies. The first (and perhaps only) immortal song from that series of revues, “Stairway to Paradise” was the young man’s first compositional triumph, a winding musical ascent to match the twin curved staircases in the stage show, with blues harmonics to accentuate its modernity and jazz it away from typical revue politesse. The orchestra pit for the number was directed by celebrity conductor Paul Whiteman, and his later recording with his Orchestra, leaving out the less-impressive lyrics, is one of the great dance-band records of the era, sweetly winging Gershwin’s hypermelodic expression of that rarest of emotions in pop music—joy.

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13. Conchita Piquer: “El florero”

Among the many sensations which took place seemingly nightly on New York stages in the early 1920s, the debut of a sixteen-year-old Valencian soubrette in drag as a flower-selling boy in El gato montés (The Wild Cat), a successful Spanish operetta undergoing a respectable Broadway run, has largely been forgotten in English-language circles. But the tale goes that a representative from Columbia rushed backstage during the intermission to sign her to a two-year recording contract, only to discover that not only didn’t she speak English, she had only a vague grasp of Castilian. Thirty years later Concha Piquer would be the grand dame of Spanish copla, a long-reigning movie star and one of the most recognizable Spanish-language singers in the world; Broadway’s ability to generate stars without even noticing was at its peak in the 1920s.

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14. Baiano: “Eu só quero é beliscá”

In February of 1922, the Teatro Municipal of São Paulo hosted a week of art exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and poetry readings called the Semana de Arte Moderna: it was ground zero for Brazilian modernism, an explosive, controversial, and thoroughly regional rejection of European norms in favor of miscegenated, tropical Brasilidade. But the middle-class intellectuals and artists promoted by the Semana were conflicted about the street-level sambas and batuques with which the urban masses—not to mention hustling commercial songwriters—expressed themselves, just as Anglo modernists were ambivalent or worse towards jazz. This cateretê (tr. “I Just Want a Pinch”) by Eduardo Souto, with its dense paulista slang, faux-tribal rhythms, and anti-authoritarian stance (the song’s satirical object is cops shaking down street vendors) was just as modernist as Oswald de Andrade’s poems or Tarsila do Amaral’s paintings. 

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15. Alcides Briceño y Jorge Añez: “La soldadera”

Belisario de Jesús García was a soldier in the Mexican Revolution who fought on the side of the Carrancista revolutionaries who murdered Emiliano Zapata; the same year, he published his first song, “La soldadera.” The word literally means “the woman who receives payment for taking care of a soldier,” and could refer to a wife or domestic or (more likely) camp follower, but in the Mexican Revolution it was applied to the hundreds and thousands of women who took up arms in the cause, whether perforce or otherwise. This version of García’s imitation corrido was recorded in New York by a Panamanian-Colombian duo who would sing anything in Spanish regardless of nationality, with studio hacks on instrumentation; despite which, it’s been wisely adopted by Mexico as one of the great early records of Mexican vernacular pop.

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16. Carlos Gardel: “El tango de la muerte”

Not the “Tango de la muerte” written by the little-known Horacio Mackintosh in 1917, which is an instrumental; this tango was written (music and lyrics) by Alberto Navión, a French-born, Uruguay-raised composer for the Argentine theater whose work was often uneven; the sainete which introduced this song has been dismissed as mediocre, but Gardel getting his pipes on any song elevates it. And in fact, a song of typically Latin despair which may have been risible or banal in the theater is transformed into a throbbing report from the depths of depression on record. Bounded by the strict strums of guitarists Guillermo Barbieri and José Ricardo, Gardel’s voice moors in self-pitying baritone melancholy, and flutters up to keening tenor remorse. He wants to die, and only the milonga (criollo dancehall, birthplace of tango) keeps him alive.

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17. La Niña de los Peines: “Tango de la tontona”

It is a great piece of foolishness that she has not appeared here before: her first record was cut in 1905, when she was fifteen. But in 1922, the distinguished Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and a young, scarcely-known poet named García Lorca organized the first Concurso de Cante Jondo, or Deep Song Contest, in Granada, the Andalusian city which could reasonably claim to be among the birthplaces of flamenco. Pastora Pavón, already at thirty-two the greatest cantaora of all time, was the only woman on the judging panel. This song (set to the relatively new “tango” palo) addressing a foolish, heartbreaking girl was an early favorite of her repertoire, and one of a series of records she cut in 1922, accompanied by guitarist Luis Molina. It only hints at the astonishing depths of her voice.

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18. El Tenazas de Morón: “Yo he andaito la Francia (Seguiriyas de Silverio)”

But the great revelation of the Granada Concurso was Diego Bermúdez of the Sevillian town Morón de la Frontera, a septuagenarian who had retired from flamenco singing in the nineteenth century after having been stabbed: flamenco was once a disreputable, dangerous field. His archaic style was received rapturously by the musicologists and mystic nationalists in the audience, who considered it a direct link to the authentic Roma origins of flamenco song as represented by the legendary prototypical cantaor Silverio Franconetti, and as opposed to modern syncretic theatricalized flamenco, sullied by commercialism and mass media. On being (re)discovered, Bermúdez (nicknamed Tenazas, or Tongs) recorded several platters of quavering, ancient flamenco, a set which Falla would carry with him into exile. But his moment in the sun was short-lived; the following year, El Tenazas was laid to rest.

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19. Naftule Brandwein: “Kallarash”

We have heard him before on records credited to other bandleaders, particularly Abe Schwartz, but this is the moment where the foremost klezmer clarinetist of the era before anyone called the music klezmer struck out on his own. Born into a family of Hasidic musicians in what was then called Polish Galicia (present-day Ukraine) and having emigrated to the US in 1908 at nineteen, Brandwein was a showman, even a showboat, who would sometimes perform with a self-promoting neon sign around his neck, or play with his back to the audience so as not to give away his proprietary fingering techniques. “Kallarash,” subtitled “A Bridal Dedication,” is a slow-then-fast dance memorializing a town in Romanian Bessarabia. It’s a perfect showcase for his overtly emotional, flashily sentimental style, a virtuosic display for a Hendrix of the clarinet.

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20. A. Z. Idelsohn und Männerchor: “Hava Nagila”

Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, born in present-day Latvia, worked as a cantor in Europe and South Africa before emigrating to Palestine in the years of the Second Aliyah, when European Jews fled pogroms in the Russian Empire in the hope of establishing a Zionist state in Palestine. Idelsohn’s musical training led him to take an interest in the Jewish music of Palestine, and his ethnomusicological work is some of the most comprehensive in the field. In setting his own words to an old melody traced to the diaspora in the Ukraine, he is considered the author of “Hava Nagila,” and when the German label Polydor, then making one of the first music-industry attempts to comprehensively document folkloric music, invited him to record some of his collection, he conducted a choir in one of the era’s folk-art hybrids.

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21. Fisk University Jubilee Singers: “I Ain’t Goin’ to Study War No More”

The ancient Jewish poetic image, given in the prophet Isaiah, of reshaping implements of warfare into implements of agriculture is one of the most powerful in all religion: and one of its most beautiful expressions was the work of anonymous (to us, if not to Heaven) men and women enslaved in the southern United States, probably less than two hundred years ago. As with most art made by Black Americans, there are double and treble meanings to “Down by the Riverside”— the Ohio was perhaps more salient than the Jordan, whether the one in Israel or the one in Bunyan, and ending the study of war doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing violent struggle anymore than the end of school is the end of work. Even the pious, unhurried reading given by four Fisk men here contains multitudes.

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22. Feodor Chaliapin: “Ey, ukhnem!”

First attested by Russian composer and folk song-collector Mily Balakirev in 1866, the title of this work chant could be transliterated “Hey, Heave To!” but became known in English as “The Song of the Volga Boatmen,” thanks to the widespread popularity of Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin, who toured constantly in Europe and the Americas starting in 1901. It became his signature song in solo concerts, as his rich voice raised in the cry of the vodoliv, or leader of a gang of burlaks (dispossessed peasants with nothing but muscle and the collective force of their own inertia to sell) who were hired to tow barges down the Volga, from Moscow to the Caspian Sea, in the ages before ships could run under their own power. That Russian solution of throwing raw population at a problem would recur.


 

XXI: 1921

 

On Black Suffering as Spectacle, Paths to Immortality, and the Art of Noise

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1. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake: “Love Will Find a Way”

1920 saw Black American performers finally allowed to speak in their own voice on record, not an assumed one or through a minstrel mediary; and 1921 was the year that the same thing happened, in an even more unlikely fashion, on (actually off-off-) Broadway. Just like “Crazy Blues,” Shuffle Along saw the respectable tenth cringe at its low-down humor and sexy swing, and later generations would reject the blacked-up comedians who enacted the ribbon-thin plot, but attendance records were hardly broken over some slapstick: as with all good shows, catchy melodies sold tickets. Sissle had sung with Jim Europe, and Blake had ragged up and down the coast, and their score, jaunty or rowdy or plaintive as necessary, made Shuffle Along the first jazz musical. But this, the lovers’ duet, is more besides: the first true Black American love song, unblemished by minstrelsy. [...]

