On the Catholicity of African Identity, the Discomfort of Masquerade, and the Motion of Bodies
1. Lovey’s Trinidad String Band: “Mango Vert”
The bright spotlight of the recording horn has reached the Caribbean, where (Cuba excepted) the national musics have hitherto gone undetected by the relentless drive of multinational capitalism to sell a people’s music back to them. Lovey’s String Band was one of the most popular in Trinidad, led by George R. L. Baille, who went by the nickname “Lovey.” He’s credited as composer here, though as “Green Mango” or “Mangoes” it would become a popular folk-calypso song. And this is calypso, the earliest on record. The enormous energy pulsing here is still something of a shock, especially compared to the staid white American or European orchestras churning out stiff rags. The band name is something of a red herring; the band’s real secret weapon isn’t strings but its rhythm section, which pounds and patters in such dense clusters that they get lost in the hissing grooves of the record. Not just progenitor of island music, it prefigures all Africanized funk, from Tito to Fela to Diplo.
2. Orquesta Típica Pacho: “Armenonville”
Meanwhile, wheeling down the South American coast, another African-European-American mezcla is approaching its (first) zenith as a recorded music. If tango is Argentina’s jazz, Juan “Pacho” Maglio’s arrival is comparable to that of Louis Armstrong, the first great player of the form’s signature instrument the bandoneón, and the first bandleader popular with the public and on record. “Armenonville” was named for a fashionable dancehall opened by a couple of Maglio’s friends in Buenos Aires, and the elegant cosmopolitanism of the composition stands in relief to the strict tango tempo kept by the guitar. Cornet-violin (an amplified violin that recorded better than the ordinary kind) and flute make up the “orchestral” backing; with just four instruments, Maglio suggests an entire orchestra, and before long tango will be an international orchestral music, turning from a small-combo dance music played by guys nicknamed Pacho to an ornate big-band music. Ironically, Maglio never played the Armenonville; it was too high-class for his populist dance airs.
3. Roy Spangler: “Red Onion Rag”
Ragtime as an organizing force in the popular culture of the age was almost twenty years old, yet it wasn’t recorded in what many ragtimers believe (and some believed then, notably Scott Joplin) to be its truest form—as a solo piano exercise—until 1912. As always in American music of the pre-jazz era, it was white men who shouldered forward to the recording horn first. Mike Bernard cut the first piano ragtime record, a version of “Everybody Two-Step” that dazzles with rinkydink flash but contains virtually none of the rhythmic slippage inherent in black American music—no funk, in modern terms. Roy Spangler was less well-known—we know almost nothing about him today—but paid better attention to the black piano professors; his rendition of Abe Olman’s “Red Onion Rag” is loose and jazzy, and when it speeds up in the second half approaches the honky-tonk virtuosity of stride. You can shake your ass to it, in other words, and please do.
4. Bob Roberts: “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”
The omnipresence of ragtime as an overriding cultural theme means it was only a matter of time until it was applied to another of the cultural figures that was gaining the upper hand in the American imagination, the cowboy. And indeed every musical movement since has adopted the cowboy as a sort of totemic image, from swing to blues to reggae to rock to b-boy. “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” is pure Tin Pan Alley fluff, written by a passel of New Yorkers who thought it was cute when a nephew dressed up in a cowboy costume, but the comedy canter in the rhythm and the plucked banjo deep in the mix point forward to western music to come—for the West, and especially the music of the West, have always been as much a pop-culture construction as anything authentic to the soil. But it’s the rag, not the cowboy, that makes the song—and Roberts handles the surprisingly tricky rhythmic shifts of the chorus with aplomb.
5. Al Jolson: “Snap Your Fingers (And Away You Go)”
The rap about Jolson is that he started out playing a blackface character, but was too original and eccentric to convincingly render a particular ethnic characterization for long; after a certain point he kept blacking up but neither he nor his audience were under any illusions that he was supposed to be performing blackness; it was just his look, like Weber & Fields’ comedy mustaches or Charlie Chaplin’s baggy trousers. That’s the story, anyway; if we’re less convinced that there’s such a thing as good-faith blackface today, it’s with reason. Certainly “Snap Your Fingers” (sometimes spelled “Snap Yo’ Fingers”) is broadly minstrel, with Jolson playing the role of the Carefree Coon. But already his foghorn voice and distinctive mannerisms are taking over—the bleat that Mel Blanc used to represent Jolson can be heard in the first note he sings—and the song has plausible deniability embedded into it: after all, he could just be encouraging all freedom-swaggering Americans to walk in a modern jazzy step.
6. Elsie Janis: “Fo’ de Lawd’s Sake Play a Waltz”
Elsie Janis was one of the major starlets of the era, a singer-actress on Broadway and the West End who starred in shows called things like The Hoyden (1906) and The Slim Princess (1911), farces with more melody than wit. Reissues of this song claim it’s from The Slim Princess, but it’s not present in the original score; stars like Elsie Janis (or Al Jolson) who had shows built around them would often introduce a new song part way through the run—sometimes with a bit of extra dialogue to explain its presence in the plot, sometimes not. The interpolation of “Fo’ de Lawd’s Sake” would have been essentially random: a topical satire on new music, with references to popular songs like “Oh You Beautiful Doll” and “Ragtime Violin”—even a quotation of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—and dance crazes like the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear, in minstrel dialect that today just sounds like singing—it’s the overly-enunciated “correct” voices that sound oddly comic today.
