On the Celebritization of Song-Pluggers, the Incipience of Jazz, and Bearing Witness to Atrocity
1. Orquesta Típica Roberto Firpo, “La Cumparsita”
As the European War rages—two years now, and no end in sight—popular culture spins at what contemporary observers declare is a terrifying rate. A song is half-written by a young Uruguayan, whose friends make him take it to the visiting greatest bandleader of Buenos Aires. This gentleman glues on pieces from two of his own half-forgotten songs, and premiers it in Montevideo. It’s received well enough that when he returns to Buenos Aires he records it. “La Cumparsita,” or “the little Carnival march,” is a hit for a season or two; but when words are added some eight years later it becomes one of the deathless tangos of the century. Still, here, with a small bandoneon-piano-violins-flute combo, its sweet, languorous melodicism is undeniable.
2. Enrico Caruso, “’O Sole Mio”
We last heard him fourteen years ago, unsettling his earliest gramophone listeners with a mirthless Pagliacci laugh. In the years since, he has become The Voice, the unrivaled exemplar of Italian bel canto on stage and more importantly on record. He generally sings airs from the operatic canon, his rich, rolling overtones more suited to the solid verities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than to the emerging dissonances of the twentieth. But here, he sings not an aria, but a canzone napoletana, a song of his birthplace, Naples, as new as 1898, with more modest, even populist traditions of melodicism and emotion. The orchestration, with its habanera rhythm and castanets, evokes a pan-Latinism that’s becoming highly fashionable in this decade of tangos and maxixes.
3. Elsie Baker and Billy Murray, “Play a Simple Melody”
Midway through the decade, in the narrow block of high-rise apartment buildings nicknamed Tin Pan Alley by New York’s flippant press corps, there is only one name which inspires awe among all the verse-scribblers and piano-bashers competing to sell the most sheet music to the public. He’s not thirty, and he’s had his second smash revue of all-original material. The boy born Israel Baline in Belarus (or Siberia), son of a synagogue cantor, is the hottest thing in show business. Simple melodies are one reason: something anyone can pick out on the piano or whistle in the street. The other reason is demonstrated in the contrasting section of this song: ragtime, deracinated and purged of its Black underworld origins, is now a universal American bounce.
4. Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, “On the Shore at Le-Lei-Wei”
As ragtime blends into universality, Black America moves forward restlessly. Pianist Dan Kildare was born in Jamaica, but he trained in the US under James Reese Europe playing for the Castles, and in 1915 he took his own percussive string-heavy orchestra to England as the musical entertainment for Ciro’s, the legendary nightclub that presaged the Jazz Age in Great War-era London. “On the Shore at Le-Lei-Wei” was a novelty song from Very Good, Eddie, a Jerome Kern show at the Princess Theater, co-credited to Hawai’ian ukulele master Henry Kailimai. Kildare’s band attacks it at a ferocious pace, banjos raving, while the vocal (singing “Waikiki” rather than “Le-Lei-Wei”) is rather lost in the hubbub. If it’s not quite yet jazz, it’s certainly no longer just ragtime.
5. Frank Ferera and Helen Louise, “Hapa Haole Hula Girl”
Meanwhile, hula music from the Hawai’ian islands, not the New York stage, continues to evolve. “Hapa Haole Hula Girl” was written by the Hawai’ian music impresario Sonny Cunha in 1909, as a sort of thesis statement for the hapa haole (half white) music which he pioneered, writing lyrics in English and bringing in non-Hawai’an (and non-missionary) influences from popular music. The song’s first great recording, by the entirely haole husband and wife team Frank Ferera (slack-key guitar) and Helen Louise (rhythm guitar), is an instrumental. Which is fine, since Cunha’s infantilizing, exoticizing lyrics are best left to their era, but the swooning lilt of the melody and Ferera’s sharp, incisive soloing help make hula, hapa haole or otherwise, as modern as tango, ragtime, or jazz.
6. Felix Arndt, “Nola”
So we turn to another record that isn’t quite jazz, but would come to inform it, particularly in the highly-embroidered keyboard work of Art Tatum. It’s the composition, and recording, for which Felix Arndt is best remembered: a musical portrait of Nola Locke, for whom he wrote it as a present on their engagement in 1915. Arndt’s flashy, fluid playing is the kind of instrumental prowess that later generations would only recognize in guitar gods, once rock had displaced all other music. Virtuosos have a long history in concert music, of course, but the snappiness of the rhythm and the airiness of the melody mark “Nola” as something newer, more modern. The word pop was not yet in use, but no other word will do.
7. The Versatile Four, “Circus Day in Dixie”
In one sense, this recording is the newest, most modern music we have yet heard: terrifically fast, with funky drum breaks and a bandleader shouting out encouragement and instruction like James Brown. In another sense, it’s one of the last glimpses we’ve ever gotten of the oldest American pop form, minstrelsy: not the decrepit show-biz memory of minstrelsy, flattened out into marches and racist jokes, but the galvanic, specifically Black-imitating music that electrified New York audiences in the 1840s when performed by young Irish immigrants in, yes, blackface. The Versatile Four did not black up, and “Circus Day in Dixie” the song is a product of the 1910s, a frank imitation of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” but the record stomps and swings like an exhumed ghost.
8. George O’Connor, “Nigger Blues”
LeRoy “Lasses” White, a blackface performer in Dallas, copyrighted this song as “Negro Blues” in 1912, but when the sheet music was published a year later, what had been an unexceptionable descriptor had become a slur. White was white; but the song is the first published twelve-bar blues, the standard form, with its repeating lines, that would come to define Black twentieth-century music. The lyrics are probably no more original to White than the blues form, but they are our first encounter with many of the signature images of the storehouse of demotic song, from the blues being nothing but a good person feeling bad to laying one’s head down on some railroad line. Columbia hack O’Connor tries to sing minstrel, and just sings American.
