On Performing One’s Gender, Performing One’s Race, and Performing One’s Religion
1. The Victor Dance Orchestra “The ‘Merry Widow’ Waltz”
If there’s a distinction between Operetta, the most prestigious form of light entertainment in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the Light Opera of the nineteenth century (think Gilbert and Sullivan), The Merry Widow is as useful a line of demarcation as any. Its frivolity and playfulness, its light, swimming musicality (unlike Arthur Sullivan’s music, you don’t miss the lyrics if you don’t get them), and most importantly its use of an ersatz Mitteleuropean principality as a fantasy setting defined the genre for a generation.
Franz Léhar’s Die lustige Witwe had been a sensation in Vienna for two years before the 1907 London production, starring Lily Elise as the widow of the title, made it a global hit. No original cast recordings seem to survive, but the music was everywhere: this is perhaps the recording that most emphasizes the waltz rhythm.
2. Vess L. Ossman: “Maple Leaf Rag”
We began this story in the middle, or in a middle. If we had started at a beginning, we would have started with this song. Scott Joplin wrote it in 1897 in celebration of a black social organization in his hometown, and it was an immediate hit, the definitive ragtime song, the one that got bordello music into middle-class homes and would, in time, have all of America walking, running, and dancing with a more rhythmic swagger than it had before.
There were many recordings before this one, of course—but Vess L. Ossman was the premier ragtimist on record, perhaps because the banjo recorded better than the piano, perhaps because he was white and thus untainted with the origins of the music, and perhaps because the banjo, however skillfully shredded, was easier to dismiss as comedy music than the universal piano.
3. Vesta Tilley: “I’m Following in Father’s Footsteps”
The fine art of male impersonation was, like its inverse, perfectly normal in turn-of-the-century music hall or vaudeville. In fact quite a bit of gender-bending sexuality passed under the guise of harmless fun, and many of the impersonators, male or female, actually were out (as far as they could be) homosexuals.
Not Vesta Tilley, who was married to one of the most powerful theatrical impresarios in London. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, since she was one of the biggest-drawing acts of the era, singing comic songs from a male point of view, setting fashion trends in male wear, and eventually refusing to go on stage in any other guise. In this song, a standard music-hall wink-wink about them naughty lads and their scolding wives, she caricatures a kind of naïve boyish sexuality that’s still funny.
4. Ángel Villoldo: “El Negro Alegre”
Like a lot of the songs we’ve been examining, the roots of this go back much further than 1907—it is in fact another instance of minstrelsy, the original sin (and eternal wellspring) of American entertainment. But it’s Argentinean; and it’s useful to be reminded that the United States is not alone in its diseased history of race relations. “El negro alegre” means “the happy Negro,” and Villoldo’s impersonation of “black” laughter is cringeworthy in its condescension and denial of the full range of humanity.
But like minstrelsy in America, it’s never as simple as white mocking black; Villoldo was one of the earliest composers and promoters of the tango, a dance with African roots, in his native Argentina (this isn’t tango, but the rhythm slips) and the laughter sounds a lot like that of George W. Johnson, the first black recording artist.
5. Patápio Silva: “Amor Perdido”
The Brazilian musical tradition of choro is analogous to American ragtime, Argentinean tango, or Cuban habanera as a music that developed in the nineteenth century as a first response to the mingling of African and European musical traditions. If we hear this as more European than African, that might have more to do with our assumptions about the flute than with any musicological analysis.
Patápio Silva was the premier choro flautist in Brazil at the turn of the century, and his 1905 composition “Primeiro amor” (first love) is still one of the country’s national melodies. But I prefer “Amor perdido” (lost love) partly because it’s more rhythmic—even if the rhythm is a basic waltz—and partly because its minor-key melody is more haunting. Flutes were not well served by the early recording process, but here its shrieks serve the theme.
6. Carrol C. Clark & Vess L. Ossman: “De Little Old Log Cabin in de Lane”
We won’t encounter country music à la lettre for a few more decades; the fact that this sounds a bit like country music is because both this and the music of poor Appalachian whites drew from the same source: namely, the combination of parlor-song sentiment and racist caricature that made up much of the repertoire of minstrelsy.
“De Little Old Log Cabin in de Lane” was written by minstrel impresario Will S. Hays in 1871, and was a standard favorite song in the American repertoire. Its sentimental portrayal of an aged and dying black man owes something to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and something to “Dixie,” but ballad and religious singer Carrol C. Clark’s dignified reading removes much of the implicit racism that another singer might give it with an exaggerated “coon voice”—which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Clark was black.
7. Edison Mixed Quartet: “Speed Away”
We have not yet had occasion to dig very deeply into religious music; there was (and always has been) plenty being recorded, but few of the hymns recorded during the period, whether familiar to a modern audience or best left in the mists of time, are about more than the piety, real or assumed, of the singer.
“Speed Away” is not, on the surface, much different. Written by the blind Methodist hymn-writer Fanny Crosby (open any modern hymnal and you’ll still find many of her lyrics) in 1890 as an encouragement to foreign missionaries, much of its setting was, she claimed, adapted from a Native American melody. Whether or no, the delivery of the professional Edison singers is remarkable: they sing in a flat, close-harmony style that sounds like a sophisticated pastiche of the shape-note singing practiced in rural churches.