On Charismatic Flash, Unrecordable Voices, and the Eternal Allure of Paris
1. Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra (The Composer at the piano): “Rhapsody in Blue”
The classical music that made classical music redundant, the pop that made pop pretentious. It can be hard sometimes to hear the jolt of the new after it’s been encrusted over by nearly a century of sickly suave orchestral iterations, endless afternoons in high school band practice, and bland self-congratulatory flag-waving. Neither a rhapsody nor a blues, a jumble of themes bolted together by charisma and flashy playing, made to order on a flimsy premise for a showman who believed his own hype, a musical joke transformed into an expression of the neurotic, sentimental, glad-handing, and above all expansive civilization which calls itself American—when you scrape all the history away you arrive at this record, lean, fast, struggling through the shellac to be heard. [...]
2. Cliff Edwards (Ukelele Ike): “Fascinating Rhythm”
It was 26-year-old Gershwin’s annus mirabilis: not only did he compose the first immortal American concert piece, but his first smash hit musical comedy Lady, Be Good (lyrics by brother Ira) debuted on Broadway, making stars of the brother-sister act who played the leads, two Nebraskan hoofers who’d changed their name from Austerlitz to Astaire. The ringer in the show was top vaudevillian Ukulele Ike as a comic relief butler who plunked and warbled with a sort of outrageous pep: his “trick voice” singing, imitating a muted trumpet, was one of the pathways that the showbiz tradition of improvised vocalizing took on its way to jazz scatting. As a song, “Fascinating Rhythm” is about the shock of the new, modernist pop for the flapper era.
3. Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, vocal chorus by Eva Taylor: “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird”
While Gershwin and the Astaires sold out audiences downtown, an uptown cabaret was the hottest ticket for revelers seeking a more racially charged atmosphere: Florence Mills, part diva, part sprite, had won attention in Shuffle Along and now headlined her own show, Dixie to Broadway, at the Plantation Club. Her own studio tests of her signature song have vanished, her high, thin voice deemed unrecordable, but her vaudeville sister in arms, Eva Taylor (wife to jazztrepreneur Clarence Williams) cut the record with two New Orleanians on horns: a young Louis Armstrong on cornet, and a prematurely middle-aged Sidney Bechet on high, fluttery soprano sax, imitating the bird trills which were part of Florence’s own act. The song’s cornball, but protests racial injustice on the sly.
4. Rosa Henderson and the Choo Choo Jazzers: “Hard Hearted Hannah”
Like “Blackbird,” “Hard Hearted Hannah” was written by white Tin Pan Alley hacks as a parody of Black life which Black performers turned into creative expressions of Black life. The singer most associated with the song, Margaret Young, was a white woman bawling faux-blues in the pattern of Marion Harris’s early work; but my favorite version is by Rosa Henderson, one of the great largely-forgotten female blues singers of the 20s. She digs into the vaudevillian swagger of the song, the lyrics’ larger-than-life portrait of a maneater, but the relish in her voice makes this no warning to piously virginal lads, but a celebration of a woman’s spectacular revenge. In a lifetime of perpetual masculine threat, turning the tables—if only in art—is sublime.
5. Bessie Smith: “Hateful Blues”
But a class division was emerging among blues singers, between those who sang white men’s songs and those who did not. One of the compensations Bessie Smith earned by having been the Empress of the Blues for years before she condescended to step before a recording horn is that her catalogue was immediately composed of top-shelf Black blues composers. “Hateful Blues,” like many of her 1924 records, was written by Perry Bradford, then famous as the writer (or perhaps the compositor) of “Crazy Blues.” But what makes the record fascinating is the unusual accompaniment: New York violinist Robert Robbins, whose only recording credits are this handful of Bessie Smith sessions, creates a haunting but unmistakably rural soundtrack which would inspire genre-agnostic fiddlers like Bob Wills.
6. Uncle Dave Macon: “All I’ve Got’s Gone”
The trickle of recording interest in the (white) rural Southern and Appalachian musical circuits which had developed out of sight of the Northern urban show-business centers begins to pick up steam; banjoist and singer Uncle Dave Macon, an “old-time” medicine-show and rural vaudeville performer from Nashville (note the town), whose repertoire included nineteenth-century minstrel tunes as well as Scots-Irish reels, Black work songs, Baptist hymnody, and songs of his own composition, or at least of his own stitched-together pattern. “All I’ve Got’s Gone,” cut at his first recording session in June 1924, was notated as “comedy” on the label; to modern ears it sounds more like a proto-rock blues, the plucky defeatism of Bert Williams mingled with the stark, pugnacious delivery of bluegrass to come.
