On the General Enthusiasm for Gyration, the Evils of Occidentalism, and the Duration of the Campaign
1. Victor Military Band: “Memphis Blues”
W. C. Handy recollected that he first heard an old man playing the blues in a Mississippi train station in 1903. He wrote a tune for a Memphis mayoral candidate in 1909, reworking and publishing it in 1912 it under the title “The Memphis Blues.” It was a significant hit, credited with inspiring Vernon and Irene Castle’s fox-trot, and became part of the fabric of “ethnic” dance numbers that were increasingly defining the high life of the 1910s. It was recorded three times in 1914: vaudevillian Morton Harvey added coon-song lyrics about Handy himself and moaned in a burlesque of blackness, popular white bandleader Charles Prince threw in “comic” effects like a neighing trombone and farm-animal noises (cf. early Mickey Mouse shorts); and the stiff-jointed Victor Military Band played it so straight that you can barely hear the blues.
2. Felix Arndt: “Desecration Rag”
The line between Scott Joplin and George Gershwin in the history of American art-vernacular music isn’t a straight one; Felix Arndt was one of the lesser-known intermediaries. An extremely popular if temperamental performer in his day, he was from an aristocratic New York family and classically trained but was fascinated by ragtime both for its technical complexity and the interpretive lens it gave to music. He wrote “Desecration Rag” to demonstrate that ragging classical music didn’t only have a comic purpose; it could be technically challenging and harmonically complex as well. This recording, one of his first, shows not only the fluidity of skill at the keyboard—though we’re still in the infancy of ragtime piano’s recording history, so all we can compare him to yet is other white men—but his interpretive sensitivity. Jauntiness transforms into hauntingness with surprising effectiveness.
3. Europe’s Society Orchestra: “Castle House Rag”
The premier black band in the country steps back from the overwhelming drive of “Down Home Rag,” proving why they were the house band for the extremely elegant if liberated Castles. Though the drumming is still funky, the middle section of the tune drops out the drums altogether in favor of twinkly celeste notes (Irene Castle’s solo dance, perhaps?), and the band’s string-heavy arrangement makes the shift between classy and raggy sound entirely natural. It wouldn’t be for another several years and the ascendance of a particularly New Orleans strain of rag that horn bands became entirely identified with blackness: string bands were still considered as authentic as it came, and Europe played the authenticity game hard, insisting that his musicians know their parts by heart so as to not dispel the myth of innate African musicality by sight-reading in public.
4. Nora Bayes: “Harmony Baby”
It would be factually incorrect to call this the first record with improvised musical nonsense syllables (i.e. scatting)—much non-Western music is built around the concept, and the gramophone had reached more or less everywhere by 1914. But it is one of the earliest recorded instances of a proto-scat in a song identified with black American identity, even if the markers indicating that identity is not clear at the remove of nearly a century. In the slang of the teens, “harmony” was not just a noun indicating a particular technical musical idea, but a metonym for uptempo, vernacular (which coded black) music: this is coon song edging into rag song edging into jazz song, and the Jewish vaudevillian Bayes swerves her voice around enough that it’s not entirely unlike what proper jazz singers would be doing in a decade or more.
5. Bert Williams: “You Can’t Get Away from It”
Bert Williams was better known as a monologist than a singer, and even his greatest recordings are more spoken than sung. But when given a proper song, his conversational style in front of the recording horn would prove to be influential in the age of the microphone. “You Can’t Get Away from It” was written by Tin Pan Alley hack Jean Schwartz, whose most notable composition to date had been a sentimental exotica called “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” but it’s one of the great statements of ragtime’s imperial phase. Even the very different pulse of tango is lumped in with the dance mania that most social observers, whether indulgently for it or primly against it, agreed was sweeping the nation. The chuckle in Williams’ voice gives it away: Schwartz may have meant his song for satire, but Williams knows whose rhythm they’re dancing to.
6: Orquesta Típica Criolla Firpo: “Champagne tango”
With the name Roberto Firpo we begin to leave behind tango’s first (or rather second, as the earliest tangueros went unrecorded) generation, and step into the bright lights of the Golden Age of Tango. He was one of the first to record romantic, as opposed to merely danceable, tangos, and his early promise is evident here, where despite the grind of surface noise his lightness of touch and the sensitivity of his arrangements for violin and piano are audible. “Champagne tango” was written by the prolific and eccentric Manuel Aróztegui, but the performance, and even the recording, bear all the hallmarks of Firpo’s romantic style, from the strings’ pizzicatti to the clarinet’s grace notes. But most important is his own piano: it was Firpo who established the piano as a major contributor to the tango’s sound, very nearly as necessary as the bandoneón.
7: Grupo Terror do Facões: “O maxixe”
If 1913 was the year of the tango, at least in the Castle-led dance-crazy USA, then 1914 was the year of the maxixe, which is often described as the Brazilian tango. Especially in the bassline, it’s hard to tell much difference, though Brazilian music is as always characterized by a certain lightness. The popularity of the maxixe has generally been limited to the ballroom in the twentieth century, as the choro and later the samba became enthroned as Brazil’s national music. This group, whose name translates to “terror of the machetes”—machetes being slang of the period for bad musicians—recorded a dozen or so sides in Porto Alegre, the southern port city closest to Uruguay and Argentina, home of the tango. Most of their songs were composed by their leader-guitarist Octávio Dutra, including this one, titled simply “the maxixe.”
