XX: 1920

 

On Robot Rhythms, Comforting Tapestries, and Black Women Saving Us All

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1. Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds: “Crazy Blues”

Everything to this moment has been prologue: minstrelsy, marches, ragtime, dance crazes from South America or the Pacific, all has merely made straight the paths. Today the prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing. The record that shook the foundations of the earth, the record that won the first battle in a war most people didn’t yet know was happening, the record in the shadow of which all that has happened since still dwells. “Ain’t had nothing but bad news,” but the joy and energy and racket that propels her is a grand fuck-you to all false merchants of that news. [...]

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2. Al Jolson: “Swanee”

Another record important for different, and lesser, reasons. Where “Crazy Blues” is African-American musicians finally presenting their vernacular music unmediated by white caricature, “Swanee” is white (well, Jewish) Americans claiming a new and modern identity directly through the caricature of blacks. It’s  a multigenerational caricature, as the 22-year-old composer (meet George Gershwin) quotes the original minstrel songwriter, and the performer, at his reckless height, has abandoned any pretense of imitation: his caricature, though performed in blackface, yowling cretinously for Mammy, is more self-parody than any other. The song’s melodic verve creates the future even as its lyrics plunder the past.

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3. Baiano & Izaltina: “Cangerê”

As the Jazz Age begins, so too does the golden age of samba, with this slangy underground duet, the only known composition by Chico de Baiana, or the Bahia woman’s boy. “Cangerê,” said to be derived from an African language, is a specific ritual in the Afro-Brazilian Feitiço religion; the man and woman, arguing as usual in pop duets, threaten each other with the supernatural, while the samba rhythm works its own ineluctable magic on the listener. Two instrumental versions of the song were also cut in 1920, and the rhythmic power of the Banda da Casa Edison’s remains galvanizing.

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4. Carlos Gardel: “Milonguita”

We have met many classic tango songs already, and will meet many more; but tango too is kicking into a new gear at the start of a new decade. “Milonguita,” by Argentine composer Enrique Delfino and Uruguayan lyricist Samuel Linnig, is one of the crown jewels of the Golden Age of Tango, never more exquisitely rendered than by Gardel’s burnished pipes. Full of the lunfardo slang that characterized the Buenos Aires underworld, it’s a portrait of a young woman driven to perdition by wine, men, and tango; her very name, “little-milonga,” refers to the dancehalls where the tango corrupted souls.

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5. Mistinguett: “Mon homme”

Of the four canonical twentieth-century renditions of this song, the original is the least well-known; but Fanny Brice, Billie Holiday, and Édith Piaf sang other songs. The shining star of the Folies-Bergère between 1900 and 1930, Mistinguett sang many others too, but she may as well not have; this song, whether called “Mon homme” or “My Man,” has far superseded her own limited fame, and dragged her along rather cruelly in its wake. But pay attention to her studied lightness and flippancy, far from Brice’s and Piaf’s tragic posturing or Holiday’s bitter resignation: self-pity would be unfitting of her stardom.

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6. Maurice Chevalier: “Oh! Maurice”

Mistinguett had been the toast of Paris since the Belle Époque; meanwhile, her nearest male equivalent, thirteen years her junior, was just rising to fame in 1920. (As though to exemplify the Parisian spirit, they had been lovers since 1911.) His first recorded hit, “Oh! Maurice” is an orgy of ribald egotism, a rhapsody on his masculine charms and the flutters into which he sends the female of the species. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, as all music-hall songs (of which it is a cousin) are; but it also owes its insouciant verve to the brio drifting from across the Atlantic.

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7. Salvatore Papaccio: “Scettico Blues”

As does this. To be sure, it’s only called a blues because anything with even a slightly downbeat view of life was called a blues in 1920 (the copyright registration books were full to bursting of “blues”), but although structurally it’s what it sounds, a canzone napoletana, it’s also a witty, cynical plaint about the unfairness and falsity of life; and the see-sawing melody, though it doesn’t sound much like the blues strictly defined, owes more to ragtime-inflected American stage music than to traditional Italian bel canto. When pop singer Mina covered it in 1976, nostalgia couldn’t entirely obscure existentialism.

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8. Lucille Hegamin & Harris’ Blues and Jazz Seven: “The Jazz Me Blues”

“Crazy Blues” had an immediate, electrifying effect on the recording industry; then as now, the most overwhelming flattery of success was imitation. It would take longer for authentic blues sensations, as measured by live performance in venues whites knew nothing of, to get on record, but refined generalist Black performers like Lucille Hegamin were pressed into immediate service to fill the obvious gap in the market. “Jazz Me Blues” was written by the young Black songwriter Tom Delaney, and its slangy but chaste evocation of the pleasures of the new groove under the sun is spun juicily in her mouth.

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9. Bert Williams: “Unlucky Blues”

He was there at the beginning of the century, making outlandish grunts and twisting a love song into travesty; and he remains here at the century’s maturation, in some ways only catching up to where he was then. His voice is weathered with age and experience, the humorous glint in his eye undimmed but his face still poker-straight. Although the blues has now exploded into commercial popularity as feminine tragedy, his throaty plaintiveness looks forward to the masculine rural blues which will overshadow them. The song is Broadway pop, not blues, but his soul has always known the flatted fifth.

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10. Nora Bayes: “The Broadway Blues” 

It’s not often that I’ll privilege a recording by a white vaudevillian over a more famous one by an epochal Black act, but in this case the Sissle and Blake record is a bit too jaunty and careless, which only makes sense, as they didn’t write it. Bayes, a veteran Jewish coon singer, takes it at a drag, and is no longer burlesquing Blackness with weird hiccoughs, just singing, with the authority of age, a song about the pallor of the limelight. And with hindsight it’s hard to believe the aforementioned Gershwin kid didn’t have an ear on the orchestration.

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11. Edith Day: “Alice Blue Gown”

The upheaval among the downmarket forms of musical entertainment, as authentic Black music begins to challenge the galumphing jeers of minstrelsy, did not necessarily have any immediate effect on the upmarket musical theater, which remained prissy, stodgy, and sentimental: but perhaps not quite unrecoverably foreign to us as it may sound today. “Alice Blue Gown” is meant to be wistful: in the show Irene, it is a song by a young woman nostalgic for her childhood dress of the shade named for President Roosevelt’s daughter. Chelsea Clinton would occupy the same cultural space today; and similar nostalgias are at work.

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12. Paul Whiteman & His Ambassador Orchestra: “Whispering”

It is perhaps no accident that the “King of Jazz” cut his first record the same year that the real first jazz record was cut, and anyone curious about understanding the currents and cultures at work in the early 1920s would do well to study the sonic, rhythmic, tonal, and (yes) verbal discrepancies between “Crazy Blues” and “Whispering.” The Ambassador Orchestra is crisp, slick, not a hair out of place, not a glimpse of human feeling. Not only easy listening but Kraftwerk is predicted by their well-drilled rhythms; it is perhaps no accident either that Čapek’s robots emerged this year.

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13. Ted Lewis Jazz Band: “When My Baby Smiles at Me”

While we’ve met Ted Lewis before, this more conventional dance-band number, with parts portioned out fairly among the band’s instrumentalists and his shabby-genteel crooning avant la lettre, was his first big hit, both on record and (helped by his star appearance at the Greenwich Village Follies of 1920) on sheet music. Compared to “O,” his klezmer-derived clarinet is more integrated into the tune’s jazz gestalt, and the way forward to Benny Goodman is clearly pointed; but there are still elements of ODJB-like novelty, as in the “I cry… I cry” refrain towards the end, squawked in parody by the band.

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14. Ben Hokea Players: “Honolulu March”

A star instrumentalist, bandleader, and educator whose first records were also made in 1919, Ben Hokea was a Hawaiʻian-born guitarist who, on coming to the mainland, made his home base in Toronto, and his slack-key technique, more peppy and jazzy than dreamy and wistful, was instrumental in making hula music one of the everyday sounds of the 1920s, not just an exotica fad of the decade prior. The traditional song his band cuts here is taken at such a raggy, stuttering clip that the pedal steel swing of the Nashville-oriented decades to come is conjured by its streamlined, modern drive.

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15. María Teresa Vera & Manuel Corona: “El yambú guaguancó”

Although we’ve heard from María Teresa Vera before, it was as a generalist singer covering a popular theater song; with this recording, she and her trova mentor, Manuel Corona, finally introduce the rumba proper (as distinct from the sones marketed as rhumbas in the 1930s) to recorded history. Yambú and guaguancó are both varieties of rumba, and the wordless chorus is characteristic of yambú. Vera’s verses are from the ancient storehouse of Cuban verse and symbol which, like blues verses, were mixed and matched to make up a song; but the insinuating rhythm, with its bell-clear clave, is what moves.

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16. Zaki Murad: “Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra”

Because my focus has been (and will remain) primarily on Western music, I have paid scant attention to the deep wonders of Egyptian music, on record since before the century turned. Zaki Murad, of Jewish descent like many early Arabic-language recording stars, had been a successful recording artist since 1910, touring the Arabic-speaking world, and it is unjust that only this magnificent taqtuqa, “Visit Me Every Day,” by the legendary secular composer Sayyid Darwish (often considered the father of Egyptian popular music) represents him here. Do remember Murad’s last name, however; his daughter will join us later in the century.

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17. Mishka Ziganoff: “Odessa Bulgar”

The Jewish diaspora, filtered through the sieve of immigration and collected in the tenements of New York, was always many peoples instead of one. Mishka Ziganoff was born in Odessa under the Russian Empire and emigrated to the US around the age of ten; his family settled in Brooklyn, and he became a virtuoso accordionist. His heritage was a jumble: he spoke Yiddish, but considered himself a Gypsy and communed as a Christian. In the ancient tradition of the musician as outsider, he managed to combine multiple interpretations of identity and home into a comforting tapestry, calling everyone to dance.

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18. Abe Schwartz & Sylvia Schwartz: “National Hora Pt. 1”

Meanwhile, the most popular Jewish bandleader of the period, while cutting many lively freilach tunes that remain deathless today, paused to record something more quiet and perhaps personal: accompanied only by his daughter on piano, he fiddles a longing, keening improvisation in the “tzigane” (Roma) tradition, and wraps it up in what to Western European ears is an Irish jig. Klezmer scholars have declared this side a one-off, not a rendition of any familiar tune (Pt. 2 is better known as “Der Gasn Nigun”), and it’s impossible for me not to hear it as a thrilling expression of American pluralism.

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19. Enrico Caruso: “I’ m’arricordo ’e Napule”

In a year, the Voice will be no more. This isn’t his last recording (that’s a selection from a Mass by Rossini), but it’s his last great canzone napoletana, a brand-new song of nostalgia and reverie about his hometown of Naples. More than anyone, he was the greatest star of the first age of recording, and as he dims, a new generation of stars is beginning to glow. Soon their brightness will eclipse his own; but few of them will retain anything like his name recognition over the years. A century later, and Caruso is still synonymous with beautiful singing.

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20. Anita Patti Brown: “Villanelle”

The spectrum of authentic Black femininity which became, for the first time in recorded history, a live issue in 1920 ranged widely even then. The furthest away you could get, anyone would have said, from Mamie Smith’s vaudeville faux-lowdown, was the light classical canon; and here we find another Black woman. Her stage name is a double reference to Sissieretta Jones, her racial forebear in classical singing, nicknamed “the Black Patti” after Italian diva Adelina Patti; Anita Brown was called “the Bronze Tetrazzini” after Caruso’s duet partner. “Villanelle” was composed by Belgian miniaturist Eva Dell’Acqua in 1893, femininity in watercolors.


 

XIX: 1919

 

On Frivolous Transcendence, Misguided Legislation, and Dealing One Deathblow

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1. Lieut. Jim Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band: “That Moaning Trombone”

On February 17, the all-colored (Black and Puerto Rican) 369th Regiment paraded up Fifth Avenue, home to Harlem. Nicknamed the “Hell Fighters” because they never lost a man, a captive, or an inch of ground, they were twenty times as good as their white counterparts, and got something less than a tenth the respect. Their band was led by James Reese Europe, famous before the war as the Castles’ bandleader, now pushing Black vernacular music into new territory with military discipline. His opulent arrangements and quick-cut rhythms were cut short two months after this recording by the penknife of a drummer lashing out at perceived disrespect.

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2. Ted Lewis Band: “O”

Two years after the First Jazz Record, and jazz is already widely (mis)understood not as urban Black southern music characterized by improvisation and rhythm but as white novelty music characterized by instruments making unusual sounds and, okay, rhythm, or at least tempo. Bandleader and clarinetist Ted Lewis was Jewish, but his roots were in small-town Ohio rather than immigrant New York, so his approximation of klezmer on the instrumental break is as much a put-on (and as utterly sincere) as his adoption of Black musical forms. In a sense this is the first record of the 1920s, an airy dance-band tune that shimmies towards frivolous transcendence.

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3. Eddie Cantor: “You’d Be Surprised”

Two years ago, Cantor introduced himself here as a geeky young dope awestruck by a self-sufficient woman; and now he has become the mouthpiece for Irving Berlin’s portrait of a geeky young dope who is, Revenge of the Nerds-style, an unexpectedly (and perhaps not very ethically) efficacious lover. It’s a gender-reversed take on Al Jolson’s sly contemporary hit “I’ll Say She Does,” which breezily quoted the flamboyantly ribald Eva Tanguay. Though Jolson was the more senior and bigger star, Cantor was coming up fast, and his quicker wit and ability to kid himself as well as his material gave him a head start on the future.

