On Affected Drawls, the Relation between Sexual and Financial Independence, and Transcendent Murmurs
1. Jimmie Rodgers: “Blue Yodel”
Not every immense leap forward feels like one at the time. This one does. Despite, or maybe because of, the affected drawl, the bare bones self-accompaniment, the frozen-in-amber blues structure, this is no longer “old-time” or “hillbilly” music. It’s country, the first country record, or rather the first record that later generations of country music could recognize as participating in its stream. It’s not even Rodgers’ first record: it was cut several months after some well-publicized sessions in a hotel room in Bristol, Tennessee. But you print the legend. And those sobbing yodels are the stuff of legend: something much older than recording itself, yet a brand new spirit on the earth. [...]
2. The Carter Family: “Single Girl, Married Girl”
This side was cut in Bristol, with Ralph Peer squinting behind the recording equipment at cousins and sisters-in-law (each married to a different Carter brother) Sara and Maybelle as Sara strummed her autoharp and sang and Maybelle thumbed her guitar. A. P., Sara’s husband, “didn’t like” the song, which is hardly surprising, since it does nothing to flatter the male ego. Not that it’s feminist, either: whether you think the life of the single girl or the married sounds better depends a lot on what you value. Fashion or convenience, materialism or emotional release, independence or motherhood: either can be a hell or a heaven. Sara’s gnomic impartiality makes it eternal.
3. De Ford Bailey: “Pan American Blues”
The third way (after Rodgers and the Carters) in which country music began as a coherent cultural force in 1927 was the debut of the phrase “Grand Ole Opry” during the WSM Barn Dance show broadcast from Nashville. The first performer on that edition of the show was Tennessee native DeFord Bailey, a Black harmonica virtuoso who had developed his talent while confined to bed as a youthful polio victim. The number he played was “Pan American Blues,” his own composition musically imitating the chugging and whistling of the train that ran from Cincinnati to New Orleans. But beyond the novelty, remember: Blackness was present in country music from the beginning.
4. Mead Lux Lewis: “Honky Tonk Train Blues”
Another virtuosic Black man cut an epochal solo instrumental record which imitated a train in 1927; his name misspelled on the label, the skillful flash of his fingers not yet codified as boogie-woogie, it’s still a step into the future, dazzling with its technical brio and giddy high spirits. Lewis may have been born in Louisville, but he certainly grew up in Chicago, where his playful imitation of dignified graybeards earned him the nickname “Duke of Luxembourg,” soon shortened to a snappy syllable. But the Latin word Lux, light, also applies to his brilliant style: glittering with astonishing rapidity, coruscating flashes anchored by the walking bassline of his strong left hand.
5. Richard (Rabbit) Brown: “James Alley—Blues”
The advent of electrical recording techniques and the concurrent discovery by the record companies that underserved markets existed for recordings of vernacular music of all kinds meant that hundreds, perhaps thousands of small-time musicians ended up on record who would never have been considered two years earlier (and within a few years would not be considered again). Richard Brown, called “Rabbit” due to diminutive stature, was a New Orleans street performer who scored the occasional saloon gig; he grew up in Jane Alley and composed original songs about local murders and national events. He recorded a handful of sides for Victor in 1927 (and probably 1929), then slipped silently into history.
6. Bessie Smith: “Back-Water Blues”
The flooding of the Mississippi River system in 1926 and 1927 left deep memories in recorded music: this song, cut two months before the worst of the Mississippi flooding, during which New Orleans dynamited a levee to drown a poorer and less populous parish and save the city center, was probably written by Smith in response to the Cumberland flood in Nashville the previous December, but which was not unrelated: high water, as someone will sing again in these pages, was everywhere. Accompanied only by James P. Johnson’s austere rolling swing, Smith casts herself as both Cassandra and citizen, prophesying the storm’s destructive inevitability but expressing it as personal loss too.
7. Victoria Spivey: “Dope Head Blues”
The typical pattern of vernacular music, in which women sing songs of betrayal and heartbreak while men sing songs of fantastic boasting (a generalization but not an untrue one) is broken here: Texas-born Victoria Spivey gets to play the braggart, comparing herself to John D. Rockefeller and the Prince of Wales, thanks to the conceit of singing the drugged-out ramblings of an opiated fantasist. Lonnie Johnson’s dry, understated guitar raises an eyebrow even as it runs through the usual blues figures, but her own reserved, sweet-flat voice, hiding a buried smirk, gives away the truth: it’s easy to see why men brag and boast so often, because it’s so much fun.
