On the Efflorescence of Melody, the Wide Applicability of Tears, and the Subtleties of the Spoken Word
1. Harry MacDonough & Olive Kline: “They Didn’t Believe Me”
The little earthquakes which change the landscape of popular music if not permanently then at least irrevocably are rarely like geological earthquakes in that a specific epicenter can be pinpointed; it’s more usually something in the air. Nevertheless, the fifty-year era of professionalized popular song bound and sold as the Great American Songbook began here, with a plaintive, unfussy melody and conversational lyrics which made romance an everyday thing rather than a grandiose Herbertian hornswoggle. It made a household name of composer Jerome Kern, and added to his ambition to do even greater things. By the time this recording (one of several made in 1915) was on the market, he was already preparing to transform the rest of American musical theater with the collaboration of a couple of Anglo-American humorists. To be continued….
2. Murray’s Ragtime Banjo Quartet with the Bohemian Band: “Hors D'Oeuvre”
British imitation of American vernacular music has a long history, some of which we’ve already glimpsed; but this is one of the earliest British imitations of specifically black American vernacular music. Murray’s Ragtime Banjo Quartet was named for their performance venue, the popular and innovative nightclub in Beak Street named Murray’s (founded, incidentally, by a Chicagoan), which opened in 1913 and lasted in various forms until 1970. The act’s (inaudible) pianist composed the number—with liberal inspiration, as a moment’s listening suggests, from Irving Berlin and Stephen Foster—and the decidedly unfunky horn charts are credited to the Bohemian Band, another American-imitating ragtime act active in the W1 postal code. The overall impression left by the record is nostalgia—like many British imitators to come they got the atmosphere, but lost the urgency.
3. Jack Charman: “Mademoiselle from Armentières”
The second most famous World War I song today (at the time it was synonymous with the war, especially in the UK), remembered mostly for the verses—not recorded here—which suggested that being a soldier who participated in the liberation of a village earned you the sexual gratitude of its women. Jack Charman was a prolific if not extremely beloved music-hall star, better known for cashing in on the supposedly humorous songs of the moment than for his stage characters or individual performance style. His delivery of “Mademoiselle” is a perfunctory bawl, but it nails the generalized British attitude towards the French (and, really, every non-British peoples) of the era, which could be summed up as disgust at cultural difference mingled with a prurient interest in the sexual availability of difference.
4. George Grossmith, Jr.: “Murders”
Heir to the comic dynasty of Penzance’s Major General, the Mikado’s Ko-Ko, and the proto-Wodehousian Diary of a Nobody, George Grossmith, Jr. (actually III, but his grandfather was a journalist, not a showman, so his D’Oyley Cartesian father is called the first) was the great star of the Edwardian musical theater, playing—and writing, and producing, and singing—such essentially British types that he could be considered the English George M. Cohan. His stage manner in youth formed the kernel of Bertie Wooster and the rest of the Drones; his productions popularized the cakewalk, ragtime, and the tango among British audiences; and his comic dance routines foreshadowed the Ministry of Silly Walks. “Murders” is a blackly comic monologue set to music aimed directly at the universal British appetite for cosy mayhem.
5. Bert Williams: “I’m Neutral”
In the mid-teens, the reigning US king of comic monologues set to music remained Bert Williams; “I’m Neutral” was merely another in his impressive arsenal. The subtlety of his humor is almost invisible here, as he plays on contemporary stereotypes of black men as cringing cowards to parody American isolationism during World War I. The final verse, in which he still gravely affirms his neutrality over an incident of horrific domestic violence, makes his entirely serious satirical point: refusal to intervene is tantamount to murder, and isolationism calls into question the honor, courage, virtue, and decency of the American public. As a black man, of course, he knew all about that honor, courage, virtue and decency; which is why the satire can only be inferential. Any more explicit, and he’d be dead.