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2. Bert Williams: “Brother Low Down”

As a new generation, the jazz generation represented here by Sissle and Blake, dawns, the previous generation, powered by ragtime, vaudeville patter, and Coon song, sets. Bert Williams, here from the beginning, bows off with this mordant character sketch of an itinerant street preacher begging for booze money and defensive about his preaching permit. It’s Coonery, in the generic sense of presenting a caricature of blackness for the amusement of whites, but it’s also part of a long Black (and Jewish) tradition satirizing religious hypocrisy and celebrating idiosyncratic locutions. Williams collapsed on stage in February 1922, his final public act being to raise a laugh from an unfeeling audience believing it was part of the show. Which as a metaphor for his career, and the entire century, is hard to better: Black suffering as just another disposable consumer product, entertainment to the end.

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3. Ethel Waters: “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”

With a song pitched at the exact midpoint between Sissle and Blake’s middle-class reverie and Williams’ working-class satire, we meet one of the century’s legendary figures, one of the peerless voices of the jazz-song revolution already underway. Written by overlooked Black composer Benton Overstreet and underappreciated Black comedian Billy Higgins (both retrospectively pointed out by Langston Hughes as masters in their field), “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” lifts a line from “Crazy Blues” to produce a more overtly comic song about putting oneself back together after being walked out on by a no-good man. Waters’ sweet-and-sour voice neither overplays the comedy nor makes a blues tragedy of the material: one of the first great recordings of the Harlem Renaissance, its clear-eyedness and good humor about sexual relations between consenting adults makes yet another subject on which Black America reluctantly instructed its white counterpart.

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4. Fanny Brice: “Second Hand Rose”

The B side of Victor 45263 would in time prove to be one of the most influential recordings in US musical history, arguably inventing the torch song as a genre, but we met “Mon homme” last year on the continent where it was even more influential. Anyway the A side, “Second Hand Rose,” is far truer to Fanny Brice’s stage persona: a nice but impoverished Jewish goil whose ignorance, forthrightness, and pretensions are played for laughs—but crucially, the laughs came not only from the presumed upper-crust WASP theater audience, but from her fellow immigrants. The rubber-faced, nervily dynamic performer born Fania Borach had headlined the Follies in 1910, when she was just nineteen; ten years later she was back with Ziegfeld and bigger than ever. Jolson and Cantor got better publicity, but of that generation of Jewish-American stars, she was the genius.

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5. Marion Harris: “Look for the Silver Lining”

Three years on from the Great War, only one of the Powers was experiencing an economic boom. Americans have traditionally been optimists anyway, but the psychological moment was even more ripe for popular songs expounding on the tenets of the New Thought, a philosophical charlatanry whose descendants include the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret. Even Al Jolson making a bid as the Apostle of Pep with “April Showers” wasn’t as complete a victory for the sunny-side-up brigade as the smash hit from Sally, the Jerome Kern musical which inaugurated the Flapper decade almost as neatly as Shuffle Along inaugurated the Harlem same. The lyric for “Look for the Silver Lining” functions beautifully in the show as the plucky title character’s never-say-die philosophy, but it’s that swoony Kern melody which has made it immortal, long after every silver lining has rusted over.

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6. Van & Schenck: “Ain’t We Got Fun?”

A more cynical philosophy, if one just as indelibly associated with the new decade, is expressed here, in our first encounter with Tin Pan Alley composer Richard A. Whiting, whose career will cross our paths many times more. His skip-a-doodle melody ensured the song a long life in newsboy’s whistles, but it’s Gus Kahn’s witty, slangy lyric, highlighting the contrast between the jet-setting lifestyle promised in magazine advertisements and the actual poverty experienced by millions in a time of ever-sharper inequality, that made the tune so characteristic of its era that it’s been quoted everywhere from Gatsby to Zelig. The vaudeville harmonists Gus Van (baritone) and Joe Schenck (countertenor), Americans of German stock who happily embraced Irish, Italian, or Jewish stereotypes depending on the routine, had the hit record, and their beefy, down-the-middle rendition sells both the title’s cheerfulness and the verses’ shrug.

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7. Sam Moore: “Laughing Rag”

As jazz became, seemingly overnight, the newest sensation in popular music, its forefather ragtime, freed from the burden of being the most advanced thing going, continued to mutate. This record, essential to any history of jazz or even country music, takes the Hawai‘ian slack-key technique (though on the Octo-Chord, a custom-built eight-string guitar) and applies it to ragtime proper, approaching jazz at one end and predicting Nashville steel pedal workouts for generations to come at the other. His protegé Roy Smeck’s 1928 cover of “Laughing Rag” is canonical in Grand Ole Opry lore, but it is Virginia-born vaudevillian, eccentric, and (briefly) Follies star Sam Moore who sits at the crossroads of Hawai‘ian and country music, and his ragtime will, as we will see, spread kudzu-like through the broad highways and quiet backwaters which make up all the musical permutations of the American South.

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8. James P. Johnson: “Keep Off the Grass”

Another, and perhaps more consequential, mutation of ragtime was the strain developed by piano hustlers at Harlem rent parties, hired hands to make the joint bounce so the hosts could make rent, a strain which only made its way onto record in 1921. New Jersey native James P. Johnson was the acknowledged master of the new “stride” piano style, so named because of the distance the hands traveled in order to maintain the rock-solid rhythm and harmonic filigree. Comparison to the popular piano novelty of the day, “Kitten on the Keys,” is instructive: Johnson’s composition has a real low end, a greater chromatic range, and an ass-shaking drive. Where “Kitten” simpers, “Grass” slams, which is why stride looks forward to boogie-woogie and thence to rock & roll, and thus gains a measure of eternity. Novelty lives for a day; Black American jazz is forever.

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9. Johnnie Dunn’s Original Jazz Hounds acc. Edith Wilson: “Nervous Blues”

The “Crazy Blues” blues craze continues apace; this overview, attempting to look in dozens of directions at once, can only skim the surface. Edith Wilson was an another all-around singer rather than a blues singer strictly speaking, and had only been professional for two years when she found herself swept up in Columbia’s dragnet. With Wilson singing a Perry Bradford composition for Johnnie Dunn, who had led Mamie Smith’s band, “Nervous Blues” is as straight a sequel to “Crazy Blues” as anything, including Mamie’s own voluminous output. The subject was in the zeitgeist anyway—popularizations of Freud claimed nerves as the trouble of the age, and nervous disorders were, along with urbanization and Jewishness, diagnosed as one of the three scourges of traditional values by reactionaries everywhere, including Hitler; in which climate, there’s something heroic about a Black woman owning her mental health.

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10. Gertrude Saunders: “I’m Craving for That Kind of Love”

Edith Wilson’s primary claim to fame in the later 1920s would be her showcases in revues built around Florence Mills, the startling comet of Black excellence in music, dance and comedy who flashed so briefly across the Harlem Renaissance that she never recorded; but she will haunt these pages. Florence was catapulted to fame as a replacement for the soubrette role in Shuffle Along; the woman she replaced was Gertrude Saunders, whose most legendary achievement in later years was getting cold-cocked by Bessie Smith over a man; but here, singing the song that Florence would make her own within a year, she whoops and hollers, turning Sissle and Blake’s original tune almost unrecognizable in her performance of salacious, wild-child desire. It’s the sort of gleefully unhinged performance that would come to be associated with punk rock, and it’s all we have of her.

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11. Eubie Blake: “Sounds of Africa”

As epochal as Shuffle Along was, it was not the only, or perhaps even the greatest, achievement of its composer in the year of his glory. “Sounds of Africa,” its title usually changed to “Charleston Rag” in later publication form, is one of the deathless piano solos of a decade in which the piano solo recording became an art form to itself. Blake’s heterogenous musical apprenticeship had included years playing for the high rollers in Atlantic City, one of the liminal spaces where white people consumed Black bodies, services, and art without making much distinction between them; generally unaware that those Black bodies were doing just as much consuming. “Sounds of Africa” features both a funky walking bassline and Debussy-like chromaticism, and it is ragtime pushing not just into furious, hard-rocking modernism, but into regions of pure sound. That you can dance to.

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12. Carlos Gardel: “La copa del olvido”

Tango and jazz were experiencing simultaneous early golden ages in 1921, but the dynamics of the musics’ dissemination were quite different. Shuffle Along was a landmark theatrical event, the first jazz musical; meanwhile, Cuando un pobre se divierte, the play from which “La copa del olvido” became working-class dramatist and lyricist Alberto Vaccarezza’s first hit song, was only another of the hundreds of sainetes criollos, in which tango songs were de rigeur, being produced in Buenos Aires in those years. Gardel, the by now irreplaceable voice of tango, recording the song—and Enrique Delfino, who has appeared here frequently as a composer, providing the music—was a greater imprimatur than the show. Although neither Gardel’s tremulous performance nor Delfino’s sketchy melody make the song immortal: that’s the lyric, in which the singer calls for another round while he contemplates murdering his faithless lover.

