On Robot Rhythms, Comforting Tapestries, and Black Women Saving Us All
1. Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds: “Crazy Blues”
Everything to this moment has been prologue: minstrelsy, marches, ragtime, dance crazes from South America or the Pacific, all has merely made straight the paths. Today the prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing. The record that shook the foundations of the earth, the record that won the first battle in a war most people didn’t yet know was happening, the record in the shadow of which all that has happened since still dwells. “Ain’t had nothing but bad news,” but the joy and energy and racket that propels her is a grand fuck-you to all false merchants of that news. [...]
2. Al Jolson: “Swanee”
Another record important for different, and lesser, reasons. Where “Crazy Blues” is African-American musicians finally presenting their vernacular music unmediated by white caricature, “Swanee” is white (well, Jewish) Americans claiming a new and modern identity directly through the caricature of blacks. It’s a multigenerational caricature, as the 22-year-old composer (meet George Gershwin) quotes the original minstrel songwriter, and the performer, at his reckless height, has abandoned any pretense of imitation: his caricature, though performed in blackface, yowling cretinously for Mammy, is more self-parody than any other. The song’s melodic verve creates the future even as its lyrics plunder the past.
3. Baiano & Izaltina: “Cangerê”
As the Jazz Age begins, so too does the golden age of samba, with this slangy underground duet, the only known composition by Chico de Baiana, or the Bahia woman’s boy. “Cangerê,” said to be derived from an African language, is a specific ritual in the Afro-Brazilian Feitiço religion; the man and woman, arguing as usual in pop duets, threaten each other with the supernatural, while the samba rhythm works its own ineluctable magic on the listener. Two instrumental versions of the song were also cut in 1920, and the rhythmic power of the Banda da Casa Edison’s remains galvanizing.
4. Carlos Gardel: “Milonguita”
We have met many classic tango songs already, and will meet many more; but tango too is kicking into a new gear at the start of a new decade. “Milonguita,” by Argentine composer Enrique Delfino and Uruguayan lyricist Samuel Linnig, is one of the crown jewels of the Golden Age of Tango, never more exquisitely rendered than by Gardel’s burnished pipes. Full of the lunfardo slang that characterized the Buenos Aires underworld, it’s a portrait of a young woman driven to perdition by wine, men, and tango; her very name, “little-milonga,” refers to the dancehalls where the tango corrupted souls.
5. Mistinguett: “Mon homme”
Of the four canonical twentieth-century renditions of this song, the original is the least well-known; but Fanny Brice, Billie Holiday, and Édith Piaf sang other songs. The shining star of the Folies-Bergère between 1900 and 1930, Mistinguett sang many others too, but she may as well not have; this song, whether called “Mon homme” or “My Man,” has far superseded her own limited fame, and dragged her along rather cruelly in its wake. But pay attention to her studied lightness and flippancy, far from Brice’s and Piaf’s tragic posturing or Holiday’s bitter resignation: self-pity would be unfitting of her stardom.
6. Maurice Chevalier: “Oh! Maurice”
Mistinguett had been the toast of Paris since the Belle Époque; meanwhile, her nearest male equivalent, thirteen years her junior, was just rising to fame in 1920. (As though to exemplify the Parisian spirit, they had been lovers since 1911.) His first recorded hit, “Oh! Maurice” is an orgy of ribald egotism, a rhapsody on his masculine charms and the flutters into which he sends the female of the species. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, as all music-hall songs (of which it is a cousin) are; but it also owes its insouciant verve to the brio drifting from across the Atlantic.
7. Salvatore Papaccio: “Scettico Blues”
As does this. To be sure, it’s only called a blues because anything with even a slightly downbeat view of life was called a blues in 1920 (the copyright registration books were full to bursting of “blues”), but although structurally it’s what it sounds, a canzone napoletana, it’s also a witty, cynical plaint about the unfairness and falsity of life; and the see-sawing melody, though it doesn’t sound much like the blues strictly defined, owes more to ragtime-inflected American stage music than to traditional Italian bel canto. When pop singer Mina covered it in 1976, nostalgia couldn’t entirely obscure existentialism.
