On the Liberational Quality of Ragtime, the Multiplicity of Frenchiness, and the Ideologies of Folk
1. Europe’s Society Orchestra: “Down Home Rag”
The importance of this record to American musical history cannot be overstated: an all-black musical outfit playing black vernacular music written by a black man. Composer Wilbur Sweatman was a friend and competitor to Scott Joplin; bandleader James Reese Europe led the greatest dance orchestra in the country, black or white. At least according to his employers, who were Vernon and Irene Castle, the most famous couple on the contintent; they made staid Victorian America a dancing nation through a brilliant combination of discipline, celebrity, and capitalism. But once in the studio, Europe didn’t record any fox-trot: this whirling, breakneck take on Sweatman’s rag is almost too fast to dance to, and if the counterpoint of his huge orchestra is a little buried in the surface noise, the precision and force of the rhythm cannot be denied. The guffawing vocal is an echo of minstrelsy, but at last the laughter sounds earned.
2. Hedges Brothers & Jacobson: “San Francisco Bay”
Still, after more than a quarter-century, ragtime—even progressive, slip-rhythmed ragtime—was no longer exclusively the province of black Southern composers like Sweatman, but a national music, liberating to everyone. The Hedges and Jacobson, a relatively small-time vaudeville trio from California and Philadephia respectively, were nothing special in the showbiz annals—certainly nothing in the written record suggests that anyone heard them as being ten years ahead of schedule. But on the pair of minstrel-rag songs they cut in 1913 (“Land of Cotton” was the flipside), they hit the off beat so hard, and harmonize so raggedly, that they anticipate not just the jazz to come but the rock ’n’ roll that will supplant it. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly small-time outfits criss-crossing the nation, almost none of whom were recorded, and almost never so loosely; the incompleteness of our historical record can be heartbreaking.
3. Bert Williams: “Borrow from Me”
In 1913, Bert Williams had been a headlining star of the Ziegfeld Follies for three years; America’s greatest showman had declared his faith in the money-making potential of his star by daring the rest of the cast to walk when they protested against sharing the stage with a black man: “I can replace every one of you but him.” In his earning power, the slow casualness of his comedy, and his palatability to White America, Williams anticipated Bill Cosby by half a century; but he was not above issuing a shrewd “fuck you” on record to those who confused his gullible, slow-witted stage persona with himself. This song eventually becomes a standard—and race-free—piece of comic hyperbole about lending and collateral, but the opening verse, in which Williams rejects a degrading offer to participate in Uncle Tom’s Cabin with cool, ironic contempt, is a masterpiece of dignity passing as comedy.
4. Toots Paka’s Hawaiians: “Aloha ‘Oe”
The unofficial anthem of Hawai’i and probably the most famous song in the Hawai’ian language, “Aloha ‘Oe” is not necessarily the greatest or most deeply moving of the hundreds of songs written by Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of Hawai’i, but it had the most profound effect on the music of the mainland United States. The gentle rhythm employed by Toots Paka’s combo here recalls the back and forth of the surf; the song’s structure is indebted to parlor song, but more vernacular than the longeurs of the white bourgeoisie; and of course the dreamy, ineffably sad whine of the steel guitar points forward to many, many different directions in which American music woud turn. It’s almost impossible not to hear predictions of commercial 1940s country ballads in this recording; but of course its power is not dependent on what comes after it, but is contained within the solitary beauty of the recording itself.
5. Don Antonio Chacón: “Solamente con mirarte (Soleares)”
The many related Andalusian musical traditions grouped under the name flamenco are very old—the first written record of a music similar to what we know as flamenco dates from the 18th century—but like any musical tradition worth its salt, it’s grown and adapted to meet new historical circumstances. Antonio Chacón had been recognized as the premier flamenco singer in Spain for almost two decades before he made his first recordings in 1913 with the legendary guitarist Ramón Montoya. Like the blues, flamenco has a rigorous structure which is open to the improvisation of a skilled performer; “Solamente con mirarte” is in soleá form (thus the traditional parenthetical in the title), one of the oldest and most basic flamenco palos. Which doesn’t mean easy: Chacón’s astonishing facility with melisma and the microtones which point to flamenco’s influcence from Roma, Arabic, and North African musics is breathtaking even under the recorded hiss of age.
6. A. Elenkrig’s Yidishe Orchestra: “Patsch Tanz”
The Yiddish title “Patsch Tanz” translates as “Clapping Dance,” and one listen to the record demonstrates why it’s called that. Intensely rhythmic, the orchestra of Abraham Elenkrieg (not pictured) is one of the first that can be called klezmer in the modern sense; that is, which united the melodic and harmonic sense of the Eastern European Jewish freilach orchestra to the urban drive and forward motion of the immigrant U.S. Elenkrieg was a horn player, but his cornet is buried in the mix behind the massive drums, humming violins, and the mockingly whimpering clarinet that makes common cause with what New Orleans jazz musicians were concurrently (though unheard on record) making clarinets do, as we will hear in due time. The song was recorded in New York in 1913, and was apparently part of the standard Yiddische repertoire, played by at least two other New York-based orchestras within the half-decade to come.