8. Rosita Quiroga: “A media luz”
One of the perfect recordings of the Golden Age of Tango, an alchemy of superb song, ideal interpreter, and witty arrangement that symbolizes an entire vanished era. Lyrically it’s just a description of a Buenos Aires apartment where the lighting is fashionably dim, but the implications are there for the drawing-out, and Quiroga’s kittenish warble transforms the song from being a potential portrait of lovebird domesticity (as its composers may have intended) to being a portrait of female financial and (not unrelated) sexual independence, facilitated by the latest technology and a guarantee of discretion. Tango’s move from underworld seediness to bland cultural patrimony suggested that class barriers could be permeable too.
9. Francisco Alves, Orchestra Pan American do Casino Copacabana: “Passarinho do má”
The first electrical recording released in Brazil included this theatrical samba mocking former President Arthur Bernardes as a “little bird of evil” who brings bad luck everywhere the singer looks. A representative of the landed-gentry interests of Minas Gerais, Bernardes had repressed modernizing reformists in São Paulo with aerial bombardment and declared a state of emergency; his successor, Washington Luís, was equally satirized in the show Vais então Luíz. Cosmopolitan composer Duque provides concrete, witty folkloric imagery to express the evils of Bernardes’ rule, but the rather starchy backing band and the all-together-now chanted verses betray it as a middle-class revue number rather than a samba carnavalesca embraced by the people.
10. Rita Montaner: “Rumba guajira”
This too is theatrical, sung by a high-voiced, classically-trained singer who appeared in zarzuelas (Spanish-language operettas) and sang romantic ballads. But the spirit of the age was to incorporate the contemporary vernacular into the high-status theatrical, and she cut a few records in 1927 composed by Moisés Simons, a notable zarzuelist who kept an ear to the sounds of the Havana streets. “Rumba guajira” is neither a rumba nor a guajira, but a polite story-song relating the success of a dancer from the country making it big in the city, with the “brin-quin-tin-tin” refrain as a musical description of her flashing feet. Montaner, accompanying herself on piano, is a delightful presence.
11. Damia: “Les ménétriers”
The musical and theatrical genre of chanson réaliste developed at the same time that French Decadent literature and poetry did, so it’s not quite surprising that Damia, the greatest pre-Piaf exponent of chanson réaliste (she was the first to stand on a black stage with a spotlight dramatically lighting only her head, bare shoulders, and expressive hands), in her first appearance here, is singing a fin-de-siècle setting of a deeply Decadent poem written by Jean Richepin, Algerian-born enfant terrible of the literary 1870s who was deeply besotted with Romani culture. The violins here are certainly tzigane, sawing wildly as Damia declaims Richepin’s apocalyptic image of supernatural fiddlers bargaining with the dead.
12. Mlle. Joséphine Baker: “Blue Skies”
Meanwhile, at the Folies-Bergère, Mlle. Baker is charming the intelligentsia with the simple primitivism of the American civilization. Her rendition of this year’s Irving Berlin contribution toward the positive-thinking fad is neither remotely African nor particularly French, though it was recorded in Paris with local musicians: U.S. jazz-song conventions have wrapped round the world already. The Stateside hit record of the song was by Ben Selvin’s dance-band, and Al Jolson sang it in a notable movie; but Josephine Baker’s deliciously naïve vocals (like every great pop singer, she turned her limitations into assets) fit the deliciously naïve lyrics so well that Berlin’s famous minor-key modulation feels like her own uncertainty.
13. Marion Harris: “The Man I Love”
That the woman who made the record industry safe for female blues should, in her last appearance here, be the woman who introduces the perfection of the Gershwins’ ballad art isn’t as incongruous as it might seem. “The Man I Love” isn’t a blues song, but it is harmonically blue: specifically, it’s a recapitulation of an early Rhapsody in Blue theme, and although the recording strolls at a much less martial pace than “After You’ve Gone,” it owes just as much to the blues. As well as to modernism: musicologists have heard Stravinsky and Schoenberg in it, but neither of them had access to Ira Gershwin’s flippant wit and steadfast sentiment.
14. Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra: “Riverboat Shuffle”
If I had to choose one record to show that by 1927 white jazzmen had, ten years after the ODJB first laid spurious claim to the music, begun to compete (in complexity and sympathetic responsiveness, if not in feeling or funk) with their Black betters, this would head the list. Only lack of room has kept us from tracing the youthful Midwestern careers of saxophonist Trum, cornetist Bix, guitarist Lang, and their coevals already: this is their second time recording their pal Hoagy’s breezy, harmonically-astute rag, but the way they give each other space for solos and dance around each other in the choruses speaks to a new sense of polyphonic sophistication.
15. Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra: “Rusishe Sher”
Jewish musicians in New York City, who have been committing their freilach music to record for some twenty years now, have not been unaffected by the broader transformations happening in American music. Violinist and bandleader Abe Schwartz first recorded his composite of traditional wedding dances in 1920, but this version, with Dave Tarras on yelping clarinet, is nearer to jazz than he’s ever been before: the decidedly non-Bessarabian tenor banjo keeping rhythm is just one way in which the broader national fascination with Black hot music is penetrating immigrant enclaves. Harmonically it’s still very much klezmer, not jazz: but a time is coming when musicians steeped in both traditions won’t differentiate.
16. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: “Creole Love Call”
The flip side of this record (Victor 21137), “Black and Tan Fantasie,” has just as strong a claim, perhaps even stronger, to inclusion here. It’s a landmark recording of immense harmonic and conceptual sophistication; whereas this, the title gesturing toward a minstrel parody of Rudolf Friml’s kitsch smash “Indian Love Call,” is only astonishing texturally, not structurally. Adelaide Hall’s wordless croon, growling like a muted trumpet, sighing like a breathy sax, is both more playful and more imaginatively audacious than any singing we’ve heard before, save perhaps Louis Armstrong’s. Hall’s vivacious nightclub act only briefly intersected with Ellington; uncredited here, she never became as popular on record as she was live.
17. Wilmoth Houdini: “Hit and Run Away”
Sam Manning’s “West Indian jazz” made him a sort of second-hand calypsonian; Wilmoth Houdini, who moved to New York in 1927, was the real thing. Backed here by legendary Trinidadian bandleader Lionel Belasco on piano with future bandleaders Gerald Clark on guitar and Cyril Monrose on violin, Houdini sings with characteristic verve about the unreliableness of the younger generation in matters of the heart. Belasco, again, is credited with the songwriting, and the rather old-fashioned string-band arrangement marks these sessions as perhaps intended to be more folkloric than pop in affect: but the rhythmic ingenuity and charismatic intensity of Houdini’s singing makes it a lasting contribution to the popular canon regardless.
18. George Williams Aingo: “Suantsi”
In the spring and summer of 1927, Ghanaian musician and singer George Williams Aingo recorded a series of solo and small-group sessions in Middlesex, England. These were, if not absolutely the first recordings of sub-Saharan African music, at least among the first, and achieved enough of a sales presence among the phonograph owners of the Gold Coast that Aingo recorded steadily over the next two years, becoming Zonophone’s talent scout, arranger, and in a pinch co-performer on West African records in a number of languages. “Suantsi” is in Fante, and it’s one of the first highlife records, with a spidery guitar serving notice that Africa is as modern as everywhere else.
19. Tetos Demetriades: “Misirlou”
The Arabic word for Egypt is Miṣr, which Turkish borrowed for the demonym Mısırlı, which Anatolian Greek borrowed for the feminization Misirlou: “Egyptian woman.” Which is why this slow tsifteteli, recorded in New York by a man who would soon do more behind the scenes at Victor than in front of the microphone, has cod-Arabic orchestration: already, in its first recording, this is no hard-bitten folk rendition of a song old enough to have no certain provenance, but a lavish setpiece commemorating the lost polyglot coexistence once possible in the Ottoman Mediterranean. Arabic, Berber, Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Ashkenazi people have all claimed it as their own, and they’re all right.
20. Sofka sa svojim ciganskim orkestrom: “Cajle Manojle”
Demetriades’ refrain “Aman, Misirlou” is echoed here, as Sofka Nikolić cries “Aman!” between verses of the memorably romantic Serbian folk song “Cojle Manojle.” It’s an originally Arabic interjection widespread throughout the former Ottoman empire, roughly corresponding to English “Alas!” or “Have mercy!” or even “Wow!” Nikolić was only nineteen when she recorded this song with her violinist husband Paje Nikolić’s “gypsy orchestra,” but she was already one of the biggest singing stars in the then-new kingdom of Yugoslavia, with a powerful voice and a deep connection to the Romani-identified musical traditions that gave so much of Eastern Europe, from the Balkans to Moscow and Vienna, a haunting, emotive, energetic, minor-key soundtrack.
