On Refusals to be Denigrated, Perverse Jouissances, and Ascetic Pulsations
1. Al Jolson: “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”
The old never simply gives way to the new; generally it tries to jump on the bandwagon. So this, a Coon song if ever there was one—Jolson performed it in blackface, rolling his eyes grotesquely as he yammered about Mammy—is infected with the new jazz spirit. Which was understood as just another way to perform blackness, a new arrow in the quiver of mockery. But there’s a freedom, an insouciance, a refusal to be denigrated, in jazz that was missing from the Coon repertoire. It’s a song about missing the South, but it’s not about missing the plantation; it’s such a modern jive that Aretha Franklin recorded it in 1961.
2. Bert Williams: “O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?”
If the first twenty years of the century have been dominated in these pages by anyone, it has been by Bert Williams, whose exaggeratedly patient drawl denoted mere slow wit to his mass (white) audience but connoted evasion, veiled self-definition, and a Bartlebian form of refusal to those with ears to hear. The text of this theoretically comic monologue is straight Coonery, the narrator a blasphemous, illiterate creature of appetite, but Williams’ delivery, with its pauses and ironic inflections, turns it into something like a philosophy, an acknowledgement of the riggedness of religion’s respectability racket, and a pattern-card for the next century of popular music, with all its sympathy for the devil.
3. Marion Harris: “After You’ve Gone”
By 1918, the blues, both as a sheet-music faux-folklorism and as a genuinely Black tent-show holler, had been a part of the popular imagination long enough that they were beginning to transform the climate of popular song more broadly. Plenty of white imitators were producing blues (or blueish) songs, as we have seen and will continue to, but the largely-forgotten Black team of Turner Layton and Henry Creamer were among the first to take up the unabashedly adult themes of blues—infidelity, heartbreak, revenge—and put them into a song without overt Black signifiers. Marion Harris’s voice evokes still-unrecorded blues shouters, but the distinction between Black and white singing is collapsing.
4. Dúo Gardel-Razzano, Orquesta Roberto Firpo: “El Moro”
The speed with which the once-unacceptable Gardel had become adopted by the tango establishment can be seen by the fact that not a year after “Mi Noche Triste,” he was, with his harmonizing partner José Razzano, recording with the most popular and esteemed bandleader in South America, Roberto Firpo. “El Moro,” adapted by Gardel from a well-known poem by nineteenth-century statesman and belletrist Juan María Gutiérrez, is less a song of urban tango than a song of the pampas gaucho, roughly equivalent in Argentine national mythology to the US cowboy or frontiersman; the moro of the title refers to the singer’s beloved Arabian (i.e. Moorish) horse, apparently lost to an Indian.
5. Bahiano: “O Malhador”
The second “samba carnavalesca” in as many years recorded by Baiano, singing a song composed by Black sambista Donga and written in carioca slang by journalist and playwright Mauro de Almeida. Although the true Afr0-Brazilian samba bateria (drum line) of carnaval marches would not appear on record for another generation, the inclusion of ragged, funky percussion during the refrain here is in its own way as revolutionary as any record recorded during this revolutionary decade. And the spare instrumentation, with its prominent moaning clarinet, is a reminder that the entire Atlantic coast of the Americas is a continuum of musical borrowing, innovation, and expression: it could be jazz, calypso, or klezmer.
6. Jewish Orchestra: “Der Shtiler Bulgar”
The reigning king of freilach (now klezmer) clarinet was Naftule Brandwein, a thirty-four year old clarinettist born in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine); having emigrated to New York in 1908, he was by 1918 regarded as one of the major Jewish musical stars of the era. There is no way to be positive that his is the clarinet on this record—recordings aimed at immigrant populations were rarely carefully documented in these years—but it sounds likely; he was playing with Abe Schwartz (whose outfit the Jewish Orchestra was) around then, and his lively, expressive, and free style fits with the irrepressible sounds that belie the title “the quiet Bulgarian [dance].”
