On Irish-American Sprightliness, Latin American Militarism, and Black American Masculinity
1. Billy Murray: “Give My Regards to Broadway”
With this song—this lyric and melody, though not precisely this performance—we meet our first genuine pop star of the new century. Though there will be many hundreds to follow, George M. Cohan, the patriotic Irish-American singer, dancer, composer, impresario, and capturer of what we might as well call the American spirit, sets a pretty high standard to match.
He was not the first, but was among the greatest, of that great showbiz vocation, the Song and Dance Man. He was not the first, but was among the most successful, of that unpredictable but lucrative species, the Fellow Who Writes His Own Stuff. And he may well have been the first, and was certainly the most sincere, to have realized that there was a reputation—and a fortune—to be made selling Americans the idea of America.
The 1904 musical show Little Johnny Jones was written, directed, composed, and performed by Cohan—not alone, but given his tremendous energy it might as well have been—and this was the show’s big hit. It’s about Broadway home of touts and hustlers, but it would become about Broadway home of American musical dreams—and that liminal space is all Cohan.
2. Harry Lauder: “I Love a Lassie”
If Cohan’s energetic musical theater song-and-dance patter was the most legitimate form of pop stardom yet seen in America (legitimacy usually meaning foreign and probably a generation removed in those days), the second rung on that ladder was an institution known by various names. We mostly call it vaudeville today, but then they called it variety, or family entertainment, or (in the trade) two-a-day, because you would give two performances a day and more on the weekends.
Harry Lauder was a British music hall star—a Scotsman, though he was a modern man, and the “laird” persona he puts on here was only one of a few dozen characters he had worked up, all with their own jokes and costumes and set-pieces and comic songs. But it was the Scottish stuff American audiences wanted to hear, and even the most successful two-a-day performers ignored audience tastes at their peril.
“I Love a Lassie” was Lauder’s signature song, delivered here with a wry chuckle where a live audience could be expected to laugh or applaud. Dialect comedy was a long-lived staple of vaudeville, but Lauder’s version was the gentlest and sweetest on offer.
3. La Banda de Zapadores de México: “La Paloma”
It may seem curious that our first direct encounter with the music of a marching band is not that of John Phillip Sousa (probably the music successful recording artist, and certainly the most successful live artist, of the period), but of a Mexican military band playing a forty-year-old song written by a Spaniard after having been inspired by the habanera rhythms of Afro-Latin Cuba.
But in 1905 Sousa’s greatest days were behind him—his big record that year was a briskly sentimental rendition of Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz—while this may be taken as Shot One in the great volley of Latin music which will quickly become just as essential a part of our story as American (or European, or Other) music.
You know the melody, even if you can’t quite place where you’ve heard it; it’s one of the universal signifiers of Latin Americanism, along with “La Cucaracha” and the Jarabe Tapatío. It was not exactly a runaway success when Sebastián Yradier composed it a few years before his death in 1865, but in the subsequent decades it became a symbol of Latin American pride and nationalism, a longing melody married to a sharp, insistent rhythm.
4. Florrie Forde: “The Old Bull and Bush”
Harry Lauder found his greatest success in American vaudeville, but he began in British music hall, a not quite parallel tradition of entertainment. Vaudeville was a family-friendly replacement for hateful minstrelsy and risqué burlesque, conceived in the Gilded 1880s; but in Britain, the music-hall tradition was unbroken since the 1830s. It wasn’t quite genteel, but an increasingly prosperous middle class of wide and voluminous tastes made it extremely successful for a century.
Like vaudeville, music-hall was home to a wide variety of acts, from slapstick to recital to acrobatics; but the stage’s signature form, which made it successful and still appeals across the decades, was the comic—or otherwise—song. Florrie Forde was one of the form’s shining lights in the early twentieth century, a big-voiced, big-bosomed Australian whose taking up of a song would practically guarantee its success.
“The Old Bull and Bush” was a publisher’s triumph—in America, it was published as “Under the Anheuser Bush,” a cheap but memorable pun, while in England it referred to an actual London pub, still extant today. Forde sings it, cavalierly, from a male point of view, and a hundred years later it sounds entirely normal.
5. Arthur Collins: “The Preacher and the Bear”
In 1902, Arthur Collins made—with banjoist Vess Ossman—perhaps the definitive recording of the Coon Song in all its noxiousness and gusto, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” It was written by a black man, and sung by Collins in an approximation of black singing which sounds, to modern ears, simply American. Three years later, he recorded this perhaps even more noxious song, which has equal claim to be considered among the most important documents of its era.
“The Preacher and the Bear” is, on the basis of the lyrics, racist trash, centering on a figure who is—because implicitly black—a venal hypocrite (hunting on the Sabbath), a rank coward, an illiterate buffoon, and somehow also a violent animal (carries a razor, and is ready to use it). It’s harder to find a more complete summation of all negative stereotypes of black males of the period.
But the song is also one of the first interpolations of an actual black musical form—the spiritual—into straight pop music. It would go on to become a country standard, as the minstrelsy faded and only the buffoonish comedy remained. And goddamn if that chorus doesn’t get stuck in the head.