6. The Right Quintette: “The Rain Song”
The Right Quintette, led by Canadian basso James Lightfoot, were a popular and energetic New York-based cabaret act, part of the general movement of black entertainment away from the lavish productions of the Nineties and Oughts into more intimate venues. “The Rain Song” originally appeared in the Williams & Walker revue Bandanna Land in 1908 (composed by Will Marion Cook), but had become part of the repertoire for every shucking-and-jiving troupe in the land by the time the Quintette recorded the handful of platters (three Cooks and one Stephen Foster) which left their slender mark on history. Acoustically superior to the Afro-American Folk Song Singers’ rendition of the tune, thanks to the measly five voices, it strikes a now-familiar balance between racist caricature—get money—and aesthetic achievement—forward the race.
7. The Fisk Jubilee SIngers: “In the Great Gettin’-Up Mawnin’”
Which isn’t all that different, as it happens, from the objectives of the several Jubilee Singer companies roving the Republic performing concerts of spirituals to raise money for the educational institutions that will be called HBCUs. The money, of course, is meant for greater good, and the forwarding of the race is meant to have a spiritual dimension in addition to an aesthetic one, but the elision of the spiritual and the aesthetic is hardly unique to the African-American tradition(s). This recording differs from the standard version of the spiritual known today (thanks largely to Mahalia Jackson’s midcentury rewrite), and is more concerned with present-day social justice than apocalyptic promises—the distinction between “in this world” and “fare thee well” is a history of the civil rights struggle in miniature.
8. Lionel Belasco: “Buddy Abraham”
Meanwhile, Trinidadian music on record was evolving in many directions at once. Bandleader and composer Lionel Belasco’s preferred instrument of choice—the piano—guaranteed that his solo recordings would become merely historical curiosities rather than setting a new standard for calypso, which, tied as it was to carnival celebrations and outdoor parades, preferred more portable instrumentation. But his melodic sense and classical training made many of his compositions standards, and his work and fame would grow larger than carnival celebrations in the coming years, as he introduced island rhythms to North America and Europe by touring and performing with a crack ensemble. Here, his one-man performance of his own “Buddy Abraham” is inflected by ragtime and Expressionism, but the rhythm steady as a rock and light as a breeze, remains purely Trinidadian.
9. Grupo Chiquinha Gonzaga: “Sonhando”
The godmother of Brazilian popular music, a multi-racial anti-slavery activist, daughter of military privilege, and widely-celebrated composer, Chiquinha Gonzaga was almost seventy by the time of this recording, but still writing new music. “Sonhando” was written in 1914, a pretty, fluttering choro that cycles through a half-dozen permutations of the same flowing melody, and in this recording by some of the most well-known musicians in Brazil, earns its title (“dreaming” in Portuguese). Though it’s become a piano standard in the years since, the recording conventions of Brazil in the teens—and the conventions of choro more generally—gave preeminence to the flute, which could pierce through the fog of surface noise. Gonzaga would live another twenty years, long enough to see samba replace the choro she partly invented.
10. Grupo O Passos No Choro: “Apanhei-te Cavaquinho”
The flautist on “Sonhando” was probably Antônio Maria Passos, whose Grupo o Passos no Choro was one of the most celebrated choro outfits in Brazil, where he was lauded as the greatest vernacular flautist. Ironically, he doesn’t appear on this recording, which is a piano solo (there’s just a possibility that the pianist is in fact Chiquinha Gonzaga, which would be a lovely symmetry), a polka-informed rendition of one of composer Ernesto Nazareth’s signature tunes. “Apanhei-te cavaquinho” means “I have you, cavaquinho” (the cavaquinho is a small guitar of Portuguese origin not unlike a ukelele in size and timbre), and it’s a danceable little tune suggestive of the traditional (and universal) myth of the carefree musician who owns almost nothing in the world but his guitar, and likes it that way.
