X: 1910

 

On the Humors of Immigrants, the Wickedness of Dance Tunes, and the Infinite Corruptibility of Urbanites

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1. Nora Bayes: “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?”

The full tale of how the Irish became American is far beyond the purview of this website; but though it began deep in America’s past, before there was an America to exclude anyone from, it had not, as of 1910, been fully accomplished. Nora Bayes was Jewish (she was born Eleanor Goldberg), but she worked hard at assuming the brogues of a half-dozen different stereotypes, less in mockery than in melting-pot solidarity, though there was mockery too—immigrants love to laugh at nothing so much as themselves—and so became the preeminent queen of vaudeville for twenty years.

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2. Blanche Ring: “Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine”

A bare seven years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, the American—and global—imagination had been captured by the idea of unaided flight, and fantasias of the Highway of the Future unrolled in proto-sci-fi magazines, cartoon etchings, and of course popular song. It’s not surprising that a song based on the craze would filter it through the June-moon-spoon of romantic woo, but it’s maybe more surprising that the hit was made by a plummy contralto whose designs on Josephine may be entirely pure… but that’s not how we hear it today.

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3. Arthur Pryor’s Band: “Temptation Rag”

The sheer velocity of Pryor’s arrangement here is surprising even today; few ragtime revivalists would care to play a single piano arrangement at 120 bpm, let alone an entire brass band. Compare it to the New York Military Band’s rendition of the same year, and it’s the difference between Billy Ocean and Derrick May. But “Temptation Rag” also marks ragtime’s Elvis moment, when it switched from being a lowlife music played by black people and their disreputable admirers to the unexceptionable pop of the era; its composer, Thomas Henry Lodge, was white, and as stolidly middle-class as they come.

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4. Bert Williams: “Play that Barbershop Chord”

Ragtime music had been known in the US since 1893, when Scott Joplin had introduced it at the Chicago World’s Fair. But like any disreputable mixed-race music of the period—Argentinean tango, Brazilian samba, and Martinican biguine come to mind—it was not considered proper music for song; it was dance music only. 1910 saw the those already-loose restrictions relax considerably; and Bert Williams, already at the top of his game, jumped on the chance to insert a little funk into his comic patter. Typically, he misdirects: the “barbershop chord” isn’t used here, because it requires multiple voices.

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5. Billy Murray & Chorus: “Casey Jones, The Brave Engineer”

Casey Jones was a real railroad engineer who was killed trying to prevent the collision of two trains; the song that bears his name was (apparently) first sung by a black engine cleaner who had known him, and gained circulation for nearly a decade before two vaudeville chancers saw the chance to pick up some easy royalties and published it, copyright them. Along the way it had picked up some free-floating verses about an unfaithful wife—Jones’s widow was very upset about it all—and entered into American folklore; Carl Sandburg called it “the greatest [American] ballad ever written.”

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6. Candido Pereira da Silva & Grupo Carioca: “Saudações”

If you don’t know Portuguese, don’t assume you know what the title means just because you’ve heard of saudade—“saudações” actually means “greetings.” (This is, of course, the mistake I initially made.) Candido da Silva was one of the leading twentieth-century composers of choro, the national music of nineteenth-century Brazil, and one of the leading trombonists of the music; here his soft, elegant trombone style, juxtaposed against the rhythmic backing of the Grupo Carioca (group from Rio de Janeiro), points towards samba and even bossa nova. He taught and composed into the 1940s, but recorded rarely after this.

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7. Victor Light Opera Company: “Favorite Airs from The Arcadians

The Arcadians was one of the major musicals of Edwardian London, a gently comic fantasia that found the sweet spot between the earlier operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan and the later musical comedies of Noel Coward. Its plot was cheerful social satire: the unspoiled inhabitants of a hitherto-undiscovered Arcadia attempt—and, spoiler alert, fail—to convert wicked Londoners to their moral simplicity. This isn’t a cast recording, but experienced phonograph singers (you might recognize Billy Murray) singing “Arcadians are we,” “The Girl with a Brogue,” “Arcady is ever young,” “Charming Weather,” “Bring Me a Rose,” and “Truth is so beautiful.”

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8. Feodor Chaliapin: “Luchinushka”

One of the greatest operatic bassos of all time, Feodor Chaliapin was also one of the most dynamic performers of his generation, a magnetic and powerful singer who rose from peasant origins in tsarist Russia to become one of the most beloved ambassadors of Russian music around the world. His signature role was Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s opera of the same name, but he sang arias and songs of the people with equal relish and intensity. “Luchinushka” is a Russian folk song; the “luchina” of the title refers to a burning wooden splinter used by peasants to light their homes.

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9. Antonina Nezhdanova: “Otvet mne, zorkoe svetilo”

As clear and pure as Chaliapin was deep and stormy, Nezhdanova’s soprano was one of the most captivating and gorgeous voices recorded in the first half of the twentieth century, and though she rarely sang outside Russia, she sang a handful of enduring roles, including the Queen of Shemakha in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1909 The Golden Cockerel. This aria is usually called “Hymn to the Sun” in English (I believe the title translates to “Tell me, watchful light”), and it’s a moment of solitary beauty in an opera that covertly satirizes the military overreach and failure of the tsarist regime.

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10. Raymond Hitchcock: “So What’s the Use”

Almost entirely forgotten today, the comedian, singer and actor Raymond Hitchcock was a Broadway institution between 1900 and 1930, often playing a rumpled, blackly cynical, and genuinely funny character who often did the right thing by accident in shows built around his persona, W. C. Fields without the small-town hubris. His last-call croak of a voice—he was nearly fifty when he recorded this—was admirably suited to the recording technology of the era, and he recorded a lot; but this is perhaps his greatest song, a litany of mordant ambivalence and hyperbolic pessimism from a contemporary show.


 

IX: 1909

 

On the Clumsiness of Sentiment, the Destabilization of the Conventions, and the Striving Pinnacle of Getting Paid

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1. Ada Jones & Billy Murray: “Shine On, Harvest Moon”

It’s tempting to think that time used to move more slowly, as we opened with Coon Songs and find them if anything more popular a decade later, but that would be a misapprehension—the coon song, despite what people would later claim, was not a fad, but a baseline genre; not the Twist, but Rock and Roll. The need of songwriters and singers to shove their clumsy sentiments into the mouths of minstrel stereotypes can seem inexplicable a century on, but the Coon Song incubated American popular song more generally—it gave a demotic vocabulary to a tradition shaking itself free of parlor-song starch and operettic artifice, and learning how to jive.

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2. Bob Roberts: “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!”

