On Latter-Day Idealizations, the Parsimony of Vaudeville, and the Finicky Avoidance of Melody
1. The Haydn Quartet: “Sweet Adeline”
If you asked a certain kind of person what music people were listening to and singing at the turn of the twentieth century, the unhesitating answer would be “barbershop.” How is it, then, that this is our first real encounter with the form?
One answer is that our imaginary interlocutor is probably better informed about midcentury representations of turn-of-the-century life than he is about actual turn-of-the-century life. Another is that the limitations of our format and editorial taste have conspired to give barbershop short shrift. A third is that the limitations of recording technology at the time did not capture harmonies well; too many tones at once tended to result in noisy mush, so like a lot of music at the time, it didn’t get recorded. And then, you could argue that “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” is barbershop, just an elaborate theatrical version.
But “Sweet Adeline” is the emblematic barbershop song, the song that most fully represents the genre, and if this recording isn’t our latter-day idealization of barbershop—just as what gets sold as ragtime today is only a sliver of what ragtime was then—because it has instrumental accompaniment and most of it is sung by the tenor, Harry Macdonough. But the final chorus brings all the Haydn Quartet (who also recorded as the Edison and Columbia Quartets, depending on the label) together in that instantly recognizable harmony, its richness dimmed by the hiss of shellac, but still—just barely—audible.
2. James Lent & the London Regimental Band: “The Ragtime Drummer”
And speaking of ragtime!
Although this, too, is not quite ragtime—in fact it’s something even more giddy and futuristic and wild than ragtime, which was the giddiest and most futuristic and wildest music in American history to date. It’s called ragtime because “jass” is not yet a word in the vocabulary of anyone but a handful of black New Orleans musicians—at least not a word with a musical connotation—but in a hundred years this will be the first track on a CD called The Anthology of Jazz Drumming, and it will belong there.
James Lent has been almost entirely swallowed up by history; we don’t know whether he was white or black, American or British, a young turk or an old hand. What we can guess is that he spent some time on the vaudeville circuit—the modern drum kit was a vaudeville invention, surrounding a single person with as many things to hit as he could manage in order to provide as much accompaniment as possible to as many acts as possible as cheaply as possible. (The sound sequence “ba-dum-bum-pssh,” used to underline a punchline but almost entirely decontextualized today, is an echo of that era.)
He uses the kit like a single instrument, and if he leans heavily on the woodblock, it’s about the only indicator of the track’s age (it recorded well, so quickly became old-fashioned). The drumming is even, in parts, funky enough to be considered the first break.
3. Billy Murray: “Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis”
The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri—the ’04 World’s Fair—wasn’t quite the boon to music that the Columbian Exposition in Chicago a decade previous had been. In 1893, Scott Joplin introduced ragtime to a white, middle-class audience, Claude Debussy’s attendance at an Indonesian gamelan performance loosed the moors of Western harmonics for good, a hula exhibition introduced a Hawaiian fad that would have long-lived echoes in Southern mountains and deltas, belly dancer Little Egypt performed her risqué hootchy-kootchy to “The Streets of Cairo,” and the musical gramophone made its first major inroads into the popular consciousness—along with other Edison Industries products like the incandescent lightbulbs that burned throughout the night, the “white” of the White City.
But St. Louis had its own prides and joys to offer; its fabulous Illuminated City, switched on at nightfall, outshone Chicago by millions of bulbs. And of course, there was the extremely popular ditty written about the Fair itself. Written by a pair of successful popular-song hacks—Andrew B. Sterling on lyrics, Kerry Mills on music (and publisher under an alias, in order to keep as much profit as possible)—it was a hit long before the fair itself opened, which is of course exactly what its writers had hoped for.
Get used to the name Billy Murray; we’ll hear more of him. An undistinguished but enthusiastic Irish tenor, he was most notable for recording anything that wasn’t nailed down, which will have its uses.
4. Mary Garden, acc. Claude Debussy: “Mes longs cheveux”
And speaking of Claude Debussy.
Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in 1902, in some readings the first Modernist opera of the twentieth century (in others the last Symbolist opera of the nineteenth). It was Debussy’s only opera, and his greatest sustained piece of composition, the fullest elaboration of his shifting-sands delicacy and finicky avoidance of melody, applied to a dreamlike narrative and characters who feel without thinking. Maurice Maeterlinck, whose prose play formed the basis of the opera, was hugely popular with the avant-garde in Paris (and elsewhere) in the 1890s and 1900s, though his plaintive, often-twee Symbolist drama would soon fall out of favor as the Moderns began to truly take hold in the decades to come.
The opera is almost entirely recitative, following Wagner (but without the melodic grandstanding, in Debussy’s characteristic elusive fashion). In fact, “Mes longs cheveux” is the only proper song in the piece—though since it was written as a song in the original play, it was hardly much of a concession. It’s sung by Mélisande at the beginning of Act 3 as she combs her long hair in a tower, waiting the arrival of her lover Pelléas (uh, sort of—Symbolism, man).
Mary Garden was perhaps the greatest lyric soprano of her era, able to sing a range of emotions—and act them, too!—rather than merely belting. She originated Mélisande at Debussy’s insistence, and though she’s harder to hear on record than a belter, her delicacy is astonishing even today.