8: Julian Whiterose: “Iron Duke in the Land”
It is mostly an accident of history that makes this the most modern-sounding thing we’ve yet heard, because a man singing solo with a hard-strummed string instrument and being backed up by other men on the chorus is hardly an invention of the rock era. But later history tends to swallow up earlier history, so that this, true Trinidadian calypso in a radically simplified form, is freighted with all that would come after it, from Leadbelly to Jason Mraz and beyond. We know almost nothing about Julian Whiterose, except that he was one of the first calypsonians to sing in English rather than French, and that this recording, about the arrival of the locomotive to the island nations, was perhaps the inspiration for the name of one of the more famous calypsonians of that music’s Golden Age beginning in the 1930s.
9. Pepi Littmann: “Oljom Habu”
A survival from the days of the Brodersänger (Yiddish singers and entertainers from the Galician—now western Ukraine — city of Brody), Frau Pepi Littmann was among the first Jewish performers to move out of the limited religious or ceremonial sphere of performance in the nineteenth century and perform in public spaces like inns, wine gardens, and other intimate venues; theaters dedicated to Jewish performance were still unimaginable in those years. Expert in both comedy and sentimental verse, she was successful enough to traverse Europe and even sail to New York, where she was popular with the immigrant population’s burgeoning theatrical scene, and recorded this showcase for her technique pitched halfway between cantor and klezmer. The title translates to “The World to Come,” and she sounds alternately cautionary and celebratory as the woodwinds pipe urgently behind her and she belts in increasingly tight circles.
10. Matsui Sumako: “Kachūsha no Uta”
While Japanese literary, theatrical, and musical traditions are of course thousands of years old, our first encounter with them is in the person of a woman heavily identified with interpreting Western texts. Matsui was a student of Tsubouchi Shōyō, who popularized Shakespeare, and first came to fame in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In 1913 she performed as Katyusha Maslova in Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and the prolific composer Nakayama Shimpei wrote this song at the request of her director Shimamura Hogetsu: titled “Katyusha’s Song,” it’s profoundly affecting in both the universal simplicity of the melody and in Matsui’s small but controlled voice. On release, it was immensely popular with the Japanese public, and has been credited with founding the genre of ryūkōka, or popular song, roughly equivalent to jazz song in the US. Four years later, Shimamura died of influenza; she killed herself in response.
11. Billy Murray and Kathleen Kingston: “You’re Here and I’m Here”
The habit of interpolating a catchy new song into an old play was hardly exclusively Japanese; perhaps the reigning American champion at the activity was Jerome Kern, a young, ambitious, and mostly unsuccessful composer hard at work on both Broadway and the West End. The Laughing Husband was originally an Austrian operetta, and it wasn’t even the first time Kern had plugged a gap with “You’re Here and I’m Here”—it was just the show that gave him one of his first small hits. He hadn’t entirely come into his own as a composer yet, but you can already hear the way the melody develops in a light, memorable manner rather than just see-sawing back and forth as in most of the song hits of the age. And note the interior rhymes by lyricist Harry B. Smith—we’ll hear more of those.
12. Afro-American Folk Song Singers: “Swing Along”
At the turn of the century African-American composer Will Marion Cook, frustrated in his attempts to be the American Dvořak, turned instead to composing for all-black shows. “Swing Along” was written for the 1903 Williams and Walker fantasia In Dahomey, but he revised it in 1914 when presenting a concert of “Afro-American Folk Songs” with the assistance (which he rather resented) of the hot new thing in black music, James Reese Europe. The recording of that choral revision is muddy and indistinct—masses of voices did not record well, and Cook characteristically refused to trim down the many parts—but it’s not the individual voices that matter so much as the massive, weighty changes he has them running through. Nobody was writing on this scale in 1914; the first time we’ll get anything close to it is Porgy and Bess.
13. Tuskegee Institute Singers: “Good News”
By contrast, the mere eight voices of the Tuskegee singers record with almost insolent clarity. (Cook would have spit fire.) Although again the compositional and arranging brilliance of hardworking and unacknowledged black musicians is impossible to ignore. This rendition of “Good News (Chariot’s Comin’)” is only typical of the intricate and polished effects that the most prestigious black universities, Booker T. Washington-founded Tuskegee above all, strove for in their renditions of old spirituals. It’s one of the least-documented of the spiritual texts, with no attributed authorship that I can find, but—at least in this recording—the quick snap of the vowels and the ease with which it lends itself to being played with in meter and tempo seems to predict not only the gospel vocal quartets to come, but the vocalese and doo-wop and rock and roll beyond.
14. John McCormack: “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”
But tango and maxixe and ragtime and blues and gospel and calypso and theater and opera were all distant memories in the mud and blood of the trenches to which thousands were marching in the fall of 1914. It would be over by Christmas, they told each other, and were told by their newspapers and prime ministers and Kaisers. So why not whistle a tune on the way to war, like boys playacting, or like the paper men in books? “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” was introduced on the music-hall stage by Florrie Forde in 1913, a simple-minded satire of Irish excitability and—in the second verse—stupidity. But it’s the indelible chorus that caught the ear of the marching Britons, with its cheerfulness about being long, long from home, and a long way to go. Long, long indeed.