On the Humorous Uses of Sorrow, the Practical Uses of Patriotism, and the Imaginative Uses of Information Scarcity
1. Bert Williams: “Nobody”
W. C. Fields, who knew from both humor and sorrow, called him the funniest man he ever saw and the saddest man he ever knew. If the humor is less accessible to us today than the sorrow, that may not be entirely to our credit.
The trouble with double acts is that they are rarely perfectly weighted; Williams was simply funnier than George Walker, if not in his bones—black men were hardly allowed to express their innermost selves—then in his mind. He studied comic vocalizing, costume, and dance as assiduously as he’d studied engineering, and the creation he came up with, the “Jonah Man” upon whose head all the troubles of the world fell, was one of the great comic figures of the age.
“Nobody” was his signature song, his fullest and sharpest explication of his troubled and troublesome persona. A race song only insofar as black citizens could share its litany of no-fucks-given, it was adopted by Jews and hillbillies with equal glee.
2. Arthur Pryor’s Band: “A Coon Band Contest”
This experiment’s structure has meant that the novelty of this song may be lost on the casual listener, who hasn’t heard enough of the standard marches from which it deviates to appreciate the depth of its deviation. What you want to listen for are the “smears”—those trombone glissandi which slide in between notes with a sort of powerful, farting recklessness.
Arthur Pryor, who had been John Phillips Sousa’s right hand man for eight years in the world-famous Sousa Orchestra (which in terms of popularity, profitability, and agenda-setting, was to the 1900s what the Beatles would be to the 1960s), had left to form his own band precisely because such untoward smears would never have been allowed in the Master’s militarily-disciplined outfit. And not just because they violated norms of Art and Beauty.
See the title of the piece: Pryor’s smeary trombone is meant to evoke blackness. And not just in a racist way: deviance was, as always, immensely attractive to the curious-minded.
3. Billy Murray: “You’re a Grand Old Rag”
George Washington, Jr. was George M. Cohan’s second smash musical in a row, and the hit song from the musical was even a bigger hit than “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Which is surely as Cohan intended it to be; like all showmen, he believed implicitly in the simple creed of Bigger Is Better, and the song was written to make as big a hit with the public as possible.
Of Irish descent, Cohan’s Americanness could be questioned at any time—1906 was not far enough from the Orange Riots of the mid-nineteenth century to be comfortable—so his flag-waving was practical as well as being the spontaneous expression of his soul. He was so alert to criticism that although the reference to the flag as a “rag” was inspired by the comment of a Civil War veteran, he changed the lyric at the slightest hint of criticism. Too late—Billy Murray had already made this recording, the song’s jauntiest and best expression to date.
4. Orquesta Pablo Valenzuela: “La Patti negra”
If the story of Latin American music could be said to have a single origin point (it can’t), it would be Cuba. Its position as a halfway house between Africa and the New Orleans port meant it was subject to as many varieties of musical tradition as any port in the world, and after both Spanish colonial rule and American slavery had ended it still retained close ties to both Spain and the US, as well as a teeming population of African, European, and indigenous descent.
The Orquestra Valenzuela was one of the oldest orquestas típiquas (vernacular orchestras), La Flor de Cuba, founded in pre-Revolutionary Havana and taken over by the Valenzuela brothers in the 1870s. Raimundo Valenzuela died in 1905; a year later, his brother Pablo brought the orchestra into an Edison studio and cut several records. “La Patti negra” was an original danzón, a light funky lilt underneath the keening instrumentation, the title possibly a reference to the great black opera singer Sissieretta Jones.
5. Franklyn Wallace: “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?”
Even as George M. Cohan was enjoying his greatest triumph (so far), a theater three blocks up from George Washington, Jr. was playing an English import, The Earl and the Girl, which presaged the next generation in Broadway entertainment, one which would make Cohan forever corny.
It wasn’t the play itself, or its original English music, which would change the world; that was all according to Hoyle. It was an interpolated song, a new ditty written by a hopeful New York composer in the hopes of selling the play to American audiences. The song had a longer life than the play—and even the song would be forgotten in a year or two. But it was young Jerry Kern’s first taste of popular success, a first intimation of things to come which would eventually produce the Great American Songbook.
(To spoon, in the youthful American slang of the day, was to flirt; the song was meant as a duet, but Franklyn Wallace does his manful best.)
6. Herr Schilling & Choir: “Chave”
We close out 1906 with a recording about which I can find no information except what is on the actual disc. Here is what I know:
The title of the work is “Chave,” which sounds as though it would be related to the “hava” of “hava nagila” (let us rejoice) but I’m no Yiddish scholar. It’s from a theatrical production called “Jud in Rumänienen” (The Jew in Romania) produced by a Jewish theatrical company called after the city of Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine). The singer is identified as a Mr. Schilling, accompanied by a chorus. It was recorded in 1906 in Hanover, Germany and issued on the small record label Favorite. And that’s it.
But it’s what’s in the grooves that startles. Some of this sounds like it could be the music which inspired The Fiddler on the Roof (itself based on stories by the Ukranian-born Sholem Aleichem, writing in New York in 1906). But it’s just as composed and theatrical; this too is show music.