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4. Sophie Tucker: “Ev'rybody Shimmies Now”

After a recording drought of seven years, Sophie Tucker returned to the horn in 1918, and on the precipice of the Jazz Age, aged 32, she has fully adopted the big, brassy, middle-aged persona she would carry into the age of swing, and rock beyond. The shoulder-shaking shimmy was still a novelty, an orientalism probably borrowed from Black dancers, and recently popularized to scandalous effect by Polish-born Ziegfeld girl Gilda Gray. Tucker’s reportage of its popularity is oddly breathless for her, as if she’s shimmying while recording; but the wheeling, crashing string section is a reminder that Black-imitating music was not yet entirely identified with horns.

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5. Marion Harris: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

It was round about this time that blonde flapper Marion Harris began to be billed as the “Queen of Blues Singers,” a piece of publicity she did little to discourage, but which would provoke a certain yet-unrecorded singer to bill herself as their Empress instead. This song, written by Black vaudevillian Eddie Green and published by W. C. Handy, would receive its most well-known reading in the Empress’s voice. Here, though, the usually-melodramatic Harris takes it as a comic song, and twists her voice up into vaudevillian Coonerisms while a marimba plunks cheerfully away in the back half. Six years later, Flannery O’Connor will be born.

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6. Bert Williams: “When the Moon Shines on the Moonshine”

The single most misguided piece of legislation in US history became law on October 28, to take effect January 1st, 1920. As a symbol for the decade of excess, folly, and high spirits that it inaugurated, Prohibition was almost novelistically apt; but riding high on the inflated prosperity of armament profits, the US mostly treated it as an occasion for jokes. Bert Williams even allowed as he’d sing for the occasion, forgoing his usual exquisitely-timed oratory for notes warbled and wheezed, with a crackerjack vaudeville band making comic hay of every pause. In his hands, minstrelsy becomes a private joke, and then a public one.

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7. The Kalaluki Hawaiian Orchestra: “Hawaiian Nights”

The deracination of Hawaiian music, four years ago an exciting novelty, now just one flavor among the modern many, continues apace, with this waltz-time piece composed by itinerant hack pianist Lee Roberts and performed by a group so conspicuously free of recorded membership history that it was probably Columbia’s house band for Hawaiian records; Lawrence Kalaluki’s name survives otherwise only as a reputable instructor of Hawaiian music in contemporary advertising. The Moloch-machine of the recording industry fed on Hawaiian music just like it was doing on blues, jazz, minstrelsy, or tango, and spat out a streamlined product purpose-built for exotic, but not too exotic, reverie.

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8. Choro Pixinguinha: “Sofres Porque Queres”

Although samba has most recently come to our attention, Brazilian music was far from being all samba all the time (and indeed never would be), and music like this aching choro melody over tango rhythms was still a plurality of Brazilian compositional activity. Pixinguinha, an Afro-Brazilian flautist born Alfredo de Rocha Viana, wrote it as a lament—the title translates to either “you suffer because you desire” or “you suffer because you want to”—but plays it rather jauntily, letting the minor-key chord changes of seven-string guitarist Tute (Arthur de Souza Nascimento) evoke the title’s heartbreak while his flute flutters on in divine unconcern.

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9. Orquesta Típica Canaro: “El Africano”

We have met bandoneonist Juan “Pacho” Maglio, pianist Roberto Firpo, and singer Carlos Gardel, and now, with the introduction of the orchestra típica led by Urugayan violinist Francisco Canaro, the major players of Argentine tango going into the music’s 1920s Golden Age are gathered. Firpo’s airy, melodic, sentimental tango is a marked contrast with Canaro’s earthier, more sensuous style: as in this instrumental milonga, emphasizing the rhythmic Afro-Argentine foundations of tango music. Unlike Firpo, who was more at home in the world of decorous Spanish theatrical entertainment, Canaro also played hot jazz á là norteamericano with a small combo, and his tango reflects that modernity.

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10. Floro y Miguel: “Se Acabó la Choricera”

Afro-Cuban rhythms are eternal: where even the Black jazz of 1919 was relatively restrictive in is rhythmic inventory, the clave pulse on this trova song is draggingly offset by the guitar part, leaving generous spaces in the rhythm that a later generation would understand as funk, the holes into which bodily motion fits. Floro Zorrilla was a trovador who had been recording stentorian ballads for a decade before he got a new partner in Miguel Zaballa; this song, supposedly written by a nineteen-year-old Santiago drummer nicknamed Chori (he would win greater fame a decade later), is one of the deathless Cuban sones of its generation.

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11. Trío González: “Cielito Lindo”

The scarcity of Mexican music in these pages should not be considered a judgment on the poverty of Mexican musical culture over the last decade; but the instability of a drawn-out revolution, which in some regions almost amounted to civil war, meant that relatively little recording took place. In 1919, utopian peasant freedom fighter Emiliano Zapata was assassinated by ambush, as the revolutionary Carranza government consolidated its control; and this nineteenth-century folk song which, with its instantly-recognizable “ay, ay, ay, ay” refrain, has long been considered one of several unofficial Mexican national anthems, was first recorded—in New York City, pit stop for travelling corrideros.

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12. Raquel Meller: “Acuérdate de Mí”

The Spanish theatrical genre cuplé could be bawdy or satiric; less often, it was sentimental, as in this aging diva’s demand to be remembered by the man who has thrown her over for another. The glorious irony is that it was Aragón-born, Barcelona-bred diva Raquel Meller’s breakout song, at the tender age of thirty. She had been on stage since her early teens, after running away from a convent, but was never much of a soubrette—proper divadom takes time. Everything came together at once, however: she semi-scandalously married Guatemalan modernist poet Enrique Gómez Carrillo and starred in her first silent film the same year.

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13. John Steel: “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”

With 1919, we mark the ten-year anniversary of Isadore Baline’s appearance as a songwriter in these pages. On top of the showbiz world, he did that which everyone did who found themselves in such rarified air, and joined the Ziegfeld machine. The Follies of 1919 trumpeted “songs by Irving Berlin” as the major coup it was, and this song, written as spackle to fill gaps between girls promenading semi-nude to the classical canon, became the Follies theme ever since. John Steel, a tenor of much force if no personality, sang it in the show, and recorded it; but even from his adenoids, it’s maddeningly unforgettable.

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14. Art Hickman & His Orchestra: “Rose Room”

Where Ted Lewis was taking the comic squawks and energy of the ODJB into more joyful territory, other white dance-band musicians were merging it with the Castles’ high-class fox-trot of the early ’10s, beefing up their orchestras and emphasizing sweetness of melody, heterogenous instrumentation, and unrelenting pep. Dimly aware of the smutty connotations of the word “jazz,” they tried to call their music something else: one sober nomination, Synco-Pep, epitomizes the totally unbluesy, but uptempo and syncopated modern dance music promulgated by thousands of nightlife orchestra’s like Hickman’s, who played the Rose Room in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. A charming period piece, skilfully done.

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15. Sergei Rachmaninoff: “Prelyudiya”

In 1919, Rachmaninoff was a middle-aged refugee of the Bolshevik Revolution, playing his hits for audiences for whom Russian Romanticism was an an exotic occasion for sentiment. The Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, composed when he was a nineteen-year-old conservatory graduate, is charged with the gloomy emotionalism of adolescence while still being relatively easy to play, which has kept it popular with listeners over the last century; by the time he made this first recording of it, he loathed it as only an ambitious and serious-minded artist saddled with an early one-hit wonder can. Still, it kept him clothed and fed, so he kept playing it.

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16. Heinrich Schlusnus with Richard Strauss: “Ruhe, meine Seele!”

Richard Strauss was ten years older than Rachmaninoff when he entered the studio with the great lyric baritone Heinrich Schulsnus to play piano on one of his greatest lieder. He had composed the setting of socialist poet Karl Henckell’s early self-epitaph as a gift for his bride in 1894; and while his output in the oughts and teens of the twentieth century had been among the most advanced operatic and symphonic work in the world, the limitations of recording technology meant that a song like this emotionally conflicted summation of life in the world, alternately raging and accepting, got onto disc before the world changed.

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17. M. N. Ghosh: “Baul”

This being only our second visit to the Indian subcontinent in nineteen years is inexcusable, given the volume of recording taking place, but understandable, given its relative lack of documentation in the West. M. N. Ghosh, who also recorded as Monta Babu, depending on the religious affiliation of the music he was singing, was a popular Bengali recording artist through the early 1930s. “Baul” seems to be a reference to the “madman” mystic religious tradition of the same name centered in the Bengal region (what is now eastern India and Bangladesh), and the shaking, rattling percussion that accompanies Ghosh is both ancient and strikingly modern.

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18. Marika Papagika: “Hrissaido”

Perhaps the greatest exponent of Greek and Anatolian music in the United States between World War I and the Depression, Marika Papagika was born on the Greek island Kos off the Turkish coast, found some success in the dying Ottoman Empire as a café-amam singer, and emigrated to the US at twenty-five with her husband Gus Papagika, who nearly always accompanied her on cimbalom. This slow and evocative tsamiko (a slow-motion Greek folk dance), with the Papagikas joined by cello and violin, is superb evidence for the power, emotion, and authority of her voice, one of the great voices in vernacular music of the era.

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19. Henry T. Burleigh: “Go Down Moses”

The summer of 1919 was named the Red Summer by James Weldon Johnson after the wave of racist and nativist violence that rose up as in answer to the pride Black America took in the 369th, to a newly urgent self-respect and insistence on equality under God and under the law. Hundreds of Black men, women and children lost their lives in riots, lynchings, burnings, and bombings—but some faced the murderous, cowardly pack and fought; dozens of white men also died. Little-remembered composer and baritone Burleigh’s solemn reading of the simplest and strongest spiritual in the canon stands as an urgent prophecy still unfulfilled.


 

XVIII: 1918

 

On Refusals to be Denigrated, Perverse Jouissances, and Ascetic Pulsations

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1. Al Jolson: “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”

The old never simply gives way to the new; generally it tries to jump on the bandwagon. So this, a Coon song if ever there was one—Jolson performed it in blackface, rolling his eyes grotesquely as he yammered about Mammy—is infected with the new jazz spirit. Which was understood as just another way to perform blackness, a new arrow in the quiver of mockery. But there’s a freedom, an insouciance, a refusal to be denigrated, in jazz that was missing from the Coon repertoire. It’s a song about missing the South, but it’s not about missing the plantation; it’s such a modern jive that Aretha Franklin recorded it in 1961.

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2. Bert Williams: “O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?”

If the first twenty years of the century have been dominated in these pages by anyone, it has been by Bert Williams, whose exaggeratedly patient drawl denoted mere slow wit to his mass (white) audience but connoted evasion, veiled self-definition, and a Bartlebian form of refusal to those with ears to hear. The text of this theoretically comic monologue is straight Coonery, the narrator a blasphemous, illiterate creature of appetite, but Williams’ delivery, with its pauses and ironic inflections, turns it into something like a philosophy, an acknowledgement of the riggedness of religion’s respectability racket, and a pattern-card for the next century of popular music, with all its sympathy for the devil.

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3. Marion Harris: “After You’ve Gone”

By 1918, the blues, both as a sheet-music faux-folklorism and as a genuinely Black tent-show holler, had been a part of the popular imagination long enough that they were beginning to transform the climate of popular song more broadly. Plenty of white imitators were producing blues (or blueish) songs, as we have seen and will continue to, but the largely-forgotten Black team of Turner Layton and Henry Creamer were among the first to take up the unabashedly adult themes of blues—infidelity, heartbreak, revenge—and put them into a song without overt Black signifiers. Marion Harris’s voice evokes still-unrecorded blues shouters, but the distinction between Black and white singing is collapsing.

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4. Dúo Gardel-Razzano, Orquesta Roberto Firpo: “El Moro”

The speed with which the once-unacceptable Gardel had become adopted by the tango establishment can be seen by the fact that not a year after “Mi Noche Triste,” he was, with his harmonizing partner José Razzano, recording with the most popular and esteemed bandleader in South America, Roberto Firpo. “El Moro,” adapted by Gardel from a well-known poem by nineteenth-century statesman and belletrist Juan María Gutiérrez, is less a song of urban tango than a song of the pampas gaucho, roughly equivalent in Argentine national mythology to the US cowboy or frontiersman; the moro of the title refers to the singer’s beloved Arabian (i.e. Moorish) horse, apparently lost to an Indian.

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5. Bahiano: “O Malhador”

The second “samba carnavalesca” in as many years recorded by Baiano, singing a song composed by Black sambista Donga and written in carioca slang by journalist and playwright Mauro de Almeida. Although the true Afr0-Brazilian samba bateria (drum line) of carnaval marches would not appear on record for another generation, the inclusion of ragged, funky percussion during the refrain here is in its own way as revolutionary as any record recorded during this revolutionary decade. And the spare instrumentation, with its prominent moaning clarinet, is a reminder that the entire Atlantic coast of the Americas is a continuum of musical borrowing, innovation, and expression: it could be jazz, calypso, or klezmer.

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6. Jewish Orchestra: “Der Shtiler Bulgar”

The reigning king of freilach (now klezmer) clarinet was Naftule Brandwein, a thirty-four year old clarinettist born in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine); having emigrated to New York in 1908, he was by 1918 regarded as one of the major Jewish musical stars of the era. There is no way to be positive that his is the clarinet on this record—recordings aimed at immigrant populations were rarely carefully documented in these years—but it sounds likely; he was playing with Abe Schwartz (whose outfit the Jewish Orchestra was) around then, and his lively, expressive, and free style fits with the irrepressible sounds that belie the title “the quiet Bulgarian [dance].”

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7. Nora Bayes: “Regretful Blues”

If Harris’s recording of “After You’ve Gone” represents a sophisticated mainstreaming of still-germinal blues song, this, by aging Jewish vaudeville queen Nora Bayes, represents the crass, unsophisticated adoption of blues by unembarrassable showbiz lifers. As sung by her in George M. Cohan’s second patriotic revue in as many years, it’s a hokey, crude imitation of blues sentiment smashed shamelessly together with brainless rah-rah wartime jingoism. Bayes’ delivery veers wildly between full-on Coon, with hiccuping vocal breaks and unseemly squawks (which is one origin of country music’s high lonesome yodels) and the straight big-voiced belting of vaudeville; compared to Harris she’s hopelessly out-of-date, but it remains, unaccountably, a hell of a record.

