On Cavalier Adoptions, Damned Conventions, and the Inertia of the Dispossessed
1. A. C. (Eck) Robertson: “Sallie Gooden”
The story goes that the two Texans entered New York City in full fancy dress, 35-year-old Eck Robertson in a spangled cowboy outfit, and his 75-year-old partner Henry C. Gilliland in old Confederate Army togs, his own. They went straight to the Victor offices and insisted on cutting a record; whether because the talent manager thought he could sell it, or just to get the hicks out of the office, “Sallie Gooden” b/w “Arkansas Traveler” was the result. “Traveler” was the duet, “Gooden” a solo piece by Eck: and if it’s not exactly the first country record (studio professionals had been cutting Ozark reels and string-band minstrelsy for years), it’s the first made by genuine rural Southerners. Thirteen variations in three minutes: Robertson rarely recorded again, but he laid a pattern for all old-time to follow. [...]
2. Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra: “Society Blues”
Meanwhile, the first genuine Black New Orleans jazz records were recorded in the sleepy backwater then still becoming the cinematic boomtown of Los Angeles, California, to be sold out of a store also owned by the proprietor of the recording studio. Edward “Kid” Ory was a successful Creole jazz trombonist whose band had included King Oliver and a young cornetist named Armstrong back in the Crescent City; he had decamped to the West Coast after Storyville’s closure in 1917, and the band he put together in the Golden State was, if not the toast of Rampart Street, respectable. Ory would wend to Chicago within the next few years, where he would fall in with old Orleanian friends, but that’s a story for another time. “Society Blues,” halfway between classy and kidding, is mellow as a porch conversation.
3. Alberta Hunter: “Down Hearted Blues”
Another legendary figure of twentieth-century music bows onto the stage. Alberta Hunter, who was born and bred in Memphis but made her name in Chicago, is of the generation of performers who, like her fellow Southern-born, Northern-famed peers Ethel Waters and Florence Mills, fell halfway between the stools of cabaret and the blues, and was nearly forgotten by a history that prized the blues over cabaret and (which would come to mean the same thing) men over women. She had already toured Europe to great acclaim by the time she settled down to a Harlem club gig and cut this immortal blues, co-written with pianist (and possibly sometime lover) Lovie Austin. The following year, the century’s most famous blues shouter would notch it as her first smash record, but Hunter’s sly, sashaying take emphasizes its essential theatricality.
4. Marion Harris: “I’m Just Wild about Harry”
The biggest hit from Shuffle Along, the all-Black musical which took New York by storm in 1921 and kickstarted a decade of Black excellence, “I’m Just Wild about Harry” took a year to get onto record. Partly the delay served to deracinate the tune, to transform it from an unembarrassed declaration of Black love (it was originally written as a waltz, in an even more overt challenge to racial norms) to a raggy burst of pep that anyone, in these dance-band days, could turkey-trot or whistle: F. Scott Fitzgerald coined “the Jazz Age” in 1922, the perfect descriptor of such cavalier white adoption of Black forms. Marion Harris had always sung Black, sometimes exaggeratedly so, but only the broad syncopation and extra pep of the last few choruses gestures in that direction here; she simply sounds American.
5. Ed Gallagher and Al Shean: “Oh! Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean”
The background hum to popular culture in the 1920s—as it had been since the 1880s—was vaudeville, the stage circuit mechanism by which the entire country absorbed roughly the same songs, dances, slapstick, patter, and acrobatics as the big cities, though delayed. Ephemeral by design, but calcified enough that the right act could get forty years out of the same routine, the ethos of vaudeville was desperation; you never knew what would work, so you played as broad as possible. Gallagher and Shean, an Irishman and a German Jew respectively, reportedly loathed each other, but their shared song, as tightly structured as a sonnet, was bigger than either of them: they could and did swap out verses every time, which makes this double-sided record’s domestic-abuse and skin-color jokes revealing as an indication of what sold.