8. Lucille Hegamin & Harris’ Blues and Jazz Seven: “The Jazz Me Blues”
“Crazy Blues” had an immediate, electrifying effect on the recording industry; then as now, the most overwhelming flattery of success was imitation. It would take longer for authentic blues sensations, as measured by live performance in venues whites knew nothing of, to get on record, but refined generalist Black performers like Lucille Hegamin were pressed into immediate service to fill the obvious gap in the market. “Jazz Me Blues” was written by the young Black songwriter Tom Delaney, and its slangy but chaste evocation of the pleasures of the new groove under the sun is spun juicily in her mouth.
9. Bert Williams: “Unlucky Blues”
He was there at the beginning of the century, making outlandish grunts and twisting a love song into travesty; and he remains here at the century’s maturation, in some ways only catching up to where he was then. His voice is weathered with age and experience, the humorous glint in his eye undimmed but his face still poker-straight. Although the blues has now exploded into commercial popularity as feminine tragedy, his throaty plaintiveness looks forward to the masculine rural blues which will overshadow them. The song is Broadway pop, not blues, but his soul has always known the flatted fifth.
10. Nora Bayes: “The Broadway Blues”
It’s not often that I’ll privilege a recording by a white vaudevillian over a more famous one by an epochal Black act, but in this case the Sissle and Blake record is a bit too jaunty and careless, which only makes sense, as they didn’t write it. Bayes, a veteran Jewish coon singer, takes it at a drag, and is no longer burlesquing Blackness with weird hiccoughs, just singing, with the authority of age, a song about the pallor of the limelight. And with hindsight it’s hard to believe the aforementioned Gershwin kid didn’t have an ear on the orchestration.
11. Edith Day: “Alice Blue Gown”
The upheaval among the downmarket forms of musical entertainment, as authentic Black music begins to challenge the galumphing jeers of minstrelsy, did not necessarily have any immediate effect on the upmarket musical theater, which remained prissy, stodgy, and sentimental: but perhaps not quite unrecoverably foreign to us as it may sound today. “Alice Blue Gown” is meant to be wistful: in the show Irene, it is a song by a young woman nostalgic for her childhood dress of the shade named for President Roosevelt’s daughter. Chelsea Clinton would occupy the same cultural space today; and similar nostalgias are at work.
12. Paul Whiteman & His Ambassador Orchestra: “Whispering”
It is perhaps no accident that the “King of Jazz” cut his first record the same year that the real first jazz record was cut, and anyone curious about understanding the currents and cultures at work in the early 1920s would do well to study the sonic, rhythmic, tonal, and (yes) verbal discrepancies between “Crazy Blues” and “Whispering.” The Ambassador Orchestra is crisp, slick, not a hair out of place, not a glimpse of human feeling. Not only easy listening but Kraftwerk is predicted by their well-drilled rhythms; it is perhaps no accident either that Čapek’s robots emerged this year.
13. Ted Lewis Jazz Band: “When My Baby Smiles at Me”
While we’ve met Ted Lewis before, this more conventional dance-band number, with parts portioned out fairly among the band’s instrumentalists and his shabby-genteel crooning avant la lettre, was his first big hit, both on record and (helped by his star appearance at the Greenwich Village Follies of 1920) on sheet music. Compared to “O,” his klezmer-derived clarinet is more integrated into the tune’s jazz gestalt, and the way forward to Benny Goodman is clearly pointed; but there are still elements of ODJB-like novelty, as in the “I cry… I cry” refrain towards the end, squawked in parody by the band.