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13. Grupo do Moringa: “No rancho”

The vast majority of our visits to Brazil have been to Rio de Janeiro, where the port-town outbreaks of miscegenation, musical and otherwise, allowed such epochal musical traditions as the samba to flourish. But Brazil has always been much larger and more diverse than that; as one hint of which, over to composer Eduardo Souto, born in Rio but who consciously worked in all of the established Brazilian (and some foreign) musical fields. “No rancho” (in the countryside) is designated as a cateretê, by legend an ancient folkloric Amerindian dance, revived by São Paulo cosmopolites like vanguardist poet and novelist Mário de Andrade, who considered it one of the few authentic Brazilian traditions. Souto’s melodic and rhythmic sense, though, is anything but ancient, and such representations of countrified subaltern traditions given national mythological meaning by sophisticated urban tastemakers was hardly limited to Brazil.

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14. Georgel: “La vipère”

Vincent Scotto, the great twentieth-century composer of French chanson réaliste, is by now a regular in these pages, but the interpreter is new to us, though in 1921 he was well-known to Parisian audiences. His pompadour and mincing stage manner was borrowed (with blessings) from Félix Mayol, and his choice of repertoire owed something to music-hall legend Harry Fragson, but between the wars Georgel far outstripped his old masters as one of the key voices of les années folles. “La vipère” is about one of Scotto’s (and popular culture’s) standbys, the female  viper, who tempts the young man away from work, home, and family, to keep him in misery while she sells her body. He gets his revenge in the final verse in classic Grand Guignol fashion, but the gruesome narrative isn’t really the point: Georgel’s half-sobbing, half-humorous delivery exemplifies the (French) decade.

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15. Orchester mit Refraingesang: “Das Lila Lied”

A landmark in queer media, “Das Lila Lied” (the lilac song) was very likely the first gay anthem in Western popular music. Deviance, sexual and otherwise, had long been a subject of chanson, but lyricist Kurt Schwabach and composer Mischa Spoliansky—two Jews working in Berlin’s legendary queer-friendly kabarett scene—dedicated their lied to Magnus Hirschfeld, the researcher whose Institute for Sexual Science was the first organization in the Western world to advocate for the rights of homosexual and transgender citizens. The chorus, which begins and ends “We are different from the others,” is as much protest song as sentimental education, the way pop usually works; but although the Weimar Republic officially protected homosexuality, it was still so taboo that Spoliansky used a pen name, and as far as I can ascertain, the players and singer of this, the first recording, remain uncredited.

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16. Kandel’s Orchestra: “A Zoi Feift Min Un a Schweiger”

By 1921, the most modern and up-to-date form of popular music was the dance band, playing uptempo, lightly syncopated but not actually jazzy music with orchestral instruments. Paul Whiteman was the clear leader, but there were similar outfits in every city in the nation, and much of the rest of the world. Which was nothing new to the Eastern Europe-born klezmorim of New York, who had been working in similarly-sized outfits, and often at much faster tempos, for decades without being embraced by uptown goyim hotel dancefloors. Clarinetist Harry Kandel, born in the Ukraine, was one of the great klezmer bandleaders of the era, and on this recording, “Putting it Over on Mother in Law,” he pushes his orchestra to such whirling, piercing heights, with the drummer knocking regular off-beats, that together they predict not only swing, but even elements of free jazz.

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17. Achilleas Poulos: “Kamomatou”

Relatively little is known about proto-rebetiko singer Achilleas Poulos, save that he was born in the northwestern Balıkesir province of Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire), and emigrated to the United States in 1913. His powerful voice and wide repertoire made him a briefly popular recording artist in the Ottoman-Greek diasporic community, recording for just ten years before falling silent until his death in 1970. In this early recording, issued by an independent Armenian label in New York, the stark instrumentation (Poulos himself played the oud) creates a surprisingly modern backdrop for his arresting, emotional voice as he sings a lament of unrequited love, full of ancient, stark imagery like flames, clouds, and darkness. “Kamomatou” (lit. mischief-maker) can be translated as coquette or temptress, a woman who makes hay of men, and it’s been used frequently as a title in twentieth-century Greek songs.

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18. Miss Indubala: “Ore Majhi Tori Hetha”

It’s virtually impossible to fit most Asian recording activity into the models I’ve been building of emergent Western popular musics; this recording by a young woman who would, a decade later, become one of the early stars of Bollywood, both on screen and in playback recording, was not so much a remarkable record in its moment as it is a historical marker, a signpost on the road to emergent modernism. The droning backdrop of the harmonium, introduced to the subcontinent by Victorian colonizers and still despised by classical purists in the early 20th century, is one element of modernity: another is the parenthetical (Jangla) on the label, indicating that the performance is a combination of two or more traditional ragas. The third is Indubala Devi herself, trained in the vanishing courtesan-singer tradition of Kolkata, granting herself immortality by saying her name on record.

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19. Jacob Gegna: “A Tfileh Fun Mendel Beilis”

In 1911, the body of a young boy was found mutilated on the outskirts of Kiev. Authorities arrested a local factory superintendent on suspicion of his having murdered the child in a secret Jewish blood ritual. After Mendel Beilis insisted on clearing his name, refusing a general clemency for convicted felons, his trial was one of the sensations of the late Tsarist era. The most infamous blood libel of the twentieth century swept up honest investigators and reporters who were threatened with dismissal or worse for defending the innocent man; Beilis was finally acquitted after two years of a horrific media circus, followed particularly closely by the millions of Jewish immigrants in the United States. Jacob Gegna, a violinist who had himself immigrated from the Ukraine the following year, cut a single record in 1921, including this moving tribute to the innocent Beilis.

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20. Michael Coleman: “The Shaskeen”

Traditional Irish music has rarely taken up much space in these pages, and will continue to do so; my emphasis on novelty, hybridity, and pop ethics over tradition, purity, and folk ethics means that there’s rarely much space for purely local traditions, no matter how sentimentally widespread. Still, I have two ears and a heart. Probably the most influential traditional Irish musician of the twentieth century, Michael Coleman was a remarkable exponent of the Sligo fiddle tradition, playing fast-paced, polyphonic reels that allow him and his piano accompanist to sound like a full band. “The Shaskeen” was one of his first records, a corruption of the Irish seisgeann or marshland, and its sheer velocity makes plain the hypothesis that American vernacular music gets its funk from its African heritage and its recklessness from its Irish. And in December 1921, Ireland was free.

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21. Antonio and Luigi Russolo: “Corale”

Eight years after Luigi Russolo’s landmark Futurist manifesto L’arte dei Rumori, in which he theorized an industrial, electronic “art of noises” that would come to replace the limited sonic palette of the traditional orchestra, a solitary 10-inch record was issued which combines his brother Antonio’s conventional orchestral pomp with the roar and howl of the Intonarumori, acoustic instruments of Luigi’s design that produced atonal snarls of noise by vibrating strings at different frequencies, amplified by a drum. It is an explosion of the avant-garde into the safe commercial marketplace of the recording industry, and it was followed by years – even decades – of silence. It will not be for another thirty years that further experiments in using pure noise as music become commonplace, by which time the whole structure of recording will have been transformed. But here in the 21st century, Russolo was right.


 

XX: 1920

 

On Robot Rhythms, Comforting Tapestries, and Black Women Saving Us All

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1. Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds: “Crazy Blues”

Everything to this moment has been prologue: minstrelsy, marches, ragtime, dance crazes from South America or the Pacific, all has merely made straight the paths. Today the prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing. The record that shook the foundations of the earth, the record that won the first battle in a war most people didn’t yet know was happening, the record in the shadow of which all that has happened since still dwells. “Ain’t had nothing but bad news,” but the joy and energy and racket that propels her is a grand fuck-you to all false merchants of that news. [...]

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2. Al Jolson: “Swanee”

Another record important for different, and lesser, reasons. Where “Crazy Blues” is African-American musicians finally presenting their vernacular music unmediated by white caricature, “Swanee” is white (well, Jewish) Americans claiming a new and modern identity directly through the caricature of blacks. It’s  a multigenerational caricature, as the 22-year-old composer (meet George Gershwin) quotes the original minstrel songwriter, and the performer, at his reckless height, has abandoned any pretense of imitation: his caricature, though performed in blackface, yowling cretinously for Mammy, is more self-parody than any other. The song’s melodic verve creates the future even as its lyrics plunder the past.

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3. Baiano & Izaltina: “Cangerê”

As the Jazz Age begins, so too does the golden age of samba, with this slangy underground duet, the only known composition by Chico de Baiana, or the Bahia woman’s boy. “Cangerê,” said to be derived from an African language, is a specific ritual in the Afro-Brazilian Feitiço religion; the man and woman, arguing as usual in pop duets, threaten each other with the supernatural, while the samba rhythm works its own ineluctable magic on the listener. Two instrumental versions of the song were also cut in 1920, and the rhythmic power of the Banda da Casa Edison’s remains galvanizing.