6. Jack Buchanan: “And Her Mother Came Too”
While the Broadway theatrical songwriting machine was entering its second decade of eminence, its West End equivalent was rather more sedate. The young British songwriter who posed the greatest challenge to the imported Berlins, Kerns, and Gershwins was Welshman Ivor Novello. “Keep the Home Fires Burning” had been a wartime favorite, but it was in the 1920s that his songwriting really bloomed. This entry, on the surface a mere one-note mother-in-law joke in age-old music-hall tradition, has a more nuanced harmonic structure than strictly necessary, and especially given eternal Drones Club habitué Jack Buchanan’s urbane, ever so slightly camp delivery, the joke destabilizes, becoming less about a too-enthusiastic chaperone and more like a Wodehousian parody of Vincent O’Sullivan’s classic 1912 Decadent novella The Good Girl, about a simpleton increasingly entangled by a family of moral vampires.
7. Sara Martin: “Tain’t Nobody’s Bus’ness if I Do”
On the right hand side of the label is printed the legend “Contralto Solo / Piano Accomp. by T. Waller.” And so another of the giants of early jazz piano bobs to the surface here, accompanying Miss Sara Martin, one of the half-dozen or so essential blues-not-blues singers of the decade, on a song that will become an urban blues standard, evolving in many directions over the course of the century. But here, in its original ragtime-blues form, written by African-American songwriter Porter Grainger and Mamie Smith sideman Everett Robbins, “Nobody’s Business” is a perfect marriage of defiant, antisocial (because society is dangerous) blues tradition and Tin Pan Alley hokum, setting the template for the theatrical blues tradition of the 1930s and 40s which songwriters like Harold Arlen or Hoagy Carmichael would turn into vernacular American pop.
8. Lucille Hegamin and her Blue Flame Syncopaters: “Aggravatin’ Papa (Don’t You Try to Two-Time Me)”
In fact, some white songwriters were there already. Composer J. Russel Robinson, a Hoosier, was a ragtime pianist who had supplied W. C. Handy’s publishing company, and lyricist Roy Turk was a New York native whose slangy, sentimental songs helped to define the Jazz Age. Three years earlier, “Aggravatin’ Papa” might have been a Coon song—the Southern setting, the stereotypically trifling man, the understated threats of violence could all have been delivered by a blackface singer for laughs—but instead Black singers and players adopted it and turned it into a blues standard, starting with Lucille Hegamin. Her delivery, using the blues trick of repeating the end of a line where a solo would otherwise go, is cheerful, almost delighted to tear into the juicy threats she’s making, while her Syncopaters swoon woozily around her.
9. Trixie Smith and the Jazz Masters: “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)”
The confluence of the words “rock” and “roll” in such a way that makes it obvious they were already conjoined in a familiar phrase decades before they got pinned to a backbeat is perhaps the least noteworthy thing about this record. Trixie Smith was a genuine Southern Black singer, born and raised in Georgia, but not a gutbucket blues singer: her upbringing had been genteel, and her singing, as here, tended toward the light and winsome. Nevertheless, “My Man Rocks Me” is among the first great single-entendre blues records, so hot (though entirely by implication) that a parental warning logo would have had to be slapped on it in the CD era. Written by Chicago-based songwriter and publisher J. Berni Barbour, it’s performed here at such a languorous drag, with a deep-stroking trombone, that it’s practically tantric.
10. Eva Tanguay: “I Don’t Care”
In 1922 she was forty-four and long past her wasp-waisted prime; but back when she was the chaotic, hair-flowing, man-eating, lung-bursting Quebecois-born sensation of the Naughty Oughts, she hadn’t bothered to step before a recording horn, and so this is all we have of her: her signature song, some fifteen years late. But if this is a shadow of her former self, what must she have been like in her strength? Her voice is blown out, her tempos all scattered as the studio musicians attempt to keep up with her lurches from faux-maudlin verses to the roaring, flippant chorus, still as strong a fuck-you to the propriety, daintiness, and demureness of the ideal woman as it ever was. If the fuck-you sounds rather more ghostly today, it isn’t because women are expected to care any less.
11. Georgel: “La garçonne”
But the “I-Don’t-Care Girl” had been a model for a whole generation of women now reaching adulthood who disdained the voluminous skirts and hairstyles of their mothers. The flapper, as she was known in English, had her equivalent in every nation: but when Victor Margueritte’s sensationalistic lesbian 1922 French novel La garçonne was bowdlerized into English the same year, it was called The Bachelor Girl. The topical song of the same name by Vincent Scotto (lyrics by a pair of hacks) sneers at women who bob their hair, dress in mannish attire, and choose not to flirt with men, predicting a lonely, cruel dotage for any woman who doesn’t embrace motherhood. Georgel’s rendition was a hit, but the last verse was often omitted, and the androgynous garçonne’s sleek, stylish, and damn-the-conventions poise became a decade’s aspiration.
12. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”
Having come into a minor fortune on the unexpected success of “Swanee,” the young, prolific, and ambitious composer George Gershwin soon found himself writing music for George White’s Scandals, meant as stiff competition for Ziegfeld’s Follies. The first (and perhaps only) immortal song from that series of revues, “Stairway to Paradise” was the young man’s first compositional triumph, a winding musical ascent to match the twin curved staircases in the stage show, with blues harmonics to accentuate its modernity and jazz it away from typical revue politesse. The orchestra pit for the number was directed by celebrity conductor Paul Whiteman, and his later recording with his Orchestra, leaving out the less-impressive lyrics, is one of the great dance-band records of the era, sweetly winging Gershwin’s hypermelodic expression of that rarest of emotions in pop music—joy.
13. Conchita Piquer: “El florero”
Among the many sensations which took place seemingly nightly on New York stages in the early 1920s, the debut of a sixteen-year-old Valencian soubrette in drag as a flower-selling boy in El gato montés (The Wild Cat), a successful Spanish operetta undergoing a respectable Broadway run, has largely been forgotten in English-language circles. But the tale goes that a representative from Columbia rushed backstage during the intermission to sign her to a two-year recording contract, only to discover that not only didn’t she speak English, she had only a vague grasp of Castilian. Thirty years later Concha Piquer would be the grand dame of Spanish copla, a long-reigning movie star and one of the most recognizable Spanish-language singers in the world; Broadway’s ability to generate stars without even noticing was at its peak in the 1920s.
14. Baiano: “Eu só quero é beliscá”
In February of 1922, the Teatro Municipal of São Paulo hosted a week of art exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and poetry readings called the Semana de Arte Moderna: it was ground zero for Brazilian modernism, an explosive, controversial, and thoroughly regional rejection of European norms in favor of miscegenated, tropical Brasilidade. But the middle-class intellectuals and artists promoted by the Semana were conflicted about the street-level sambas and batuques with which the urban masses—not to mention hustling commercial songwriters—expressed themselves, just as Anglo modernists were ambivalent or worse towards jazz. This cateretê (tr. “I Just Want a Pinch”) by Eduardo Souto, with its dense paulista slang, faux-tribal rhythms, and anti-authoritarian stance (the song’s satirical object is cops shaking down street vendors) was just as modernist as Oswald de Andrade’s poems or Tarsila do Amaral’s paintings.
15. Alcides Briceño y Jorge Añez: “La soldadera”
Belisario de Jesús García was a soldier in the Mexican Revolution who fought on the side of the Carrancista revolutionaries who murdered Emiliano Zapata; the same year, he published his first song, “La soldadera.” The word literally means “the woman who receives payment for taking care of a soldier,” and could refer to a wife or domestic or (more likely) camp follower, but in the Mexican Revolution it was applied to the hundreds and thousands of women who took up arms in the cause, whether perforce or otherwise. This version of García’s imitation corrido was recorded in New York by a Panamanian-Colombian duo who would sing anything in Spanish regardless of nationality, with studio hacks on instrumentation; despite which, it’s been wisely adopted by Mexico as one of the great early records of Mexican vernacular pop.
16. Carlos Gardel: “El tango de la muerte”
Not the “Tango de la muerte” written by the little-known Horacio Mackintosh in 1917, which is an instrumental; this tango was written (music and lyrics) by Alberto Navión, a French-born, Uruguay-raised composer for the Argentine theater whose work was often uneven; the sainete which introduced this song has been dismissed as mediocre, but Gardel getting his pipes on any song elevates it. And in fact, a song of typically Latin despair which may have been risible or banal in the theater is transformed into a throbbing report from the depths of depression on record. Bounded by the strict strums of guitarists Guillermo Barbieri and José Ricardo, Gardel’s voice moors in self-pitying baritone melancholy, and flutters up to keening tenor remorse. He wants to die, and only the milonga (criollo dancehall, birthplace of tango) keeps him alive.