Because the demotic alternative was the Husband Song, even more tiresome (because still alive today) in its hoary gags and chauvinist winks and grins than the Coon Song. The eagerness with which men were assumed to divest themselves of their marital chains (cf. contemporary comic strips, Mutt and Jeff inter alia) would be the stuff of intelligent midcentury farce in the hands of Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder, but here it’s a string of not very good jokes saved (if it is) by the naturalness of Roberts’ performance and a bit of gender play in the interpolation of Eva Tanguay’s signature catchphrase. Take note of the songwriter, too — he’s going places.

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3. May Irwin: “The Bully” *

Every culture celebrates outlaws and thereby destabilizes the conventions; but in American popular culture, when these outlaws are black there’s an extra frisson of unacceptability, of lines transgressed and fears realized, which makes the pleasure all the more potent. Even when sung by a plummy contralto of sufficient establishment stature as to be the first woman ever kissed in a movie, her Gay Nineties hit “The Bully” fails to be entirely comic, as Irwin dives with relish into the minstrel caricature and comes out the other side, whereupon a century of outlawed black machismo from Stagger Lee to Shaft to Stringer Bell opens up before our feet, and anything increasingly goes.

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4. Orquesta de Felipe Valdés: “Danzón”

When Jelly Roll Morton famously noted jazz’s “latin tinge” in interviews in the 1940s, he could have been thinking of Cuban danzón orchestras, which did not (yet) swing but did stomp, but the clarinets shriek high enough to anticipate Benny Goodman or Dave Tarras. This is another kind of blackness, filtered through another culture, a 1909 recording made by one of the least-celebrated bandleaders of the era, preserved so poorly that even the composition’s title has vanished from the historical record. Danzón is more genre than form, and this is a mélange: when the güiro takes up its steady rhythmic pulse, you can hear cumbia floating up from the Colombian coast.

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5. Rumynskii Orkestr Belfa: “Bessarabian Hora”

A hora, or chora, is a circular dance; Bessarabia is a region in Eastern Europe covering parts of modern-day Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine; if any place on earth was epicenter to the music which would much later be called klezmer, it was here. This recording by one of the leading Jewish bands of the region (in English, Belf’s Rumanian Orchestra) keeps the pace down, with bandleader V. Belf (so little known that all we have is an initial) letting his clarinet dance swoonily rather than frantically; later, jazz-inflected iterations of the same tune would add a galloping, dervish-like climax, but here the slink and moan of the music is enough.

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6. Eduardo das Neves: “Isto é Bom”

This too is blackness, but under different conditions than American coon song or Afro-Cuban danzón. Eduardo das Neves was a famous Brazilian entertainer, a black man who belonged to the palhaço (clown) tradition rather than to minstrel tradition (though the spheres were not entirely separate), as well as a poet, composer, and singer. Here he takes Xisto Bahia’s lundu composition “Isto é bom” (This is good) and slightly syncopates it, anticipating not only the sway of samba but the soft-spoken beauty of bossa nova. The familiar refrain pops up not only in later Brazilian music (as in any filmed Carnival) but in the wider world of Latin music—for example, “La Bamba.”

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7. Fisk University Jubilee Quartet: “Little David, Play on Yo’ Harp/Shout All Over God’s Heaven”

Although the sum total of American blackness cannot be represented by white people singing coon songs, American racism did not allow for black people to appear in their own voices (jazz and the blues were played, but went unrecorded for another decade), with rare exceptions. A sui generis genius like Bert Williams was one; the other was spirituals. The frozen-in-amber quality of spirituals—conventionally-orchestrated arrangements of songs sung by slaves and the children of slaves, their blackness forgiven by their piety—made them acceptable concert music to the broad white majority, funding black institutions like Fisk as well as anticipating the harrumphers to come who would revere soul but hate hip-hop.

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8. Polk Miller’s Old South Quartet: “Watermelon Party”

The difference between one quartet of black men and another is the difference between idealism and reality. The Fisk Quartet, approved by Washington and DuBois, represented the striving pinnacle of the race; Miller’s, approved by nobody but minstrel nostalgists, represented nothing beyond what they could conjure with rhythm and voice. Which mean cash; Miller (a white Southerner, Civil War veteran, and entrepreneur) ran a tight, commercial outfit, one which made enough of a profit to keep recording for decades, even after the white boss with the banjo and the crow’s voice passed on. This is an old minstrel fantasia expressed entirely in terms of appetite, like rock and rap after it.

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9. Victor Herbert Orchestra: “Rose of the World”

Then again, parlor-song starch and operettic artifice were not entirely exhausted (and never really would be, as ballads still sell), and indeed still went from strength to strength. Victor Herbert was the dean of American theatrical music of the era, his smash 1903 Babes in Toyland enabling him to do whatever he wished. He wished Rose of Algeria, a French-Foreign-Legion yarn, and the theme he wrote for the poem at the story’s center was of startling beauty and richness, ghosts of which still flutter through the grinding rumble of mechanical reproduction. He longed to be taken seriously as a classical composer, but instead invented easy listening, no small accomplishment in itself.


 

VIII: 1908

 

On the Democratization of Leisure Activity, the Expansion of Capitalism’s Horizons, and the Mutual Unintelligibility of the Latin Races

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1. Harvey Hindermeyer: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”

Any survey of American popular culture in the early twentieth century that doesn’t include baseball is necessarily incomplete. Unlike aristocratic cricket or hooligan-class football, as a commercial experience it was designed to appeal to as wide a range of potential customers as possible: the perfect pastime for the capitalist, demotic mobs flooding into America.

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written by vaudevillian Jack Norworth, who with his then-wife Nora Bayes was one of the top theatrical draws of the era. The verses (rarely heard today) are a standard mockery of boisterous, profligate Irishness which stood in for the American lower classes in the popular culture of the era; but once that indelible chorus swings up, everybody winds up singing along.

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2. The Zon-O-Phone Concert Band: “The Smiler (A Joplin Rag)”

The subtitle’s a reference to Joplin, Missouri—or so Percy Wenrich, the composer of the song, always claimed. He was born in Joplin, and was perhaps feeling nostalgic as a jobbing composer in Tin Pan Alley. It was a real place then: a row of buildings on 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan where composers rented cheap rehearsal space, and (the legend goes) was given the name because open windows resounded with such a racket of pianos that it was like the clatter of a dropped pan in a still house.

 But even accidental references to the proven hitmaker Scott Joplin wouldn’t hurt sheet-music sales, and this, for the Zonophone label, became one of the great ragtime recordings of the era.