7. Ada Jones: “I’ve Got the Finest Man”
Elsie Janis would have been a latecomer to singing minstrel dialect songs; Ada Jones had been doing it since the 1890s, and wouldn’t stop until the more heterogenous 1920s forced a sea change in acceptable recorded entertainment. “I’ve Got the Finest Man” wasn’t marketed as a minstrel song—instead of a hideous caricature of African-Americans, the sheet music was sold with a pretty Art Nouveau pattern on the cover—but it was written by two black men, lyricist Harry Creamer (who would go on to write blues and jazz with Turner Layton and James P. Johnson) and bandleader and composer James Reese Europe, who worked for dance-vogue popularizers Vernon and Irene Castle, and whose name we will see much more of in the coming years. There’s nothing specifically black about the lyrics—even the second verse, in which the man turns out to be a rascally thief, is race-neutral—and it’s an early example of black song as sincerely anodyne as any white music.
8. The Heidelberg Quartet: “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”
The Robert E. Lee, named of course for the Confederate General, was a famous steamship in the Reconstruction South which won a much-hyped race down the Mississippi in 1870. That it’s the name for the boat in this song may have meant nothing more than the rhythmic quality of the name (it’s a rare choriamb), but the associations of course are those of classical minstrelsy: carefree black people jumping for joy at the approach of a ship that forms an essential part of their economic servitude, named after the most famous fighter in the cause of slavery in the English-speaking world. But if the song’s purpose is base, the purposes to which it can be put are more complicated, and the Heidelberg Quintette (with a lead vocal by Billy Murray, not Will Oakland, as reported elsewhere) take the opportunity to sound as actually black as possible, pushing the rhythm forward into ragtime and inserting arrhythmic vocal breaks that come closer to doo-wop than barbershop.
9. Fred Van Eps: “Maurice Tango”
I’ve already mentioned Vernon and Irene Castle once; prepare to hear their names many times more. Though they were not musicians, they had an enormous impact on American music of the 1910s through their exhibition dancing and (more subtly) by their policy of color-blind musician hiring. They are largely credited for introducing the tango to American society, though the first dancer to have his name on an American tango was Maurice Mouvet, a glamorous gigolo type who worked with many different partners over the course of his career. Madeline d’Harville was his partner when Silvio Hein, an American composer, dedicated his tango to them, and Fred Van Eps, the great second banana of American banjo music (after Vess L. Ossman), recorded it. Van Eps was rather a dab hand at musical exotica, and if his “Maurice Tango” isn’t actually in tango rhythm, his use of “exotic” scales and his interplay with the backing orchestra makes it a more mysterious and evocative-sounding rag than usual.
10. Carlos Gardel: “Sos Mi Tirador Plateado”
It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the man who will become the most famous voice and most fêted personality of the Tango Age creeps in here, in a side entrance to the milonga, and murmurs to himself. Carlos Gardel is only twenty-one years old in 1912, and this was his first record, made almost surreptitiously on the small Odeón label. It did not make him famous, and he won’t try for another five years. But when he did at last become famous, he sang this song again and again. It’s embedded with the slang of low-life Buenos Aires, and rife with metaphors, puns and wordplay, but it is essentially an ode to a woman that has the attributes of a weapon (or vice versa), couched in vividly erotic language (one unmistakable line is “sos vaina de mi puñual,” or “you are the sheath to my dagger”) and sung in a low croon, barely audible above the soft plucking of the guitar, moving too slow to tango.
11. Harry Lauder: “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”
It’s the rare British music hall veteran who gets a second look-in in these pages—the heavy American bias should be pretty obvious by now. But Harry Lauder played the left side of the Atlantic so frequently, and so lucratively, that it was like a second home to him. Americans can fall hard for a properly broad Scotsman—just ask Mel Gibson or Mike Myers—and their sentimental streak was blamed on Celtic origins long before Hollywood profited from it. “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” is theoretically a comic Scotsface ballad, but Americans took it as the real thing, humming and playing and plinking it out as a love ditty with or without the broad brogue; for the peculiar enchantment of light and air in the gloaming—a.k.a. twilight—is roughly similar on the Scots highlands and in the Middle West, as another sentimental Celto-American, F. Scott Fitzgerald, would say. Lauder would continue to play British stereotypes through WWII, but he always sang this song.
12. Apollo Male Quartette: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
Probably the best-known of the great storehouse of song created and maintained by the enslaved African-American population in the years before Redemption, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was written by a black man who was also a member of the Choctaw tribe, Wallace Willis. He was a slave before the Civil War—white Mississippi planters were not particularly interested in tribal membership if your ancestry was African (or indeed, in any other case)—and after the war he and his wife Minerva sang it, with others of his own composition, including “Steal Away,” for locals in the Indian Territories (now Oklahoma) and sympathetic Northerners, which is how the songs came to pass into the congregation of Spirituals. Willis was evidently a literate man—“Swing Low” is filled with Biblical allusions, the River Jordan keeping the children of Israel from the Promised Land and the prophet Elijah’s mystical non-death. Virtually nothing is known about the Apollo Quartette, except that they sang songs well and true.