17. La Niña de los Peines: “Tango de la tontona”
It is a great piece of foolishness that she has not appeared here before: her first record was cut in 1905, when she was fifteen. But in 1922, the distinguished Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and a young, scarcely-known poet named García Lorca organized the first Concurso de Cante Jondo, or Deep Song Contest, in Granada, the Andalusian city which could reasonably claim to be among the birthplaces of flamenco. Pastora Pavón, already at thirty-two the greatest cantaora of all time, was the only woman on the judging panel. This song (set to the relatively new “tango” palo) addressing a foolish, heartbreaking girl was an early favorite of her repertoire, and one of a series of records she cut in 1922, accompanied by guitarist Luis Molina. It only hints at the astonishing depths of her voice.
18. El Tenazas de Morón: “Yo he andaito la Francia (Seguiriyas de Silverio)”
But the great revelation of the Granada Concurso was Diego Bermúdez of the Sevillian town Morón de la Frontera, a septuagenarian who had retired from flamenco singing in the nineteenth century after having been stabbed: flamenco was once a disreputable, dangerous field. His archaic style was received rapturously by the musicologists and mystic nationalists in the audience, who considered it a direct link to the authentic Roma origins of flamenco song as represented by the legendary prototypical cantaor Silverio Franconetti, and as opposed to modern syncretic theatricalized flamenco, sullied by commercialism and mass media. On being (re)discovered, Bermúdez (nicknamed Tenazas, or Tongs) recorded several platters of quavering, ancient flamenco, a set which Falla would carry with him into exile. But his moment in the sun was short-lived; the following year, El Tenazas was laid to rest.
19. Naftule Brandwein: “Kallarash”
We have heard him before on records credited to other bandleaders, particularly Abe Schwartz, but this is the moment where the foremost klezmer clarinetist of the era before anyone called the music klezmer struck out on his own. Born into a family of Hasidic musicians in what was then called Polish Galicia (present-day Ukraine) and having emigrated to the US in 1908 at nineteen, Brandwein was a showman, even a showboat, who would sometimes perform with a self-promoting neon sign around his neck, or play with his back to the audience so as not to give away his proprietary fingering techniques. “Kallarash,” subtitled “A Bridal Dedication,” is a slow-then-fast dance memorializing a town in Romanian Bessarabia. It’s a perfect showcase for his overtly emotional, flashily sentimental style, a virtuosic display for a Hendrix of the clarinet.
20. A. Z. Idelsohn und Männerchor: “Hava Nagila”
Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, born in present-day Latvia, worked as a cantor in Europe and South Africa before emigrating to Palestine in the years of the Second Aliyah, when European Jews fled pogroms in the Russian Empire in the hope of establishing a Zionist state in Palestine. Idelsohn’s musical training led him to take an interest in the Jewish music of Palestine, and his ethnomusicological work is some of the most comprehensive in the field. In setting his own words to an old melody traced to the diaspora in the Ukraine, he is considered the author of “Hava Nagila,” and when the German label Polydor, then making one of the first music-industry attempts to comprehensively document folkloric music, invited him to record some of his collection, he conducted a choir in one of the era’s folk-art hybrids.
21. Fisk University Jubilee Singers: “I Ain’t Goin’ to Study War No More”
The ancient Jewish poetic image, given in the prophet Isaiah, of reshaping implements of warfare into implements of agriculture is one of the most powerful in all religion: and one of its most beautiful expressions was the work of anonymous (to us, if not to Heaven) men and women enslaved in the southern United States, probably less than two hundred years ago. As with most art made by Black Americans, there are double and treble meanings to “Down by the Riverside”— the Ohio was perhaps more salient than the Jordan, whether the one in Israel or the one in Bunyan, and ending the study of war doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing violent struggle anymore than the end of school is the end of work. Even the pious, unhurried reading given by four Fisk men here contains multitudes.
22. Feodor Chaliapin: “Ey, ukhnem!”
First attested by Russian composer and folk song-collector Mily Balakirev in 1866, the title of this work chant could be transliterated “Hey, Heave To!” but became known in English as “The Song of the Volga Boatmen,” thanks to the widespread popularity of Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin, who toured constantly in Europe and the Americas starting in 1901. It became his signature song in solo concerts, as his rich voice raised in the cry of the vodoliv, or leader of a gang of burlaks (dispossessed peasants with nothing but muscle and the collective force of their own inertia to sell) who were hired to tow barges down the Volga, from Moscow to the Caspian Sea, in the ages before ships could run under their own power. That Russian solution of throwing raw population at a problem would recur.