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3. Abrega & Picazo: “Corrido de Macario Romero”

The Mexican ballad form known as the corrido is one of the longest unbroken musical traditions in the world, attested as far back as the 1820s, and still written today about drug trafficking and gang violence. This corrido of Macario Romero was one of the first to be recorded, and this rendition by popular duo Jesús Abrego and Leopoldo Picazo is an example of an unusually dialogue-based corrido, which are more often third-person narrative.

 Macario Romero was a folk-hero, a soldier in the Maximilian War of the 1860s (an event which also gave us Cinco de Mayo) who loved a woman, disobeyed his commanding officers in order to see her, and was killed by his enemies while dancing. As the song relates.

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4. Cuarteto Coculense: “La Malagueña”

The Cuarteto Coculense (quartet from Cocula, a town in the central Mexican state of Jalisco) is arguably the first recorded mariachi outfit in history. The bright horns we associate with mariachi today are nowhere to be found here—the principle instrument is a keening violin—but they were a later development. Mariachi refers not to trumpet lines but to the regional combos of Jalisco.

 This “Malagueña” is neither the classical and jazz standard written by Cuban Ernesto Lecuona, nor the Mexican “Malagueña Salerosa” that would be popularized by huapango singers in the 1940s, but a mariachi lament about (as all the others are too) an unfaithful woman from the Spanish port of Málaga. But the tight, tense focus of the music has its own narrative.

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5. Orchestre Tsigane du restaurant de Rat Mort: “Tango Bresilien (El Choclo)”

It’s a typical irony of the age that the most exciting musical development in Latin America had to emigrate to Europe to be recognized. We’ve met composer Ángel Villoldo before; but it wasn’t until a residency in Paris, its cafés and restaurants greedy for new dance crazes, the less polite the better, that one of his tangos was recorded. Even so, it was by an anonymous orchestra (the “Dead Rat” was a fashionable watering-hole in the artistic quarter), called “gypsy” to evoke a blanket exoticism, and to top it all off, the tango was misidentified as Brazilian.

 “El Choclo” (ear of corn) was one of the breakout hit tangos—but its first recording here is as sharp and moving as it would ever be.

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6. Haim Effendi: ”Tchakidji Turkessou

In the latter half of the first decade of the twentieth century, recording technology had spread like wildfire across the globe. No longer limited to American or Western European companies, studios were springing up all over, from Cairo to Hong Kong, as each new market unveiled people eager to buy the music of their culture—or even of another culture.

Haim Effendi was a Sephardic Jewish secular singer who operated within the dying remains of the Ottoman Empire; this song, recorded in Constantinople, lies at the crossroads of Ottoman culture, with suggestions of what was still becoming Greek rebetiko, Jewish klezmer, and even, toward the end, Sufi qawwali. The song is apparently about the Turkish folk hero Chakiji, a semi-mythical bandit like Robin Hood.

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7. Janki Bai: “Medine Men”

Every culture has its own classical music; to attempt to document it all thoroughly, even limited to early and important recordings, would be a fool’s errand. My primary concern here is with music that functions as a record, that fits the (absurdly short) time limitations of recorded music and that says something coherent and remarkable within that time and subject to those constraints.

 Hindustani classical music is notoriously epic in length, so it is perhaps fitting that the earliest representative of it we have is a “dancing girl” from the courts of Allahabad. Neither technically trained nor physically beautiful (she was scarred from knife fights), she was nevertheless adept at the art of keeping an audience rapt with the beauty of her sinuous, powerful voice.

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8. Edward M. Favor: “Fol the Rol Lol”

“Fol the Rol Lol,” a nineteenth-century comic song, is essentially a tune and a chorus to which limericks can be applied. The limerick, of course, is one of the all-time great dirty-joke constructions, but none of the limericks sung here are even slightly salacious.

But the real appeal of the song from today’s point of view is the way it’s constructed as a sound experience to remain fresh: obviously, an unvarying limerick rhythm will get tiresome, so the trick (borrowed no doubt from Favor’s vaudevillian experience) of adding a new comic instrument to each successive chorus, from drums to fifes to a fake bird-whistle, makes the drinking-song “hilarity” go down that much easier. Weirdly, the word “lol” is even appropriate.


 

VII: 1907

 

On Performing One’s Gender, Performing One’s Race, and Performing One’s Religion

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1. The Victor Dance Orchestra “The ‘Merry Widow’ Waltz”

If there’s a distinction between Operetta, the most prestigious form of light entertainment in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the Light Opera of the nineteenth century (think Gilbert and Sullivan), The Merry Widow is as useful a line of demarcation as any. Its frivolity and playfulness, its light, swimming musicality (unlike Arthur Sullivan’s music, you don’t miss the lyrics if you don’t get them), and most importantly its use of an ersatz Mitteleuropean principality as a fantasy setting defined the genre for a generation.

Franz Léhar’s Die lustige Witwe had been a sensation in Vienna for two years before the 1907 London production, starring Lily Elise as the widow of the title, made it a global hit. No original cast recordings seem to survive, but the music was everywhere: this is perhaps the recording that most emphasizes the waltz rhythm.

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2. Vess L. Ossman: “Maple Leaf Rag”

We began this story in the middle, or in a middle. If we had started at a beginning, we would have started with this song. Scott Joplin wrote it in 1897 in celebration of a black social organization in his hometown, and it was an immediate hit, the definitive ragtime song, the one that got bordello music into middle-class homes and would, in time, have all of America walking, running, and dancing with a more rhythmic swagger than it had before.

There were many recordings before this one, of course—but Vess L. Ossman was the premier ragtimist on record, perhaps because the banjo recorded better than the piano, perhaps because he was white and thus untainted with the origins of the music, and perhaps because the banjo, however skillfully shredded, was easier to dismiss as comedy music than the universal piano.

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3. Vesta Tilley: “I’m Following in Father’s Footsteps”

The fine art of male impersonation was, like its inverse, perfectly normal in turn-of-the-century music hall or vaudeville. In fact quite a bit of gender-bending sexuality passed under the guise of harmless fun, and many of the impersonators, male or female, actually were out (as far as they could be) homosexuals.

Not Vesta Tilley, who was married to one of the most powerful theatrical impresarios in London. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, since she was one of the biggest-drawing acts of the era, singing comic songs from a male point of view, setting fashion trends in male wear, and eventually refusing to go on stage in any other guise. In this song, a standard music-hall wink-wink about them naughty lads and their scolding wives, she caricatures a kind of naïve boyish sexuality that’s still funny.

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4. Ángel Villoldo: “El Negro Alegre”

Like a lot of the songs we’ve been examining, the roots of this go back much further than 1907—it is in fact another instance of minstrelsy, the original sin (and eternal wellspring) of American entertainment. But it’s Argentinean; and it’s useful to be reminded that the United States is not alone in its diseased history of race relations. “El negro alegre” means “the happy Negro,” and Villoldo’s impersonation of “black” laughter is cringeworthy in its condescension and denial of the full range of humanity.