7. Vernon Dalhart: “The Prisoner’s Song”
There never was any pure, unadulterated country music free from the taint of commercialism, show business, or city slickers looking to horn in on the racket. Texas-born Vernon Dalhart had both herded cattle and attended the Dallas Conservatory of Music, and sang light classical and pop tunes on record since 1916. When he lucked into a million-selling record as a sort of genteel cowboy singer (to the endless frustration of generations of rare 78 collectors who barked their shins against crates of his well-worn discs in every tin shack in the remotest South), his polished baritone rendition of a prison-yard lament, bending notes only around the edges, was both entirely inauthentic and an aspirational sound to white poverty, prefiguring the countrypolitan of decades to come.
8. Alcides Briceño y Jorge Añez: “El novillo despuntado”
Minstrelsy gone feral, scrubbed-up blues, Scots-Irish velocity, and parlor song sentiment: there’s one more ingredient in the gumbo that makes up country music, and it’s the least acknowledged of them all: the immense variety of crude, earthy, elegant, sentimental, and regionally inflected music sung in Spanish on both sides of the Rio Grande. “El novillo despuntado” (the dehorned steer) is one of the great cowboy corridos, traced to the northern Mexican state of Sonora, but otherwise unattributed; it’s seemingly been recorded by every norteño act ever. In one of its earliest recordings, Briceño and Añez, Victor’s house Latin-American duo, give a lonesome rural spin, with dragging violins against corrido guitars, to the timeless lament over a lost, defenseless ox which then evokes a lost love.
9. Juan de la Cruz y Bienvenido León: “Que partes el alma”
The classic era of Cuban son gathered strength throughout the early 1920s: duet partners Juan de la Cruz (tenor and clave player) and Bienvenido León (baritone and maracas player) had been making trova (guitar-accompanied traditional Cuban song) records for a decade, but their 1924 recordings, cut in an unusual international session by Edison in New York, with intricate guitar accompaniment by Alberto Villalón, are redolent of the modern, street-level son then being developed in Havana by transplants from the island’s Oriente plantations. Unpolished but rhythmic, with a strong melodic sense and powerful harmonies, the trio created a ragged but deathless performance here. It’s not their last: we will hear from them in years to come as part of the decade’s most legendary Cuban music collective.
10. King Oliver, Piano Accompaniment Jelly Roll Morton: “King Porter”
One of the last of the first generation of jazzmen makes a belated appearance in these pages. Ferdinand LaMothe, who changed his name to Morton to avoid disgrace to his Creole family after they threw him out for being a piano professor in Storyville whorehouses, published the first sheet-music jazz back in 1915, “Jelly Roll Blues.” The original “King Porter (A Stomp)” was a solo piano cut he made in July 1923. This duet toward the end of 1924 is practically a supergroup recording: two legends convening for a single two-sided disc for the tiny, experimental Autograph label, owned by a Chicago electrical engineer. It is the first electrically-recorded record we’ve heard, and the sudden sonic intimacy of cornet and piano opens a new world.
11. Ma Rainey Acc. by her Georgia Band: “See See Rider Blues”
Regardless of how it’s spelled, Ma Rainey’s signature tune “See See Rider” is one of the most frequently recurring tunes of the twentieth century, thanks to an indelible blues melody and the power of Rainey’s collection of scattered blues imagery. Heartache, regret, renunciation, and murderousness each take their turn in her verses, delivered with her typical warmth and ease: you may not believe that she feels these emotions in the moment, but that’s not the point of her art: she’s singing them as an incantation, to protect the hearer from the trouble they describe. The emotional heft in the song, the whirlwind of feelings, are left to the wailing, barnstorming band, featuring Louis Armstrong on cornet, Buster Bailey on clarinet, and Fletcher Henderson on piano.
12. Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra: “Copenhagen”
Georgian college graduate Henderson had been playing as a pick-up studio performer accompanying blues singers since 1920; but in 1924 he began leading his own band: Armstrong on trumpet, Bailey on clarinet, and most crucially, Don Redman on saxophone and arrangements. “Copenhagen” was a dance-band tune composed by Midwesterner Charlie Davis; the arrangement recorded by the white Ohio jazz band the Wolverines (remember them) made it a minor hit. But when Redman’s intelligent arrangement, contrasting funky, slippery solos with composed full-band orchestrations, had been waxed, the ambition and scale of dance-oriented jazz reached a new level. “Copenhagen” might be the first swing record: at least its rhythmic charge is a world beyond what the bland, white Synco-Pep bands then blanketing the nation could have achieved.