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4. Carlos Gardel: “Milonguita”

We have met many classic tango songs already, and will meet many more; but tango too is kicking into a new gear at the start of a new decade. “Milonguita,” by Argentine composer Enrique Delfino and Uruguayan lyricist Samuel Linnig, is one of the crown jewels of the Golden Age of Tango, never more exquisitely rendered than by Gardel’s burnished pipes. Full of the lunfardo slang that characterized the Buenos Aires underworld, it’s a portrait of a young woman driven to perdition by wine, men, and tango; her very name, “little-milonga,” refers to the dancehalls where the tango corrupted souls.

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5. Mistinguett: “Mon homme”

Of the four canonical twentieth-century renditions of this song, the original is the least well-known; but Fanny Brice, Billie Holiday, and Édith Piaf sang other songs. The shining star of the Folies-Bergère between 1900 and 1930, Mistinguett sang many others too, but she may as well not have; this song, whether called “Mon homme” or “My Man,” has far superseded her own limited fame, and dragged her along rather cruelly in its wake. But pay attention to her studied lightness and flippancy, far from Brice’s and Piaf’s tragic posturing or Holiday’s bitter resignation: self-pity would be unfitting of her stardom.

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6. Maurice Chevalier: “Oh! Maurice”

Mistinguett had been the toast of Paris since the Belle Époque; meanwhile, her nearest male equivalent, thirteen years her junior, was just rising to fame in 1920. (As though to exemplify the Parisian spirit, they had been lovers since 1911.) His first recorded hit, “Oh! Maurice” is an orgy of ribald egotism, a rhapsody on his masculine charms and the flutters into which he sends the female of the species. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, as all music-hall songs (of which it is a cousin) are; but it also owes its insouciant verve to the brio drifting from across the Atlantic.

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7. Salvatore Papaccio: “Scettico Blues”

As does this. To be sure, it’s only called a blues because anything with even a slightly downbeat view of life was called a blues in 1920 (the copyright registration books were full to bursting of “blues”), but although structurally it’s what it sounds, a canzone napoletana, it’s also a witty, cynical plaint about the unfairness and falsity of life; and the see-sawing melody, though it doesn’t sound much like the blues strictly defined, owes more to ragtime-inflected American stage music than to traditional Italian bel canto. When pop singer Mina covered it in 1976, nostalgia couldn’t entirely obscure existentialism.

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8. Lucille Hegamin & Harris’ Blues and Jazz Seven: “The Jazz Me Blues”

“Crazy Blues” had an immediate, electrifying effect on the recording industry; then as now, the most overwhelming flattery of success was imitation. It would take longer for authentic blues sensations, as measured by live performance in venues whites knew nothing of, to get on record, but refined generalist Black performers like Lucille Hegamin were pressed into immediate service to fill the obvious gap in the market. “Jazz Me Blues” was written by the young Black songwriter Tom Delaney, and its slangy but chaste evocation of the pleasures of the new groove under the sun is spun juicily in her mouth.

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9. Bert Williams: “Unlucky Blues”

He was there at the beginning of the century, making outlandish grunts and twisting a love song into travesty; and he remains here at the century’s maturation, in some ways only catching up to where he was then. His voice is weathered with age and experience, the humorous glint in his eye undimmed but his face still poker-straight. Although the blues has now exploded into commercial popularity as feminine tragedy, his throaty plaintiveness looks forward to the masculine rural blues which will overshadow them. The song is Broadway pop, not blues, but his soul has always known the flatted fifth.

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10. Nora Bayes: “The Broadway Blues” 

It’s not often that I’ll privilege a recording by a white vaudevillian over a more famous one by an epochal Black act, but in this case the Sissle and Blake record is a bit too jaunty and careless, which only makes sense, as they didn’t write it. Bayes, a veteran Jewish coon singer, takes it at a drag, and is no longer burlesquing Blackness with weird hiccoughs, just singing, with the authority of age, a song about the pallor of the limelight. And with hindsight it’s hard to believe the aforementioned Gershwin kid didn’t have an ear on the orchestration.

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11. Edith Day: “Alice Blue Gown”

The upheaval among the downmarket forms of musical entertainment, as authentic Black music begins to challenge the galumphing jeers of minstrelsy, did not necessarily have any immediate effect on the upmarket musical theater, which remained prissy, stodgy, and sentimental: but perhaps not quite unrecoverably foreign to us as it may sound today. “Alice Blue Gown” is meant to be wistful: in the show Irene, it is a song by a young woman nostalgic for her childhood dress of the shade named for President Roosevelt’s daughter. Chelsea Clinton would occupy the same cultural space today; and similar nostalgias are at work.

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12. Paul Whiteman & His Ambassador Orchestra: “Whispering”

It is perhaps no accident that the “King of Jazz” cut his first record the same year that the real first jazz record was cut, and anyone curious about understanding the currents and cultures at work in the early 1920s would do well to study the sonic, rhythmic, tonal, and (yes) verbal discrepancies between “Crazy Blues” and “Whispering.” The Ambassador Orchestra is crisp, slick, not a hair out of place, not a glimpse of human feeling. Not only easy listening but Kraftwerk is predicted by their well-drilled rhythms; it is perhaps no accident either that Čapek’s robots emerged this year.

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13. Ted Lewis Jazz Band: “When My Baby Smiles at Me”

While we’ve met Ted Lewis before, this more conventional dance-band number, with parts portioned out fairly among the band’s instrumentalists and his shabby-genteel crooning avant la lettre, was his first big hit, both on record and (helped by his star appearance at the Greenwich Village Follies of 1920) on sheet music. Compared to “O,” his klezmer-derived clarinet is more integrated into the tune’s jazz gestalt, and the way forward to Benny Goodman is clearly pointed; but there are still elements of ODJB-like novelty, as in the “I cry… I cry” refrain towards the end, squawked in parody by the band.

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14. Ben Hokea Players: “Honolulu March”

A star instrumentalist, bandleader, and educator whose first records were also made in 1919, Ben Hokea was a Hawaiʻian-born guitarist who, on coming to the mainland, made his home base in Toronto, and his slack-key technique, more peppy and jazzy than dreamy and wistful, was instrumental in making hula music one of the everyday sounds of the 1920s, not just an exotica fad of the decade prior. The traditional song his band cuts here is taken at such a raggy, stuttering clip that the pedal steel swing of the Nashville-oriented decades to come is conjured by its streamlined, modern drive.

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15. María Teresa Vera & Manuel Corona: “El yambú guaguancó”

Although we’ve heard from María Teresa Vera before, it was as a generalist singer covering a popular theater song; with this recording, she and her trova mentor, Manuel Corona, finally introduce the rumba proper (as distinct from the sones marketed as rhumbas in the 1930s) to recorded history. Yambú and guaguancó are both varieties of rumba, and the wordless chorus is characteristic of yambú. Vera’s verses are from the ancient storehouse of Cuban verse and symbol which, like blues verses, were mixed and matched to make up a song; but the insinuating rhythm, with its bell-clear clave, is what moves.

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16. Zaki Murad: “Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra”

Because my focus has been (and will remain) primarily on Western music, I have paid scant attention to the deep wonders of Egyptian music, on record since before the century turned. Zaki Murad, of Jewish descent like many early Arabic-language recording stars, had been a successful recording artist since 1910, touring the Arabic-speaking world, and it is unjust that only this magnificent taqtuqa, “Visit Me Every Day,” by the legendary secular composer Sayyid Darwish (often considered the father of Egyptian popular music) represents him here. Do remember Murad’s last name, however; his daughter will join us later in the century.

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17. Mishka Ziganoff: “Odessa Bulgar”

The Jewish diaspora, filtered through the sieve of immigration and collected in the tenements of New York, was always many peoples instead of one. Mishka Ziganoff was born in Odessa under the Russian Empire and emigrated to the US around the age of ten; his family settled in Brooklyn, and he became a virtuoso accordionist. His heritage was a jumble: he spoke Yiddish, but considered himself a Gypsy and communed as a Christian. In the ancient tradition of the musician as outsider, he managed to combine multiple interpretations of identity and home into a comforting tapestry, calling everyone to dance.

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18. Abe Schwartz & Sylvia Schwartz: “National Hora Pt. 1”

Meanwhile, the most popular Jewish bandleader of the period, while cutting many lively freilach tunes that remain deathless today, paused to record something more quiet and perhaps personal: accompanied only by his daughter on piano, he fiddles a longing, keening improvisation in the “tzigane” (Roma) tradition, and wraps it up in what to Western European ears is an Irish jig. Klezmer scholars have declared this side a one-off, not a rendition of any familiar tune (Pt. 2 is better known as “Der Gasn Nigun”), and it’s impossible for me not to hear it as a thrilling expression of American pluralism.