11. Dúo Valdivieso-Safadi: “Flores negras”
The authorship of the Latin American standard “Flores negras” is frequently disputed—in YouTube comments Colombian, Ecuadorean, Argentine, Cuban, and Peruvian partisans make their cases—but the earliest and most convincing attributions give it to Colombian poet Julio Flores. And because it’s in waltz time it’s called a bolero north of the Panama Canal (completed 1914) and a pasillo to the south; the pasillo being one of the national dances of Colombia (and Ecuador), its place of origin makes it a pasillo in my book. In any case, this is the first known recording; the duo Alberto Valdivieso Alvarado (vocal) and Nicasio Safadi (guitar and vocal) were based in Ecuador, where Valdivieso was born and where Safadi’s Lebanese parents had immigrated. They recorded little before going their separate ways; we may meet them again.
12. Pale K. Lua & David Kaili: “Cunha Medley”
If 1915 was remembered for any one musical event in the United States in the years after, it was as the year of the “Hawaiian fad,” immortalized in country-music histories as popularizing the distinctive whine of slack-key guitar throughout the country; it just as quickly blew out most places, but stuck in the Appalachians and flourished. (Hawai’ian music had been popular for decades, a standard side-effect of imperial adventurism; but like twerking in 2013, it only became a fad when white people noticed.) This record, a medley of Lua’s own compositions (he’s the slide virtuoso; Kaili keeps time), seems to look forward to later pedal-steel tunes, having absorbed the jaunty quick-change of their typical circuit in vaudeville—which came from minstrelsy, and which would greatly inform country music.
13. Elliniki Estoudiantina: “Eli-Eli”
The “estudiantine” or mandolin orchestra was an extremely popular European folk-classical configuration around the turn of the century, and broadly an amateur movement as opposed to the more professional marching band. The “Estoudiantina Elleniki” translates as the Mandolin Orchestra of Greece, a popular Ottoman-Empire act based in Smyrna (a culturally Greek city located in modern Turkey) by an Athenian and a Greek Byzantine who played everything; folk tunes, operetta, traditional Athenian serenades, and even approached the modern, churning underground urban Greek music which would later be known as rebetiko. “Eli Eli” was composed by Giorgos Vidalis, a Smyrna native who would later flee to the US as a refugee from the Turkish occupation. It’s a lament for a woman whose love for a soldier is unreciprocated, a resonant theme in wartime.
14. Abe Elenkrig’s Yidishe Orchestra: “Dem Reben’s Nigen”
The Yiddish title of the song translates as “The Rabbi’s Tune,” and Abe Elenkrig’s orchestra is already pushing and whirling their freilach further and wilder in the two years since the last time we encountered them, closer and closer to what the Jewish-inflected jazz of the swing era would become. The clarinet laughs mockingly, perhaps irreligiously (it’s difficult to imagine this tune being understood as a particularly reverent depiction of a rabbi, cultural difference notwithstanding), and the tempo swirls increasingly agitatedly: a decade removed from their Bessarabian roots, and New York is already working its restless, galvanic magic on the performers. What had been pockets of disparate immigrant communities for decades was consolidating into an uneasily unified Jewish-American identity; Yiddish theater of the period was almost as popular as gentile Broadway.
15. Aleksandr Vertinsky: “Ya Segodnya Smeyus’ Nad Soboy”
A towering figure in twentieth-century Russian art song (called “romans” in Russian, a reference to the French chanson tradition to which it was indebted but developed independently of), Vertinsky was born in Kiev, and his status as a Ukranian outsider in Imperial Russia informed the rest of his life. His earliest public performances date from this period, in which he typically appeared dressed in a death-like Pierrot outfit, singing songs about disillusionment and tragedy. The title of this song, one of his earliest recordings, translates as “Today I laugh at myself,” and the lyric, with its ironized sentiment, longing for the trite happy endings of fairy tales, seems to presage similar tensions in the works of Noël Coward, Cole Porter, and other high modernist pop composers of the 20s and 30s.