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8. Wilbur C. Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band: “Everybody’s Crazy ’bout the Doggone Blues, But I’m Happy”

After having a hit with “After You’re Gone,” Layton and Creamer could publish anything; among their sheet-music successes was this little-remembered rag, an early instance of Black irony about white adoption of Black musical forms. When Black St. Louis bandleader and executor of the late Scott Joplin’s estate Wilbur Sweatman took it up, though, it was no longer a mere rag. Sweatman was famous on the vaudeville circuit for playing as many as three clarinets at once, and this raucous, giddy recording is as much jazz as ragtime; the instruments swerve and slide all over the beat, and where the ODJB’s jass was tinged with mockery, here there’s nothing but joy.

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9. Eddie Nelson: “Tishomingo Blues”

Spencer Williams, like Turner Layton, Shelton Brooks, and the up-and-coming Eubie Blake, was an early Black jazz composer whose compositions ended up outliving his name, but who deserves to be remembered not just as an antecedent to the likes of Ellington, but as a peer to white contemporaries like Kern or Berlin. This was one of his early hits, a going-back-to-the-South song singing of nostalgia for Black community and solidarity rather than for the Mammy of minstrel caricature; this minstrelly recording, prominently featuring a slide whistle (because Blackness is goofy, you see), is perhaps not the song’s best foot forward, but it’s a document of one way African-American music was received.

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10. Billy Murray: “K-K-K-Katy”

The European War (later upgraded to World War ostensibly due to proxy battles in colonial territory, but really because Europe was considered the world) ended, after five years of promised glory churning into mechanized slaughter, with more than a whiff of farce. The latecoming United States mostly memorialized it in jokey songs like this one, where a boy must take leave of a girl and such is the blushing virginal yokeldom on both sides that a stammer gets turned into a hook. Murray, whose sharp, nasal voice recorded well and so who has appeared indiscriminately in these pages, was perhaps best suited to ditties like this, where no one gets hurt.

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11. Arthur Fields: “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”

The second military draft in United States history caught up the most famous and valuable songwriter in New York, who had only become a naturalized citizen earlier that year. But the Army, knowing well what a prize Irving Berlin was, did not send him to Europe, but had him stage a musical, Yip Yip Yaphank, to raise funds and recruit the boys. This song, an eternal classic in sentiment if not in historical context, was the big hit; Berlin himself performed it in uniform (and would do so again a quarter-century later). The recording by ex-vaudevillian Fields benefits from the witty orchestration Victor could afford to lavish, and so pop looms.

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12. Claire Waldoff: “Ach Jott, Was Sind die Männer Dumm”

German music, so dominant in the nineteenth-century symphonic and operatic traditions, was slow to adapt to the nimbler forms of twentieth century pop. Our first encounter with German popular song is this kabarett piece by an unconventional performer, roughly translated “Oh Gawd, How Stupid Men Are.” Waldoff (born Clara Wortmann) was a prominent member of Berlin’s gay milieu, wearing masculine attire and living openly with her lesbian partner. Like much of her most popular material, this was written for her by prolific theatrical composer Walter Kollo: dense with Berlinerisch slang, it’s a sneering indictment of masculine privilege and misogyny, while Waldoff’s trademark growl points forward to Lotte Lenya and Nina Hagen.

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13. Félix Mayol: “Ell’ prend l’boul’vard magenta”

French popular music, meanwhile, was only going from strength to strength in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The only country in the world where Decadence was a populist movement (with all the attendant ills of colonialism), French music-hall, chanson réaliste, and cabaret could be stultifyingly sexualized by repressed US or UK standards. This Vincent Scotto song, for instance, recounts a man’s deathly passion for a streetwalker; that it was performed on stage and on record by the mincingly effeminate Félix Mayol, the kind of career homosexual who was all but out, is the kind of perverse jouissance that made contemporary French literature synonymous with pornography in the English-speaking world.

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14. Giorgos Chelmis: “Den Se Thelo Pia”

Greek theatrical music and popular song (which as in every nation are not the same thing, but feed each other continually) was undergoing a renaissance in the late 10s, as the Turkish expulsion of ethnic Greeks (and genocide of Armenians) fed Athens and the other Hellenic metropolises with a new population of culturally varied and restless laborers, artists, and customers. I can’t find anything to confirm that this Giorgos Chelmis is the one who was married to the great Greek stage actress Marika Kotopouli, but whether or no, this café-amam song about the sensual misery of failed love is a lovely recording, and one more clue on the trail of rebetika.

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15. Maâlma Titine: “Wahad el Ghozal Rit el Youm”

The tradition of Judeo-Algerian music is very old, older perhaps than the Umayyad Caliphate which stretched from northern Spain to Kashmir in the eighth century. The highly developed interfaith musical traditions of Muslim Andalusia took root in North Africa following the Reconquista, and after centuries of colonialism, it was the French who first made recorded documents of Algerian music. Maâlma (an Arabic honorific) Titine (a French diminutive) was a young Jewish performer, primarily a pianist but also a singer, in Algiers; the song seems to be Algerian folk poetry that has been recorded in many different ways. It is not chaabi, but it is a starting point for its urban modernity.

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16. Enrico Caruso: “Sei Morta Nella Vita Mia”

The Voice will be with us for only three years more; as his repertoire mostly consisted of music much older than these pages’ focus, we’ve heard from him less often than his importance and broad popularity during the first two decades of the century would indicate. But with this canzone, written by the prolific Mario Pasquale Costa circa 1895, he demands to be heard as one of the most original, provocative, and enduring voices of the century. One of the original from-the-vault rescues, it was recorded in 1918 but not issued for another thirty years, possibly because the piano accompaniment was too simple for 1918’s tastes; today it sounds merely reverent.

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17. Guido Deiro: “Temperamental Rag”

Caruso, the son of a Neapolitan mechanic, was the greatest exponent of the world’s highest-status music; Count Guido Deiro was born to a noble family in northern Italy, and became an exponent of what would often be understood as some of the tackiest music of the twentieth century. Travelling the world in concert and vaudeville, he popularized the piano accordion, that staple of polka, tejano, zydeco, turbo-folk, and Lawrence Welk. But he was no mere charlatan with a product to sell; he was a genuine virtuoso, with a compositional knack that produced songs like this one, as joyous and nimble as any rag written to be played on any other instrument.

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18. Flonzaley Quartet: “Molly on the Shore”

A 1907 adaptation of two Irish reels for concert band by eccentric Australian-American composer Percy Grainger, “Molly on the Shore” is a stalwart of the light classical canon. The Flonzaley String Quartet, based out of New York but composed of Italian and French virtuosi, was among the first modern ascetic art-music ensembles, pursuing perfection of technique over the crowd-pleasing commercial engagements by which most concert performers still earned their bread. This beautiful recording, astonishingly subtle given its age and the then highly-developed but by 21st-century standards primitive acoustic technology, is among the best early recordings of concert music, all pulsing clusters that look backward to jigs and forward to Phillip Glass.


 

XVII: 1917

 

On Great Leaps Forward, Multiplicities of Jewishness, and Danders Raised

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1. The Original Dixieland Jass Band, “Dixie Jass Band One Step”

There’s something about years of the twentieth century ending in 7. Maybe it’s just the point in the decade when enough trends have become noticeable that it’s easy for them to coalesce around a flashpoint. In any case, this record is, in a very real sense, the beginning of modern music. It’s not proper jazz (whatever that turns out to be), it’s a bunch of white kids making an unholy noise in garage-punk imitation of what they think Black music sounds like. It’s Elvis and Jerry Lee, the Beatles and the Stones, the Dolls and the Clash, the Beasties and Marshall Mathers, Ke$ha and Miley. It’s a racket, in more than one sense, and everything flows from it.

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2. Baiano e Coro, “Pelo Telefone”

From the dance halls of New Orleans to the Carnaval streets of Rio de Janeiro, there’s a whole lotta coalescin’ goin’ on. This is not, technically, the first samba on record, any more than the ODJB was the first jass, but it’s the first record that called itself a samba, and it’s got a brisker, funkier sway than any Brazilian music we’ve heard to date. Composed by the Black sambista Donga and performed by the white generalist performer Baiano (of Bahia, a majority-Black state), “Pelo Telefone” (by telephone, cf. “Hello Ma Baby”) is exactly the same kind of blind dance forward into the future that the ODJB represents, with all the racial, class, and technological confusion which inheres.

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3. Carlos Gardel, “Mi Noche Triste”

While tango has been heard on record for a decade, and has been a fashionable step in the dance halls of the global aristocracy for four years, upper-class condescension means that what is a genteel dance music for Europeans in ball gowns is underclass pimps-and-pickpockets trash in song form. Lyrics in lunfardo slang evoke the seamy underbelly of Buenos Aires nightlife, and the violent, sexual atmosphere of the milonga horrifies the bourgeois keepers of taste. Into this atmosphere, “Mi Noche Triste” is launched, hits, and what tango was, had been, could be, is utterly transformed. No longer just a semi-reputable dance music, tango has become a theatrical, literary music, and one of the world’s great storehouses of song.

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4. María Teresa Vera & Rafael Zequeira “Óyelo Bien, Rubén (El Servicio Obligatorio)”

Meanwhile, Cuban music has been a shadowy undercurrent in these pages, more concerned with the nineteenth-century danzones of Havana gentility than the Afro-descended rumbas, guaguancós, and above all sones simmering up from Oriente province. The first modern Cuban voice to be heard with great success on record is a woman’s: María Teresa Vera, who with her duet partner Zequeira was foundational in establishing Cuba’s trova (troubadour) tradition. Here, on her first recording trip to New York City, she turns her tutor Manuel Corona’s satirical guaracha (Cuban theater song) about ladykillers hastily marrying to avoid the wartime draft into an incantatory meditation on human frailty. Called “rumba” on the label, it could be considered Vera’s first great santería record.

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5. Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra, “Tanzt, Tanzt, Yiddelech”

The fifth cornerstone of the 1917 firsts (that aren’t really firsts) is this, the first klezmer record, except Jewish musicians have been recording freilach (joyful) dance music for a decade. But here, in the dance band of Bucharest-born bandleader Abe Schwartz, the classic elements of what would later be identified as klezmer are gathered together and propelled forward by the urgency, hunger, and population pressure of immigrant New York. (Probably) Naftule Brandwein’s clarinet chirps and squalls above the horns, strings, and percussion, as the demand of the title—“dance, dance, Jewish people”—reaches out to listening Gentiles of all races, and not just jazzing New Yorkers, but immigrants and underclasses all around the world will hear its call.

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6. Anna Wheaton & James Harrod, “Till the Clouds Roll By”

With foundational records in the history of jazz, samba, tango, son, and klezmer, five of the great syncretic urban musics of the early twentieth century can trace their lineage to 1917; by comparison, a mere tectonic shift in the theatrical music of the ruling classes is dog bites man. Still. Music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse, with intricate polysyllabic and internal rhymes: this is something new on the New York stage, and the intimacy and unpretentiousness of Oh, Boy!, the show where the song debuted, heralds a new era in Anglophone musical comedy: light and flippant, telling a single story rather than the patchwork of revue, with accessible, up-to-date songs that you can live by.

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7. Nine Pinson, “Le Cri du Poilu”

But while the Western hemisphere is undergoing a seismic shift in the nature and future of popular music, Europe remains embroiled in a dirty, pointless war that not all the chipper kit-bag trouble-packing warbles in the world can mask. Here, a French music-hall veteran adopts a song by Vincent Scotto, a young, fresh-faced composer who will help to transform chanson in the coming decades: a jaundiced, unpatriotic acknowledgement that the average unshaven soldier would vastly prefer getting laid to laying down his life—or taking any German’s—in the mud and disease of the trenches. The rousing refrain “Une femme, une femme” is far more open and direct than the winking, blushing Armentières mademoiselles of their British counterparts.

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8. Eddie Cantor, “That’s the Kind of Baby for Me”

What the French do not bother to encode, Jewish performers in the US very much do. On the one hand, this recording can be heard as a white suburban expression of the Jazz Age arriving three years ahead of schedule, as Eddie Cantor’s everyschmuck is exactly the kind of enthusiastic virgin that F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Held Jr., and Harold Lloyd loved to parody. On the other, it’s a very specific expression of Lower East Side tenement life, a compact, energetic, and perforce cosmopolitan kind of life which, when Cantor became America’s mass-media uncle, would read all-American. But here, as a Ziegfeld Follies star—where he played Bert Williams’ son in blackface—he became America’s gawky kid brother.

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9. Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis, “A Bunch of Blues”

And finally, two decades after the first written report of a music that could be understood as the blues, seven years since the first published blues song, three years since the first recorded blues song, here is the first recorded example of the blues in what you might—must—call its true form, to wit, being performed by African-American musicians of the South. It is still dicty and middle-class, it is still marching-band in overarching form, it is still a composed blues rather than a folk blues, because W. C. Handy knows where the money in the music business is, and you need copyrights and no funny business you might get sued over. But it’s another real beginning.

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10. Eubie Blake Trio, “Hungarian Rag”

And here’s another. Blake (like Handy) has a better claim to being called the first jazz recording artist than the Original Dixieland Jass Band, and not just because of the color of his skin. Nominally a rag, this trio piece (two pianos and trap drums) is taken at such a velocity, with such sleek verve and inherent funk, that it breaks loose of the confines of the ragtime form and romps joyously among the as-yet-unnamed musics of the coming decade. If it is ragtime, it is the freest, boldest ragtime yet heard; if it is jazz, it is of a particularly rattling, industrial, Atlantic-coast sort, rather than the steamy Delta funk of New Orleans: Blake is from Baltimore.