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19. Enrico Caruso: “I’ m’arricordo ’e Napule”

In a year, the Voice will be no more. This isn’t his last recording (that’s a selection from a Mass by Rossini), but it’s his last great canzone napoletana, a brand-new song of nostalgia and reverie about his hometown of Naples. More than anyone, he was the greatest star of the first age of recording, and as he dims, a new generation of stars is beginning to glow. Soon their brightness will eclipse his own; but few of them will retain anything like his name recognition over the years. A century later, and Caruso is still synonymous with beautiful singing.

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20. Anita Patti Brown: “Villanelle”

The spectrum of authentic Black femininity which became, for the first time in recorded history, a live issue in 1920 ranged widely even then. The furthest away you could get, anyone would have said, from Mamie Smith’s vaudeville faux-lowdown, was the light classical canon; and here we find another Black woman. Her stage name is a double reference to Sissieretta Jones, her racial forebear in classical singing, nicknamed “the Black Patti” after Italian diva Adelina Patti; Anita Brown was called “the Bronze Tetrazzini” after Caruso’s duet partner. “Villanelle” was composed by Belgian miniaturist Eva Dell’Acqua in 1893, femininity in watercolors.


 

XIX: 1919

 

On Frivolous Transcendence, Misguided Legislation, and Dealing One Deathblow

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1. Lieut. Jim Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band: “That Moaning Trombone”

On February 17, the all-colored (Black and Puerto Rican) 369th Regiment paraded up Fifth Avenue, home to Harlem. Nicknamed the “Hell Fighters” because they never lost a man, a captive, or an inch of ground, they were twenty times as good as their white counterparts, and got something less than a tenth the respect. Their band was led by James Reese Europe, famous before the war as the Castles’ bandleader, now pushing Black vernacular music into new territory with military discipline. His opulent arrangements and quick-cut rhythms were cut short two months after this recording by the penknife of a drummer lashing out at perceived disrespect.

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2. Ted Lewis Band: “O”

Two years after the First Jazz Record, and jazz is already widely (mis)understood not as urban Black southern music characterized by improvisation and rhythm but as white novelty music characterized by instruments making unusual sounds and, okay, rhythm, or at least tempo. Bandleader and clarinetist Ted Lewis was Jewish, but his roots were in small-town Ohio rather than immigrant New York, so his approximation of klezmer on the instrumental break is as much a put-on (and as utterly sincere) as his adoption of Black musical forms. In a sense this is the first record of the 1920s, an airy dance-band tune that shimmies towards frivolous transcendence.

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3. Eddie Cantor: “You’d Be Surprised”

Two years ago, Cantor introduced himself here as a geeky young dope awestruck by a self-sufficient woman; and now he has become the mouthpiece for Irving Berlin’s portrait of a geeky young dope who is, Revenge of the Nerds-style, an unexpectedly (and perhaps not very ethically) efficacious lover. It’s a gender-reversed take on Al Jolson’s sly contemporary hit “I’ll Say She Does,” which breezily quoted the flamboyantly ribald Eva Tanguay. Though Jolson was the more senior and bigger star, Cantor was coming up fast, and his quicker wit and ability to kid himself as well as his material gave him a head start on the future.

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4. Sophie Tucker: “Ev'rybody Shimmies Now”

After a recording drought of seven years, Sophie Tucker returned to the horn in 1918, and on the precipice of the Jazz Age, aged 32, she has fully adopted the big, brassy, middle-aged persona she would carry into the age of swing, and rock beyond. The shoulder-shaking shimmy was still a novelty, an orientalism probably borrowed from Black dancers, and recently popularized to scandalous effect by Polish-born Ziegfeld girl Gilda Gray. Tucker’s reportage of its popularity is oddly breathless for her, as if she’s shimmying while recording; but the wheeling, crashing string section is a reminder that Black-imitating music was not yet entirely identified with horns.

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5. Marion Harris: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

It was round about this time that blonde flapper Marion Harris began to be billed as the “Queen of Blues Singers,” a piece of publicity she did little to discourage, but which would provoke a certain yet-unrecorded singer to bill herself as their Empress instead. This song, written by Black vaudevillian Eddie Green and published by W. C. Handy, would receive its most well-known reading in the Empress’s voice. Here, though, the usually-melodramatic Harris takes it as a comic song, and twists her voice up into vaudevillian Coonerisms while a marimba plunks cheerfully away in the back half. Six years later, Flannery O’Connor will be born.

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6. Bert Williams: “When the Moon Shines on the Moonshine”

The single most misguided piece of legislation in US history became law on October 28, to take effect January 1st, 1920. As a symbol for the decade of excess, folly, and high spirits that it inaugurated, Prohibition was almost novelistically apt; but riding high on the inflated prosperity of armament profits, the US mostly treated it as an occasion for jokes. Bert Williams even allowed as he’d sing for the occasion, forgoing his usual exquisitely-timed oratory for notes warbled and wheezed, with a crackerjack vaudeville band making comic hay of every pause. In his hands, minstrelsy becomes a private joke, and then a public one.

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7. The Kalaluki Hawaiian Orchestra: “Hawaiian Nights”

The deracination of Hawaiian music, four years ago an exciting novelty, now just one flavor among the modern many, continues apace, with this waltz-time piece composed by itinerant hack pianist Lee Roberts and performed by a group so conspicuously free of recorded membership history that it was probably Columbia’s house band for Hawaiian records; Lawrence Kalaluki’s name survives otherwise only as a reputable instructor of Hawaiian music in contemporary advertising. The Moloch-machine of the recording industry fed on Hawaiian music just like it was doing on blues, jazz, minstrelsy, or tango, and spat out a streamlined product purpose-built for exotic, but not too exotic, reverie.

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8. Choro Pixinguinha: “Sofres Porque Queres”

Although samba has most recently come to our attention, Brazilian music was far from being all samba all the time (and indeed never would be), and music like this aching choro melody over tango rhythms was still a plurality of Brazilian compositional activity. Pixinguinha, an Afro-Brazilian flautist born Alfredo de Rocha Viana, wrote it as a lament—the title translates to either “you suffer because you desire” or “you suffer because you want to”—but plays it rather jauntily, letting the minor-key chord changes of seven-string guitarist Tute (Arthur de Souza Nascimento) evoke the title’s heartbreak while his flute flutters on in divine unconcern.

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9. Orquesta Típica Canaro: “El Africano”

We have met bandoneonist Juan “Pacho” Maglio, pianist Roberto Firpo, and singer Carlos Gardel, and now, with the introduction of the orchestra típica led by Urugayan violinist Francisco Canaro, the major players of Argentine tango going into the music’s 1920s Golden Age are gathered. Firpo’s airy, melodic, sentimental tango is a marked contrast with Canaro’s earthier, more sensuous style: as in this instrumental milonga, emphasizing the rhythmic Afro-Argentine foundations of tango music. Unlike Firpo, who was more at home in the world of decorous Spanish theatrical entertainment, Canaro also played hot jazz á là norteamericano with a small combo, and his tango reflects that modernity.

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10. Floro y Miguel: “Se Acabó la Choricera”

Afro-Cuban rhythms are eternal: where even the Black jazz of 1919 was relatively restrictive in is rhythmic inventory, the clave pulse on this trova song is draggingly offset by the guitar part, leaving generous spaces in the rhythm that a later generation would understand as funk, the holes into which bodily motion fits. Floro Zorrilla was a trovador who had been recording stentorian ballads for a decade before he got a new partner in Miguel Zaballa; this song, supposedly written by a nineteen-year-old Santiago drummer nicknamed Chori (he would win greater fame a decade later), is one of the deathless Cuban sones of its generation.

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11. Trío González: “Cielito Lindo”

The scarcity of Mexican music in these pages should not be considered a judgment on the poverty of Mexican musical culture over the last decade; but the instability of a drawn-out revolution, which in some regions almost amounted to civil war, meant that relatively little recording took place. In 1919, utopian peasant freedom fighter Emiliano Zapata was assassinated by ambush, as the revolutionary Carranza government consolidated its control; and this nineteenth-century folk song which, with its instantly-recognizable “ay, ay, ay, ay” refrain, has long been considered one of several unofficial Mexican national anthems, was first recorded—in New York City, pit stop for travelling corrideros.

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12. Raquel Meller: “Acuérdate de Mí”

The Spanish theatrical genre cuplé could be bawdy or satiric; less often, it was sentimental, as in this aging diva’s demand to be remembered by the man who has thrown her over for another. The glorious irony is that it was Aragón-born, Barcelona-bred diva Raquel Meller’s breakout song, at the tender age of thirty. She had been on stage since her early teens, after running away from a convent, but was never much of a soubrette—proper divadom takes time. Everything came together at once, however: she semi-scandalously married Guatemalan modernist poet Enrique Gómez Carrillo and starred in her first silent film the same year.

