XVI: 1916


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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….


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.” 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

1912_11 lauder.png

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


X: 1910


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


4. Bert Williams: “Play that Barbershop Chord”

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


8. Feodor Chaliapin: “Luchinushka”

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


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

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


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

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


IX: 1909


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


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

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


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

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


3. May Irwin: “The Bully” *

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


4. Orquesta de Felipe Valdés: “Danzón”

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


5. Rumynskii Orkestr Belfa: “Bessarabian Hora”

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


6. Eduardo das Neves: “Isto é Bom”

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


VIII: 1908


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


4. Cuarteto Coculense: “La Malagueña”

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

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


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

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

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


6. Haim Effendi: ”Tchakidji Turkessou

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

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


7. Janki Bai: “Medine Men”

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

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


8. Edward M. Favor: “Fol the Rol Lol”

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

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


VII: 1907


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


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

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

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


2. Vess L. Ossman: “Maple Leaf Rag”

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

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


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

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

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


4. Ángel Villoldo: “El Negro Alegre”

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

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


5. Patápio Silva: “Amor Perdido”

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

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


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

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

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


7. Edison Mixed Quartet: “Speed Away”

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

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

Listen to 1907 here.