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11. Henry C. Browne, “Push Dem Clouds Away”

But as black American musicians begin, however slowly and painfully, to carve out a space for themselves, the nearly century-long dehumanization of black Americans called minstrelsy grinds along, carving out a track that 1917 did not have a name for, but would be known to history as “old-time.” This song, both a grossly offensive Coon song and a prototype of the power-of-positive-thinking genre of song that will only grow more prominent in the coming decade, was written for the forgotten 1891 musical A Trip to Chinatown; Browne was a new generation of minstrel performer who made a specialty of digging up old stuff and singing it as crassly as possible; it’s one origin of country music among many.

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12. The Six Brown Brothers, “At the Darktown Strutters’ Ball”

The explosion that was the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s first records loosed off a tremendous amount of energy around the country, as the first genuine recorded popular-music craze gained traction. All kinds of things got recorded in their wake, whether it made any sense to market them as jazz or not. This, for example, is a white vaudeville act doing a stiff reading of a song written by black vaudevillian Shelton Brooks (we last saw him behind “Some of These Days”), which would become an early jazz standard. It’s less jazz than the ODJB were, but because of the novelty configuration that was the Brown Brothers’ act—six saxophones, from bass to alto—it has jazz texture.

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13. Orquesta Típica Maglio, “El Tío Soltero”

Even as Carlos Gardel brings tango as a sung form into the light, tango consolidates as an instrumental dance music. The title of this bewitching, sprightly dance comes from the same underworld lunfardo roots as Gardel’s song—“El tío soltero” is a raffish way to refer to a single guy out on the prowl—but the music depicts a decorous flâneur, with its twinkly orchestration and fin-de-siècle melodic accents. Only the insistent pulse of the tango rhythm marks it as more than a sedate ballroom whirl. We last saw “Pacho” Maglio five years ago, and the distance between his hungry, dazzling tango of 1912 and his pretty, complacent tango of 1917 is why Gardel had to happen.

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14. Ford Hawaiians, “Wiliwili Wai”

While the hula craze in the United States is several years old now, the continued recording and distribution of Hawai‘an music has only really gotten started. This group, featuring the virtuoso Henry Kailimai on ukulele, was assembled by automaker Henry Ford as artists in residence at his Detroit headquarters; as Ford was friendly with Edison, they recorded frequently. This meditation on a lawn sprinkler—composed by the dethroned Queen Lili‘uokalani—is perhaps not the sort of perky hula music Ford had in mind, as the funereal pace and basso vocal turn it into a powerful lament, an island spiritual, and a memorial for the last Queen of Hawai‘i, who would be dead by the end of 1917.

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15. Alma Gluck & Efrem Zimbalist, “Chanson Hebraïque”

But as popular song explodes in all four corners of the globe, the classical concert tradition that has constituted the bulk of recording to date is still very much alive. This extremely proper classical recording, though, is full of unusual resonances. Gluck was a Jewish-American soprano born in Romania, popular in concert and on record, where her rendition of the minstrel “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny” was huge; her husband Zimbalist was a Russian Jewish violinist whose sentimental recordings of the classical canon were prolific; the song is the Jewish folk song “Meyerke, mein zun,” as arranged by French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel in 1910. It’s a remarkable high point of folk song as art song.

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16. Fritz Kreisler, “Poor Butterfly”

Far and away the most popular violinist of the era was the Austrian-born Kreisler, whose wide range and sweet tone exactly hit the comforting, not to say comfortable, note that the broad bourgeois audience for concert music wanted from it. This, a pop-crossover recording of a show tune based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, was one of his biggest recorded hits, and if the context has faded over the century—pop-crossover songs do not originate in circus-venue spectacles borrowing from orientalist operas anymore, Cirque du Soleil notwithstanding—the sturdy melodic underpinnings and Kreisler’s expressive, populist but unsentimental mitteleuropean technique (especially as compared to the austerity of a peer like Jascha Heifetz) still has the power to resonate today.

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17. Nora Bayes, “Over There”

In April of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson requested permission from Congress to declare war on the German Empire. The sinking of the Lusitania hadn’t done it; the interception of a message to the revolutionary Mexican government, suggesting that Germany would back them in a northern attack, did. It would take a year before the first American troops landed in Europe, but nothing raises the US dander like a hint that the vassal states in the Western Hemisphere have a mind of their own. So, thirteen years after his first big hit, George M. Cohan contributed his last to the war effort: “Over There,” with its high-kicking Broadway attitude, is the best war song the nation ever produced.


 

XVI: 1916

 

On the Celebritization of Song-Pluggers, the Incipience of Jazz, and Bearing Witness to Atrocity

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1. Orquesta Típica Roberto Firpo, “La Cumparsita”

As the European War rages—two years now, and no end in sight—popular culture spins at what contemporary observers declare is a terrifying rate. A song is half-written by a young Uruguayan, whose friends make him take it to the visiting greatest bandleader of Buenos Aires. This gentleman glues on pieces from two of his own half-forgotten songs, and premiers it in Montevideo. It’s received well enough that when he returns to Buenos Aires he records it. “La Cumparsita,” or “the little Carnival march,” is a hit for a season or two; but when words are added some eight years later it becomes one of the deathless tangos of the century. Still, here, with a small bandoneon-piano-violins-flute combo, its sweet, languorous melodicism is undeniable.

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2. Enrico Caruso, “’O Sole Mio”

We last heard him fourteen years ago, unsettling his earliest gramophone listeners with a mirthless Pagliacci laugh. In the years since, he has become The Voice, the unrivaled exemplar of Italian bel canto on stage and more importantly on record. He generally sings airs from the operatic canon, his rich, rolling overtones more suited to the solid verities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than to the emerging dissonances of the twentieth. But here, he sings not an aria, but a canzone napoletana, a song of his birthplace, Naples, as new as 1898, with more modest, even populist traditions of melodicism and emotion. The orchestration, with its habanera rhythm and castanets, evokes a pan-Latinism that’s becoming highly fashionable in this decade of tangos and maxixes.

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3. Elsie Baker and Billy Murray, “Play a Simple Melody”

Midway through the decade, in the narrow block of high-rise apartment buildings nicknamed Tin Pan Alley by New York’s flippant press corps, there is only one name which inspires awe among all the verse-scribblers and piano-bashers competing to sell the most sheet music to the public. He’s not thirty, and he’s had his second smash revue of all-original material. The boy born Israel Baline in Belarus (or Siberia), son of a synagogue cantor, is the hottest thing in show business. Simple melodies are one reason: something anyone can pick out on the piano or whistle in the street. The other reason is demonstrated in the contrasting section of this song: ragtime, deracinated and purged of its Black underworld origins, is now a universal American bounce.

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4. Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, “On the Shore at Le-Lei-Wei”

As ragtime blends into universality, Black America moves forward restlessly. Pianist Dan Kildare was born in Jamaica, but he trained in the US under James Reese Europe playing for the Castles, and in 1915 he took his own percussive string-heavy orchestra to England as the musical entertainment for Ciro’s, the legendary nightclub that presaged the Jazz Age in Great War-era London. “On the Shore at Le-Lei-Wei” was a novelty song from Very Good, Eddie, a Jerome Kern show at the Princess Theater, co-credited to Hawai’ian ukulele master Henry Kailimai. Kildare’s band attacks it at a ferocious pace, banjos raving, while the vocal (singing “Waikiki” rather than “Le-Lei-Wei”) is rather lost in the hubbub. If it’s not quite yet jazz, it’s certainly no longer just ragtime.

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5. Frank Ferera and Helen Louise, “Hapa Haole Hula Girl”

Meanwhile, hula music from the Hawai’ian islands, not the New York stage, continues to evolve. “Hapa Haole Hula Girl” was written by the Hawai’ian music impresario Sonny Cunha in 1909, as a sort of thesis statement for the hapa haole (half white) music which he pioneered, writing lyrics in English and bringing in non-Hawai’an (and non-missionary) influences from popular music. The song’s first great recording, by the entirely haole husband and wife team Frank Ferera (slack-key guitar) and Helen Louise (rhythm guitar), is an instrumental. Which is fine, since Cunha’s infantilizing, exoticizing lyrics are best left to their era, but the swooning lilt of the melody and Ferera’s sharp, incisive soloing help make hula, hapa haole or otherwise, as modern as tango, ragtime, or jazz.

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6. Felix Arndt, “Nola”

So we turn to another record that isn’t quite jazz, but would come to inform it, particularly in the highly-embroidered keyboard work of Art Tatum. It’s the composition, and recording, for which Felix Arndt is best remembered: a musical portrait of Nola Locke, for whom he wrote it as a present on their engagement in 1915. Arndt’s flashy, fluid playing is the kind of instrumental prowess that later generations would only recognize in guitar gods, once rock had displaced all other music. Virtuosos have a long history in concert music, of course, but the snappiness of the rhythm and the airiness of the melody mark “Nola” as something newer, more modern. The word pop was not yet in use, but no other word will do.

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7. The Versatile Four, “Circus Day in Dixie”

In one sense, this recording is the newest, most modern music we have yet heard: terrifically fast, with funky drum breaks and a bandleader shouting out encouragement and instruction like James Brown. In another sense, it’s one of the last glimpses we’ve ever gotten of the oldest American pop form, minstrelsy: not the decrepit show-biz memory of minstrelsy, flattened out into marches and racist jokes, but the galvanic, specifically Black-imitating music that electrified New York audiences in the 1840s when performed by young Irish immigrants in, yes, blackface. The Versatile Four did not black up, and “Circus Day in Dixie” the song is a product of the 1910s, a frank imitation of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” but the record stomps and swings like an exhumed ghost.

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8. George O’Connor, “Nigger Blues”

LeRoy “Lasses” White, a blackface performer in Dallas, copyrighted this song as “Negro Blues” in 1912, but when the sheet music was published a year later, what had been an unexceptionable descriptor had become a slur. White was white; but the song is the first published twelve-bar blues, the standard form, with its repeating lines, that would come to define Black twentieth-century music. The lyrics are probably no more original to White than the blues form, but they are our first encounter with many of the signature images of the storehouse of demotic song, from the blues being nothing but a good person feeling bad to laying one’s head down on some railroad line. Columbia hack O’Connor tries to sing minstrel, and just sings American.

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9. Marion Harris, “I Ain’t Got Nobody Much”

The song’s origins are disputed—four different copyrights in five years—but the best claims include Black performers, and if it’s not a blues song by a strict accounting of the form, it’s the next best thing, a torch song. Marion Harris was a twenty-year-old Midwesterner who had only been in show business for two years, but her belting was exactly what record companies and stage producers wanted in the years when the blues were gathering cultural steam: a white woman who sang Black. She’s not doing a minstrel affectation, but she’s not a sub rosa representative of The Culture, either: after twenty years of cakewalks, ragtime, coon songs, and Bert Williams, Black singing is American singing. It will only grow more so from here.

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10. Fay Compton, “Take Off a Little Bit”

Irving Berlin started in music as a song plugger, someone who would sing new songs in public to sell those in earshot on the sheet music. He graduated to writing his own songs, and was now a wealthy man, able to sell Broadway shows on the strength of his name alone. Stop! Look! Listen! was his second hit in as many years, and the slightly-naughty proto-flapper song “Take Off a Little Bit” was a showstopper as sung by the slightly-naughty French comic actress Gaby Deslys. (Eighteen-year-old ingénue Fay Compton sang it when the show went to London the following year.) There were songs in the show that would have longer lives, but it’s worth remembering when future Establishment institution Irving Berlin wrote a stripper anthem.

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11. Paquita Escribano, “Fea”

The Spanish musical-theater genre cuplé, which was to Madrid and Barcelona in the late nineteenth century what music-hall was to London and cabaret to Paris, has been unjustly neglected here, but our first encounter is an exceptional piece. “Fea” (ugly) could be considered as belonging to two separate but particularly Spanish literary and theatrical traditions, the comic-erotic sicalipsis and the psychological-grotesque esperpento. The singer declares herself so ugly that all sorts of hideous consequences befall the viewer, while the audience, either live in the theater or at a remove on record, rejoices in the irony of her pretty face. Paquita Escribano was one of the great cupletistas of the era, and though in her thirties at this recording, was not yet halfway through her career.

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12. Jorge Bastos, Carlos Santos, Ilda Stichini and Guilhermina Anjos, “Fado do Afonso Costa”

And so to Lisbon, where fados have been sung for centuries and recorded for several years. But despite its title, this is not a fado: it’s another theatrical piece, a comic song from the topical and satirical revue Coração à Larga, sung by four stalwarts of the early Portuguese recording industry. The subject of the song, Afonso Costa, was the Prime Minister of Portugal seven times between 1913 and 1917 (politics moved at dizzying speeds in the First Republic), and was primarily responsible for erecting initial barriers between Church and State. The topical lyrics are of minor interest today; what is remarkable is the rhythm of the thing, a patter song delivered with such snapping force that a 21st-century listener is inevitably reminded of hip-hop.

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13. Kiria Koula, “Tsifte-Telli”

The masses of immigrants flooding into New York through the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth are beginning to make themselves heard. Koula Antonopoulou emigrated from the western province of Missolonghi in 1912, and by some reckonings was the first Greek woman to record. Here she is barely a presence, just some murmured syllables and moans, while Andreas Pongis’ keening violin and Athanasios Makedonas’ insistent bouzouki recreate the Ottoman world of café-aman dances. The title itself is merely a genre of Greek-Anatolian dance, tsifteteli, and its physicality is remarkable today. In three years, Koula would make history again, founding an independent record label for recording and distributing Greek music, which was probably the first female-owned label in history.