But like minstrelsy in America, it’s never as simple as white mocking black; Villoldo was one of the earliest composers and promoters of the tango, a dance with African roots, in his native Argentina (this isn’t tango, but the rhythm slips) and the laughter sounds a lot like that of George W. Johnson, the first black recording artist.

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5. Patápio Silva: “Amor Perdido”

The Brazilian musical tradition of choro is analogous to American ragtime, Argentinean tango, or Cuban habanera as a music that developed in the nineteenth century as a first response to the mingling of African and European musical traditions. If we hear this as more European than African, that might have more to do with our assumptions about the flute than with any musicological analysis.

Patápio Silva was the premier choro flautist in Brazil at the turn of the century, and his 1905 composition “Primeiro amor” (first love) is still one of the country’s national melodies. But I prefer “Amor perdido” (lost love) partly because it’s more rhythmic—even if the rhythm is a basic waltz—and partly because its minor-key melody is more haunting. Flutes were not well served by the early recording process, but here its shrieks serve the theme.

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6. Carrol C. Clark & Vess L. Ossman: “De Little Old Log Cabin in de Lane”

We won’t encounter country music à la lettre for a few more decades; the fact that this sounds a bit like country music is because both this and the music of poor Appalachian whites drew from the same source: namely, the combination of parlor-song sentiment and racist caricature that made up much of the repertoire of minstrelsy.

“De Little Old Log Cabin in de Lane” was written by minstrel impresario Will S. Hays in 1871, and was a standard favorite song in the American repertoire. Its sentimental portrayal of an aged and dying black man owes something to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and something to “Dixie,” but ballad and religious singer Carrol C. Clark’s dignified reading removes much of the implicit racism that another singer might give it with an exaggerated “coon voice”—which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Clark was black.

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7. Edison Mixed Quartet: “Speed Away”

We have not yet had occasion to dig very deeply into religious music; there was (and always has been) plenty being recorded, but few of the hymns recorded during the period, whether familiar to a modern audience or best left in the mists of time, are about more than the piety, real or assumed, of the singer.

“Speed Away” is not, on the surface, much different. Written by the blind Methodist hymn-writer Fanny Crosby (open any modern hymnal and you’ll still find many of her lyrics) in 1890 as an encouragement to foreign missionaries, much of its setting was, she claimed, adapted from a Native American melody. Whether or no, the delivery of the professional Edison singers is remarkable: they sing in a flat, close-harmony style that sounds like a sophisticated pastiche of the shape-note singing practiced in rural churches.

Listen to 1907 here.


 

VI: 1906

 

On the Humorous Uses of Sorrow, the Practical Uses of Patriotism, and the Imaginative Uses of Information Scarcity

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1. Bert Williams: “Nobody”

W. C. Fields, who knew from both humor and sorrow, called him the funniest man he ever saw and the saddest man he ever knew. If the humor is less accessible to us today than the sorrow, that may not be entirely to our credit.

The trouble with double acts is that they are rarely perfectly weighted; Williams was simply funnier than George Walker, if not in his bones—black men were hardly allowed to express their innermost selves—then in his mind. He studied comic vocalizing, costume, and dance as assiduously as he’d studied engineering, and the creation he came up with, the “Jonah Man” upon whose head all the troubles of the world fell, was one of the great comic figures of the age.

“Nobody” was his signature song, his fullest and sharpest explication of his troubled and troublesome persona. A race song only insofar as black citizens could share its litany of no-fucks-given, it was adopted by Jews and hillbillies with equal glee.

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2. Arthur Pryor’s Band: “A Coon Band Contest”

This experiment’s structure has meant that the novelty of this song may be lost on the casual listener, who hasn’t heard enough of the standard marches from which it deviates to appreciate the depth of its deviation. What you want to listen for are the “smears”—those trombone glissandi which slide in between notes with a sort of powerful, farting recklessness.

Arthur Pryor, who had been John Phillips Sousa’s right hand man for eight years in the world-famous Sousa Orchestra (which in terms of popularity, profitability, and agenda-setting, was to the 1900s what the Beatles would be to the 1960s), had left to form his own band precisely because such untoward smears would never have been allowed in the Master’s militarily-disciplined outfit. And not just because they violated norms of Art and Beauty.

See the title of the piece: Pryor’s smeary trombone is meant to evoke blackness. And not just in a racist way: deviance was, as always, immensely attractive to the curious-minded.

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3. Billy Murray: “You’re a Grand Old Rag”

George Washington, Jr. was George M. Cohan’s second smash musical in a row, and the hit song from the musical was even a bigger hit than “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Which is surely as Cohan intended it to be; like all showmen, he believed implicitly in the simple creed of Bigger Is Better, and the song was written to make as big a hit with the public as possible.

Of Irish descent, Cohan’s Americanness could be questioned at any time—1906 was not far enough from the Orange Riots of the mid-nineteenth century to be comfortable—so his flag-waving was practical as well as being the spontaneous expression of his soul. He was so alert to criticism that although the reference to the flag as a “rag” was inspired by the comment of a Civil War veteran, he changed the lyric at the slightest hint of criticism. Too late—Billy Murray had already made this recording, the song’s jauntiest and best expression to date.

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4. Orquesta Pablo Valenzuela: “La Patti negra”

If the story of Latin American music could be said to have a single origin point (it can’t), it would be Cuba. Its position as a halfway house between Africa and the New Orleans port meant it was subject to as many varieties of musical tradition as any port in the world, and after both Spanish colonial rule and American slavery had ended it still retained close ties to both Spain and the US, as well as a teeming population of African, European, and indigenous descent.

The Orquestra Valenzuela was one of the oldest orquestas típiquas (vernacular orchestras), La Flor de Cuba, founded in pre-Revolutionary Havana and taken over by the Valenzuela brothers in the 1870s. Raimundo Valenzuela died in 1905; a year later, his brother Pablo brought the orchestra into an Edison studio and cut several records. “La Patti negra” was an original danzón, a light funky lilt underneath the keening instrumentation, the title possibly a reference to the great black opera singer Sissieretta Jones.

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5. Franklyn Wallace: “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?”

Even as George M. Cohan was enjoying his greatest triumph (so far), a theater three blocks up from George Washington, Jr. was playing an English import, The Earl and the Girl, which presaged the next generation in Broadway entertainment, one which would make Cohan forever corny.