7. Nora Bayes: “Regretful Blues”
If Harris’s recording of “After You’ve Gone” represents a sophisticated mainstreaming of still-germinal blues song, this, by aging Jewish vaudeville queen Nora Bayes, represents the crass, unsophisticated adoption of blues by unembarrassable showbiz lifers. As sung by her in George M. Cohan’s second patriotic revue in as many years, it’s a hokey, crude imitation of blues sentiment smashed shamelessly together with brainless rah-rah wartime jingoism. Bayes’ delivery veers wildly between full-on Coon, with hiccuping vocal breaks and unseemly squawks (which is one origin of country music’s high lonesome yodels) and the straight big-voiced belting of vaudeville; compared to Harris she’s hopelessly out-of-date, but it remains, unaccountably, a hell of a record.
8. Wilbur C. Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band: “Everybody’s Crazy ’bout the Doggone Blues, But I’m Happy”
After having a hit with “After You’re Gone,” Layton and Creamer could publish anything; among their sheet-music successes was this little-remembered rag, an early instance of Black irony about white adoption of Black musical forms. When Black St. Louis bandleader and executor of the late Scott Joplin’s estate Wilbur Sweatman took it up, though, it was no longer a mere rag. Sweatman was famous on the vaudeville circuit for playing as many as three clarinets at once, and this raucous, giddy recording is as much jazz as ragtime; the instruments swerve and slide all over the beat, and where the ODJB’s jass was tinged with mockery, here there’s nothing but joy.
9. Eddie Nelson: “Tishomingo Blues”
Spencer Williams, like Turner Layton, Shelton Brooks, and the up-and-coming Eubie Blake, was an early Black jazz composer whose compositions ended up outliving his name, but who deserves to be remembered not just as an antecedent to the likes of Ellington, but as a peer to white contemporaries like Kern or Berlin. This was one of his early hits, a going-back-to-the-South song singing of nostalgia for Black community and solidarity rather than for the Mammy of minstrel caricature; this minstrelly recording, prominently featuring a slide whistle (because Blackness is goofy, you see), is perhaps not the song’s best foot forward, but it’s a document of one way African-American music was received.
10. Billy Murray: “K-K-K-Katy”
The European War (later upgraded to World War ostensibly due to proxy battles in colonial territory, but really because Europe was considered the world) ended, after five years of promised glory churning into mechanized slaughter, with more than a whiff of farce. The latecoming United States mostly memorialized it in jokey songs like this one, where a boy must take leave of a girl and such is the blushing virginal yokeldom on both sides that a stammer gets turned into a hook. Murray, whose sharp, nasal voice recorded well and so who has appeared indiscriminately in these pages, was perhaps best suited to ditties like this, where no one gets hurt.
11. Arthur Fields: “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”
The second military draft in United States history caught up the most famous and valuable songwriter in New York, who had only become a naturalized citizen earlier that year. But the Army, knowing well what a prize Irving Berlin was, did not send him to Europe, but had him stage a musical, Yip Yip Yaphank, to raise funds and recruit the boys. This song, an eternal classic in sentiment if not in historical context, was the big hit; Berlin himself performed it in uniform (and would do so again a quarter-century later). The recording by ex-vaudevillian Fields benefits from the witty orchestration Victor could afford to lavish, and so pop looms.
12. Claire Waldoff: “Ach Jott, Was Sind die Männer Dumm”
German music, so dominant in the nineteenth-century symphonic and operatic traditions, was slow to adapt to the nimbler forms of twentieth century pop. Our first encounter with German popular song is this kabarett piece by an unconventional performer, roughly translated “Oh Gawd, How Stupid Men Are.” Waldoff (born Clara Wortmann) was a prominent member of Berlin’s gay milieu, wearing masculine attire and living openly with her lesbian partner. Like much of her most popular material, this was written for her by prolific theatrical composer Walter Kollo: dense with Berlinerisch slang, it’s a sneering indictment of masculine privilege and misogyny, while Waldoff’s trademark growl points forward to Lotte Lenya and Nina Hagen.
