On the Democratization of Leisure Activity, the Expansion of Capitalism’s Horizons, and the Mutual Unintelligibility of the Latin Races
1. Harvey Hindermeyer: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”
Any survey of American popular culture in the early twentieth century that doesn’t include baseball is necessarily incomplete. Unlike aristocratic cricket or hooligan-class football, as a commercial experience it was designed to appeal to as wide a range of potential customers as possible: the perfect pastime for the capitalist, demotic mobs flooding into America.
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written by vaudevillian Jack Norworth, who with his then-wife Nora Bayes was one of the top theatrical draws of the era. The verses (rarely heard today) are a standard mockery of boisterous, profligate Irishness which stood in for the American lower classes in the popular culture of the era; but once that indelible chorus swings up, everybody winds up singing along.
2. The Zon-O-Phone Concert Band: “The Smiler (A Joplin Rag)”
The subtitle’s a reference to Joplin, Missouri—or so Percy Wenrich, the composer of the song, always claimed. He was born in Joplin, and was perhaps feeling nostalgic as a jobbing composer in Tin Pan Alley. It was a real place then: a row of buildings on 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan where composers rented cheap rehearsal space, and (the legend goes) was given the name because open windows resounded with such a racket of pianos that it was like the clatter of a dropped pan in a still house.
But even accidental references to the proven hitmaker Scott Joplin wouldn’t hurt sheet-music sales, and this, for the Zonophone label, became one of the great ragtime recordings of the era.
3. Abrega & Picazo: “Corrido de Macario Romero”
The Mexican ballad form known as the corrido is one of the longest unbroken musical traditions in the world, attested as far back as the 1820s, and still written today about drug trafficking and gang violence. This corrido of Macario Romero was one of the first to be recorded, and this rendition by popular duo Jesús Abrego and Leopoldo Picazo is an example of an unusually dialogue-based corrido, which are more often third-person narrative.
Macario Romero was a folk-hero, a soldier in the Maximilian War of the 1860s (an event which also gave us Cinco de Mayo) who loved a woman, disobeyed his commanding officers in order to see her, and was killed by his enemies while dancing. As the song relates.
4. Cuarteto Coculense: “La Malagueña”
The Cuarteto Coculense (quartet from Cocula, a town in the central Mexican state of Jalisco) is arguably the first recorded mariachi outfit in history. The bright horns we associate with mariachi today are nowhere to be found here—the principle instrument is a keening violin—but they were a later development. Mariachi refers not to trumpet lines but to the regional combos of Jalisco.
This “Malagueña” is neither the classical and jazz standard written by Cuban Ernesto Lecuona, nor the Mexican “Malagueña Salerosa” that would be popularized by huapango singers in the 1940s, but a mariachi lament about (as all the others are too) an unfaithful woman from the Spanish port of Málaga. But the tight, tense focus of the music has its own narrative.
5. Orchestre Tsigane du restaurant de Rat Mort: “Tango Bresilien (El Choclo)”
It’s a typical irony of the age that the most exciting musical development in Latin America had to emigrate to Europe to be recognized. We’ve met composer Ángel Villoldo before; but it wasn’t until a residency in Paris, its cafés and restaurants greedy for new dance crazes, the less polite the better, that one of his tangos was recorded. Even so, it was by an anonymous orchestra (the “Dead Rat” was a fashionable watering-hole in the artistic quarter), called “gypsy” to evoke a blanket exoticism, and to top it all off, the tango was misidentified as Brazilian.
“El Choclo” (ear of corn) was one of the breakout hit tangos—but its first recording here is as sharp and moving as it would ever be.
6. Haim Effendi: ”Tchakidji Turkessou”
In the latter half of the first decade of the twentieth century, recording technology had spread like wildfire across the globe. No longer limited to American or Western European companies, studios were springing up all over, from Cairo to Hong Kong, as each new market unveiled people eager to buy the music of their culture—or even of another culture.
Haim Effendi was a Sephardic Jewish secular singer who operated within the dying remains of the Ottoman Empire; this song, recorded in Constantinople, lies at the crossroads of Ottoman culture, with suggestions of what was still becoming Greek rebetiko, Jewish klezmer, and even, toward the end, Sufi qawwali. The song is apparently about the Turkish folk hero Chakiji, a semi-mythical bandit like Robin Hood.
7. Janki Bai: “Medine Men”
Every culture has its own classical music; to attempt to document it all thoroughly, even limited to early and important recordings, would be a fool’s errand. My primary concern here is with music that functions as a record, that fits the (absurdly short) time limitations of recorded music and that says something coherent and remarkable within that time and subject to those constraints.
Hindustani classical music is notoriously epic in length, so it is perhaps fitting that the earliest representative of it we have is a “dancing girl” from the courts of Allahabad. Neither technically trained nor physically beautiful (she was scarred from knife fights), she was nevertheless adept at the art of keeping an audience rapt with the beauty of her sinuous, powerful voice.
8. Edward M. Favor: “Fol the Rol Lol”
“Fol the Rol Lol,” a nineteenth-century comic song, is essentially a tune and a chorus to which limericks can be applied. The limerick, of course, is one of the all-time great dirty-joke constructions, but none of the limericks sung here are even slightly salacious.
But the real appeal of the song from today’s point of view is the way it’s constructed as a sound experience to remain fresh: obviously, an unvarying limerick rhythm will get tiresome, so the trick (borrowed no doubt from Favor’s vaudevillian experience) of adding a new comic instrument to each successive chorus, from drums to fifes to a fake bird-whistle, makes the drinking-song “hilarity” go down that much easier. Weirdly, the word “lol” is even appropriate.