On Frivolous Transcendence, Misguided Legislation, and Dealing One Deathblow
1. Lieut. Jim Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band: “That Moaning Trombone”
On February 17, the all-colored (Black and Puerto Rican) 369th Regiment paraded up Fifth Avenue, home to Harlem. Nicknamed the “Hell Fighters” because they never lost a man, a captive, or an inch of ground, they were twenty times as good as their white counterparts, and got something less than a tenth the respect. Their band was led by James Reese Europe, famous before the war as the Castles’ bandleader, now pushing Black vernacular music into new territory with military discipline. His opulent arrangements and quick-cut rhythms were cut short two months after this recording by the penknife of a drummer lashing out at perceived disrespect.
2. Ted Lewis Band: “O”
Two years after the First Jazz Record, and jazz is already widely (mis)understood not as urban Black southern music characterized by improvisation and rhythm but as white novelty music characterized by instruments making unusual sounds and, okay, rhythm, or at least tempo. Bandleader and clarinetist Ted Lewis was Jewish, but his roots were in small-town Ohio rather than immigrant New York, so his approximation of klezmer on the instrumental break is as much a put-on (and as utterly sincere) as his adoption of Black musical forms. In a sense this is the first record of the 1920s, an airy dance-band tune that shimmies towards frivolous transcendence.
3. Eddie Cantor: “You’d Be Surprised”
Two years ago, Cantor introduced himself here as a geeky young dope awestruck by a self-sufficient woman; and now he has become the mouthpiece for Irving Berlin’s portrait of a geeky young dope who is, Revenge of the Nerds-style, an unexpectedly (and perhaps not very ethically) efficacious lover. It’s a gender-reversed take on Al Jolson’s sly contemporary hit “I’ll Say She Does,” which breezily quoted the flamboyantly ribald Eva Tanguay. Though Jolson was the more senior and bigger star, Cantor was coming up fast, and his quicker wit and ability to kid himself as well as his material gave him a head start on the future.
4. Sophie Tucker: “Ev'rybody Shimmies Now”
After a recording drought of seven years, Sophie Tucker returned to the horn in 1918, and on the precipice of the Jazz Age, aged 32, she has fully adopted the big, brassy, middle-aged persona she would carry into the age of swing, and rock beyond. The shoulder-shaking shimmy was still a novelty, an orientalism probably borrowed from Black dancers, and recently popularized to scandalous effect by Polish-born Ziegfeld girl Gilda Gray. Tucker’s reportage of its popularity is oddly breathless for her, as if she’s shimmying while recording; but the wheeling, crashing string section is a reminder that Black-imitating music was not yet entirely identified with horns.
5. Marion Harris: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
It was round about this time that blonde flapper Marion Harris began to be billed as the “Queen of Blues Singers,” a piece of publicity she did little to discourage, but which would provoke a certain yet-unrecorded singer to bill herself as their Empress instead. This song, written by Black vaudevillian Eddie Green and published by W. C. Handy, would receive its most well-known reading in the Empress’s voice. Here, though, the usually-melodramatic Harris takes it as a comic song, and twists her voice up into vaudevillian Coonerisms while a marimba plunks cheerfully away in the back half. Six years later, Flannery O’Connor will be born.
6. Bert Williams: “When the Moon Shines on the Moonshine”
The single most misguided piece of legislation in US history became law on October 28, to take effect January 1st, 1920. As a symbol for the decade of excess, folly, and high spirits that it inaugurated, Prohibition was almost novelistically apt; but riding high on the inflated prosperity of armament profits, the US mostly treated it as an occasion for jokes. Bert Williams even allowed as he’d sing for the occasion, forgoing his usual exquisitely-timed oratory for notes warbled and wheezed, with a crackerjack vaudeville band making comic hay of every pause. In his hands, minstrelsy becomes a private joke, and then a public one.