13. Marion Harris: “It Had to Be You”
Perhaps the most innocuous, even soporific, standard in the entire pre-rock Tin Pan Alley catalogue, the long zombie life of “It Had to Be You” is as good an argument as any for Why Punk Had to Happen, assuming the likes of Louis Jordan and Hank Williams were punk. (They were.) Even here, at its inception, “It Had to Be You” is more of a dreamy reverie than the sprightly fox-trots for which bandleader and composer Isham Jones was known. Its chords are sturdy enough to build eternal illusions on, and Gus Kahn’s unpretentious but seamlessly-rhymed lyrics are generalized enough to nurse any era’s self-delusions. Easy listening before any listening was particularly hard, but pretty enough to evoke a vanished romanticism for decades to come.
14. Georgius: “Les plus bath des javas”
There were only seven years between them, but George Job (Georgel) and Georges Guibourg (Georgius) represent different generations in French popular song. Georgel was in the line of Belle Époque peacocks like Félix Mayol; Georgius was a Modern, comfortable with the faster pace and sharper wit of the Twenties. “Les plus bath des javas” was his biggest hit, a satirical narrative about two denizens of Paris’s underworld who turn to prostitution and theft, punctuated by the ironic “Ah-ah-ah, listen to this, isn’t it pleasant? It’s the prettiest java!” The “java” was the characteristic Parisian dance of the 1920s, close-held with small steps, intensifying the sexual excitement of the fox-trot and other modern dances. Georgius’ performance, however, belongs more to the music-hall than to the dance-hall.
15. Emma Liébel: “Pars”
We’ve gestured toward chanson réaliste before, but Emma Liébel is the first serious exponent of the form to appear here: she had been popular through the 1910s, but as popular song grew in ambition in the 1920s, she cut some of her greatest records shortly before her 1926 retirement due to tuberculosis. “Pars” (Leave) is less réaliste than universel: it was written by Jean Lenoir, and in Liébel’s voice is one of the great songs of renunciation. Her rich alto is one of the starting points for Édith Piaf, and the fully orchestral arrangement, muddy as it is due to the acoustic recording, is a distinctly European approach to popular song: free from the percussiveness of American (North or South) song, it lurches with her.
16. Grupo de Sebastião, Cantado por Francisco Alves e coro: “Miúdo”
By contrast, this Brazilian samba is for all practical purposes nothing but percussion: the chorus imitates the heavy bateria drumline of Carnaval sambas. Francisco Alves was one of the legends of the first generation of samba recording, whose first record was cut in 1919; only lack of space has prevented us from reaching him earlier. Still a young man, he will become the primary male voice of the Golden Age of Samba, the Brazilian equivalent of Carlos Gardel or Bing Crosby. But in “Miúdo,” written by Black sambista Sebastião Santos Neves, he’s upstaged by the chorus shouting out percussive triplets like “tam tam tam,” “bam, bam, bam,” and finally “ba-ta-clan,” which last is a reference to a local cabaret named after the famous Parisian venue.
17. Carlos Gardel: “Griseta”
It was not surprising that France held a romantic attraction to Americans of both hemispheres in the 1920s: after a decade in which clash-of-civilizations propaganda pitted elegant, poetic France against coarse, industrial Germany, Paris was the gathering place for would-be aesthetes and entertainers from around the world. “Griseta,” composed by Enrique Delfino along elevated harmonic lines rather than adapting traditional criollo tunes, with a lyric by Francophile José González Castillo which namechecks characters from classic bohemian novels by Murger, Prevost, and Dumas fils, was one of the most successful tangos in Argentina during the 1920s. Still, Gardel and his accompanists emphasize the tango rhythm so forcefully that no one could mistake it for a chanson: Buenos Aires has a romantic melting-pot elegance of its own.
18. Marika Papagika: “I gineka pou skotoni”
Paris had also, as we have seen, played its part in popularizing the tango throughout Europe: as we move forward, many more countries than Argentina will be producing classic tango records within their own national traditions. Marika Papagika, the great Anatolian Greek singer based in New York, here sings a tango written by prolific Greek composer Themis Naltsas, the title of which translates as “The Woman Who Kills.” It’s less a murder ballad than a lament for a boy led astray, but it was a hugely popular song in the Greek world, recorded many times during the 1920s. Papagika’s recording was the first, and if the studio musicians render the tango rhythm rather flat-footed, it’s a fascinating instance of musical hybridity emerging into something new.