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13. John Steel: “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”

With 1919, we mark the ten-year anniversary of Isadore Baline’s appearance as a songwriter in these pages. On top of the showbiz world, he did that which everyone did who found themselves in such rarified air, and joined the Ziegfeld machine. The Follies of 1919 trumpeted “songs by Irving Berlin” as the major coup it was, and this song, written as spackle to fill gaps between girls promenading semi-nude to the classical canon, became the Follies theme ever since. John Steel, a tenor of much force if no personality, sang it in the show, and recorded it; but even from his adenoids, it’s maddeningly unforgettable.

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14. Art Hickman & His Orchestra: “Rose Room”

Where Ted Lewis was taking the comic squawks and energy of the ODJB into more joyful territory, other white dance-band musicians were merging it with the Castles’ high-class fox-trot of the early ’10s, beefing up their orchestras and emphasizing sweetness of melody, heterogenous instrumentation, and unrelenting pep. Dimly aware of the smutty connotations of the word “jazz,” they tried to call their music something else: one sober nomination, Synco-Pep, epitomizes the totally unbluesy, but uptempo and syncopated modern dance music promulgated by thousands of nightlife orchestra’s like Hickman’s, who played the Rose Room in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. A charming period piece, skilfully done.

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15. Sergei Rachmaninoff: “Prelyudiya”

In 1919, Rachmaninoff was a middle-aged refugee of the Bolshevik Revolution, playing his hits for audiences for whom Russian Romanticism was an an exotic occasion for sentiment. The Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, composed when he was a nineteen-year-old conservatory graduate, is charged with the gloomy emotionalism of adolescence while still being relatively easy to play, which has kept it popular with listeners over the last century; by the time he made this first recording of it, he loathed it as only an ambitious and serious-minded artist saddled with an early one-hit wonder can. Still, it kept him clothed and fed, so he kept playing it.

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16. Heinrich Schlusnus with Richard Strauss: “Ruhe, meine Seele!”

Richard Strauss was ten years older than Rachmaninoff when he entered the studio with the great lyric baritone Heinrich Schulsnus to play piano on one of his greatest lieder. He had composed the setting of socialist poet Karl Henckell’s early self-epitaph as a gift for his bride in 1894; and while his output in the oughts and teens of the twentieth century had been among the most advanced operatic and symphonic work in the world, the limitations of recording technology meant that a song like this emotionally conflicted summation of life in the world, alternately raging and accepting, got onto disc before the world changed.

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17. M. N. Ghosh: “Baul”

This being only our second visit to the Indian subcontinent in nineteen years is inexcusable, given the volume of recording taking place, but understandable, given its relative lack of documentation in the West. M. N. Ghosh, who also recorded as Monta Babu, depending on the religious affiliation of the music he was singing, was a popular Bengali recording artist through the early 1930s. “Baul” seems to be a reference to the “madman” mystic religious tradition of the same name centered in the Bengal region (what is now eastern India and Bangladesh), and the shaking, rattling percussion that accompanies Ghosh is both ancient and strikingly modern.

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18. Marika Papagika: “Hrissaido”

Perhaps the greatest exponent of Greek and Anatolian music in the United States between World War I and the Depression, Marika Papagika was born on the Greek island Kos off the Turkish coast, found some success in the dying Ottoman Empire as a café-amam singer, and emigrated to the US at twenty-five with her husband Gus Papagika, who nearly always accompanied her on cimbalom. This slow and evocative tsamiko (a slow-motion Greek folk dance), with the Papagikas joined by cello and violin, is superb evidence for the power, emotion, and authority of her voice, one of the great voices in vernacular music of the era.

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19. Henry T. Burleigh: “Go Down Moses”

The summer of 1919 was named the Red Summer by James Weldon Johnson after the wave of racist and nativist violence that rose up as in answer to the pride Black America took in the 369th, to a newly urgent self-respect and insistence on equality under God and under the law. Hundreds of Black men, women and children lost their lives in riots, lynchings, burnings, and bombings—but some faced the murderous, cowardly pack and fought; dozens of white men also died. Little-remembered composer and baritone Burleigh’s solemn reading of the simplest and strongest spiritual in the canon stands as an urgent prophecy still unfulfilled.


 

XVIII: 1918

 

On Refusals to be Denigrated, Perverse Jouissances, and Ascetic Pulsations

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1. Al Jolson: “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”

The old never simply gives way to the new; generally it tries to jump on the bandwagon. So this, a Coon song if ever there was one—Jolson performed it in blackface, rolling his eyes grotesquely as he yammered about Mammy—is infected with the new jazz spirit. Which was understood as just another way to perform blackness, a new arrow in the quiver of mockery. But there’s a freedom, an insouciance, a refusal to be denigrated, in jazz that was missing from the Coon repertoire. It’s a song about missing the South, but it’s not about missing the plantation; it’s such a modern jive that Aretha Franklin recorded it in 1961.

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2. Bert Williams: “O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?”

If the first twenty years of the century have been dominated in these pages by anyone, it has been by Bert Williams, whose exaggeratedly patient drawl denoted mere slow wit to his mass (white) audience but connoted evasion, veiled self-definition, and a Bartlebian form of refusal to those with ears to hear. The text of this theoretically comic monologue is straight Coonery, the narrator a blasphemous, illiterate creature of appetite, but Williams’ delivery, with its pauses and ironic inflections, turns it into something like a philosophy, an acknowledgement of the riggedness of religion’s respectability racket, and a pattern-card for the next century of popular music, with all its sympathy for the devil.

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3. Marion Harris: “After You’ve Gone”

By 1918, the blues, both as a sheet-music faux-folklorism and as a genuinely Black tent-show holler, had been a part of the popular imagination long enough that they were beginning to transform the climate of popular song more broadly. Plenty of white imitators were producing blues (or blueish) songs, as we have seen and will continue to, but the largely-forgotten Black team of Turner Layton and Henry Creamer were among the first to take up the unabashedly adult themes of blues—infidelity, heartbreak, revenge—and put them into a song without overt Black signifiers. Marion Harris’s voice evokes still-unrecorded blues shouters, but the distinction between Black and white singing is collapsing.

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4. Dúo Gardel-Razzano, Orquesta Roberto Firpo: “El Moro”

The speed with which the once-unacceptable Gardel had become adopted by the tango establishment can be seen by the fact that not a year after “Mi Noche Triste,” he was, with his harmonizing partner José Razzano, recording with the most popular and esteemed bandleader in South America, Roberto Firpo. “El Moro,” adapted by Gardel from a well-known poem by nineteenth-century statesman and belletrist Juan María Gutiérrez, is less a song of urban tango than a song of the pampas gaucho, roughly equivalent in Argentine national mythology to the US cowboy or frontiersman; the moro of the title refers to the singer’s beloved Arabian (i.e. Moorish) horse, apparently lost to an Indian.

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5. Bahiano: “O Malhador”

The second “samba carnavalesca” in as many years recorded by Baiano, singing a song composed by Black sambista Donga and written in carioca slang by journalist and playwright Mauro de Almeida. Although the true Afr0-Brazilian samba bateria (drum line) of carnaval marches would not appear on record for another generation, the inclusion of ragged, funky percussion during the refrain here is in its own way as revolutionary as any record recorded during this revolutionary decade. And the spare instrumentation, with its prominent moaning clarinet, is a reminder that the entire Atlantic coast of the Americas is a continuum of musical borrowing, innovation, and expression: it could be jazz, calypso, or klezmer.

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6. Jewish Orchestra: “Der Shtiler Bulgar”

The reigning king of freilach (now klezmer) clarinet was Naftule Brandwein, a thirty-four year old clarinettist born in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine); having emigrated to New York in 1908, he was by 1918 regarded as one of the major Jewish musical stars of the era. There is no way to be positive that his is the clarinet on this record—recordings aimed at immigrant populations were rarely carefully documented in these years—but it sounds likely; he was playing with Abe Schwartz (whose outfit the Jewish Orchestra was) around then, and his lively, expressive, and free style fits with the irrepressible sounds that belie the title “the quiet Bulgarian [dance].”

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7. Nora Bayes: “Regretful Blues”

If Harris’s recording of “After You’ve Gone” represents a sophisticated mainstreaming of still-germinal blues song, this, by aging Jewish vaudeville queen Nora Bayes, represents the crass, unsophisticated adoption of blues by unembarrassable showbiz lifers. As sung by her in George M. Cohan’s second patriotic revue in as many years, it’s a hokey, crude imitation of blues sentiment smashed shamelessly together with brainless rah-rah wartime jingoism. Bayes’ delivery veers wildly between full-on Coon, with hiccuping vocal breaks and unseemly squawks (which is one origin of country music’s high lonesome yodels) and the straight big-voiced belting of vaudeville; compared to Harris she’s hopelessly out-of-date, but it remains, unaccountably, a hell of a record.