7. Al Jolson: “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)”
Meanwhile, in the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, the most famous Jewish performer in New York was scoring a massive hit with his revue The Honeymoon Express, in which he sang anything that wasn’t nailed down—but the greatest sensation was a sentimental ditty called “You Made Me Love You,” written by a pair of Tin Pan Alley hacks and unbearably twee in the throat of anyone but Jolson, whose foghorn voice and incessant air of kidding the song as he sang it transformed it from a song of devotion to autobiography. Not that anyone was fooled that Jolson was in love with anyone but himself: it was the audience, humming it on the way out of the theater, who were the song’s true “I.” And the “you” was the mugging, sappy, hugely energetic Jolson, who won audiences over not through innate likeability (they didn’t want to do it) but through sheer dynamic brio.
8. George Formby: “John Willie’s Ragtime Band”
If there were a British equivalent to Al Jolson, it might be George Formby pére; though the differences between the two are not entirely down to national temperament. Where Jolson was energetic, boisterous, try-anything, and above all loud, Formby’s stage persona was low-key and diffident, a laconic Northerner hugely impressed by the glamour of London music-hall (where he nevertheless headlined for decades). His primary character was John Willie, a not-terribly-bright Lancashire lad who sang in a halting brogue; here he rewrites “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to fit his stereotypical lower-class Northern milieu (as imaginary, and as derogatory, as minstrel tropes in American ragtime), and in so doing anticipates the British Invasion by half a century. Not that Formby was known, or even known of, in the States: but the method of taking vernacular American forms and making them over into vehicles for British identity, politics, and satire, is prescient.
9. Fragson: “Je connais une blonde”
It is absurd that this is our first encounter with French popular song; I can plead only a lack of space. Harry Fragson was the son of a French father and a Belgian mother, but he was born in Soho, and bilingualism aided his career considerably, since he was just as popular in Paris as London, and his parodies of the music-hall stars of each nation were warmly received across the Channel in the other. His biggest Anglophone hit was “Hello, Hello, Who’s Your Lady Friend,” a winking mockery of philandering husbands, but in France he’s best remembered for this rewrite of Irving Berlin’s “A Girl in Havana.” He would be dead before 1913 was out, shot by his paranoid, suicidal father, and the following year the troops of France would march to the front lines singing “Je connais une blonde” with the assurance of men who knew it would be over soon.
10. Marcelly & Léo Daniderff: “Sur la Riviera”
The French Riviera had been the playground of the idle rich, the aristocracy, and—naturally—the ambitious and self-promoting entertainer since the middle of the 19th century; with its “health spas” that also happened to host high-stakes casinos, its resort towns full of intrigue, and its local Carnival customs as florid as any Latin nation’s, it was a favorite setting for fiction both popular (the pulp romances of E. Phillips Oppenheim) and highbrow (Henry James’ The Ambassadors), but it did not receive a populist theme song until 1913, when composer Léo Daniderff had the first of his many hits with “Sur la Riviera.” This recording teams him with music-hall and café singer Marcelly, and the music may be familiar to cinema buffs; but the lyrics, which put the Board-of-Tourism-approved singalong chorus in the mouth of a fancy-dress Pierrot, predict one of the favorite themes of the 1920s.
11. Nellie Melba: “L'âme évaporée”
This history’s prejudice towards the new—towards the snap and crackle of popular music, of premieres and firsts and flings forth into the future—has meant that we have ignored the voice that was, more than any other, called the greatest in the first decade of the twentieth century (and in the last decade of the nineteenth). Australian soprano Nellie Melba was a superstar, a prima donna whose pure, agile voice was better suited to the seductiveness of Italian and French opera than to the oppressive weight of German; but her records, especially as recording improved and her voice aged, were nearly always of the classical canon rather than of new material. She was fifty-two when this record—of a Debussy composition as recent as 1891—was made, but fragments of her old tonal purity come down to us, and the melody’s gentle progressions point towards popular song some decades in the future.
12. John McCormack: “Foggy Dew”
One of Melba’s favorite duet partners in the later years of her life—because he never upstaged her—was John McCormack, an Irish tenor who recorded prolifically and without much concern for the quality of the song. His voice was superbly matched to the limitations of the recording process, and he sang the classical canon, popular ditties, sentimental Irish weepies, and flag-waving humbug with the same booming regularity. The song had to be something special to get him to vary his approach, and “Foggy Dew,” an old Irish folk air (with new lyrics by the mysterious L. F. Milligan) was special: Spenser Clay’s tumbling piano meets McCormack’s solemn but sensitive rendition of the song, and the result is one of the first superb recordings of British folk song. The immensely popular McCormack was no folk singer—and folk purists to come would decry his academy-trained vocal—but he was unimpeachably Irish.
13. Chauncey Olcott: “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”
If there was such a thing as Irish minstrelsy (mickface, perhaps?) in turn-of-the-century American theater, Chancellor “Chauncey” Olcott was its signature performer and worldwide ambassador. Born in Buffalo, NY, he only knew Ireland as a family memory and a meal ticket: the mobs of immigrants hungry for a highly sentimental, soothing version of an identity that rejected the No Irish Need Apply signs in shop windows and simian caricatures in the popular press were devoted to him. “My Wild Irish Rose” was his big theatrical hit in 1899, and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” was his big theatrical hit in 1912, with music by the similarly populist Ernest Ball. With its broad “sures” and hyper-flattering sentiment it was sure to be a tremendous hit, and it was, so much so that the tune is still recognizable today. Beyond the identity politics and the faux-nationalism, that melody is indisputable.