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14. Joseph Moskowitz, “Doina”

When the Romanian-born Jewish musician Joseph Moskowitz came to New York in 1908, he advertised his solo cimbalom concerts in Yiddish, Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian. A consummate performer and enviable virtuoso, he had been classically trained—the cimbalom is a concert version of the folk dulcimer—but he also knew the importance of a mass audience. His repertoire was a potent blend of traditional Jewish, Roma, and Romanian music, and after settling in New York, he had absorbed ragtime and the light classical canon; as preserved on disc, his music still has the power to transport today. Doina is a Romanian folk music, possibly with Ottoman sources, and Moskowitz’ dreamy run through a Turkish maqam before breaking out into the dance was influential in klezmer.

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15. Abraham Rosenstein, “Die Milchume”

Concerts of Jewish music were special events in New York; more everyday was the Yiddish theater, and its hit songs whether sung, printed or recorded. There are thousands of these songs from the early twentieth century, some of which are in the first rank of American songwriting. “Die Milchume” is a deeply affecting lament about war. The broader American theatergoing public were unconcerned about the European war, but as nearly every Jewish New Yorker knew someone in the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, or Russian Empires then embroiled, it was not just a subject in the newspapers, but in everyday correspondence, gossip, and fears. Cantor Abraham Rosenstein was a popular recording artist of Yiddish song, specializing in comedy: here he pours on the schmaltz, and earns it.

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16. Zabelle Panosian, “Groung”

In the spring of 1916, the full scope of the atrocities still in the process of being committed on the Armenian population of Turkey were only still beginning to be made public knowledge. The recording that year of the song titled “Groung” (transliterated “Kroonk” in modern Armenian; it means “crane,” a symbol of lonely flight) by a twenty-three-year-old Armenian singer who had lived in New York since childhood may not have been a direct response to the horror and sorrow of the first European genocide of the twentieth century, but it’s impossible now not to hear it as a lament, and an immensely powerful one: Panosian’s voice is shattering in its purity and emotion as she repeats “Crane, have you not news from our country?”


 

XV: 1915

 

On the Efflorescence of Melody, the Wide Applicability of Tears, and the Subtleties of the Spoken Word

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1. Harry MacDonough & Olive Kline: “They Didn’t Believe Me”

The little earthquakes which change the landscape of popular music if not permanently then at least irrevocably are rarely like geological earthquakes in that a specific epicenter can be pinpointed; it’s more usually something in the air. Nevertheless, the fifty-year era of professionalized popular song bound and sold as the Great American Songbook began here, with a plaintive, unfussy melody and conversational lyrics which made romance an everyday thing rather than a grandiose Herbertian hornswoggle. It made a household name of composer Jerome Kern, and added to his ambition to do even greater things. By the time this recording (one of several made in 1915) was on the market, he was already preparing to transform the rest of American musical theater with the collaboration of a couple of Anglo-American humorists. To be continued….

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2. Murray’s Ragtime Banjo Quartet with the Bohemian Band: “Hors D'Oeuvre”

British imitation of American vernacular music has a long history, some of which we’ve already glimpsed; but this is one of the earliest British imitations of specifically black American vernacular music. Murray’s Ragtime Banjo Quartet was named for their performance venue, the popular and innovative nightclub in Beak Street named Murray’s (founded, incidentally, by a Chicagoan), which opened in 1913 and lasted in various forms until 1970. The act’s (inaudible) pianist composed the number—with liberal inspiration, as a moment’s listening suggests, from Irving Berlin and Stephen Foster—and the decidedly unfunky horn charts are credited to the Bohemian Band, another American-imitating ragtime act active in the W1 postal code. The overall impression left by the record is nostalgia—like many British imitators to come they got the atmosphere, but lost the urgency.

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3. Jack Charman: “Mademoiselle from Armentières”

The second most famous World War I song today (at the time it was synonymous with the war, especially in the UK), remembered mostly for the verses—not recorded here—which suggested that being a soldier who participated in the liberation of a village earned you the sexual gratitude of its women. Jack Charman was a prolific if not extremely beloved music-hall star, better known for cashing in on the supposedly humorous songs of the moment than for his stage characters or individual performance style. His delivery of “Mademoiselle” is a perfunctory bawl, but it nails the generalized British attitude towards the French (and, really, every non-British peoples) of the era, which could be summed up as disgust at cultural difference mingled with a prurient interest in the sexual availability of difference.

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4. George Grossmith, Jr.: “Murders”

Heir to the comic dynasty of Penzance’s Major General, the Mikado’s Ko-Ko, and the proto-Wodehousian Diary of a Nobody, George Grossmith, Jr. (actually III, but his grandfather was a journalist, not a showman, so his D’Oyley Cartesian father is called the first) was the great star of the Edwardian musical theater, playing—and writing, and producing, and singing—such essentially British types that he could be considered the English George M. Cohan. His stage manner in youth formed the kernel of Bertie Wooster and the rest of the Drones; his productions popularized the cakewalk, ragtime, and the tango among British audiences; and his comic dance routines foreshadowed the Ministry of Silly Walks. “Murders” is a blackly comic monologue set to music aimed directly at the universal British appetite for cosy mayhem.

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5. Bert Williams: “I’m Neutral”

In the mid-teens, the reigning US king of comic monologues set to music remained Bert Williams; “I’m Neutral” was merely another in his impressive arsenal. The subtlety of his humor is almost invisible here, as he plays on contemporary stereotypes of black men as cringing cowards to parody American isolationism during World War I. The final verse, in which he still gravely affirms his neutrality over an incident of horrific domestic violence, makes his entirely serious satirical point: refusal to intervene is tantamount to murder, and isolationism calls into question the honor, courage, virtue, and decency of the American public. As a black man, of course, he knew all about that honor, courage, virtue and decency; which is why the satire can only be inferential. Any more explicit, and he’d be dead.

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6. The Right Quintette: “The Rain Song”

The Right Quintette, led by Canadian basso James Lightfoot, were a popular and energetic New York-based cabaret act, part of the general movement of black entertainment away from the lavish productions of the Nineties and Oughts into more intimate venues. “The Rain Song” originally appeared in the Williams & Walker revue Bandanna Land in 1908 (composed by Will Marion Cook), but had become part of the repertoire for every shucking-and-jiving troupe in the land by the time the Quintette recorded the handful of platters (three Cooks and one Stephen Foster) which left their slender mark on history. Acoustically superior to the Afro-American Folk Song Singers’ rendition of the tune, thanks to the measly five voices, it strikes a now-familiar balance between racist caricature—get money—and aesthetic achievement—forward the race.

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7. The Fisk Jubilee SIngers: “In the Great Gettin’-Up Mawnin’”

Which isn’t all that different, as it happens, from the objectives of the several Jubilee Singer companies roving the Republic performing concerts of spirituals to raise money for the educational institutions that will be called HBCUs. The money, of course, is meant for greater good, and the forwarding of the race is meant to have a spiritual dimension in addition to an aesthetic one, but the elision of the spiritual and the aesthetic is hardly unique to the African-American tradition(s). This recording differs from the standard version of the spiritual known today (thanks largely to Mahalia Jackson’s midcentury rewrite), and is more concerned with present-day social justice than apocalyptic promises—the distinction between “in this world” and “fare thee well” is a history of the civil rights struggle in miniature.

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8. Lionel Belasco: “Buddy Abraham”

Meanwhile, Trinidadian music on record was evolving in many directions at once. Bandleader and composer Lionel Belasco’s preferred instrument of choice—the piano—guaranteed that his solo recordings would become merely historical curiosities rather than setting a new standard for calypso, which, tied as it was to carnival celebrations and outdoor parades, preferred more portable instrumentation. But his melodic sense and classical training made many of his compositions standards, and his work and fame would grow larger than carnival celebrations in the coming years, as he introduced island rhythms to North America and Europe by touring and performing with a crack ensemble. Here, his one-man performance of his own “Buddy Abraham” is inflected by ragtime and Expressionism, but the rhythm steady as a rock and light as a breeze, remains purely Trinidadian.

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9. Grupo Chiquinha Gonzaga: “Sonhando”

The godmother of Brazilian popular music, a multi-racial anti-slavery activist, daughter of military privilege, and widely-celebrated composer, Chiquinha Gonzaga was almost seventy by the time of this recording, but still writing new music. “Sonhando” was written in 1914, a pretty, fluttering choro that cycles through a half-dozen permutations of the same flowing melody, and in this recording by some of the most well-known musicians in Brazil, earns its title (“dreaming” in Portuguese). Though it’s become a piano standard in the years since, the recording conventions of Brazil in the teens—and the conventions of choro more generally—gave preeminence to the flute, which could pierce through the fog of surface noise. Gonzaga would live another twenty years, long enough to see samba replace the choro she partly invented.

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10. Grupo O Passos No Choro: “Apanhei-te Cavaquinho”

The flautist on “Sonhando” was probably Antônio Maria Passos, whose Grupo o Passos no Choro was one of the most celebrated choro outfits in Brazil, where he was lauded as the greatest vernacular flautist. Ironically, he doesn’t appear on this recording, which is a piano solo (there’s just a possibility that the pianist is in fact Chiquinha Gonzaga, which would be a lovely symmetry), a polka-informed rendition of one of composer Ernesto Nazareth’s signature tunes. “Apanhei-te cavaquinho” means “I have you, cavaquinho” (the cavaquinho is a small guitar of Portuguese origin not unlike a ukelele in size and timbre), and it’s a danceable little tune suggestive of the traditional (and universal) myth of the carefree musician who owns almost nothing in the world but his guitar, and likes it that way.

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11. Dúo Valdivieso-Safadi: “Flores negras”

The authorship of the Latin American standard “Flores negras” is frequently disputed—in YouTube comments Colombian, Ecuadorean, Argentine, Cuban, and Peruvian partisans make their cases—but the earliest and most convincing attributions give it to Colombian poet Julio Flores. And because it’s in waltz time it’s called a bolero north of the Panama Canal (completed 1914) and a pasillo to the south; the pasillo being one of the national dances of Colombia (and Ecuador), its place of origin makes it a pasillo in my book. In any case, this is the first known recording; the duo Alberto Valdivieso Alvarado (vocal) and Nicasio Safadi (guitar and vocal) were based in Ecuador, where Valdivieso was born and where Safadi’s Lebanese parents had immigrated. They recorded little before going their separate ways; we may meet them again.

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12. Pale K. Lua & David Kaili: “Cunha Medley”

If 1915 was remembered for any one musical event in the United States in the years after, it was as the year of the “Hawaiian fad,” immortalized in country-music histories as popularizing the distinctive whine of slack-key guitar throughout the country; it just as quickly blew out most places, but stuck in the Appalachians and flourished. (Hawai’ian music had been popular for decades, a standard side-effect of imperial adventurism; but like twerking in 2013, it only became a fad when white people noticed.) This record, a medley of Lua’s own compositions (he’s the slide virtuoso; Kaili keeps time), seems to look forward to later pedal-steel tunes, having absorbed the jaunty quick-change of their typical circuit in vaudeville—which came from minstrelsy, and which would greatly inform country music.

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13. Elliniki Estoudiantina: “Eli-Eli”

The “estudiantine” or mandolin orchestra was an extremely popular European folk-classical configuration around the turn of the century, and broadly an amateur movement as opposed to the more professional marching band. The “Estoudiantina Elleniki” translates as the Mandolin Orchestra of Greece, a popular Ottoman-Empire act based in Smyrna (a culturally Greek city located in modern Turkey) by an Athenian and a Greek Byzantine who played everything; folk tunes, operetta, traditional Athenian serenades, and even approached the modern, churning underground urban Greek music which would later be known as rebetiko. “Eli Eli” was composed by Giorgos Vidalis, a Smyrna native who would later flee to the US as a refugee from the Turkish occupation. It’s a lament for a woman whose love for a soldier is unreciprocated, a resonant theme in wartime.

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14. Abe Elenkrig’s Yidishe Orchestra: “Dem Reben’s Nigen”

The Yiddish title of the song translates as “The Rabbi’s Tune,” and Abe Elenkrig’s orchestra is already pushing and whirling their freilach further and wilder in the two years since the last time we encountered them, closer and closer to what the Jewish-inflected jazz of the swing era would become. The clarinet laughs mockingly, perhaps irreligiously (it’s difficult to imagine this tune being understood as a particularly reverent depiction of a rabbi, cultural difference notwithstanding), and the tempo swirls increasingly agitatedly: a decade removed from their Bessarabian roots, and New York is already working its restless, galvanic magic on the performers. What had been pockets of disparate immigrant communities for decades was consolidating into an uneasily unified Jewish-American identity; Yiddish theater of the period was almost as popular as gentile Broadway.

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15. Aleksandr Vertinsky: “Ya Segodnya Smeyus’ Nad Soboy”

A towering figure in twentieth-century Russian art song (called “romans” in Russian, a reference to the French chanson tradition to which it was indebted but developed independently of), Vertinsky was born in Kiev, and his status as a Ukranian outsider in Imperial Russia informed the rest of his life. His earliest public performances date from this period, in which he typically appeared dressed in a death-like Pierrot outfit, singing songs about disillusionment and tragedy. The title of this song, one of his earliest recordings, translates as “Today I laugh at myself,” and the lyric, with its ironized sentiment, longing for the trite happy endings of fairy tales, seems to presage similar tensions in the works of Noël Coward, Cole Porter, and other high modernist pop composers of the 20s and 30s.