19. Naftule Brandwein’s Orchester: “Wie bist die gewesen vor Prohibition?”
Five years into the Noble Experiment, it was obvious to all but the staunchest Drys that it was a failure. Indeed, Prohibition as a cultural force left remarkably little trace in the popular-song record, in which it was merely assumed that everyone was drinking just as much as they actually were, in the same way that subsequent waves of Prohibition would fail to prevent pop music celebrating pot, ecstasy, or lean. This freilach record, based on an old Ashkenazi dance tune, was originally recorded by accordionist N. Hollander in 1915 under a Yiddish title which translates as “Where were you when the money was gone?” Brandwein’s sly update of the title to “Where were you before Prohibition?” and his flashy, pirouetting clarinet, are thoroughly modern.
20. Kandel’s Orchestra: “Die chasidim forren tsum Rebbin”
George Gershwin was not the only Jewish New Yorker adapting the vernacular music which surrounded him to more theatrical, extended compositions. Harry Kandel, who had studied at the Odessa Conservatory before emigrating to the US in 1905, had played in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and John Philip Sousa’s band before founding his own orchestra. He’s turned up here before, but this is perhaps his magnum opus, a twelve-inch record that stretches to over four minutes arranged as a miniature suite, with passages both spoken and sung. It was composed by Kandel as a virtuosic (and also comic) setpiece, and belongs to the tradition of Jewish theatrical music rather than klezmer. It was a last bow: Kandel retired in 1924 to run a music store.
21. Niño de Cabra y Ramón Montoya, guitarrista: “Que te quise con locura (Malagueña)”
The first generation of flamenco musicians to record set a standard which later generations would find almost impossible to improve, although that wouldn’t stop them from trying. Cayetano Muriel Reyes, called Niño de Cabra, was perhaps the first great cantaor from the northern Andalusian city of Córdoba; flamenco had historically clustered around the more southerly cities of Granada, Seville, and Cadiz. This record, in which he sings against the playing of legendary flamenco guitarist Ramón Montoya, is a superb example of his style, both delicate and passionate, with a deep feeling for Montoya’s rhythm. Already in his fifties at the time of this recording, Niño de Cabra would live to see his old, traditional style (he was a student of Antonio Chacón) supplanted by upstarts.
22. Olive Kline: “Indian Love Call”
The theatrical sensation of 1924 was the operetta Rose-Marie by Rudolf Friml, born in Prague but established on Broadway. An ingenuous, sentimental tale of love in the, uh, exotic Canadian Rockies, it was balderdash in specifics but beloved for Friml’s sumptuous, endlessly hummable score, which sounded to tired middle-aged ears as though the glory days of Franz Léhar and Victor Herbert had returned right in the middle of the honking, squawking Jazz Age. It was no mistake: impresario Arthur Hammerstein had shepherded The Merry Widow and Naughty Marietta to stage, and his fingerprints were all over Rose-Marie as well: his nephew, Oscar, was put to work on the book and lyrics. The lasting hit, through dozens of permutations and genres, was this weird fake-Native warble.
23. Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers: “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel”
An African-American concert choir who sang as much for hire as for the glorification of the Lord, the Jubilee Singers were founded by choirmaster William C. Elkins, who had led the chorus in Williams and Walker shows—Payne’s identity has been lost to history. And Elkins himself wasn’t necessarily involved in this recording: the label notes Eloise Uggams as the choral director on this recording. Perhaps that’s her solo voice leading the chorus on this spiritual; in any case, the arrangement is so powerful that it sticks in the head as surely as any pop song: if you’ve heard this record, you’ll remember it forever. The group recorded secular material as well, even lending Negro authenticity to dance-band records, but this is their shining moment.
24. The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski: “Afternoon of a Faun”
The Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé first sketched a poem about a faun’s idyll in 1865, and published it in its final form in 1876. The Impressionist composer Claude Debussy debuted his symphonic “Prélude” of the poem, which has been read as the first orchestral masterpiece of the twentieth century, in 1894. The Polish-Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed a ballet to Debussy’s music, imbuing his lithe, muscular body with the frank eroticism of the poem, in 1912. Each of these events was a shock to the Paris of their day; but by 1924, when after three attempts Polish-British conductor Leopold Stokowski finally engraved the Prelude onto disc, it had simply become part of the canon, lapped in erotic freedom by a newer and more loose-swinging generation.