13. Félix Mayol: “Ell’ prend l’boul’vard magenta”
French popular music, meanwhile, was only going from strength to strength in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The only country in the world where Decadence was a populist movement (with all the attendant ills of colonialism), French music-hall, chanson réaliste, and cabaret could be stultifyingly sexualized by repressed US or UK standards. This Vincent Scotto song, for instance, recounts a man’s deathly passion for a streetwalker; that it was performed on stage and on record by the mincingly effeminate Félix Mayol, the kind of career homosexual who was all but out, is the kind of perverse jouissance that made contemporary French literature synonymous with pornography in the English-speaking world.
14. Giorgos Chelmis: “Den Se Thelo Pia”
Greek theatrical music and popular song (which as in every nation are not the same thing, but feed each other continually) was undergoing a renaissance in the late 10s, as the Turkish expulsion of ethnic Greeks (and genocide of Armenians) fed Athens and the other Hellenic metropolises with a new population of culturally varied and restless laborers, artists, and customers. I can’t find anything to confirm that this Giorgos Chelmis is the one who was married to the great Greek stage actress Marika Kotopouli, but whether or no, this café-amam song about the sensual misery of failed love is a lovely recording, and one more clue on the trail of rebetika.
15. Maâlma Titine: “Wahad el Ghozal Rit el Youm”
The tradition of Judeo-Algerian music is very old, older perhaps than the Umayyad Caliphate which stretched from northern Spain to Kashmir in the eighth century. The highly developed interfaith musical traditions of Muslim Andalusia took root in North Africa following the Reconquista, and after centuries of colonialism, it was the French who first made recorded documents of Algerian music. Maâlma (an Arabic honorific) Titine (a French diminutive) was a young Jewish performer, primarily a pianist but also a singer, in Algiers; the song seems to be Algerian folk poetry that has been recorded in many different ways. It is not chaabi, but it is a starting point for its urban modernity.
16. Enrico Caruso: “Sei Morta Nella Vita Mia”
The Voice will be with us for only three years more; as his repertoire mostly consisted of music much older than these pages’ focus, we’ve heard from him less often than his importance and broad popularity during the first two decades of the century would indicate. But with this canzone, written by the prolific Mario Pasquale Costa circa 1895, he demands to be heard as one of the most original, provocative, and enduring voices of the century. One of the original from-the-vault rescues, it was recorded in 1918 but not issued for another thirty years, possibly because the piano accompaniment was too simple for 1918’s tastes; today it sounds merely reverent.
17. Guido Deiro: “Temperamental Rag”
Caruso, the son of a Neapolitan mechanic, was the greatest exponent of the world’s highest-status music; Count Guido Deiro was born to a noble family in northern Italy, and became an exponent of what would often be understood as some of the tackiest music of the twentieth century. Travelling the world in concert and vaudeville, he popularized the piano accordion, that staple of polka, tejano, zydeco, turbo-folk, and Lawrence Welk. But he was no mere charlatan with a product to sell; he was a genuine virtuoso, with a compositional knack that produced songs like this one, as joyous and nimble as any rag written to be played on any other instrument.
18. Flonzaley Quartet: “Molly on the Shore”
A 1907 adaptation of two Irish reels for concert band by eccentric Australian-American composer Percy Grainger, “Molly on the Shore” is a stalwart of the light classical canon. The Flonzaley String Quartet, based out of New York but composed of Italian and French virtuosi, was among the first modern ascetic art-music ensembles, pursuing perfection of technique over the crowd-pleasing commercial engagements by which most concert performers still earned their bread. This beautiful recording, astonishingly subtle given its age and the then highly-developed but by 21st-century standards primitive acoustic technology, is among the best early recordings of concert music, all pulsing clusters that look backward to jigs and forward to Phillip Glass.