 

XIV: 1914

 

On the General Enthusiasm for Gyration, the Evils of Occidentalism, and the Duration of the Campaign

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1. Victor Military Band: “Memphis Blues”

W. C. Handy recollected that he first heard an old man playing the blues in a Mississippi train station in 1903. He wrote a tune for a Memphis mayoral candidate in 1909, reworking and publishing it in 1912 it under the title “The Memphis Blues.” It was a significant hit, credited with inspiring Vernon and Irene Castle’s fox-trot, and became part of the fabric of “ethnic” dance numbers that were increasingly defining the high life of the 1910s. It was recorded three times in 1914: vaudevillian Morton Harvey added coon-song lyrics about Handy himself and moaned in a burlesque of blackness, popular white bandleader Charles Prince threw in “comic” effects like a neighing trombone and farm-animal noises (cf. early Mickey Mouse shorts); and the stiff-jointed Victor Military Band played it so straight that you can barely hear the blues.

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2. Felix Arndt: “Desecration Rag”

The line between Scott Joplin and George Gershwin in the history of American art-vernacular music isn’t a straight one; Felix Arndt was one of the lesser-known intermediaries. An extremely popular if temperamental performer in his day, he was from an aristocratic New York family and classically trained but was fascinated by ragtime both for its technical complexity and the interpretive lens it gave to music. He wrote “Desecration Rag” to demonstrate that ragging classical music didn’t only have a comic purpose; it could be technically challenging and harmonically complex as well. This recording, one of his first, shows not only the fluidity of skill at the keyboard—though we’re still in the infancy of ragtime piano’s recording history, so all we can compare him to yet is other white men—but his interpretive sensitivity. Jauntiness transforms into hauntingness with surprising effectiveness.

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3. Europe’s Society Orchestra: “Castle House Rag”

The premier black band in the country steps back from the overwhelming drive of “Down Home Rag,” proving why they were the house band for the extremely elegant if liberated Castles. Though the drumming is still funky, the middle section of the tune drops out the drums altogether in favor of twinkly celeste notes (Irene Castle’s solo dance, perhaps?), and the band’s string-heavy arrangement makes the shift between classy and raggy sound entirely natural. It wouldn’t be for another several years and the ascendance of a particularly New Orleans strain of rag that horn bands became entirely identified with blackness: string bands were still considered as authentic as it came, and Europe played the authenticity game hard, insisting that his musicians know their parts by heart so as to not dispel the myth of innate African musicality by sight-reading in public.

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4. Nora Bayes: “Harmony Baby”

It would be factually incorrect to call this the first record with improvised musical nonsense syllables (i.e. scatting)—much non-Western music is built around the concept, and the gramophone had reached more or less everywhere by 1914. But it is one of the earliest recorded instances of a proto-scat in a song identified with black American identity, even if the markers indicating that identity is not clear at the remove of nearly a century. In the slang of the teens, “harmony” was not just a noun indicating a particular technical musical idea, but a metonym for uptempo, vernacular (which coded black) music: this is coon song edging into rag song edging into jazz song, and the Jewish vaudevillian Bayes swerves her voice around enough that it’s not entirely unlike what proper jazz singers would be doing in a decade or more.

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5. Bert Williams: “You Can’t Get Away from It”

Bert Williams was better known as a monologist than a singer, and even his greatest recordings are more spoken than sung. But when given a proper song, his conversational style in front of the recording horn would prove to be influential in the age of the microphone. “You Can’t Get Away from It” was written by Tin Pan Alley hack Jean Schwartz, whose most notable composition to date had been a sentimental exotica called “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” but it’s one of the great statements of ragtime’s imperial phase. Even the very different pulse of tango is lumped in with the dance mania that most social observers, whether indulgently for it or primly against it, agreed was sweeping the nation. The chuckle in Williams’ voice gives it away: Schwartz may have meant his song for satire, but Williams knows whose rhythm they’re dancing to.

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6: Orquesta Típica Criolla Firpo: “Champagne tango”

With the name Roberto Firpo we begin to leave behind tango’s first (or rather second, as the earliest tangueros went unrecorded) generation, and step into the bright lights of the Golden Age of Tango. He was one of the first to record romantic, as opposed to merely danceable, tangos, and his early promise is evident here, where despite the grind of surface noise his lightness of touch and the sensitivity of his arrangements for violin and piano are audible. “Champagne tango” was written by the prolific and eccentric Manuel Aróztegui, but the performance, and even the recording, bear all the hallmarks of Firpo’s romantic style, from the strings’ pizzicatti to the clarinet’s grace notes. But most important is his own piano: it was Firpo who established the piano as a major contributor to the tango’s sound, very nearly as necessary as the bandoneón.

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7: Grupo Terror do Facões: “O maxixe”

If 1913 was the year of the tango, at least in the Castle-led dance-crazy USA, then 1914 was the year of the maxixe, which is often described as the Brazilian tango. Especially in the bassline, it’s hard to tell much difference, though Brazilian music is as always characterized by a certain lightness. The popularity of the maxixe has generally been limited to the ballroom in the twentieth century, as the choro and later the samba became enthroned as Brazil’s national music. This group, whose name translates to “terror of the machetes”—machetes being slang of the period for bad musicians—recorded a dozen or so sides in Porto Alegre, the southern port city closest to Uruguay and Argentina, home of the tango. Most of their songs were composed by their leader-guitarist Octávio Dutra, including this one, titled simply “the maxixe.” 

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8: Julian Whiterose: “Iron Duke in the Land”

It is mostly an accident of history that makes this the most modern-sounding thing we’ve yet heard, because a man singing solo with a hard-strummed string instrument and being backed up by other men on the chorus is hardly an invention of the rock era. But later history tends to swallow up earlier history, so that this, true Trinidadian calypso in a radically simplified form, is freighted with all that would come after it, from Leadbelly to Jason Mraz and beyond. We know almost nothing about Julian Whiterose, except that he was one of the first calypsonians to sing in English rather than French, and that this recording, about the arrival of the locomotive to the island nations, was perhaps the inspiration for the name of one of the more famous calypsonians of that music’s Golden Age beginning in the 1930s.

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9. Pepi Littmann: “Oljom Habu”

A survival from the days of the Brodersänger (Yiddish singers and entertainers from the Galician—now western Ukraine — city of Brody), Frau Pepi Littmann was among the first Jewish performers to move out of the limited religious or ceremonial sphere of performance in the nineteenth century and perform in public spaces like inns, wine gardens, and other intimate venues; theaters dedicated to Jewish performance were still unimaginable in those years. Expert in both comedy and sentimental verse, she was successful enough to traverse Europe and even sail to New York, where she was popular with the immigrant population’s burgeoning theatrical scene, and recorded this showcase for her technique pitched halfway between cantor and klezmer. The title translates to “The World to Come,” and she sounds alternately cautionary and celebratory as the woodwinds pipe urgently behind her and she belts in increasingly tight circles.

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10. Matsui Sumako: “Kachūsha no Uta”

While Japanese literary, theatrical, and musical traditions are of course thousands of years old, our first encounter with them is in the person of a woman heavily identified with interpreting Western texts. Matsui was a student of Tsubouchi Shōyō, who popularized Shakespeare, and first came to fame in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In 1913 she performed as Katyusha Maslova in Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and the prolific composer Nakayama Shimpei wrote this song at the request of her director Shimamura Hogetsu: titled “Katyusha’s Song,” it’s profoundly affecting in both the universal simplicity of the melody and in Matsui’s small but controlled voice. On release, it was immensely popular with the Japanese public, and has been credited with founding the genre of ryūkōka, or popular song, roughly equivalent to jazz song in the US. Four years later, Shimamura died of influenza; she killed herself in response.

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11. Billy Murray and Kathleen Kingston: “You’re Here and I’m Here”

The habit of interpolating a catchy new song into an old play was hardly exclusively Japanese; perhaps the reigning American champion at the activity was Jerome Kern, a young, ambitious, and mostly unsuccessful composer hard at work on both Broadway and the West End. The Laughing Husband was originally an Austrian operetta, and it wasn’t even the first time Kern had plugged a gap with “You’re Here and I’m Here”—it was just the show that gave him one of his first small hits. He hadn’t entirely come into his own as a composer yet, but you can already hear the way the melody develops in a light, memorable manner rather than just see-sawing back and forth as in most of the song hits of the age. And note the interior rhymes by lyricist Harry B. Smith—we’ll hear more of those.

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12. Afro-American Folk Song Singers: “Swing Along”

At the turn of the century African-American composer Will Marion Cook, frustrated in his attempts to be the American Dvořak, turned instead to composing for all-black shows. “Swing Along” was written for the 1903 Williams and Walker fantasia In Dahomey, but he revised it in 1914 when presenting a concert of “Afro-American Folk Songs” with the assistance (which he rather resented) of the hot new thing in black music, James Reese Europe. The recording of that choral revision is muddy and indistinct—masses of voices did not record well, and Cook characteristically refused to trim down the many parts—but it’s not the individual voices that matter so much as the massive, weighty changes he has them running through. Nobody was writing on this scale in 1914; the first time we’ll get anything close to it is Porgy and Bess.

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13. Tuskegee Institute Singers: “Good News”

By contrast, the mere eight voices of the Tuskegee singers record with almost insolent clarity. (Cook would have spit fire.) Although again the compositional and arranging brilliance of hardworking and unacknowledged black musicians is impossible to ignore. This rendition of “Good News (Chariot’s Comin’)” is only typical of the intricate and polished effects that the most prestigious black universities, Booker T. Washington-founded Tuskegee above all, strove for in their renditions of old spirituals. It’s one of the least-documented of the spiritual texts, with no attributed authorship that I can find, but—at least in this recording—the quick snap of the vowels and the ease with which it lends itself to being played with in meter and tempo seems to predict not only the gospel vocal quartets to come, but the vocalese and doo-wop and rock and roll beyond.

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14. John McCormack: “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”

But tango and maxixe and ragtime and blues and gospel and calypso and theater and opera were all distant memories in the mud and blood of the trenches to which thousands were marching in the fall of 1914. It would be over by Christmas, they told each other, and were told by their newspapers and prime ministers and Kaisers. So why not whistle a tune on the way to war, like boys playacting, or like the paper men in books? “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” was introduced on the music-hall stage by Florrie Forde in 1913, a simple-minded satire of Irish excitability and—in the second verse—stupidity. But it’s the indelible chorus that caught the ear of the marching Britons, with its cheerfulness about being long, long from home, and a long way to go. Long, long indeed.


 

XIII: 1913

 

On the Liberational Quality of Ragtime, the Multiplicity of Frenchiness, and the Ideologies of Folk

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1. Europe’s Society Orchestra: “Down Home Rag”

The importance of this record to American musical history cannot be overstated: an all-black musical outfit playing black vernacular music written by a black man. Composer Wilbur Sweatman was a friend and competitor to Scott Joplin; bandleader James Reese Europe led the greatest dance orchestra in the country, black or white. At least according to his employers, who were Vernon and Irene Castle, the most famous couple on the contintent; they made staid Victorian America a dancing nation through a brilliant combination of discipline, celebrity, and capitalism. But once in the studio, Europe didn’t record any fox-trot: this whirling, breakneck take on Sweatman’s rag is almost too fast to dance to, and if the counterpoint of his huge orchestra is a little buried in the surface noise, the precision and force of the rhythm cannot be denied. The guffawing vocal is an echo of minstrelsy, but at last the laughter sounds earned.

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2. Hedges Brothers & Jacobson: “San Francisco Bay”

Still, after more than a quarter-century, ragtime—even progressive, slip-rhythmed ragtime—was no longer exclusively the province of black Southern composers like Sweatman, but a national music, liberating to everyone. The Hedges and Jacobson, a relatively small-time vaudeville trio from California and Philadephia respectively, were nothing special in the showbiz annals—certainly nothing in the written record suggests that anyone heard them as being ten years ahead of schedule. But on the pair of minstrel-rag songs they cut in 1913 (“Land of Cotton” was the flipside), they hit the off beat so hard, and harmonize so raggedly, that they anticipate not just the jazz to come but the rock ’n’ roll that will supplant it. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly small-time outfits criss-crossing the nation, almost none of whom were recorded, and almost never so loosely; the incompleteness of our historical record can be heartbreaking.

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3. Bert Williams: “Borrow from Me”

In 1913, Bert Williams had been a headlining star of the Ziegfeld Follies for three years; America’s greatest showman had declared his faith in the money-making potential of his star by daring the rest of the cast to walk when they protested against sharing the stage with a black man: “I can replace every one of you but him.” In his earning power, the slow casualness of his comedy, and his palatability to White America, Williams anticipated Bill Cosby by half a century; but he was not above issuing a shrewd “fuck you” on record to those who confused his gullible, slow-witted stage persona with himself. This song eventually becomes a standard—and race-free—piece of comic hyperbole about lending and collateral, but the opening verse, in which Williams rejects a degrading offer to participate in Uncle Tom’s Cabin with cool, ironic contempt, is a masterpiece of dignity passing as comedy.

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4. Toots Paka’s Hawaiians: “Aloha ‘Oe”

The unofficial anthem of Hawai’i and probably the most famous song in the Hawai’ian language, “Aloha ‘Oe” is not necessarily the greatest or most deeply moving of the hundreds of songs written by Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of Hawai’i, but it had the most profound effect on the music of the mainland United States. The gentle rhythm employed by Toots Paka’s combo here recalls the back and forth of the surf; the song’s structure is indebted to parlor song, but more vernacular than the longeurs of the white bourgeoisie; and of course the dreamy, ineffably sad whine of the steel guitar points forward to many, many different directions in which American music woud turn. It’s almost impossible not to hear predictions of commercial 1940s country ballads in this recording; but of course its power is not dependent on what comes after it, but is contained within the solitary beauty of the recording itself.