21. Gilda Mignonette: “Cartulina ’e Napule”
By the time she moved permanently to New York in 1924, Gilda Mignonette (the stage name of Naples-born Griselda Andreantini) had toured everywhere from Moscow to Buenos Aires and São Paulo, singing Italian arias and Neapolitan canzoni. But “A Cartulina ’e Napule,” postcard from Naples, became her biggest hit in 1927, a tearjerking reminder to the Italian immigrant communities of the Americas of the fondly-remembered old country that the tides of fortune had pulled them away from, often never to return. Mignonette’s stage presence was more often in the role of a comedienne than that of a diva, which perhaps leant greater pathos to this dialect lament for home and mother.
22. José Mojica: “Júrame”
Mexican music has often received short shrift in these pages, as much a reflection of the unsettled state of the industry following the decade-long Revolution as of my own biases toward vernacular music, only beginning to steal onto disc in the electrical era. Not that this is at all vernacular: José Mojica, born in Jalisco, was a thoroughly bel canto singer who routinely performed the European canon as a member of the Chicago Civic Opera. But on record he preferred to sing in Spanish, and so both he and composer María Grever, Mexico-born and New York-based, had their first pan-Latin hit with this sentimental bolero, delivered in Mojica’s sensitive, burnished tenor.
23. Andrés Segovia: “Tremolo Study”
The greatest twentieth-century exponent of the Spanish classical guitar tradition began his recording career in 1927. This 1896 Francisco Tárrega piece is usually known as “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” a reference to the fourteenth-century emirate palace in Granada, the intricate arabesque patterns of which are reflected in the difficult tremolo patterns required of the guitarist. Segovia, who had studied with Tárrega, is of course a sublime player—as of this recording he was in his thirties, and had abandoned early efforts in flamenco for a pursuit of the austere classical canon—and the delicacy of his touch, impossible to capture by the old acoustic means, is surprising and moving even today.
24. Bix Beiderbecke: “In a Mist”
1927 was the high point in the professional and artistic life of a twenty-four-year-old Iowan musical prodigy enchanted by jazz as a teenager and who devoted the rest of his life, usually recklessly, to its pursuit. A series of noteworthy cornet solos on record from white jazz outfits like the Wolverines, Jean Goldkette’s dance band, and Frankie Trumbauer’s more ad-hoc band made him a star among the (white) jazz-mad youth, but one of the several dozen sides he recorded in 1927 was this solitary piano solo, harmonically delicate and wistful even in its splashy jazz-inflected buoyancy, rhythm smiling while the chords sigh. The remainder of his brief life would be decline.
25. Washington Phillips: “Lift Him Up That’s All”
Some version of a gospel tradition has been part of recorded music from the beginning: hymns were among the first music committed to wax. But the record companies’ no-stone-unturned dedication to recording and monetizing every bit of exploitable musical talent they could get their hands on in the second half of the 1920s meant that choristers’ robes and sermons in mid-Atlantic accents were far in the rearview: jack-leg preachers were just as likely as ordained ministers to cut sides, so long as they sounded compelling. Washington Phillips was a faithful Texas farmer and parishioner of multiple churches whose self-built “manzarene” dulcimers provide a ghostly sweet accompaniment to his earnest, intensely-felt hymnody.
26. Cantor Josef Rosenblatt: “Hinenee Heone (Here I Stand Before Thee)”
The most momentous pop-culture event of 1927, at least as far as general-audience histories are concerned today, was the release of the first-ever talking picture, The Jazz Singer. Star Al Jolson didn’t debut any songs there: it was all catalog stuff. But Yossele Rosenblatt, who essayed the role of the showman’s disapproving father (there were really only four years between the two men), did cut an important record in 1927: the traditional Ashkenazic prayer “Hineni he’ani mimaas,” a powerful invocation of human fallibility and dependence upon the forgiveness of the Almighty recited at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosenblatt’s soaring instrument is a magnificent means of expressing the sublimity of prayer.
27. Blind Willie Johnson: “Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground”
One of the most unearthly records ever made, cut by a blind itinerant preacher and singer who hung a tin can from the neck of his guitar to collect tips as he sang on Dallas street corners, sliding a knife blade up and down the frets in order to create the sounds he had taught himself to wrench from the strings in childhood. On other records, he uses a booming, full-bodied holler that could be heard for blocks regardless of traffic, but on this one, a call-and-response duet between his aching guitar and his largely-wordless singing on a theme suggested by the Anglican hymn “Gethsemane,” he produces only a pained, transcendent murmur.
Appendix: 73 further masterpieces from 1927
For the glory years of electrical recording, I’m continuing to round out the list to an even hundred. I could easily have written a paragraph on each of these records, each of which deserves a spot on the main list, but there were only 27 spots and I had to make choices. The worst part is all the amazing records that have to go unmentioned because I indefensibly narrowed their performers’ catalog to a single entry. These years represent an embarrassment of riches toward which I can only vaguely gesture.