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8. Wilbur C. Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band: “Everybody’s Crazy ’bout the Doggone Blues, But I’m Happy”

After having a hit with “After You’re Gone,” Layton and Creamer could publish anything; among their sheet-music successes was this little-remembered rag, an early instance of Black irony about white adoption of Black musical forms. When Black St. Louis bandleader and executor of the late Scott Joplin’s estate Wilbur Sweatman took it up, though, it was no longer a mere rag. Sweatman was famous on the vaudeville circuit for playing as many as three clarinets at once, and this raucous, giddy recording is as much jazz as ragtime; the instruments swerve and slide all over the beat, and where the ODJB’s jass was tinged with mockery, here there’s nothing but joy.

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9. Eddie Nelson: “Tishomingo Blues”

Spencer Williams, like Turner Layton, Shelton Brooks, and the up-and-coming Eubie Blake, was an early Black jazz composer whose compositions ended up outliving his name, but who deserves to be remembered not just as an antecedent to the likes of Ellington, but as a peer to white contemporaries like Kern or Berlin. This was one of his early hits, a going-back-to-the-South song singing of nostalgia for Black community and solidarity rather than for the Mammy of minstrel caricature; this minstrelly recording, prominently featuring a slide whistle (because Blackness is goofy, you see), is perhaps not the song’s best foot forward, but it’s a document of one way African-American music was received.

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10. Billy Murray: “K-K-K-Katy”

The European War (later upgraded to World War ostensibly due to proxy battles in colonial territory, but really because Europe was considered the world) ended, after five years of promised glory churning into mechanized slaughter, with more than a whiff of farce. The latecoming United States mostly memorialized it in jokey songs like this one, where a boy must take leave of a girl and such is the blushing virginal yokeldom on both sides that a stammer gets turned into a hook. Murray, whose sharp, nasal voice recorded well and so who has appeared indiscriminately in these pages, was perhaps best suited to ditties like this, where no one gets hurt.

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11. Arthur Fields: “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”

The second military draft in United States history caught up the most famous and valuable songwriter in New York, who had only become a naturalized citizen earlier that year. But the Army, knowing well what a prize Irving Berlin was, did not send him to Europe, but had him stage a musical, Yip Yip Yaphank, to raise funds and recruit the boys. This song, an eternal classic in sentiment if not in historical context, was the big hit; Berlin himself performed it in uniform (and would do so again a quarter-century later). The recording by ex-vaudevillian Fields benefits from the witty orchestration Victor could afford to lavish, and so pop looms.

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12. Claire Waldoff: “Ach Jott, Was Sind die Männer Dumm”

German music, so dominant in the nineteenth-century symphonic and operatic traditions, was slow to adapt to the nimbler forms of twentieth century pop. Our first encounter with German popular song is this kabarett piece by an unconventional performer, roughly translated “Oh Gawd, How Stupid Men Are.” Waldoff (born Clara Wortmann) was a prominent member of Berlin’s gay milieu, wearing masculine attire and living openly with her lesbian partner. Like much of her most popular material, this was written for her by prolific theatrical composer Walter Kollo: dense with Berlinerisch slang, it’s a sneering indictment of masculine privilege and misogyny, while Waldoff’s trademark growl points forward to Lotte Lenya and Nina Hagen.

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13. Félix Mayol: “Ell’ prend l’boul’vard magenta”

French popular music, meanwhile, was only going from strength to strength in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The only country in the world where Decadence was a populist movement (with all the attendant ills of colonialism), French music-hall, chanson réaliste, and cabaret could be stultifyingly sexualized by repressed US or UK standards. This Vincent Scotto song, for instance, recounts a man’s deathly passion for a streetwalker; that it was performed on stage and on record by the mincingly effeminate Félix Mayol, the kind of career homosexual who was all but out, is the kind of perverse jouissance that made contemporary French literature synonymous with pornography in the English-speaking world.

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14. Giorgos Chelmis: “Den Se Thelo Pia”

Greek theatrical music and popular song (which as in every nation are not the same thing, but feed each other continually) was undergoing a renaissance in the late 10s, as the Turkish expulsion of ethnic Greeks (and genocide of Armenians) fed Athens and the other Hellenic metropolises with a new population of culturally varied and restless laborers, artists, and customers. I can’t find anything to confirm that this Giorgos Chelmis is the one who was married to the great Greek stage actress Marika Kotopouli, but whether or no, this café-amam song about the sensual misery of failed love is a lovely recording, and one more clue on the trail of rebetika.

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15. Maâlma Titine: “Wahad el Ghozal Rit el Youm”

The tradition of Judeo-Algerian music is very old, older perhaps than the Umayyad Caliphate which stretched from northern Spain to Kashmir in the eighth century. The highly developed interfaith musical traditions of Muslim Andalusia took root in North Africa following the Reconquista, and after centuries of colonialism, it was the French who first made recorded documents of Algerian music. Maâlma (an Arabic honorific) Titine (a French diminutive) was a young Jewish performer, primarily a pianist but also a singer, in Algiers; the song seems to be Algerian folk poetry that has been recorded in many different ways. It is not chaabi, but it is a starting point for its urban modernity.

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16. Enrico Caruso: “Sei Morta Nella Vita Mia”

The Voice will be with us for only three years more; as his repertoire mostly consisted of music much older than these pages’ focus, we’ve heard from him less often than his importance and broad popularity during the first two decades of the century would indicate. But with this canzone, written by the prolific Mario Pasquale Costa circa 1895, he demands to be heard as one of the most original, provocative, and enduring voices of the century. One of the original from-the-vault rescues, it was recorded in 1918 but not issued for another thirty years, possibly because the piano accompaniment was too simple for 1918’s tastes; today it sounds merely reverent.

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17. Guido Deiro: “Temperamental Rag”

Caruso, the son of a Neapolitan mechanic, was the greatest exponent of the world’s highest-status music; Count Guido Deiro was born to a noble family in northern Italy, and became an exponent of what would often be understood as some of the tackiest music of the twentieth century. Travelling the world in concert and vaudeville, he popularized the piano accordion, that staple of polka, tejano, zydeco, turbo-folk, and Lawrence Welk. But he was no mere charlatan with a product to sell; he was a genuine virtuoso, with a compositional knack that produced songs like this one, as joyous and nimble as any rag written to be played on any other instrument.

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18. Flonzaley Quartet: “Molly on the Shore”

A 1907 adaptation of two Irish reels for concert band by eccentric Australian-American composer Percy Grainger, “Molly on the Shore” is a stalwart of the light classical canon. The Flonzaley String Quartet, based out of New York but composed of Italian and French virtuosi, was among the first modern ascetic art-music ensembles, pursuing perfection of technique over the crowd-pleasing commercial engagements by which most concert performers still earned their bread. This beautiful recording, astonishingly subtle given its age and the then highly-developed but by 21st-century standards primitive acoustic technology, is among the best early recordings of concert music, all pulsing clusters that look backward to jigs and forward to Phillip Glass.


 

XVII: 1917

 

On Great Leaps Forward, Multiplicities of Jewishness, and Danders Raised

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1. The Original Dixieland Jass Band, “Dixie Jass Band One Step”

There’s something about years of the twentieth century ending in 7. Maybe it’s just the point in the decade when enough trends have become noticeable that it’s easy for them to coalesce around a flashpoint. In any case, this record is, in a very real sense, the beginning of modern music. It’s not proper jazz (whatever that turns out to be), it’s a bunch of white kids making an unholy noise in garage-punk imitation of what they think Black music sounds like. It’s Elvis and Jerry Lee, the Beatles and the Stones, the Dolls and the Clash, the Beasties and Marshall Mathers, Ke$ha and Miley. It’s a racket, in more than one sense, and everything flows from it.

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2. Baiano e Coro, “Pelo Telefone”

From the dance halls of New Orleans to the Carnaval streets of Rio de Janeiro, there’s a whole lotta coalescin’ goin’ on. This is not, technically, the first samba on record, any more than the ODJB was the first jass, but it’s the first record that called itself a samba, and it’s got a brisker, funkier sway than any Brazilian music we’ve heard to date. Composed by the Black sambista Donga and performed by the white generalist performer Baiano (of Bahia, a majority-Black state), “Pelo Telefone” (by telephone, cf. “Hello Ma Baby”) is exactly the same kind of blind dance forward into the future that the ODJB represents, with all the racial, class, and technological confusion which inheres.

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3. Carlos Gardel, “Mi Noche Triste”

While tango has been heard on record for a decade, and has been a fashionable step in the dance halls of the global aristocracy for four years, upper-class condescension means that what is a genteel dance music for Europeans in ball gowns is underclass pimps-and-pickpockets trash in song form. Lyrics in lunfardo slang evoke the seamy underbelly of Buenos Aires nightlife, and the violent, sexual atmosphere of the milonga horrifies the bourgeois keepers of taste. Into this atmosphere, “Mi Noche Triste” is launched, hits, and what tango was, had been, could be, is utterly transformed. No longer just a semi-reputable dance music, tango has become a theatrical, literary music, and one of the world’s great storehouses of song.