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5. Don Antonio Chacón: “Solamente con mirarte (Soleares)”

The many related Andalusian musical traditions grouped under the name flamenco are very old—the first written record of a music similar to what we know as flamenco dates from the 18th century—but like any musical tradition worth its salt, it’s grown and adapted to meet new historical circumstances. Antonio Chacón had been recognized as the premier flamenco singer in Spain for almost two decades before he made his first recordings in 1913 with the legendary guitarist Ramón Montoya. Like the blues, flamenco has a rigorous structure which is open to the improvisation of a skilled performer; “Solamente con mirarte” is in soleá form (thus the traditional parenthetical in the title), one of the oldest and most basic flamenco palos. Which doesn’t mean easy: Chacón’s astonishing facility with melisma and the microtones which point to flamenco’s influcence from Roma, Arabic, and North African musics is breathtaking even under the recorded hiss of age.

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6. A. Elenkrig’s Yidishe Orchestra: “Patsch Tanz”

The Yiddish title “Patsch Tanz” translates as “Clapping Dance,” and one listen to the record demonstrates why it’s called that. Intensely rhythmic, the orchestra of Abraham Elenkrieg (not pictured) is one of the first that can be called klezmer in the modern sense; that is, which united the melodic and harmonic sense of the Eastern European Jewish freilach orchestra to the urban drive and forward motion of the immigrant U.S. Elenkrieg was a horn player, but his cornet is buried in the mix behind the massive drums, humming violins, and the mockingly whimpering clarinet that makes common cause with what New Orleans jazz musicians were concurrently (though unheard on record) making clarinets do, as we will hear in due time. The song was recorded in New York in 1913, and was apparently part of the standard Yiddische repertoire, played by at least two other New York-based orchestras within the half-decade to come.

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7. Al Jolson: “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)”

Meanwhile, in the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, the most famous Jewish performer in New York was scoring a massive hit with his revue The Honeymoon Express, in which he sang anything that wasn’t nailed down—but the greatest sensation was a sentimental ditty called “You Made Me Love You,” written by a pair of Tin Pan Alley hacks and unbearably twee in the throat of anyone but Jolson, whose foghorn voice and incessant air of kidding the song as he sang it transformed it from a song of devotion to autobiography. Not that anyone was fooled that Jolson was in love with anyone but himself: it was the audience, humming it on the way out of the theater, who were the song’s true “I.” And the “you” was the mugging, sappy, hugely energetic Jolson, who won audiences over not through innate likeability (they didn’t want to do it) but through sheer dynamic brio.

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8. George Formby: “John Willie’s Ragtime Band”

If there were a British equivalent to Al Jolson, it might be George Formby pére; though the differences between the two are not entirely down to national temperament. Where Jolson was energetic, boisterous, try-anything, and above all loud, Formby’s stage persona was low-key and diffident, a laconic Northerner hugely impressed by the glamour of London music-hall (where he nevertheless headlined for decades). His primary character was John Willie, a not-terribly-bright Lancashire lad who sang in a halting brogue; here he rewrites “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to fit his stereotypical lower-class Northern milieu (as imaginary, and as derogatory, as minstrel tropes in American ragtime), and in so doing anticipates the British Invasion by half a century. Not that Formby was known, or even known of, in the States: but the method of taking vernacular American forms and making them over into vehicles for British identity, politics, and satire, is prescient.

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9. Fragson: “Je connais une blonde”

It is absurd that this is our first encounter with French popular song; I can plead only a lack of space. Harry Fragson was the son of a French father and a Belgian mother, but he was born in Soho, and bilingualism aided his career considerably, since he was just as popular in Paris as London, and his parodies of the music-hall stars of each nation were warmly received across the Channel in the other. His biggest Anglophone hit was “Hello, Hello, Who’s Your Lady Friend,” a winking mockery of philandering husbands, but in France he’s best remembered for this rewrite of Irving Berlin’s “A Girl in Havana.” He would be dead before 1913 was out, shot by his paranoid, suicidal father, and the following year the troops of France would march to the front lines singing “Je connais une blonde” with the assurance of men who knew it would be over soon.

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10. Marcelly & Léo Daniderff: “Sur la Riviera”

The French Riviera had been the playground of the idle rich, the aristocracy, and—naturally—the ambitious and self-promoting entertainer since the middle of the 19th century; with its “health spas” that also happened to host high-stakes casinos, its resort towns full of intrigue, and its local Carnival customs as florid as any Latin nation’s, it was a favorite setting for fiction both popular (the pulp romances of E. Phillips Oppenheim) and highbrow (Henry James’ The Ambassadors), but it did not receive a populist theme song until 1913, when composer Léo Daniderff had the first of his many hits with “Sur la Riviera.” This recording teams him with music-hall and café singer Marcelly, and the music may be familiar to cinema buffs; but the lyrics, which put the Board-of-Tourism-approved singalong chorus in the mouth of a fancy-dress Pierrot, predict one of the favorite themes of the 1920s.

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11. Nellie Melba: “L'âme évaporée”

This history’s prejudice towards the new—towards the snap and crackle of popular music, of premieres and firsts and flings forth into the future—has meant that we have ignored the voice that was, more than any other, called the greatest in the first decade of the twentieth century (and in the last decade of the nineteenth). Australian soprano Nellie Melba was a superstar, a prima donna whose pure, agile voice was better suited to the seductiveness of Italian and French opera than to the oppressive weight of German; but her records, especially as recording improved and her voice aged, were nearly always of the classical canon rather than of new material. She was fifty-two when this record—of a Debussy composition as recent as 1891—was made, but fragments of her old tonal purity come down to us, and the melody’s gentle progressions point towards popular song some decades in the future.

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12. John McCormack: “Foggy Dew”

One of Melba’s favorite duet partners in the later years of her life—because he never upstaged her—was John McCormack, an Irish tenor who recorded prolifically and without much concern for the quality of the song. His voice was superbly matched to the limitations of the recording process, and he sang the classical canon, popular ditties, sentimental Irish weepies, and flag-waving humbug with the same booming regularity. The song had to be something special to get him to vary his approach, and “Foggy Dew,” an old Irish folk air (with new lyrics by the mysterious L. F. Milligan) was special: Spenser Clay’s tumbling piano meets McCormack’s solemn but sensitive rendition of the song, and the result is one of the first superb recordings of British folk song. The immensely popular McCormack was no folk singer—and folk purists to come would decry his academy-trained vocal—but he was unimpeachably Irish.

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13. Chauncey Olcott: “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”

If there was such a thing as Irish minstrelsy (mickface, perhaps?) in turn-of-the-century American theater, Chancellor “Chauncey” Olcott was its signature performer and worldwide ambassador. Born in Buffalo, NY, he only knew Ireland as a family memory and a meal ticket: the mobs of immigrants hungry for a highly sentimental, soothing version of an identity that rejected the No Irish Need Apply signs in shop windows and simian caricatures in the popular press were devoted to him. “My Wild Irish Rose” was his big theatrical hit in 1899, and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” was his big theatrical hit in 1912, with music by the similarly populist Ernest Ball. With its broad “sures” and hyper-flattering sentiment it was sure to be a tremendous hit, and it was, so much so that the tune is still recognizable today. Beyond the identity politics and the faux-nationalism, that melody is indisputable.


 

XII: 1912

 

On the Catholicity of African Identity, the Discomfort of Masquerade, and the Motion of Bodies

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1. Lovey’s Trinidad String Band: “Mango Vert”

The bright spotlight of the recording horn has reached the Caribbean, where (Cuba excepted) the national musics have hitherto gone undetected by the relentless drive of multinational capitalism to sell a people’s music back to them. Lovey’s String Band was one of the most popular in Trinidad, led by George R. L. Baille, who went by the nickname “Lovey.” He’s credited as composer here, though as “Green Mango” or “Mangoes” it would become a popular folk-calypso song. And this is calypso, the earliest on record. The enormous energy pulsing here is still something of a shock, especially compared to the staid white American or European orchestras churning out stiff rags. The band name is something of a red herring; the band’s real secret weapon isn’t strings but its rhythm section, which pounds and patters in such dense clusters that they get lost in the hissing grooves of the record. Not just progenitor of island music, it prefigures all Africanized funk, from Tito to Fela to Diplo.

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2. Orquesta Típica Pacho: “Armenonville”

Meanwhile, wheeling down the South American coast, another African-European-American mezcla is approaching its (first) zenith as a recorded music. If tango is Argentina’s jazz, Juan “Pacho” Maglio’s arrival is comparable to that of Louis Armstrong, the first great player of the form’s signature instrument the bandoneón, and the first bandleader popular with the public and on record. “Armenonville” was named for a fashionable dancehall opened by a couple of Maglio’s friends in Buenos Aires, and the elegant cosmopolitanism of the composition stands in relief to the strict tango tempo kept by the guitar. Cornet-violin (an amplified violin that recorded better than the ordinary kind) and flute make up the “orchestral” backing; with just four instruments, Maglio suggests an entire orchestra, and before long tango will be an international orchestral music, turning from a small-combo dance music played by guys nicknamed Pacho to an ornate big-band music. Ironically, Maglio never played the Armenonville; it was too high-class for his populist dance airs.

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3. Roy Spangler: “Red Onion Rag”

Ragtime as an organizing force in the popular culture of the age was almost twenty years old, yet it wasn’t recorded in what many ragtimers believe (and some believed then, notably Scott Joplin) to be its truest form—as a solo piano exercise—until 1912. As always in American music of the pre-jazz era, it was white men who shouldered forward to the recording horn first. Mike Bernard cut the first piano ragtime record, a version of “Everybody Two-Step” that dazzles with rinkydink flash but contains virtually none of the rhythmic slippage inherent in black American music—no funk, in modern terms. Roy Spangler was less well-known—we know almost nothing about him today—but paid better attention to the black piano professors; his rendition of Abe Olman’s “Red Onion Rag” is loose and jazzy, and when it speeds up in the second half approaches the honky-tonk virtuosity of stride. You can shake your ass to it, in other words, and please do.

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4. Bob Roberts: “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”

The omnipresence of ragtime as an overriding cultural theme means it was only a matter of time until it was applied to another of the cultural figures that was gaining the upper hand in the American imagination, the cowboy. And indeed every musical movement since has adopted the cowboy as a sort of totemic image, from swing to blues to reggae to rock to b-boy. “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” is pure Tin Pan Alley fluff, written by a passel of New Yorkers who thought it was cute when a nephew dressed up in a cowboy costume, but the comedy canter in the rhythm and the plucked banjo deep in the mix point forward to western music to come—for the West, and especially the music of the West, have always been as much a pop-culture construction as anything authentic to the soil. But it’s the rag, not the cowboy, that makes the song—and Roberts handles the surprisingly tricky rhythmic shifts of the chorus with aplomb.

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5. Al Jolson: “Snap Your Fingers (And Away You Go)”

The rap about Jolson is that he started out playing a blackface character, but was too original and eccentric to convincingly render a particular ethnic characterization for long; after a certain point he kept blacking up but neither he nor his audience were under any illusions that he was supposed to be performing blackness; it was just his look, like Weber & Fields’ comedy mustaches or Charlie Chaplin’s baggy trousers. That’s the story, anyway; if we’re less convinced that there’s such a thing as good-faith blackface today, it’s with reason. Certainly “Snap Your Fingers” (sometimes spelled “Snap Yo’ Fingers”) is broadly minstrel, with Jolson playing the role of the Carefree Coon. But already his foghorn voice and distinctive mannerisms are taking over—the bleat that Mel Blanc used to represent Jolson can be heard in the first note he sings—and the song has plausible deniability embedded into it: after all, he could just be encouraging all freedom-swaggering Americans to walk in a modern jazzy step.

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6. Elsie Janis: “Fo’ de Lawd’s Sake Play a Waltz”

Elsie Janis was one of the major starlets of the era, a singer-actress on Broadway and the West End who starred in shows called things like The Hoyden (1906) and The Slim Princess (1911), farces with more melody than wit. Reissues of this song claim it’s from The Slim Princess, but it’s not present in the original score; stars like Elsie Janis (or Al Jolson) who had shows built around them would often introduce a new song part way through the run—sometimes with a bit of extra dialogue to explain its presence in the plot, sometimes not. The interpolation of “Fo’ de Lawd’s Sake” would have been essentially random: a topical satire on new music, with references to popular songs like “Oh You Beautiful Doll” and “Ragtime Violin”—even a quotation of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—and dance crazes like the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear, in minstrel dialect that today just sounds like singing—it’s the overly-enunciated “correct” voices that sound oddly comic today.

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7. Ada Jones: “I’ve Got the Finest Man”

Elsie Janis would have been a latecomer to singing minstrel dialect songs; Ada Jones had been doing it since the 1890s, and wouldn’t stop until the more heterogenous 1920s forced a sea change in acceptable recorded entertainment. “I’ve Got the Finest Man” wasn’t marketed as a minstrel song—instead of a hideous caricature of African-Americans, the sheet music was sold with a pretty Art Nouveau pattern on the cover—but it was written by two black men, lyricist Harry Creamer (who would go on to write blues and jazz with Turner Layton and James P. Johnson) and bandleader and composer James Reese Europe, who worked for dance-vogue popularizers Vernon and Irene Castle, and whose name we will see much more of in the coming years. There’s nothing specifically black about the lyrics—even the second verse, in which the man turns out to be a rascally thief, is race-neutral—and it’s an early example of black song as sincerely anodyne as any white music.

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8. The Heidelberg Quartet: “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee

The Robert E. Lee, named of course for the Confederate General, was a famous steamship in the Reconstruction South which won a much-hyped race down the Mississippi in 1870. That it’s the name for the boat in this song may have meant nothing more than the rhythmic quality of the name (it’s a rare choriamb), but the associations of course are those of classical minstrelsy: carefree black people jumping for joy at the approach of a ship that forms an essential part of their economic servitude, named after the most famous fighter in the cause of slavery in the English-speaking world. But if the song’s purpose is base, the purposes to which it can be put are more complicated, and the Heidelberg Quintette (with a lead vocal by Billy Murray, not Will Oakland, as reported elsewhere) take the opportunity to sound as actually black as possible, pushing the rhythm forward into ragtime and inserting arrhythmic vocal breaks that come closer to doo-wop than barbershop.