14. Ben Hokea Players: “Honolulu March”
A star instrumentalist, bandleader, and educator whose first records were also made in 1919, Ben Hokea was a Hawaiʻian-born guitarist who, on coming to the mainland, made his home base in Toronto, and his slack-key technique, more peppy and jazzy than dreamy and wistful, was instrumental in making hula music one of the everyday sounds of the 1920s, not just an exotica fad of the decade prior. The traditional song his band cuts here is taken at such a raggy, stuttering clip that the pedal steel swing of the Nashville-oriented decades to come is conjured by its streamlined, modern drive.
15. María Teresa Vera & Manuel Corona: “El yambú guaguancó”
Although we’ve heard from María Teresa Vera before, it was as a generalist singer covering a popular theater song; with this recording, she and her trova mentor, Manuel Corona, finally introduce the rumba proper (as distinct from the sones marketed as rhumbas in the 1930s) to recorded history. Yambú and guaguancó are both varieties of rumba, and the wordless chorus is characteristic of yambú. Vera’s verses are from the ancient storehouse of Cuban verse and symbol which, like blues verses, were mixed and matched to make up a song; but the insinuating rhythm, with its bell-clear clave, is what moves.
16. Zaki Murad: “Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra”
Because my focus has been (and will remain) primarily on Western music, I have paid scant attention to the deep wonders of Egyptian music, on record since before the century turned. Zaki Murad, of Jewish descent like many early Arabic-language recording stars, had been a successful recording artist since 1910, touring the Arabic-speaking world, and it is unjust that only this magnificent taqtuqa, “Visit Me Every Day,” by the legendary secular composer Sayyid Darwish (often considered the father of Egyptian popular music) represents him here. Do remember Murad’s last name, however; his daughter will join us later in the century.
17. Mishka Ziganoff: “Odessa Bulgar”
The Jewish diaspora, filtered through the sieve of immigration and collected in the tenements of New York, was always many peoples instead of one. Mishka Ziganoff was born in Odessa under the Russian Empire and emigrated to the US around the age of ten; his family settled in Brooklyn, and he became a virtuoso accordionist. His heritage was a jumble: he spoke Yiddish, but considered himself a Gypsy and communed as a Christian. In the ancient tradition of the musician as outsider, he managed to combine multiple interpretations of identity and home into a comforting tapestry, calling everyone to dance.
18. Abe Schwartz & Sylvia Schwartz: “National Hora Pt. 1”
Meanwhile, the most popular Jewish bandleader of the period, while cutting many lively freilach tunes that remain deathless today, paused to record something more quiet and perhaps personal: accompanied only by his daughter on piano, he fiddles a longing, keening improvisation in the “tzigane” (Roma) tradition, and wraps it up in what to Western European ears is an Irish jig. Klezmer scholars have declared this side a one-off, not a rendition of any familiar tune (Pt. 2 is better known as “Der Gasn Nigun”), and it’s impossible for me not to hear it as a thrilling expression of American pluralism.
19. Enrico Caruso: “I’ m’arricordo ’e Napule”
In a year, the Voice will be no more. This isn’t his last recording (that’s a selection from a Mass by Rossini), but it’s his last great canzone napoletana, a brand-new song of nostalgia and reverie about his hometown of Naples. More than anyone, he was the greatest star of the first age of recording, and as he dims, a new generation of stars is beginning to glow. Soon their brightness will eclipse his own; but few of them will retain anything like his name recognition over the years. A century later, and Caruso is still synonymous with beautiful singing.
20. Anita Patti Brown: “Villanelle”
The spectrum of authentic Black femininity which became, for the first time in recorded history, a live issue in 1920 ranged widely even then. The furthest away you could get, anyone would have said, from Mamie Smith’s vaudeville faux-lowdown, was the light classical canon; and here we find another Black woman. Her stage name is a double reference to Sissieretta Jones, her racial forebear in classical singing, nicknamed “the Black Patti” after Italian diva Adelina Patti; Anita Brown was called “the Bronze Tetrazzini” after Caruso’s duet partner. “Villanelle” was composed by Belgian miniaturist Eva Dell’Acqua in 1893, femininity in watercolors.