7. The Kalaluki Hawaiian Orchestra: “Hawaiian Nights”
The deracination of Hawaiian music, four years ago an exciting novelty, now just one flavor among the modern many, continues apace, with this waltz-time piece composed by itinerant hack pianist Lee Roberts and performed by a group so conspicuously free of recorded membership history that it was probably Columbia’s house band for Hawaiian records; Lawrence Kalaluki’s name survives otherwise only as a reputable instructor of Hawaiian music in contemporary advertising. The Moloch-machine of the recording industry fed on Hawaiian music just like it was doing on blues, jazz, minstrelsy, or tango, and spat out a streamlined product purpose-built for exotic, but not too exotic, reverie.
8. Choro Pixinguinha: “Sofres Porque Queres”
Although samba has most recently come to our attention, Brazilian music was far from being all samba all the time (and indeed never would be), and music like this aching choro melody over tango rhythms was still a plurality of Brazilian compositional activity. Pixinguinha, an Afro-Brazilian flautist born Alfredo de Rocha Viana, wrote it as a lament—the title translates to either “you suffer because you desire” or “you suffer because you want to”—but plays it rather jauntily, letting the minor-key chord changes of seven-string guitarist Tute (Arthur de Souza Nascimento) evoke the title’s heartbreak while his flute flutters on in divine unconcern.
9. Orquesta Típica Canaro: “El Africano”
We have met bandoneonist Juan “Pacho” Maglio, pianist Roberto Firpo, and singer Carlos Gardel, and now, with the introduction of the orchestra típica led by Urugayan violinist Francisco Canaro, the major players of Argentine tango going into the music’s 1920s Golden Age are gathered. Firpo’s airy, melodic, sentimental tango is a marked contrast with Canaro’s earthier, more sensuous style: as in this instrumental milonga, emphasizing the rhythmic Afro-Argentine foundations of tango music. Unlike Firpo, who was more at home in the world of decorous Spanish theatrical entertainment, Canaro also played hot jazz á là norteamericano with a small combo, and his tango reflects that modernity.
10. Floro y Miguel: “Se Acabó la Choricera”
Afro-Cuban rhythms are eternal: where even the Black jazz of 1919 was relatively restrictive in is rhythmic inventory, the clave pulse on this trova song is draggingly offset by the guitar part, leaving generous spaces in the rhythm that a later generation would understand as funk, the holes into which bodily motion fits. Floro Zorrilla was a trovador who had been recording stentorian ballads for a decade before he got a new partner in Miguel Zaballa; this song, supposedly written by a nineteen-year-old Santiago drummer nicknamed Chori (he would win greater fame a decade later), is one of the deathless Cuban sones of its generation.
11. Trío González: “Cielito Lindo”
The scarcity of Mexican music in these pages should not be considered a judgment on the poverty of Mexican musical culture over the last decade; but the instability of a drawn-out revolution, which in some regions almost amounted to civil war, meant that relatively little recording took place. In 1919, utopian peasant freedom fighter Emiliano Zapata was assassinated by ambush, as the revolutionary Carranza government consolidated its control; and this nineteenth-century folk song which, with its instantly-recognizable “ay, ay, ay, ay” refrain, has long been considered one of several unofficial Mexican national anthems, was first recorded—in New York City, pit stop for travelling corrideros.
12. Raquel Meller: “Acuérdate de Mí”
The Spanish theatrical genre cuplé could be bawdy or satiric; less often, it was sentimental, as in this aging diva’s demand to be remembered by the man who has thrown her over for another. The glorious irony is that it was Aragón-born, Barcelona-bred diva Raquel Meller’s breakout song, at the tender age of thirty. She had been on stage since her early teens, after running away from a convent, but was never much of a soubrette—proper divadom takes time. Everything came together at once, however: she semi-scandalously married Guatemalan modernist poet Enrique Gómez Carrillo and starred in her first silent film the same year.