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9. Fred Van Eps: “Maurice Tango”

I’ve already mentioned Vernon and Irene Castle once; prepare to hear their names many times more. Though they were not musicians, they had an enormous impact on American music of the 1910s through their exhibition dancing and (more subtly) by their policy of color-blind musician hiring. They are largely credited for introducing the tango to American society, though the first dancer to have his name on an American tango was Maurice Mouvet, a glamorous gigolo type who worked with many different partners over the course of his career. Madeline d’Harville was his partner when Silvio Hein, an American composer, dedicated his tango to them, and Fred Van Eps, the great second banana of American banjo music (after Vess L. Ossman), recorded it. Van Eps was rather a dab hand at musical exotica, and if his “Maurice Tango” isn’t actually in tango rhythm, his use of “exotic” scales and his interplay with the backing orchestra makes it a more mysterious and evocative-sounding rag than usual.

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10. Carlos Gardel: “Sos Mi Tirador Plateado”

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the man who will become the most famous voice and most fêted personality of the Tango Age creeps in here, in a side entrance to the milonga, and murmurs to himself. Carlos Gardel is only twenty-one years old in 1912, and this was his first record, made almost surreptitiously on the small Odeón label. It did not make him famous, and he won’t try for another five years. But when he did at last become famous, he sang this song again and again. It’s embedded with the slang of low-life Buenos Aires, and rife with metaphors, puns and wordplay, but it is essentially an ode to a woman that has the attributes of a weapon (or vice versa), couched in vividly erotic language (one unmistakable line is “sos vaina de mi puñual,” or “you are the sheath to my dagger”) and sung in a low croon, barely audible above the soft plucking of the guitar, moving too slow to tango.

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11. Harry Lauder: “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”

It’s the rare British music hall veteran who gets a second look-in in these pages—the heavy American bias should be pretty obvious by now. But Harry Lauder played the left side of the Atlantic so frequently, and so lucratively, that it was like a second home to him. Americans can fall hard for a properly broad Scotsman—just ask Mel Gibson or Mike Myers—and their sentimental streak was blamed on Celtic origins long before Hollywood profited from it. “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” is theoretically a comic Scotsface ballad, but Americans took it as the real thing, humming and playing and plinking it out as a love ditty with or without the broad brogue; for the peculiar enchantment of light and air in the gloaming—a.k.a. twilight—is roughly similar on the Scots highlands and in the Middle West, as another sentimental Celto-American, F. Scott Fitzgerald, would say. Lauder would continue to play British stereotypes through WWII, but he always sang this song.

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12. Apollo Male Quartette: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

Probably the best-known of the great storehouse of song created and maintained by the enslaved African-American population in the years before Redemption, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was written by a black man who was also a member of the Choctaw tribe, Wallace Willis. He was a slave before the Civil War—white Mississippi planters were not particularly interested in tribal membership if your ancestry was African (or indeed, in any other case)—and after the war he and his wife Minerva sang it, with others of his own composition, including “Steal Away,” for locals in the Indian Territories (now Oklahoma) and sympathetic Northerners, which is how the songs came to pass into the congregation of Spirituals. Willis was evidently a literate man—“Swing Low” is filled with Biblical allusions, the River Jordan keeping the children of Israel from the Promised Land and the prophet Elijah’s mystical non-death. Virtually nothing is known about the Apollo Quartette, except that they sang songs well and true.


 

XI: 1911

 

On the Wide Applicability of Semitism, the Riches of Fairyland, and the Omnivorousness of Appalachia

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1. Sophie Tucker: “Some of These Days”

The American song form with which we opened the century—the Coon song—has shifted from a derogatory, sneering Othering to a lightly mocking inclusiveness. If it would be too much to claim that We Are All Coons Now, at least some people aren’t unwilling to embrace the idea. Sophie Tucker was a Jewish “shouter”—that is, she sang big and brassy, because she was big and brassy—and she was one of the first to publicly join the dots between the African-American and Jewish experiences. “Some of These Days” takes the form of a Coon song—the “lament for a no-good man” genre—but both melody and the specific instrumentation used here are reminiscent of the Jewish music of Eastern Europe (where Tucker, as Sonya Kalish, was born), all minor keys and keening violins. It was written, however, by a black man: Shelton Brooks, Canadian-born but vaudevilled everywhere. Tucker consciously modeled her act on blues shouters like Ma Rainey, and called herself “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” On record, though, she was one of the first.

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2: Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”

The inextricable relationship between Jewishness and American song was only beginning. Sophie Tucker was a star, but a young songwriter born Israel Baline would eclipse her before long. He’s had hits before—hits for a season, for a year—but now he’s written an all-time perennial, one of those songs that comes to stand in for an entire generation, steamrolling whatever it may have originally meant. And originally, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was yet another Coon song. Alexander, with its classical pretensions, was one of the traditional Funny Names for black men, who were all supposed to be George or Sam. Collins and Harlan know this, and they sing in exaggerated Negro dialect, Harlan as the more insulting “Negress” voice making sure every yas counts. It’s not ragtime, though Hollywood revisionism would later call it the first ragtime song, off by some twenty years. It’s a march: though it can, and has, been ragged, as well as jazzed, swung, boogie-woogied, and all else. Beyond the insult, it’s a song about the importance of music, and there are never enough of those.

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3. George M. Cohan: “I Want To Hear A Yankee Doodle Tune”

As American song shifts its weight forward into the new decade, it begins to leave behind the old. This isn’t quite the last we’ll hear of Cohan as a songwriter, but it’s the first and the last we hear in his own voice. He never fully trusted the recording horn or, later, the microphone; he was, after all, a song-and-dance man. But in 1911, a half-decade after the peak of his career, he recorded a handful of songs, perhaps hoping to goose sheet-music sales; they were mostly leftovers from old shows, and remain largely forgotten today. This was the best of them: a summation of his attitude towards music—pro-popular song, anti-longhair pretension, a dash of ragtime for flavor, and patriotic as hell—that works musically to showcase Cohan at his best: the opening patter verse reveals a not-embarrassing flow. It’s revealing that Sousa is the musical idol invoked: already he’s waxing nostalgic for a vanishing era; Sousa was still active, but marching bands were fading as vaudeville and dance bands came into their own.

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4. Montgomery & Stone: “Travel, Travel Little Star”

Two of the best-paid clowns in vaudeville were Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone, who, by 1911, rarely appeared in vaudeville as their own revues kept them quite busy enough. They had catapulted to fame as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man in the original 1903 production of The Wizard of Oz—but before long L. Frank Baum was dedicating books to them, as their popularity kept Oz bankable and him rich. Montgomery was the short, practical one, Stone the gangly, rueful one, and they did every act imaginable, including blackface, orientalface, and povertyface. They even made records, such as this number from the show The Old Town (also starring a young Will Rogers), where they played show-business vagabonds, on the run from sheriffs who had “attached” (put a lien of confiscation on) their stage properties to make up for local towns’ losses accrued by their failed shows. They interrupt their close-harmony singing with back-and-forth patter in the vein that Abbott and Costello would later practice, and swing back into song without batting an eyelash, consummate professionals.

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5. Harry Champion: “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am”

Vaudeville in America and music-hall in England were both approaching something of a zenith in the years before World War I, with music-hall growing in popularity as the working classes who loved it became ever more financially independent. Probably the best-known music-hall song of the modern era, thanks to the Herman’s Hermits’ 1965 cover, is Harry Champion’s signature “I’m Henery the Eighth.” Champion was one of the most remarkable performers of the music-hall stage, a Cockney dynamo of energy with a wide repertoire and the ability to sell it with apparent effortlesslessness; in fact it’s something of a shame that this will be our only encounter with him. Ironically, it was vaudeville—or variety, as it was known in the UK—that would put him out of work. Accustomed to holding a stage for the evening, he never got used to the quicker, one-act-after-another pace of vaudeville, and when the transatlantic form began to replace the older music-hall tradition after the War, he went into the taxi business, doing quite well for himself.

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6. Al Jolson: “Asleep in the Deep”

Many years from now, Jerry Lee Lewis will hold forth the contention that there have ever only been four great stylists of American song: Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and himself. Rogers’ yodeling, Williams’ high lonesome voice, and (granted) Lewis’s frenzied wailing, sure, we can understand—but wherefore the foghorned, showbizzy Jolson? But one listen to this, and damned if the sonofabitch isn’t right. “Asleep in the Deep” was a parlor song of 1897, a dolorous tribute to the brave sailors lost at sea; but in the hands of the young Jolson, a dynamic, barely-known Lithuanian immigrant and itinerant performer who had just booked his first regular New York gig, it becomes a—well, a what? A travesty, sure; a comedy song, possibly, though he doesn’t entirely give up on the sentiment. Instead he bellows, moans, stretches notes over bars and wraps them around once or twice; he gibbers, he goes basso profundo, he makes sounds that would be called scatting in another generation—in short, he invents American song. You can’t take your ears off him. And everything follows.

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7. George P. Watson: “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” *

By comparison, George Watson is only following the notes on the page. “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” was another parlor song, published by one John J. Handley in 1885 and as it was supposed to be set in the German Alps, a yodel was written into the chorus. This in itself was hardly unusual: Alpine yodeling was a standard feature of German- or Austrian-descended popular song (think of “The Lonely Goatherd” in The Sound of Music), and if yodeling doesn’t seem like quite the most soothing sound for a lullaby, well, cultures vary and all that. George P. Watson, however, was a professional German impersonator and yodeling specialist; and in the second half of the song he stops paying any attention to what Handley wrote and inserts his own Cherman-accented verses with their own yodeling accompaniment, less Alpine all the time. If it’s not quite the high lonesome yodel that would come to define country music, it’s also not quite entirely not; and as we’ll come to hear, country (like all American) music, draws as much from commercialized novelty as from tradition.

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8. Toots Paka’s Hawaiians: “Kamawae”

Speaking of which. The Hawai’ian steel guitar sound, spectral and keening, will of course come to define country music even more than the yodel. This isn't quite the first American recording of Hawaiʻian music (the islands were annexed by the United States, as a sort of afterthought to the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, in 1898, and recordings were made as early as 1905), but it’s still much earlier than the hula craze of 1915-1916 that would popularize the steel guitar throughout the country, but especially and eventually in the uplands of the South. And Toots Paka’s troupe, in addition to several others, were laying the groundwork for that craze with concerts and recordings. The alternate title given for one release of “Kamawae” (or “Kamawe”) is “Shake Your Feet,” and the number is appropriately uptempo, the steel guitar sharing space with flute for melody while ukeleles set a fast rhythm and the chorus sings in Hawaiʻian. The islands have a rich musical tradition, some of which we’ll come to explore much more in depth, but this is a fine start.

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9. Flora Rodríguez de Gobbi & Orquesta: “Minguito”

Often ignored in the standard histories of the tango, Alfredo Gobbi and his wife Flora were among the first recording stars of the Argentinean music world. They hardly confined themselves to the tango—then new enough to seem like a passing fad—but wrote and performed zarzuelas (the Spanish tradition of comic opera with political and topical satire), mazurkas, polkas, and other European dances in addition to the tango rioplatense. Which translates as “tango of the Río de la Plata,” a river which originates in Uruguay and pours into the sea near Buenos Aires; in a musical sense, it’s very much the South American Mississippi. “Minguito” was performed solo by Flora as a comic tango in character as a newspaper boy on the streets of Buenos Aires trying to manage his time between his girls, his papers, dancing the tango, and smoking cigarettes. Full of lively street slang, the song is irrepressibly melodic even if you don’t understand the words, and while the tango rhythm is still not as pronounced as it will come to be, it’s still more song than dance.

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10. Yángos Psamátyalis: “Zmirneïkomanes”

The urban Greek music which would come to be called rebetiko in the years between the wars was a music of varied ancestry; like all of the great urban ethnic musics of the early twentieth century (tango, jazz, fado, klezmer, flamenco, samba, blues), it developed out of migration, assimilation, and hybridization. The center of gravity in the Eastern Mediterranean was still Constantinople, hub of the failing Ottoman Empire, and Turkish musical modes (or makam) were much more influential than Western European ones. To the untrained ear (mine, for example), this Greek song by a Greek singer sounds Turkish, or even Arabic; but it is sung in Greek, accompanied by accordion (as close to a universal instrument as exists this side of the piano), and instead of taking a theme from classical Persian or Turkish literature, the title has been (roughly) translated as “Bordello Blues.” I don’t know anything about Yángos Psamátyalis (nor does anyone else on the Internet, apparently), but his longuers of emotion over the keening accordion and rock-solid timekeeping plucked strings rushes into the future at breakneck speed.

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11. Victor Light Opera Company: “Gems from Naughty Marietta

While ragtime and Coon song and vaudeville and tango and all else continued to percolate in the vast worldwide Underground, the acknowledged master of American theater music (that most Overground of musical forms), Victor Herbert, was having his most resounding success yet. Naughty Marietta, first staged in 1910, is still the ultimate American operetta, with a rich, vivid score that still repays listening and at least three all-time classic compositions. The 1911 recording rolls were choked with versions of the “Italian Street Song” (for women) and “I’m Falling in Love with Someone” (for men), but this rush through the highlights of the score, by Victor’s usual stable of ringers (Harry Macdonough and Lucy Isabelle Marsh being the principals) is preferable to sitting through each song on its own, especially as it’s the only standard recording of “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” for many years to come. The songs excerpted are: “Life Is Sweet,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” “Italian Street Song,” “’Neath the Southern Moon,” “I’m Falling in Love with Someone,” “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” and a reprise of “Italian Street Song.”