9. Marion Harris, “I Ain’t Got Nobody Much”
The song’s origins are disputed—four different copyrights in five years—but the best claims include Black performers, and if it’s not a blues song by a strict accounting of the form, it’s the next best thing, a torch song. Marion Harris was a twenty-year-old Midwesterner who had only been in show business for two years, but her belting was exactly what record companies and stage producers wanted in the years when the blues were gathering cultural steam: a white woman who sang Black. She’s not doing a minstrel affectation, but she’s not a sub rosa representative of The Culture, either: after twenty years of cakewalks, ragtime, coon songs, and Bert Williams, Black singing is American singing. It will only grow more so from here.
10. Fay Compton, “Take Off a Little Bit”
Irving Berlin started in music as a song plugger, someone who would sing new songs in public to sell those in earshot on the sheet music. He graduated to writing his own songs, and was now a wealthy man, able to sell Broadway shows on the strength of his name alone. Stop! Look! Listen! was his second hit in as many years, and the slightly-naughty proto-flapper song “Take Off a Little Bit” was a showstopper as sung by the slightly-naughty French comic actress Gaby Deslys. (Eighteen-year-old ingénue Fay Compton sang it when the show went to London the following year.) There were songs in the show that would have longer lives, but it’s worth remembering when future Establishment institution Irving Berlin wrote a stripper anthem.
11. Paquita Escribano, “Fea”
The Spanish musical-theater genre cuplé, which was to Madrid and Barcelona in the late nineteenth century what music-hall was to London and cabaret to Paris, has been unjustly neglected here, but our first encounter is an exceptional piece. “Fea” (ugly) could be considered as belonging to two separate but particularly Spanish literary and theatrical traditions, the comic-erotic sicalipsis and the psychological-grotesque esperpento. The singer declares herself so ugly that all sorts of hideous consequences befall the viewer, while the audience, either live in the theater or at a remove on record, rejoices in the irony of her pretty face. Paquita Escribano was one of the great cupletistas of the era, and though in her thirties at this recording, was not yet halfway through her career.
12. Jorge Bastos, Carlos Santos, Ilda Stichini and Guilhermina Anjos, “Fado do Afonso Costa”
And so to Lisbon, where fados have been sung for centuries and recorded for several years. But despite its title, this is not a fado: it’s another theatrical piece, a comic song from the topical and satirical revue Coração à Larga, sung by four stalwarts of the early Portuguese recording industry. The subject of the song, Afonso Costa, was the Prime Minister of Portugal seven times between 1913 and 1917 (politics moved at dizzying speeds in the First Republic), and was primarily responsible for erecting initial barriers between Church and State. The topical lyrics are of minor interest today; what is remarkable is the rhythm of the thing, a patter song delivered with such snapping force that a 21st-century listener is inevitably reminded of hip-hop.
13. Kiria Koula, “Tsifte-Telli”
The masses of immigrants flooding into New York through the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth are beginning to make themselves heard. Koula Antonopoulou emigrated from the western province of Missolonghi in 1912, and by some reckonings was the first Greek woman to record. Here she is barely a presence, just some murmured syllables and moans, while Andreas Pongis’ keening violin and Athanasios Makedonas’ insistent bouzouki recreate the Ottoman world of café-aman dances. The title itself is merely a genre of Greek-Anatolian dance, tsifteteli, and its physicality is remarkable today. In three years, Koula would make history again, founding an independent record label for recording and distributing Greek music, which was probably the first female-owned label in history.
14. Joseph Moskowitz, “Doina”
When the Romanian-born Jewish musician Joseph Moskowitz came to New York in 1908, he advertised his solo cimbalom concerts in Yiddish, Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian. A consummate performer and enviable virtuoso, he had been classically trained—the cimbalom is a concert version of the folk dulcimer—but he also knew the importance of a mass audience. His repertoire was a potent blend of traditional Jewish, Roma, and Romanian music, and after settling in New York, he had absorbed ragtime and the light classical canon; as preserved on disc, his music still has the power to transport today. Doina is a Romanian folk music, possibly with Ottoman sources, and Moskowitz’ dreamy run through a Turkish maqam before breaking out into the dance was influential in klezmer.
15. Abraham Rosenstein, “Die Milchume”
Concerts of Jewish music were special events in New York; more everyday was the Yiddish theater, and its hit songs whether sung, printed or recorded. There are thousands of these songs from the early twentieth century, some of which are in the first rank of American songwriting. “Die Milchume” is a deeply affecting lament about war. The broader American theatergoing public were unconcerned about the European war, but as nearly every Jewish New Yorker knew someone in the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, or Russian Empires then embroiled, it was not just a subject in the newspapers, but in everyday correspondence, gossip, and fears. Cantor Abraham Rosenstein was a popular recording artist of Yiddish song, specializing in comedy: here he pours on the schmaltz, and earns it.
16. Zabelle Panosian, “Groung”
In the spring of 1916, the full scope of the atrocities still in the process of being committed on the Armenian population of Turkey were only still beginning to be made public knowledge. The recording that year of the song titled “Groung” (transliterated “Kroonk” in modern Armenian; it means “crane,” a symbol of lonely flight) by a twenty-three-year-old Armenian singer who had lived in New York since childhood may not have been a direct response to the horror and sorrow of the first European genocide of the twentieth century, but it’s impossible now not to hear it as a lament, and an immensely powerful one: Panosian’s voice is shattering in its purity and emotion as she repeats “Crane, have you not news from our country?”