On Great Leaps Forward, Multiplicities of Jewishness, and Danders Raised
1. The Original Dixieland Jass Band, “Dixie Jass Band One Step”
There’s something about years of the twentieth century ending in 7. Maybe it’s just the point in the decade when enough trends have become noticeable that it’s easy for them to coalesce around a flashpoint. In any case, this record is, in a very real sense, the beginning of modern music. It’s not proper jazz (whatever that turns out to be), it’s a bunch of white kids making an unholy noise in garage-punk imitation of what they think Black music sounds like. It’s Elvis and Jerry Lee, the Beatles and the Stones, the Dolls and the Clash, the Beasties and Marshall Mathers, Ke$ha and Miley. It’s a racket, in more than one sense, and everything flows from it.
2. Baiano e Coro, “Pelo Telefone”
From the dance halls of New Orleans to the Carnaval streets of Rio de Janeiro, there’s a whole lotta coalescin’ goin’ on. This is not, technically, the first samba on record, any more than the ODJB was the first jass, but it’s the first record that called itself a samba, and it’s got a brisker, funkier sway than any Brazilian music we’ve heard to date. Composed by the Black sambista Donga and performed by the white generalist performer Baiano (of Bahia, a majority-Black state), “Pelo Telefone” (by telephone, cf. “Hello Ma Baby”) is exactly the same kind of blind dance forward into the future that the ODJB represents, with all the racial, class, and technological confusion which inheres.
3. Carlos Gardel, “Mi Noche Triste”
While tango has been heard on record for a decade, and has been a fashionable step in the dance halls of the global aristocracy for four years, upper-class condescension means that what is a genteel dance music for Europeans in ball gowns is underclass pimps-and-pickpockets trash in song form. Lyrics in lunfardo slang evoke the seamy underbelly of Buenos Aires nightlife, and the violent, sexual atmosphere of the milonga horrifies the bourgeois keepers of taste. Into this atmosphere, “Mi Noche Triste” is launched, hits, and what tango was, had been, could be, is utterly transformed. No longer just a semi-reputable dance music, tango has become a theatrical, literary music, and one of the world’s great storehouses of song.
4. María Teresa Vera & Rafael Zequeira “Óyelo Bien, Rubén (El Servicio Obligatorio)”
Meanwhile, Cuban music has been a shadowy undercurrent in these pages, more concerned with the nineteenth-century danzones of Havana gentility than the Afro-descended rumbas, guaguancós, and above all sones simmering up from Oriente province. The first modern Cuban voice to be heard with great success on record is a woman’s: María Teresa Vera, who with her duet partner Zequeira was foundational in establishing Cuba’s trova (troubadour) tradition. Here, on her first recording trip to New York City, she turns her tutor Manuel Corona’s satirical guaracha (Cuban theater song) about ladykillers hastily marrying to avoid the wartime draft into an incantatory meditation on human frailty. Called “rumba” on the label, it could be considered Vera’s first great santería record.
5. Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra, “Tanzt, Tanzt, Yiddelech”
The fifth cornerstone of the 1917 firsts (that aren’t really firsts) is this, the first klezmer record, except Jewish musicians have been recording freilach (joyful) dance music for a decade. But here, in the dance band of Bucharest-born bandleader Abe Schwartz, the classic elements of what would later be identified as klezmer are gathered together and propelled forward by the urgency, hunger, and population pressure of immigrant New York. (Probably) Naftule Brandwein’s clarinet chirps and squalls above the horns, strings, and percussion, as the demand of the title—“dance, dance, Jewish people”—reaches out to listening Gentiles of all races, and not just jazzing New Yorkers, but immigrants and underclasses all around the world will hear its call.
6. Anna Wheaton & James Harrod, “Till the Clouds Roll By”
With foundational records in the history of jazz, samba, tango, son, and klezmer, five of the great syncretic urban musics of the early twentieth century can trace their lineage to 1917; by comparison, a mere tectonic shift in the theatrical music of the ruling classes is dog bites man. Still. Music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse, with intricate polysyllabic and internal rhymes: this is something new on the New York stage, and the intimacy and unpretentiousness of Oh, Boy!, the show where the song debuted, heralds a new era in Anglophone musical comedy: light and flippant, telling a single story rather than the patchwork of revue, with accessible, up-to-date songs that you can live by.
7. Nine Pinson, “Le Cri du Poilu”
But while the Western hemisphere is undergoing a seismic shift in the nature and future of popular music, Europe remains embroiled in a dirty, pointless war that not all the chipper kit-bag trouble-packing warbles in the world can mask. Here, a French music-hall veteran adopts a song by Vincent Scotto, a young, fresh-faced composer who will help to transform chanson in the coming decades: a jaundiced, unpatriotic acknowledgement that the average unshaven soldier would vastly prefer getting laid to laying down his life—or taking any German’s—in the mud and disease of the trenches. The rousing refrain “Une femme, une femme” is far more open and direct than the winking, blushing Armentières mademoiselles of their British counterparts.
8. Eddie Cantor, “That’s the Kind of Baby for Me”
What the French do not bother to encode, Jewish performers in the US very much do. On the one hand, this recording can be heard as a white suburban expression of the Jazz Age arriving three years ahead of schedule, as Eddie Cantor’s everyschmuck is exactly the kind of enthusiastic virgin that F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Held Jr., and Harold Lloyd loved to parody. On the other, it’s a very specific expression of Lower East Side tenement life, a compact, energetic, and perforce cosmopolitan kind of life which, when Cantor became America’s mass-media uncle, would read all-American. But here, as a Ziegfeld Follies star—where he played Bert Williams’ son in blackface—he became America’s gawky kid brother.
9. Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis, “A Bunch of Blues”
And finally, two decades after the first written report of a music that could be understood as the blues, seven years since the first published blues song, three years since the first recorded blues song, here is the first recorded example of the blues in what you might—must—call its true form, to wit, being performed by African-American musicians of the South. It is still dicty and middle-class, it is still marching-band in overarching form, it is still a composed blues rather than a folk blues, because W. C. Handy knows where the money in the music business is, and you need copyrights and no funny business you might get sued over. But it’s another real beginning.
10. Eubie Blake Trio, “Hungarian Rag”
And here’s another. Blake (like Handy) has a better claim to being called the first jazz recording artist than the Original Dixieland Jass Band, and not just because of the color of his skin. Nominally a rag, this trio piece (two pianos and trap drums) is taken at such a velocity, with such sleek verve and inherent funk, that it breaks loose of the confines of the ragtime form and romps joyously among the as-yet-unnamed musics of the coming decade. If it is ragtime, it is the freest, boldest ragtime yet heard; if it is jazz, it is of a particularly rattling, industrial, Atlantic-coast sort, rather than the steamy Delta funk of New Orleans: Blake is from Baltimore.
11. Henry C. Browne, “Push Dem Clouds Away”
But as black American musicians begin, however slowly and painfully, to carve out a space for themselves, the nearly century-long dehumanization of black Americans called minstrelsy grinds along, carving out a track that 1917 did not have a name for, but would be known to history as “old-time.” This song, both a grossly offensive Coon song and a prototype of the power-of-positive-thinking genre of song that will only grow more prominent in the coming decade, was written for the forgotten 1891 musical A Trip to Chinatown; Browne was a new generation of minstrel performer who made a specialty of digging up old stuff and singing it as crassly as possible; it’s one origin of country music among many.
12. The Six Brown Brothers, “At the Darktown Strutters’ Ball”
The explosion that was the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s first records loosed off a tremendous amount of energy around the country, as the first genuine recorded popular-music craze gained traction. All kinds of things got recorded in their wake, whether it made any sense to market them as jazz or not. This, for example, is a white vaudeville act doing a stiff reading of a song written by black vaudevillian Shelton Brooks (we last saw him behind “Some of These Days”), which would become an early jazz standard. It’s less jazz than the ODJB were, but because of the novelty configuration that was the Brown Brothers’ act—six saxophones, from bass to alto—it has jazz texture.
13. Orquesta Típica Maglio, “El Tío Soltero”
Even as Carlos Gardel brings tango as a sung form into the light, tango consolidates as an instrumental dance music. The title of this bewitching, sprightly dance comes from the same underworld lunfardo roots as Gardel’s song—“El tío soltero” is a raffish way to refer to a single guy out on the prowl—but the music depicts a decorous flâneur, with its twinkly orchestration and fin-de-siècle melodic accents. Only the insistent pulse of the tango rhythm marks it as more than a sedate ballroom whirl. We last saw “Pacho” Maglio five years ago, and the distance between his hungry, dazzling tango of 1912 and his pretty, complacent tango of 1917 is why Gardel had to happen.
14. Ford Hawaiians, “Wiliwili Wai”
While the hula craze in the United States is several years old now, the continued recording and distribution of Hawai‘an music has only really gotten started. This group, featuring the virtuoso Henry Kailimai on ukulele, was assembled by automaker Henry Ford as artists in residence at his Detroit headquarters; as Ford was friendly with Edison, they recorded frequently. This meditation on a lawn sprinkler—composed by the dethroned Queen Lili‘uokalani—is perhaps not the sort of perky hula music Ford had in mind, as the funereal pace and basso vocal turn it into a powerful lament, an island spiritual, and a memorial for the last Queen of Hawai‘i, who would be dead by the end of 1917.
15. Alma Gluck & Efrem Zimbalist, “Chanson Hebraïque”
But as popular song explodes in all four corners of the globe, the classical concert tradition that has constituted the bulk of recording to date is still very much alive. This extremely proper classical recording, though, is full of unusual resonances. Gluck was a Jewish-American soprano born in Romania, popular in concert and on record, where her rendition of the minstrel “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny” was huge; her husband Zimbalist was a Russian Jewish violinist whose sentimental recordings of the classical canon were prolific; the song is the Jewish folk song “Meyerke, mein zun,” as arranged by French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel in 1910. It’s a remarkable high point of folk song as art song.
16. Fritz Kreisler, “Poor Butterfly”
Far and away the most popular violinist of the era was the Austrian-born Kreisler, whose wide range and sweet tone exactly hit the comforting, not to say comfortable, note that the broad bourgeois audience for concert music wanted from it. This, a pop-crossover recording of a show tune based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, was one of his biggest recorded hits, and if the context has faded over the century—pop-crossover songs do not originate in circus-venue spectacles borrowing from orientalist operas anymore, Cirque du Soleil notwithstanding—the sturdy melodic underpinnings and Kreisler’s expressive, populist but unsentimental mitteleuropean technique (especially as compared to the austerity of a peer like Jascha Heifetz) still has the power to resonate today.
17. Nora Bayes, “Over There”
In April of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson requested permission from Congress to declare war on the German Empire. The sinking of the Lusitania hadn’t done it; the interception of a message to the revolutionary Mexican government, suggesting that Germany would back them in a northern attack, did. It would take a year before the first American troops landed in Europe, but nothing raises the US dander like a hint that the vassal states in the Western Hemisphere have a mind of their own. So, thirteen years after his first big hit, George M. Cohan contributed his last to the war effort: “Over There,” with its high-kicking Broadway attitude, is the best war song the nation ever produced.