Osvaldo Fresedo: “Milonga con variación”
Carlos Gardel: “Barrio Reo”
Mercedes Simone: “Estampa rea”
Agustín Magaldi: “Adiós muchachos”
Azucena Maizani: “Cuando llora la milonga”
Gastão Formenti: “Anoitecer”
Sexteto Habanero: “Aquella boca”
Eusebio Delfín: “El pobre Adán”
Euterpe Porto Rican Orchestra: “¡¡Alabao!! Que cintura”
Margarita Cueto y Carlos Mejía: “Nunca”
Sam Manning: “Lignum Vitae”
Lionel Belasco’s Orchestra: “Violets—Venezuelan Waltz”
Paradela d’Oliveira: “Fado da Sé Velha”
Artur Paredes: “Variações em ré menor”
La Niña de los Peines, Acompañamiento de guitarra por el Niño Ricardo: “Tango flamenco”
Conchita Piquer: “En tierra extraña”
Libertad Lamarque: “La chica del 17”
Dora Stroëva: “Déjà”
Fréhel: “C’est la vase des costauds”
Émile Vacher: “Reine de musette”
Maurice Chevalier: “Moi z-et elle”
Paolo Citarella: “Luna mezzomare”
Paul O’Montis: “Lost River Blues”
Ludwig Hoffmann: “Leb wohl, mein Schatz”
Dajos Béla and His Dance Orchestra: “Jalousie”
Feodor Chaliapin with the Aristoff Choir and Balalaika Orchestra: “Black Eyes”
Annie Lubin: “Annie, Ikh shtarb avek nukh dir”
Boibriker Kapelye: “Ch’sidishe nigunim”
Achilleas Poulos: “Muhayyer gazel (The Rival)”
Amalia Bakas: “O Berbantis”
Hafız Kemal Bey: “Şimşir i Nigâhın”
Umm Kulthum: “Ala aini elhagr”
The West African Instrumental Quintet: “Adersu No. 2”
Professor Abdul Aziz Khan: “Vichtra veena instrumental”
Kalama’s Quartette: “Wahine Ui”
Kane’s Hawaiians: “Hilo”
Sol Hoopii’s Novelty Trio: “12th Street Rag”
Truett and George: “Ghost Dance”
Joe Venuti - Ed Lang, Violin and Guitar: “Wild Cat”
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five: “Savoy Blues”
Alberta Hunter, Thomas Waller at Organ: “Sugar”
Margaret Johnson: “Dead Drunk Blues”
Luke Jordan: “Cocaine Blues”
Jim Jackson: “I’m a Bad Bad Man”
Big Bill and Thomps: “House Rent Stomp”
Frankie Jaxon: “Willie the Weeper”
Sylvester Weaver: “Guitar Rag”
Lonnie Johnson: “Woke Up with the Blues in My Fingers”
James P. Johnson: “Snowy Morning Blues”
Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull—Down Home Boys: “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues”
Ted Lewis and His Band: “Frankie and Johnny”
Ruth Etting: “Shaking the Blues Away”
Original Memphis Five (Vocal Chorus, Annette Hanshaw): “Wistful and Blue”
Broadway Nitelites, vocal chorus by Franklyn Baur: “Thou Swell”
Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys: “Sweet L’il/Ain’t She Sweet”
Fred Rich and his Hotel Astor Orchestra, Vocal chorus by Johnny Marvin: “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune”
Helen Kane: “Get Out and Get Under the Moon”
Gene Austin: “My Blue Heaven”
Vaughn De Leath: “Are You Lonesome Tonight”
Fanny Brice: “The Song of the Sewing Machine”
The Revelers: “I’m in Love Again”
Nick Lucas: “Side By Side”
Jack Smith (The Whispering Baritone): “Me and My Shadow”
Willard Robison: “Deep Elm”
Crockett Ward & his Boys: “Sugar Hill”
Kelly Harrell (Virginia String Band): “My Name Is John Johanna”
Dykes Magic City Trio: “Cotton Eyed Joe”
Weems String Band: “Greenback Dollar”
Buell Kazee: “The Roving Cowboy”
“Dock” Boggs: “Pretty Polly”
Paul Robeson—Laurence Brown: “Witness”
Rev. Sister Mary M. Nelson: “Judgment”
The Rev. A. W. Nix and his Congregation: “Black Diamond Express to Hell”