On the Wide Applicability of Semitism, the Riches of Fairyland, and the Omnivorousness of Appalachia
1. Sophie Tucker: “Some of These Days”
The American song form with which we opened the century—the Coon song—has shifted from a derogatory, sneering Othering to a lightly mocking inclusiveness. If it would be too much to claim that We Are All Coons Now, at least some people aren’t unwilling to embrace the idea. Sophie Tucker was a Jewish “shouter”—that is, she sang big and brassy, because she was big and brassy—and she was one of the first to publicly join the dots between the African-American and Jewish experiences. “Some of These Days” takes the form of a Coon song—the “lament for a no-good man” genre—but both melody and the specific instrumentation used here are reminiscent of the Jewish music of Eastern Europe (where Tucker, as Sonya Kalish, was born), all minor keys and keening violins. It was written, however, by a black man: Shelton Brooks, Canadian-born but vaudevilled everywhere. Tucker consciously modeled her act on blues shouters like Ma Rainey, and called herself “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” On record, though, she was one of the first.
2: Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”
The inextricable relationship between Jewishness and American song was only beginning. Sophie Tucker was a star, but a young songwriter born Israel Baline would eclipse her before long. He’s had hits before—hits for a season, for a year—but now he’s written an all-time perennial, one of those songs that comes to stand in for an entire generation, steamrolling whatever it may have originally meant. And originally, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was yet another Coon song. Alexander, with its classical pretensions, was one of the traditional Funny Names for black men, who were all supposed to be George or Sam. Collins and Harlan know this, and they sing in exaggerated Negro dialect, Harlan as the more insulting “Negress” voice making sure every yas counts. It’s not ragtime, though Hollywood revisionism would later call it the first ragtime song, off by some twenty years. It’s a march: though it can, and has, been ragged, as well as jazzed, swung, boogie-woogied, and all else. Beyond the insult, it’s a song about the importance of music, and there are never enough of those.
3. George M. Cohan: “I Want To Hear A Yankee Doodle Tune”
As American song shifts its weight forward into the new decade, it begins to leave behind the old. This isn’t quite the last we’ll hear of Cohan as a songwriter, but it’s the first and the last we hear in his own voice. He never fully trusted the recording horn or, later, the microphone; he was, after all, a song-and-dance man. But in 1911, a half-decade after the peak of his career, he recorded a handful of songs, perhaps hoping to goose sheet-music sales; they were mostly leftovers from old shows, and remain largely forgotten today. This was the best of them: a summation of his attitude towards music—pro-popular song, anti-longhair pretension, a dash of ragtime for flavor, and patriotic as hell—that works musically to showcase Cohan at his best: the opening patter verse reveals a not-embarrassing flow. It’s revealing that Sousa is the musical idol invoked: already he’s waxing nostalgic for a vanishing era; Sousa was still active, but marching bands were fading as vaudeville and dance bands came into their own.
4. Montgomery & Stone: “Travel, Travel Little Star”
Two of the best-paid clowns in vaudeville were Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone, who, by 1911, rarely appeared in vaudeville as their own revues kept them quite busy enough. They had catapulted to fame as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man in the original 1903 production of The Wizard of Oz—but before long L. Frank Baum was dedicating books to them, as their popularity kept Oz bankable and him rich. Montgomery was the short, practical one, Stone the gangly, rueful one, and they did every act imaginable, including blackface, orientalface, and povertyface. They even made records, such as this number from the show The Old Town (also starring a young Will Rogers), where they played show-business vagabonds, on the run from sheriffs who had “attached” (put a lien of confiscation on) their stage properties to make up for local towns’ losses accrued by their failed shows. They interrupt their close-harmony singing with back-and-forth patter in the vein that Abbott and Costello would later practice, and swing back into song without batting an eyelash, consummate professionals.
5. Harry Champion: “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am”
Vaudeville in America and music-hall in England were both approaching something of a zenith in the years before World War I, with music-hall growing in popularity as the working classes who loved it became ever more financially independent. Probably the best-known music-hall song of the modern era, thanks to the Herman’s Hermits’ 1965 cover, is Harry Champion’s signature “I’m Henery the Eighth.” Champion was one of the most remarkable performers of the music-hall stage, a Cockney dynamo of energy with a wide repertoire and the ability to sell it with apparent effortlesslessness; in fact it’s something of a shame that this will be our only encounter with him. Ironically, it was vaudeville—or variety, as it was known in the UK—that would put him out of work. Accustomed to holding a stage for the evening, he never got used to the quicker, one-act-after-another pace of vaudeville, and when the transatlantic form began to replace the older music-hall tradition after the War, he went into the taxi business, doing quite well for himself.
6. Al Jolson: “Asleep in the Deep”
Many years from now, Jerry Lee Lewis will hold forth the contention that there have ever only been four great stylists of American song: Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and himself. Rogers’ yodeling, Williams’ high lonesome voice, and (granted) Lewis’s frenzied wailing, sure, we can understand—but wherefore the foghorned, showbizzy Jolson? But one listen to this, and damned if the sonofabitch isn’t right. “Asleep in the Deep” was a parlor song of 1897, a dolorous tribute to the brave sailors lost at sea; but in the hands of the young Jolson, a dynamic, barely-known Lithuanian immigrant and itinerant performer who had just booked his first regular New York gig, it becomes a—well, a what? A travesty, sure; a comedy song, possibly, though he doesn’t entirely give up on the sentiment. Instead he bellows, moans, stretches notes over bars and wraps them around once or twice; he gibbers, he goes basso profundo, he makes sounds that would be called scatting in another generation—in short, he invents American song. You can’t take your ears off him. And everything follows.