13. John Steel: “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”
With 1919, we mark the ten-year anniversary of Isadore Baline’s appearance as a songwriter in these pages. On top of the showbiz world, he did that which everyone did who found themselves in such rarified air, and joined the Ziegfeld machine. The Follies of 1919 trumpeted “songs by Irving Berlin” as the major coup it was, and this song, written as spackle to fill gaps between girls promenading semi-nude to the classical canon, became the Follies theme ever since. John Steel, a tenor of much force if no personality, sang it in the show, and recorded it; but even from his adenoids, it’s maddeningly unforgettable.
14. Art Hickman & His Orchestra: “Rose Room”
Where Ted Lewis was taking the comic squawks and energy of the ODJB into more joyful territory, other white dance-band musicians were merging it with the Castles’ high-class fox-trot of the early ’10s, beefing up their orchestras and emphasizing sweetness of melody, heterogenous instrumentation, and unrelenting pep. Dimly aware of the smutty connotations of the word “jazz,” they tried to call their music something else: one sober nomination, Synco-Pep, epitomizes the totally unbluesy, but uptempo and syncopated modern dance music promulgated by thousands of nightlife orchestra’s like Hickman’s, who played the Rose Room in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. A charming period piece, skilfully done.
15. Sergei Rachmaninoff: “Prelyudiya”
In 1919, Rachmaninoff was a middle-aged refugee of the Bolshevik Revolution, playing his hits for audiences for whom Russian Romanticism was an an exotic occasion for sentiment. The Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, composed when he was a nineteen-year-old conservatory graduate, is charged with the gloomy emotionalism of adolescence while still being relatively easy to play, which has kept it popular with listeners over the last century; by the time he made this first recording of it, he loathed it as only an ambitious and serious-minded artist saddled with an early one-hit wonder can. Still, it kept him clothed and fed, so he kept playing it.
16. Heinrich Schlusnus with Richard Strauss: “Ruhe, meine Seele!”
Richard Strauss was ten years older than Rachmaninoff when he entered the studio with the great lyric baritone Heinrich Schulsnus to play piano on one of his greatest lieder. He had composed the setting of socialist poet Karl Henckell’s early self-epitaph as a gift for his bride in 1894; and while his output in the oughts and teens of the twentieth century had been among the most advanced operatic and symphonic work in the world, the limitations of recording technology meant that a song like this emotionally conflicted summation of life in the world, alternately raging and accepting, got onto disc before the world changed.
17. M. N. Ghosh: “Baul”
This being only our second visit to the Indian subcontinent in nineteen years is inexcusable, given the volume of recording taking place, but understandable, given its relative lack of documentation in the West. M. N. Ghosh, who also recorded as Monta Babu, depending on the religious affiliation of the music he was singing, was a popular Bengali recording artist through the early 1930s. “Baul” seems to be a reference to the “madman” mystic religious tradition of the same name centered in the Bengal region (what is now eastern India and Bangladesh), and the shaking, rattling percussion that accompanies Ghosh is both ancient and strikingly modern.
18. Marika Papagika: “Hrissaido”
Perhaps the greatest exponent of Greek and Anatolian music in the United States between World War I and the Depression, Marika Papagika was born on the Greek island Kos off the Turkish coast, found some success in the dying Ottoman Empire as a café-amam singer, and emigrated to the US at twenty-five with her husband Gus Papagika, who nearly always accompanied her on cimbalom. This slow and evocative tsamiko (a slow-motion Greek folk dance), with the Papagikas joined by cello and violin, is superb evidence for the power, emotion, and authority of her voice, one of the great voices in vernacular music of the era.
19. Henry T. Burleigh: “Go Down Moses”
The summer of 1919 was named the Red Summer by James Weldon Johnson after the wave of racist and nativist violence that rose up as in answer to the pride Black America took in the 369th, to a newly urgent self-respect and insistence on equality under God and under the law. Hundreds of Black men, women and children lost their lives in riots, lynchings, burnings, and bombings—but some faced the murderous, cowardly pack and fought; dozens of white men also died. Little-remembered composer and baritone Burleigh’s solemn reading of the simplest and strongest spiritual in the canon stands as an urgent prophecy still unfulfilled.