It wasn’t the play itself, or its original English music, which would change the world; that was all according to Hoyle. It was an interpolated song, a new ditty written by a hopeful New York composer in the hopes of selling the play to American audiences. The song had a longer life than the play—and even the song would be forgotten in a year or two. But it was young Jerry Kern’s first taste of popular success, a first intimation of things to come which would eventually produce the Great American Songbook.

(To spoon, in the youthful American slang of the day, was to flirt; the song was meant as a duet, but Franklyn Wallace does his manful best.)

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6. Herr Schilling & Choir: “Chave”

We close out 1906 with a recording about which I can find no information except what is on the actual disc. Here is what I know:

The title of the work is “Chave,” which sounds as though it would be related to the “hava” of “hava nagila” (let us rejoice) but I’m no Yiddish scholar. It’s from a theatrical production called “Jud in Rumänienen” (The Jew in Romania) produced by a Jewish theatrical company called after the city of Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine). The singer is identified as a Mr. Schilling, accompanied by a chorus. It was recorded in 1906 in Hanover, Germany and issued on the small record label Favorite. And that’s it.

But it’s what’s in the grooves that startles. Some of this sounds like it could be the music which inspired The Fiddler on the Roof (itself based on stories by the Ukranian-born Sholem Aleichem, writing in New York in 1906). But it’s just as composed and theatrical; this too is show music.


 

V: 1905

 

On Irish-American Sprightliness, Latin American Militarism, and Black American Masculinity

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1. Billy Murray: “Give My Regards to Broadway”

With this song—this lyric and melody, though not precisely this performance—we meet our first genuine pop star of the new century. Though there will be many hundreds to follow, George M. Cohan, the patriotic Irish-American singer, dancer, composer, impresario, and capturer of what we might as well call the American spirit, sets a pretty high standard to match.

He was not the first, but was among the greatest, of that great showbiz vocation, the Song and Dance Man. He was not the first, but was among the most successful, of that unpredictable but lucrative species, the Fellow Who Writes His Own Stuff. And he may well have been the first, and was certainly the most sincere, to have realized that there was a reputation—and a fortune—to be made selling Americans the idea of America.

The 1904 musical show Little Johnny Jones was written, directed, composed, and performed by Cohan—not alone, but given his tremendous energy it might as well have been—and this was the show’s big hit. It’s about Broadway home of touts and hustlers, but it would become about Broadway home of American musical dreams—and that liminal space is all Cohan.

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2. Harry Lauder: “I Love a Lassie”

If Cohan’s energetic musical theater song-and-dance patter was the most legitimate form of pop stardom yet seen in America (legitimacy usually meaning foreign and probably a generation removed in those days), the second rung on that ladder was an institution known by various names. We mostly call it vaudeville today, but then they called it variety, or family entertainment, or (in the trade) two-a-day, because you would give two performances a day and more on the weekends.

Harry Lauder was a British music hall star—a Scotsman, though he was a modern man, and the “laird” persona he puts on here was only one of a few dozen characters he had worked up, all with their own jokes and costumes and set-pieces and comic songs. But it was the Scottish stuff American audiences wanted to hear, and even the most successful two-a-day performers ignored audience tastes at their peril.

“I Love a Lassie” was Lauder’s signature song, delivered here with a wry chuckle where a live audience could be expected to laugh or applaud. Dialect comedy was a long-lived staple of vaudeville, but Lauder’s version was the gentlest and sweetest on offer.

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3. La Banda de Zapadores de México: “La Paloma”

It may seem curious that our first direct encounter with the music of a marching band is not that of John Phillip Sousa (probably the music successful recording artist, and certainly the most successful live artist, of the period), but of a Mexican military band playing a forty-year-old song written by a Spaniard after having been inspired by the habanera rhythms of Afro-Latin Cuba.

But in 1905 Sousa’s greatest days were behind him—his big record that year was a briskly sentimental rendition of Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz—while this may be taken as Shot One in the great volley of Latin music which will quickly become just as essential a part of our story as American (or European, or Other) music.

You know the melody, even if you can’t quite place where you’ve heard it; it’s one of the universal signifiers of Latin Americanism, along with “La Cucaracha” and the Jarabe Tapatío. It was not exactly a runaway success when Sebastián Yradier composed it a few years before his death in 1865, but in the subsequent decades it became a symbol of Latin American pride and nationalism, a longing melody married to a sharp, insistent rhythm.

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4. Florrie Forde: “The Old Bull and Bush”

Harry Lauder found his greatest success in American vaudeville, but he began in British music hall, a not quite parallel tradition of entertainment. Vaudeville was a family-friendly replacement for hateful minstrelsy and risqué burlesque, conceived in the Gilded 1880s; but in Britain, the music-hall tradition was unbroken since the 1830s. It wasn’t quite genteel, but an increasingly prosperous middle class of wide and voluminous tastes made it extremely successful for a century.

Like vaudeville, music-hall was home to a wide variety of acts, from slapstick to recital to acrobatics; but the stage’s signature form, which made it successful and still appeals across the decades, was the comic—or otherwise—song. Florrie Forde was one of the form’s shining lights in the early twentieth century, a big-voiced, big-bosomed Australian whose taking up of a song would practically guarantee its success.

“The Old Bull and Bush” was a publisher’s triumph—in America, it was published as “Under the Anheuser Bush,” a cheap but memorable pun, while in England it referred to an actual London pub, still extant today. Forde sings it, cavalierly, from a male point of view, and a hundred years later it sounds entirely normal.

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5. Arthur Collins: “The Preacher and the Bear”

In 1902, Arthur Collins made—with banjoist Vess Ossman—perhaps the definitive recording of the Coon Song in all its noxiousness and gusto, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” It was written by a black man, and sung by Collins in an approximation of black singing which sounds, to modern ears, simply American. Three years later, he recorded this perhaps even more noxious song, which has equal claim to be considered among the most important documents of its era.

“The Preacher and the Bear” is, on the basis of the lyrics, racist trash, centering on a figure who is—because implicitly black—a venal hypocrite (hunting on the Sabbath), a rank coward, an illiterate buffoon, and somehow also a violent animal (carries a razor, and is ready to use it). It’s harder to find a more complete summation of all negative stereotypes of black males of the period.

But the song is also one of the first interpolations of an actual black musical form—the spiritual—into straight pop music. It would go on to become a country standard, as the minstrelsy faded and only the buffoonish comedy remained. And goddamn if that chorus doesn’t get stuck in the head.


 

IV: 1904

 

On Latter-Day Idealizations, the Parsimony of Vaudeville, and the Finicky Avoidance of Melody

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1. The Haydn Quartet: “Sweet Adeline”

If you asked a certain kind of person what music people were listening to and singing at the turn of the twentieth century, the unhesitating answer would be “barbershop.” How is it, then, that this is our first real encounter with the form?

