On the Humors of Immigrants, the Wickedness of Dance Tunes, and the Infinite Corruptibility of Urbanites
1. Nora Bayes: “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?”
The full tale of how the Irish became American is far beyond the purview of this website; but though it began deep in America’s past, before there was an America to exclude anyone from, it had not, as of 1910, been fully accomplished. Nora Bayes was Jewish (she was born Eleanor Goldberg), but she worked hard at assuming the brogues of a half-dozen different stereotypes, less in mockery than in melting-pot solidarity, though there was mockery too—immigrants love to laugh at nothing so much as themselves—and so became the preeminent queen of vaudeville for twenty years.
2. Blanche Ring: “Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine”
A bare seven years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, the American—and global—imagination had been captured by the idea of unaided flight, and fantasias of the Highway of the Future unrolled in proto-sci-fi magazines, cartoon etchings, and of course popular song. It’s not surprising that a song based on the craze would filter it through the June-moon-spoon of romantic woo, but it’s maybe more surprising that the hit was made by a plummy contralto whose designs on Josephine may be entirely pure… but that’s not how we hear it today.
3. Arthur Pryor’s Band: “Temptation Rag”
The sheer velocity of Pryor’s arrangement here is surprising even today; few ragtime revivalists would care to play a single piano arrangement at 120 bpm, let alone an entire brass band. Compare it to the New York Military Band’s rendition of the same year, and it’s the difference between Billy Ocean and Derrick May. But “Temptation Rag” also marks ragtime’s Elvis moment, when it switched from being a lowlife music played by black people and their disreputable admirers to the unexceptionable pop of the era; its composer, Thomas Henry Lodge, was white, and as stolidly middle-class as they come.
4. Bert Williams: “Play that Barbershop Chord”
Ragtime music had been known in the US since 1893, when Scott Joplin had introduced it at the Chicago World’s Fair. But like any disreputable mixed-race music of the period—Argentinean tango, Brazilian samba, and Martinican biguine come to mind—it was not considered proper music for song; it was dance music only. 1910 saw the those already-loose restrictions relax considerably; and Bert Williams, already at the top of his game, jumped on the chance to insert a little funk into his comic patter. Typically, he misdirects: the “barbershop chord” isn’t used here, because it requires multiple voices.
5. Billy Murray & Chorus: “Casey Jones, The Brave Engineer”
Casey Jones was a real railroad engineer who was killed trying to prevent the collision of two trains; the song that bears his name was (apparently) first sung by a black engine cleaner who had known him, and gained circulation for nearly a decade before two vaudeville chancers saw the chance to pick up some easy royalties and published it, copyright them. Along the way it had picked up some free-floating verses about an unfaithful wife—Jones’s widow was very upset about it all—and entered into American folklore; Carl Sandburg called it “the greatest [American] ballad ever written.”
6. Candido Pereira da Silva & Grupo Carioca: “Saudações”
If you don’t know Portuguese, don’t assume you know what the title means just because you’ve heard of saudade—“saudações” actually means “greetings.” (This is, of course, the mistake I initially made.) Candido da Silva was one of the leading twentieth-century composers of choro, the national music of nineteenth-century Brazil, and one of the leading trombonists of the music; here his soft, elegant trombone style, juxtaposed against the rhythmic backing of the Grupo Carioca (group from Rio de Janeiro), points towards samba and even bossa nova. He taught and composed into the 1940s, but recorded rarely after this.
7. Victor Light Opera Company: “Favorite Airs from The Arcadians”
The Arcadians was one of the major musicals of Edwardian London, a gently comic fantasia that found the sweet spot between the earlier operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan and the later musical comedies of Noel Coward. Its plot was cheerful social satire: the unspoiled inhabitants of a hitherto-undiscovered Arcadia attempt—and, spoiler alert, fail—to convert wicked Londoners to their moral simplicity. This isn’t a cast recording, but experienced phonograph singers (you might recognize Billy Murray) singing “Arcadians are we,” “The Girl with a Brogue,” “Arcady is ever young,” “Charming Weather,” “Bring Me a Rose,” and “Truth is so beautiful.”
8. Feodor Chaliapin: “Luchinushka”
One of the greatest operatic bassos of all time, Feodor Chaliapin was also one of the most dynamic performers of his generation, a magnetic and powerful singer who rose from peasant origins in tsarist Russia to become one of the most beloved ambassadors of Russian music around the world. His signature role was Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s opera of the same name, but he sang arias and songs of the people with equal relish and intensity. “Luchinushka” is a Russian folk song; the “luchina” of the title refers to a burning wooden splinter used by peasants to light their homes.
9. Antonina Nezhdanova: “Otvet mne, zorkoe svetilo”
As clear and pure as Chaliapin was deep and stormy, Nezhdanova’s soprano was one of the most captivating and gorgeous voices recorded in the first half of the twentieth century, and though she rarely sang outside Russia, she sang a handful of enduring roles, including the Queen of Shemakha in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1909 The Golden Cockerel. This aria is usually called “Hymn to the Sun” in English (I believe the title translates to “Tell me, watchful light”), and it’s a moment of solitary beauty in an opera that covertly satirizes the military overreach and failure of the tsarist regime.
10. Raymond Hitchcock: “So What’s the Use”
Almost entirely forgotten today, the comedian, singer and actor Raymond Hitchcock was a Broadway institution between 1900 and 1930, often playing a rumpled, blackly cynical, and genuinely funny character who often did the right thing by accident in shows built around his persona, W. C. Fields without the small-town hubris. His last-call croak of a voice—he was nearly fifty when he recorded this—was admirably suited to the recording technology of the era, and he recorded a lot; but this is perhaps his greatest song, a litany of mordant ambivalence and hyperbolic pessimism from a contemporary show.