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4. María Teresa Vera & Rafael Zequeira “Óyelo Bien, Rubén (El Servicio Obligatorio)”

Meanwhile, Cuban music has been a shadowy undercurrent in these pages, more concerned with the nineteenth-century danzones of Havana gentility than the Afro-descended rumbas, guaguancós, and above all sones simmering up from Oriente province. The first modern Cuban voice to be heard with great success on record is a woman’s: María Teresa Vera, who with her duet partner Zequeira was foundational in establishing Cuba’s trova (troubadour) tradition. Here, on her first recording trip to New York City, she turns her tutor Manuel Corona’s satirical guaracha (Cuban theater song) about ladykillers hastily marrying to avoid the wartime draft into an incantatory meditation on human frailty. Called “rumba” on the label, it could be considered Vera’s first great santería record.

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5. Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra, “Tanzt, Tanzt, Yiddelech”

The fifth cornerstone of the 1917 firsts (that aren’t really firsts) is this, the first klezmer record, except Jewish musicians have been recording freilach (joyful) dance music for a decade. But here, in the dance band of Bucharest-born bandleader Abe Schwartz, the classic elements of what would later be identified as klezmer are gathered together and propelled forward by the urgency, hunger, and population pressure of immigrant New York. (Probably) Naftule Brandwein’s clarinet chirps and squalls above the horns, strings, and percussion, as the demand of the title—“dance, dance, Jewish people”—reaches out to listening Gentiles of all races, and not just jazzing New Yorkers, but immigrants and underclasses all around the world will hear its call.

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6. Anna Wheaton & James Harrod, “Till the Clouds Roll By”

With foundational records in the history of jazz, samba, tango, son, and klezmer, five of the great syncretic urban musics of the early twentieth century can trace their lineage to 1917; by comparison, a mere tectonic shift in the theatrical music of the ruling classes is dog bites man. Still. Music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse, with intricate polysyllabic and internal rhymes: this is something new on the New York stage, and the intimacy and unpretentiousness of Oh, Boy!, the show where the song debuted, heralds a new era in Anglophone musical comedy: light and flippant, telling a single story rather than the patchwork of revue, with accessible, up-to-date songs that you can live by.

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7. Nine Pinson, “Le Cri du Poilu”

But while the Western hemisphere is undergoing a seismic shift in the nature and future of popular music, Europe remains embroiled in a dirty, pointless war that not all the chipper kit-bag trouble-packing warbles in the world can mask. Here, a French music-hall veteran adopts a song by Vincent Scotto, a young, fresh-faced composer who will help to transform chanson in the coming decades: a jaundiced, unpatriotic acknowledgement that the average unshaven soldier would vastly prefer getting laid to laying down his life—or taking any German’s—in the mud and disease of the trenches. The rousing refrain “Une femme, une femme” is far more open and direct than the winking, blushing Armentières mademoiselles of their British counterparts.

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8. Eddie Cantor, “That’s the Kind of Baby for Me”

What the French do not bother to encode, Jewish performers in the US very much do. On the one hand, this recording can be heard as a white suburban expression of the Jazz Age arriving three years ahead of schedule, as Eddie Cantor’s everyschmuck is exactly the kind of enthusiastic virgin that F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Held Jr., and Harold Lloyd loved to parody. On the other, it’s a very specific expression of Lower East Side tenement life, a compact, energetic, and perforce cosmopolitan kind of life which, when Cantor became America’s mass-media uncle, would read all-American. But here, as a Ziegfeld Follies star—where he played Bert Williams’ son in blackface—he became America’s gawky kid brother.

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9. Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis, “A Bunch of Blues”

And finally, two decades after the first written report of a music that could be understood as the blues, seven years since the first published blues song, three years since the first recorded blues song, here is the first recorded example of the blues in what you might—must—call its true form, to wit, being performed by African-American musicians of the South. It is still dicty and middle-class, it is still marching-band in overarching form, it is still a composed blues rather than a folk blues, because W. C. Handy knows where the money in the music business is, and you need copyrights and no funny business you might get sued over. But it’s another real beginning.

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10. Eubie Blake Trio, “Hungarian Rag”

And here’s another. Blake (like Handy) has a better claim to being called the first jazz recording artist than the Original Dixieland Jass Band, and not just because of the color of his skin. Nominally a rag, this trio piece (two pianos and trap drums) is taken at such a velocity, with such sleek verve and inherent funk, that it breaks loose of the confines of the ragtime form and romps joyously among the as-yet-unnamed musics of the coming decade. If it is ragtime, it is the freest, boldest ragtime yet heard; if it is jazz, it is of a particularly rattling, industrial, Atlantic-coast sort, rather than the steamy Delta funk of New Orleans: Blake is from Baltimore.

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11. Henry C. Browne, “Push Dem Clouds Away”

But as black American musicians begin, however slowly and painfully, to carve out a space for themselves, the nearly century-long dehumanization of black Americans called minstrelsy grinds along, carving out a track that 1917 did not have a name for, but would be known to history as “old-time.” This song, both a grossly offensive Coon song and a prototype of the power-of-positive-thinking genre of song that will only grow more prominent in the coming decade, was written for the forgotten 1891 musical A Trip to Chinatown; Browne was a new generation of minstrel performer who made a specialty of digging up old stuff and singing it as crassly as possible; it’s one origin of country music among many.

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12. The Six Brown Brothers, “At the Darktown Strutters’ Ball”

The explosion that was the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s first records loosed off a tremendous amount of energy around the country, as the first genuine recorded popular-music craze gained traction. All kinds of things got recorded in their wake, whether it made any sense to market them as jazz or not. This, for example, is a white vaudeville act doing a stiff reading of a song written by black vaudevillian Shelton Brooks (we last saw him behind “Some of These Days”), which would become an early jazz standard. It’s less jazz than the ODJB were, but because of the novelty configuration that was the Brown Brothers’ act—six saxophones, from bass to alto—it has jazz texture.

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13. Orquesta Típica Maglio, “El Tío Soltero”

Even as Carlos Gardel brings tango as a sung form into the light, tango consolidates as an instrumental dance music. The title of this bewitching, sprightly dance comes from the same underworld lunfardo roots as Gardel’s song—“El tío soltero” is a raffish way to refer to a single guy out on the prowl—but the music depicts a decorous flâneur, with its twinkly orchestration and fin-de-siècle melodic accents. Only the insistent pulse of the tango rhythm marks it as more than a sedate ballroom whirl. We last saw “Pacho” Maglio five years ago, and the distance between his hungry, dazzling tango of 1912 and his pretty, complacent tango of 1917 is why Gardel had to happen.

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14. Ford Hawaiians, “Wiliwili Wai”

While the hula craze in the United States is several years old now, the continued recording and distribution of Hawai‘an music has only really gotten started. This group, featuring the virtuoso Henry Kailimai on ukulele, was assembled by automaker Henry Ford as artists in residence at his Detroit headquarters; as Ford was friendly with Edison, they recorded frequently. This meditation on a lawn sprinkler—composed by the dethroned Queen Lili‘uokalani—is perhaps not the sort of perky hula music Ford had in mind, as the funereal pace and basso vocal turn it into a powerful lament, an island spiritual, and a memorial for the last Queen of Hawai‘i, who would be dead by the end of 1917.

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15. Alma Gluck & Efrem Zimbalist, “Chanson Hebraïque”

But as popular song explodes in all four corners of the globe, the classical concert tradition that has constituted the bulk of recording to date is still very much alive. This extremely proper classical recording, though, is full of unusual resonances. Gluck was a Jewish-American soprano born in Romania, popular in concert and on record, where her rendition of the minstrel “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny” was huge; her husband Zimbalist was a Russian Jewish violinist whose sentimental recordings of the classical canon were prolific; the song is the Jewish folk song “Meyerke, mein zun,” as arranged by French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel in 1910. It’s a remarkable high point of folk song as art song.

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16. Fritz Kreisler, “Poor Butterfly”

Far and away the most popular violinist of the era was the Austrian-born Kreisler, whose wide range and sweet tone exactly hit the comforting, not to say comfortable, note that the broad bourgeois audience for concert music wanted from it. This, a pop-crossover recording of a show tune based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, was one of his biggest recorded hits, and if the context has faded over the century—pop-crossover songs do not originate in circus-venue spectacles borrowing from orientalist operas anymore, Cirque du Soleil notwithstanding—the sturdy melodic underpinnings and Kreisler’s expressive, populist but unsentimental mitteleuropean technique (especially as compared to the austerity of a peer like Jascha Heifetz) still has the power to resonate today.

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17. Nora Bayes, “Over There”

In April of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson requested permission from Congress to declare war on the German Empire. The sinking of the Lusitania hadn’t done it; the interception of a message to the revolutionary Mexican government, suggesting that Germany would back them in a northern attack, did. It would take a year before the first American troops landed in Europe, but nothing raises the US dander like a hint that the vassal states in the Western Hemisphere have a mind of their own. So, thirteen years after his first big hit, George M. Cohan contributed his last to the war effort: “Over There,” with its high-kicking Broadway attitude, is the best war song the nation ever produced.