One answer is that our imaginary interlocutor is probably better informed about midcentury representations of turn-of-the-century life than he is about actual turn-of-the-century life. Another is that the limitations of our format and editorial taste have conspired to give barbershop short shrift. A third is that the limitations of recording technology at the time did not capture harmonies well; too many tones at once tended to result in noisy mush, so like a lot of music at the time, it didn’t get recorded. And then, you could argue that “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” is barbershop, just an elaborate theatrical version.

But “Sweet Adeline” is the emblematic barbershop song, the song that most fully represents the genre, and if this recording isn’t our latter-day idealization of barbershop—just as what gets sold as ragtime today is only a sliver of what ragtime was then—because it has instrumental accompaniment and most of it is sung by the tenor, Harry Macdonough. But the final chorus brings all the Haydn Quartet (who also recorded as the Edison and Columbia Quartets, depending on the label) together in that instantly recognizable harmony, its richness dimmed by the hiss of shellac, but still—just barely—audible.

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2. James Lent & the London Regimental Band: “The Ragtime Drummer”

And speaking of ragtime!

Although this, too, is not quite ragtime—in fact it’s something even more giddy and futuristic and wild than ragtime, which was the giddiest and most futuristic and wildest music in American history to date. It’s called ragtime because “jass” is not yet a word in the vocabulary of anyone but a handful of black New Orleans musicians—at least not a word with a musical connotation—but in a hundred years this will be the first track on a CD called The Anthology of Jazz Drumming, and it will belong there.

James Lent has been almost entirely swallowed up by history; we don’t know whether he was white or black, American or British, a young turk or an old hand. What we can guess is that he spent some time on the vaudeville circuit—the modern drum kit was a vaudeville invention, surrounding a single person with as many things to hit as he could manage in order to provide as much accompaniment as possible to as many acts as possible as cheaply as possible. (The sound sequence “ba-dum-bum-pssh,” used to underline a punchline but almost entirely decontextualized today, is an echo of that era.)

He uses the kit like a single instrument, and if he leans heavily on the woodblock, it’s about the only indicator of the track’s age (it recorded well, so quickly became old-fashioned). The drumming is even, in parts, funky enough to be considered the first break.

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3. Billy Murray: “Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis”

The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri—the ’04 World’s Fair—wasn’t quite the boon to music that the Columbian Exposition in Chicago a decade previous had been. In 1893, Scott Joplin introduced ragtime to a white, middle-class audience, Claude Debussy’s attendance at an Indonesian gamelan performance loosed the moors of Western harmonics for good, a hula exhibition introduced a Hawaiian fad that would have long-lived echoes in Southern mountains and deltas, belly dancer Little Egypt performed her risqué hootchy-kootchy to “The Streets of Cairo,” and the musical gramophone made its first major inroads into the popular consciousness—along with other Edison Industries products like the incandescent lightbulbs that burned throughout the night, the “white” of the White City.

But St. Louis had its own prides and joys to offer; its fabulous Illuminated City, switched on at nightfall, outshone Chicago by millions of bulbs. And of course, there was the extremely popular ditty written about the Fair itself. Written by a pair of successful popular-song hacks—Andrew B. Sterling on lyrics, Kerry Mills on music (and publisher under an alias, in order to keep as much profit as possible)—it was a hit long before the fair itself opened, which is of course exactly what its writers had hoped for.

Get used to the name Billy Murray; we’ll hear more of him. An undistinguished but enthusiastic Irish tenor, he was most notable for recording anything that wasn’t nailed down, which will have its uses.

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4. Mary Garden, acc. Claude Debussy: “Mes longs cheveux”

And speaking of Claude Debussy.

Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in 1902, in some readings the first Modernist opera of the twentieth century (in others the last Symbolist opera of the nineteenth). It was Debussy’s only opera, and his greatest sustained piece of composition, the fullest elaboration of his shifting-sands delicacy and finicky avoidance of melody, applied to a dreamlike narrative and characters who feel without thinking. Maurice Maeterlinck, whose prose play formed the basis of the opera, was hugely popular with the avant-garde in Paris (and elsewhere) in the 1890s and 1900s, though his plaintive, often-twee Symbolist drama would soon fall out of favor as the Moderns began to truly take hold in the decades to come.

The opera is almost entirely recitative, following Wagner (but without the melodic grandstanding, in Debussy’s characteristic elusive fashion). In fact, “Mes longs cheveux” is the only proper song in the piece—though since it was written as a song in the original play, it was hardly much of a concession. It’s sung by Mélisande at the beginning of Act 3 as she combs her long hair in a tower, waiting the arrival of her lover Pelléas (uh, sort of—Symbolism, man).

Mary Garden was perhaps the greatest lyric soprano of her era, able to sing a range of emotions—and act them, too!—rather than merely belting. She originated Mélisande at Debussy’s insistence, and though she’s harder to hear on record than a belter, her delicacy is astonishing even today.


 

III: 1903

 

On the Imitative Aristocracy, the Democracy of Industry, and the Inadequacy of Pianissimo

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1. Vess L. Ossman’s Banjo Orchestra: “Razzle Dazzle”

We’re still forming a picture of what music was at the turn of the twentieth century, and while we tend to think of ever-multipling branches as time moves forward, that doesn’t mean that music was ever one solid trunk at any time in history. Certainly not this recently. We’ve had minstrelsy, musical comedy, and opera—now we have three instrumentals. Vocal music has traditionally been only a small part of popular music; the post-60s focus on lyrics is historically an outlier, as dance fans know.

Vess L. Ossman was perhaps the most popular recorded instrumentalist of his day. He was a banjoist, and he was the Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, or Eminem of the era—which is to say he was a white performer who had immense success with an originally black form: ragtime.

“Razzle Dazzle” isn’t strictly ragtime, however; it’s a cakewalk. The difference is mostly in the rhythm, but we’ll get more into that when we encounter genuine ragtime on down the line. The thing to know about the cakewalk is that it was a highly specific dance form—at least it had solidified into one in the nineteen-oughts—and it was also a form of minstrelsy. At this time in history aristocratic white people were dancing cakewalks in imitation of black dancers (like Williams and Walker) who were improving on the moves of white minstrels who claimed to be imitating slaves who were imitating the posh line dances of the slave-owning aristocracy. That’s a burlesque five times removed, and if the whole of that history doesn’t quite spring out of this recording that may be due more to our inability to hear past the orchestra’s stiff oompah into the snappiness that coded black.

Ossman was a virtuoso, but here he underplays in favor of vernacular twang. Though the song was composed by the prolific, even hacky Harry von Tilzer, it left an unpleasantly vulgar aftertaste for many—cakewalks were still plenty black for White America.

