On the Clumsiness of Sentiment, the Destabilization of the Conventions, and the Striving Pinnacle of Getting Paid
1. Ada Jones & Billy Murray: “Shine On, Harvest Moon”
It’s tempting to think that time used to move more slowly, as we opened with Coon Songs and find them if anything more popular a decade later, but that would be a misapprehension—the coon song, despite what people would later claim, was not a fad, but a baseline genre; not the Twist, but Rock and Roll. The need of songwriters and singers to shove their clumsy sentiments into the mouths of minstrel stereotypes can seem inexplicable a century on, but the Coon Song incubated American popular song more generally—it gave a demotic vocabulary to a tradition shaking itself free of parlor-song starch and operettic artifice, and learning how to jive.
2. Bob Roberts: “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!”
Because the demotic alternative was the Husband Song, even more tiresome (because still alive today) in its hoary gags and chauvinist winks and grins than the Coon Song. The eagerness with which men were assumed to divest themselves of their marital chains (cf. contemporary comic strips, Mutt and Jeff inter alia) would be the stuff of intelligent midcentury farce in the hands of Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder, but here it’s a string of not very good jokes saved (if it is) by the naturalness of Roberts’ performance and a bit of gender play in the interpolation of Eva Tanguay’s signature catchphrase. Take note of the songwriter, too — he’s going places.
3. May Irwin: “The Bully” *
Every culture celebrates outlaws and thereby destabilizes the conventions; but in American popular culture, when these outlaws are black there’s an extra frisson of unacceptability, of lines transgressed and fears realized, which makes the pleasure all the more potent. Even when sung by a plummy contralto of sufficient establishment stature as to be the first woman ever kissed in a movie, her Gay Nineties hit “The Bully” fails to be entirely comic, as Irwin dives with relish into the minstrel caricature and comes out the other side, whereupon a century of outlawed black machismo from Stagger Lee to Shaft to Stringer Bell opens up before our feet, and anything increasingly goes.
4. Orquesta de Felipe Valdés: “Danzón”
When Jelly Roll Morton famously noted jazz’s “latin tinge” in interviews in the 1940s, he could have been thinking of Cuban danzón orchestras, which did not (yet) swing but did stomp, but the clarinets shriek high enough to anticipate Benny Goodman or Dave Tarras. This is another kind of blackness, filtered through another culture, a 1909 recording made by one of the least-celebrated bandleaders of the era, preserved so poorly that even the composition’s title has vanished from the historical record. Danzón is more genre than form, and this is a mélange: when the güiro takes up its steady rhythmic pulse, you can hear cumbia floating up from the Colombian coast.
5. Rumynskii Orkestr Belfa: “Bessarabian Hora”
A hora, or chora, is a circular dance; Bessarabia is a region in Eastern Europe covering parts of modern-day Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine; if any place on earth was epicenter to the music which would much later be called klezmer, it was here. This recording by one of the leading Jewish bands of the region (in English, Belf’s Rumanian Orchestra) keeps the pace down, with bandleader V. Belf (so little known that all we have is an initial) letting his clarinet dance swoonily rather than frantically; later, jazz-inflected iterations of the same tune would add a galloping, dervish-like climax, but here the slink and moan of the music is enough.
6. Eduardo das Neves: “Isto é Bom”
This too is blackness, but under different conditions than American coon song or Afro-Cuban danzón. Eduardo das Neves was a famous Brazilian entertainer, a black man who belonged to the palhaço (clown) tradition rather than to minstrel tradition (though the spheres were not entirely separate), as well as a poet, composer, and singer. Here he takes Xisto Bahia’s lundu composition “Isto é bom” (This is good) and slightly syncopates it, anticipating not only the sway of samba but the soft-spoken beauty of bossa nova. The familiar refrain pops up not only in later Brazilian music (as in any filmed Carnival) but in the wider world of Latin music—for example, “La Bamba.”
7. Fisk University Jubilee Quartet: “Little David, Play on Yo’ Harp/Shout All Over God’s Heaven”
Although the sum total of American blackness cannot be represented by white people singing coon songs, American racism did not allow for black people to appear in their own voices (jazz and the blues were played, but went unrecorded for another decade), with rare exceptions. A sui generis genius like Bert Williams was one; the other was spirituals. The frozen-in-amber quality of spirituals—conventionally-orchestrated arrangements of songs sung by slaves and the children of slaves, their blackness forgiven by their piety—made them acceptable concert music to the broad white majority, funding black institutions like Fisk as well as anticipating the harrumphers to come who would revere soul but hate hip-hop.
8. Polk Miller’s Old South Quartet: “Watermelon Party”
The difference between one quartet of black men and another is the difference between idealism and reality. The Fisk Quartet, approved by Washington and DuBois, represented the striving pinnacle of the race; Miller’s, approved by nobody but minstrel nostalgists, represented nothing beyond what they could conjure with rhythm and voice. Which mean cash; Miller (a white Southerner, Civil War veteran, and entrepreneur) ran a tight, commercial outfit, one which made enough of a profit to keep recording for decades, even after the white boss with the banjo and the crow’s voice passed on. This is an old minstrel fantasia expressed entirely in terms of appetite, like rock and rap after it.
9. Victor Herbert Orchestra: “Rose of the World”
Then again, parlor-song starch and operettic artifice were not entirely exhausted (and never really would be, as ballads still sell), and indeed still went from strength to strength. Victor Herbert was the dean of American theatrical music of the era, his smash 1903 Babes in Toyland enabling him to do whatever he wished. He wished Rose of Algeria, a French-Foreign-Legion yarn, and the theme he wrote for the poem at the story’s center was of startling beauty and richness, ghosts of which still flutter through the grinding rumble of mechanical reproduction. He longed to be taken seriously as a classical composer, but instead invented easy listening, no small accomplishment in itself.