7. George P. Watson: “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” *
By comparison, George Watson is only following the notes on the page. “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” was another parlor song, published by one John J. Handley in 1885 and as it was supposed to be set in the German Alps, a yodel was written into the chorus. This in itself was hardly unusual: Alpine yodeling was a standard feature of German- or Austrian-descended popular song (think of “The Lonely Goatherd” in The Sound of Music), and if yodeling doesn’t seem like quite the most soothing sound for a lullaby, well, cultures vary and all that. George P. Watson, however, was a professional German impersonator and yodeling specialist; and in the second half of the song he stops paying any attention to what Handley wrote and inserts his own Cherman-accented verses with their own yodeling accompaniment, less Alpine all the time. If it’s not quite the high lonesome yodel that would come to define country music, it’s also not quite entirely not; and as we’ll come to hear, country (like all American) music, draws as much from commercialized novelty as from tradition.
8. Toots Paka’s Hawaiians: “Kamawae”
Speaking of which. The Hawai’ian steel guitar sound, spectral and keening, will of course come to define country music even more than the yodel. This isn't quite the first American recording of Hawaiʻian music (the islands were annexed by the United States, as a sort of afterthought to the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, in 1898, and recordings were made as early as 1905), but it’s still much earlier than the hula craze of 1915-1916 that would popularize the steel guitar throughout the country, but especially and eventually in the uplands of the South. And Toots Paka’s troupe, in addition to several others, were laying the groundwork for that craze with concerts and recordings. The alternate title given for one release of “Kamawae” (or “Kamawe”) is “Shake Your Feet,” and the number is appropriately uptempo, the steel guitar sharing space with flute for melody while ukeleles set a fast rhythm and the chorus sings in Hawaiʻian. The islands have a rich musical tradition, some of which we’ll come to explore much more in depth, but this is a fine start.
9. Flora Rodríguez de Gobbi & Orquesta: “Minguito”
Often ignored in the standard histories of the tango, Alfredo Gobbi and his wife Flora were among the first recording stars of the Argentinean music world. They hardly confined themselves to the tango—then new enough to seem like a passing fad—but wrote and performed zarzuelas (the Spanish tradition of comic opera with political and topical satire), mazurkas, polkas, and other European dances in addition to the tango rioplatense. Which translates as “tango of the Río de la Plata,” a river which originates in Uruguay and pours into the sea near Buenos Aires; in a musical sense, it’s very much the South American Mississippi. “Minguito” was performed solo by Flora as a comic tango in character as a newspaper boy on the streets of Buenos Aires trying to manage his time between his girls, his papers, dancing the tango, and smoking cigarettes. Full of lively street slang, the song is irrepressibly melodic even if you don’t understand the words, and while the tango rhythm is still not as pronounced as it will come to be, it’s still more song than dance.
10. Yángos Psamátyalis: “Zmirneïkomanes”
The urban Greek music which would come to be called rebetiko in the years between the wars was a music of varied ancestry; like all of the great urban ethnic musics of the early twentieth century (tango, jazz, fado, klezmer, flamenco, samba, blues), it developed out of migration, assimilation, and hybridization. The center of gravity in the Eastern Mediterranean was still Constantinople, hub of the failing Ottoman Empire, and Turkish musical modes (or makam) were much more influential than Western European ones. To the untrained ear (mine, for example), this Greek song by a Greek singer sounds Turkish, or even Arabic; but it is sung in Greek, accompanied by accordion (as close to a universal instrument as exists this side of the piano), and instead of taking a theme from classical Persian or Turkish literature, the title has been (roughly) translated as “Bordello Blues.” I don’t know anything about Yángos Psamátyalis (nor does anyone else on the Internet, apparently), but his longuers of emotion over the keening accordion and rock-solid timekeeping plucked strings rushes into the future at breakneck speed.
11. Victor Light Opera Company: “Gems from Naughty Marietta”
While ragtime and Coon song and vaudeville and tango and all else continued to percolate in the vast worldwide Underground, the acknowledged master of American theater music (that most Overground of musical forms), Victor Herbert, was having his most resounding success yet. Naughty Marietta, first staged in 1910, is still the ultimate American operetta, with a rich, vivid score that still repays listening and at least three all-time classic compositions. The 1911 recording rolls were choked with versions of the “Italian Street Song” (for women) and “I’m Falling in Love with Someone” (for men), but this rush through the highlights of the score, by Victor’s usual stable of ringers (Harry Macdonough and Lucy Isabelle Marsh being the principals) is preferable to sitting through each song on its own, especially as it’s the only standard recording of “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” for many years to come. The songs excerpted are: “Life Is Sweet,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” “Italian Street Song,” “’Neath the Southern Moon,” “I’m Falling in Love with Someone,” “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” and a reprise of “Italian Street Song.”