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2. Albert Benzler: “Turkish Patrol”

Nobody who was writing a survey of music in 1903 would have thought to include the recordings of Vess Ossman; the vulgarity (for which read blackness) of banjo music, not to mention its uncouth rhythms, would have set it beyond the pale. But instrumental music could be popular without being vernacular.

“Turkish Patrol,” for example, was a fine old march predating even John Phillips Sousa, in 1903 the Grand Old Man of clean-limbed Popular Music. It was composed ca. 1870 by Theodore Michaelis, a composer of various origin and little note, becoming something of a standard by dint of its ease to play and adapt. It was written for military marching band, as the title suggests, but it was recorded by any number of instrumentalists; that Albert Benzler gets the nod here is less because he nailed the tune than because I wanted an excuse to talk about him.

He was an employee of the Edison factory in the years of vertical integration, when ownership of the cylinder plant also meant ownership of the musicians who made the music on the cylinders (and if you think that’s confined to the past, consider Sony), a pianist, xylophonist, and campanologist who made a lot of successful recordings both under his own name and as an uncredited accompanist for Edison and, once trusts began to be busted, other record labels. But more importantly, he also argued with the boss. Edison, a shrewd businessman, had his employees vote on which records to release, figuring that the microcosm of the public at his disposal would be a good predictor of sales, while Benzler believed that performers should decide the records’ fate. And a hundred-plus year history of artists fighting their labels began.

If Benzler had any qualms about “Turkish Patrol,” they weren’t preserved. The bright percussive sound of the xylophone recorded far better than the muddy, noisy orchestra, and the repetitive figures he plinks through even anticipate the way DJs would use samples in the epochs to come.

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3. Edvard Grieg: “Remembrances”

We’ve climbed from the degrading depths of cakewalk into the middle-class plains of march; now we scale the heights of Art. Cultural prejudices courtesy of the period, of course—our imaginary chronicler of music in 1903 would have spent most of his wordcount in these exalted regions. Parlor song and other sheet-music hits would have been dealt with glancingly if at all; minstrelsy might have been allowed a nostalgic smile, and ragtime—let alone the music of rural citizens, black or white—would have been ignored entirely. But the bulk of the volume would have been dedicated to composers that today we’d call minor, from countries that even then would have counted as obscure.

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg is today best remembered for his score to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which contains two passages familiar to anyone who has ever listened to music, watched television, or had working ears in the past hundred years (“Morning Mood” and “In The Hall of the Mountain King”). But that was way back in 1876; the music that could be considered his life’s work was the collection of piano works known as the Lyric Pieces.

The first set of the Pieces was published in 1867, the tenth and final set in 1901; Grieg would die in 1907. There were sixty-six Pieces in total; the sixty-sixth, “Remembrances” (“Efterklang” in Norwegian), is a restatement of the theme of the first, “Arietta,” composed thirty-five years previously. Grieg made a handful of records in 1903; since this was clearly one of his favorite melodies, it’s hardly surprising it was included.

The very word piano means “soft” in Italian; while pianofortes have one of the broadest ranges in standard orchestral instrumentation, they were notoriously difficult to record well using the primitive acoustic method invented by Edison and not substantially altered until 1925. Grieg is very nearly swallowed by surface noise here; the only solution, as it is to nearly everything in music, is to turn it up loud.


 

II: 1902

 

On the Relative Widths of Oceans, the Importance of Height, and the Value of Publicity

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1. Sextet from Florodora: “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden”

Okay, listen up. If there’s one thing we must get straight before going any further, it is this: musical theater at the turn of the twentieth century was massively important. Not the way it is now, where it’s very important to a relatively small number of people and a matter of indifference to the general culture unless it somehow relates to the movies, television, or pop music. But in 1902, movies were a mostly theoretical industry, television a dream undreamt, and pop music—well, pop music was show music.

There were sheet-music hits that found an audience without having been roared from the footlights by anyone in particular, and of course the majority of people didn’t live in large cities that could support theaters, and for them popular music was whatever came to hand, written or unwritten, sacred or secular. But we will not hear from them for many years: for now, the jaunty, made-to-order products of Broadway, the West End, and the variety stage is the highest pop can dream, until it dreams even higher.

Florodora was the great musical-comedy hit of the turn of the century. A somewhat diminished descendent of the Victorian comic operetta—Gilbert and Sullivan without the elaborate wit—it had begun life in London in 1899, with music by Leslie Stuart, lyrics by Edward Boyd-Jones, and book by Owen Hall. In 1900 it made the journey across the Atlantic, as did most shows in the days when New York seemed closer to London than Chicago. There it was the hit of the new century, breaking box-office records and setting the standard by which all future musical-comedy endavors would be judged.

That standard can be hard to hear now, especially since we don’t have the frame of reference that 1900 did; the newness and sparkle have lost something of their luster over the past century. But the double sextet (of which we hear only half here, three men and three women) was astonishing in its day, and when they sang “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” in overlapping harmony it was the electric high point of a generation’s theatergoing. Even today you can hear a hint of its bantering male-female flirtatiousness in something like “Promiscuous” (for I must love someone, and it might as well be you).

The show’s combination of silly farce and light romance would remain the basis of musical comedy through the 1940s, and if the show didn’t invent the tradition of the chorus line—pretty girls all in a row singing and dancing in unison—it certainly popularized it: the Florodora girls, chosen for their matching height and figures, were the toast of New York and would remain in the memory of popular culture for generations. Evelyn Nesbit, the most scandaled-about woman of the oughts, was a Florodora girl, and the show was so popular that it even broke out in technology: this is an extract from the first full cast recording ever made.

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2. Enrico Caruso: “Vesti la giubba”

Saying that musical theater was massively important obscures the fact that the most important form of musical theater of the era was opera. We tend to separate them in modern cultural taxonomies, because we are products of the high/low cultural divide that has been part of our culture’s conversation about itself for over a century. But opera in 1902 was immensely popular, and not just among cultural élites: it was the music of ordinary middle-class aspiration, with something like the cultural cachet that jazz, or even classic soul, holds today.

In 1902, Wagner, Verdi, and Gounod were still in living memory, and Puccini, Massenet, and Debussy were alive and producing some of their greatest work. It was a transitional era in opera; after the cosmic immensities of Wagner and hypersensual melodramas of Verdi, composers were painting works on a smaller scale. The Italian verismo movement, which rejected historical and mythological settings in favor of ordinary people and naturalistic emotions, included Puccini’s La bohème, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalliera rusticana, and Ruggero Leoncavello’s Pagliacci; all three were immensely popular in Italy and around the world but perhaps especially in America, where a large Italian immigrant population kept the bel canto flame alive. We’ll encounter later developments in the tradition; but before there was a Frankie or Dino, there was Enrico.

He was born to a working-class family in Naples, and used music as an escape from following in his mechanic father’s footsteps. He sang at cafés, resorts, and provincial theaters, until in 1900 he was contracted to sing at La Scala. In 1902 he made his first recordings in a Milan hotel room, and within a year he was the most famous—and on his way to being the greatest—operatic tenor of the age.

Before Caruso there were great singers, of course; and among his contemporaries there were many who could be considered more technically perfect, possessed of a greater range and a deeper intellectual grasp of the meanings and implications of the music they were singing. Caruso became Caruso not because he was an eternal genius—though he was—but because he was a shrewd businessman, a Neapolitan hustler devoid of artistic pretension. Records were a way to make exponentially more money and receive exponentially greater publicity, and his sensitive artistic soul shrank from neither.

We will hear more from him in the years to come; but we begin here, with an aria from Leoncavello’s Pagliacci. “Vesti la giubba” is the Act I curtain, the song which the play’s protagonist sings to himself as he puts on his clown costume and makeup in preparation for performing—and laughing—although his heart is breaking due to his wife’s infidelity. Caruso’s shattering, mirthless laugh at the end of the first verse, and the wrenching emotion he tears out of himself as the piece peaks towards the end are clear even through the roar of surface noise; he had a voice exactly made for records, and the medium loved him back.


 

I: 1901

 

On Eternal Springs, the Global Economy, and Beginning in Medio Rerum

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1. Williams and Walker: “My Little Zulu Babe”

There were a thousand places I could have chosen to start; but I begin here.

By 1901, commercial recordings had been a boom industry for nearly a decade; the little wax tubes and brittle shellac wheels which had begun their cultural life as a highly extravagant form of record-keeping were proving themselves to be a new piston in the engine of the global economy, the perfect medium for preserving and disseminating popular song. Their short running times—three minutes and change—were inadequate for capturing the oratory of the period, but two or three choruses of a music-hall, parlor, or vaudeville song worked even through the fogbanks of surface noise, conveying the point of the song without giving it time to pall. Which was fortunate; at least in memory, the eighties and nineties were something of a golden age of popular song.

But a golden age which we will for the most part be passing over. Gay Nineties hits like “After the Ball,” “Daisy Bell,” “The Streets of Cairo,” and “Hello! Ma Baby” are all superb ditties that still resonate today, but they will form no part of this narrative. Neither, incidentally, will Dvořák’s New World symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, or Puccini’s Tosca, written and premiered in the same years; these pages are inevitably the product of a pop sensibility, with more weight given to the vulgar living than to the great made to live again.

And speaking of vulgarity.

In 1901, concert premiers and operatic debuts were the big musical sensations covered in the upmarket dailies, while in sheet music, “Hiawatha,” “Mighty Lak’ a Rose,” and “I Love You Truly” were parlor-song hits. But pool-rooms and saloons resounded to “Coon! Coon! Coon!” and “Tell Me, Dusky Maiden” and “Ain’t Dat a Shame,” three examples of a major genre in popular music known as the “coon song,” sung in ersatz dialect, theoretically comic but often sentimental, in which case the comedic premise was the very idea of black people having feelings. It wasn’t always racist trash—the lightly romantic “Tell Me, Dusky Maiden,” for example, was written by black men in an attempt to divert the stream into less bilious channels—but it was nevertheless an act of oppression, exoticizing and Othering black Americans at best and sheer bullying at worst.

The coon song, which had originated in the Gilded Age, was an industrialized, mass-marketed version of the most successful American entertainment form of the nineteenth century and the eternal wellspring of damn near all American popular culture, the minstrel show. By the turn of the twentieth century, minstrelsy in its classic form was no longer the commercial force it had been in the Reconstruction Era, supplanted by family-friendly vaudeville, but its spirit lived on everywhere. Blackface was so common a feature of popular entertainment as to be thoroughly unremarkable; not only coon songs, but associated popular music forms like ragtime and the creole dances which were beginning to seep north from the Caribbean and Latin America, were received in a minstrel spirit. And of course any black people who were any good at entertainment worked as minstrels, or didn’t work at all.

Bert Williams and George Walker were not just good at entertainment; they were the unacknowledged best. There had been comedy duos before, of course, as long as there had been any entertainment at all—but Williams, a tall, light-skinned, and educated man with an excellent voice, and Walker, a dark, carelessly handsome comedian and dancer, upended the usual tradition. Minstrel tradition had a pompous, dicty fellow bandy words with a comic fool, and that arrangement—high-class straight man and low-class comedian—is still familiar today. But Williams and Walker realized they were funnier when they switched roles. Walker dressed flashily, inhabiting the urban stereotype of the Zip Coon, while Williams put on blackface and wore comically ill-fitting clothes, and they were genuinely hilarious.

Their interaction was, in fact, a lot like Bob Hope’s and Bing Crosby’s; and Williams and Walker’s stage productions were not unlike the Road movies, with elaborate sets in exotic locales (often African) and loose plots, punctuated by song, dance, and slapstick, that mostly consisted of Walker tricking Williams out of his little plenty and swanning off with the girl (the beautiful Aida Overton, who married Walker and was the first great African-American lady of the theater). Starting in 1896, they had conquered Broadway, toured Europe, delivered a command performance before the Royal House of England, and popularized the cakewalk, a minstrel dance with origins in slavery.

Their 1900 production was called Sons of Ham, a mocking reference to white-supremacist ideology about lines of descent from Noah, and it contained a cod-African love song—or rather, a coon song—called “My Little Zulu Babe,” written by white men and performed by the duo in “cannibal” costume. When they were contracted to record a handful of songs for Victor in 1901—the first recording contract awarded to professional black entertainers—it was among the numbers they chose to perform.

It is an electrifying performance. Not good, exactly; Walker, who takes the bulk of the vocal, was a dancer, not a singer, and its racial caricature, however fondly or ignorantly or cynically meant, is horrifying. But it’s amazing to listen to: ugly, and noisy, and weird. Williams makes strange grunting animal noises in the background, the instruments whine tunelessly around them, and they both seem to be lampooning the song even as they come together in harmony on the final chorus.

We will hear many, many more songs before we are done; but we will hear little so intentionally grotesque, so alien to our ideas (and even to 1901’s ideas) of what constitutes proper music. In its vulgarity, in its energy, but more than anything else in its blackness, it shows the path—or anyway a path—we are going to take. It is not the beginning of time; but it is our beginning.