Monday, October 27, 2008

Threads: The Wretched Refuse

Duke Ellington, Immigration Blues.
Bob Dylan, I Pity The Poor Immigrant.
Arthur Kylander, Siirtolaisen Ensi Vastuksia (The Immigrant’s First Difficulties).
Little Oscar Gang, Ole (A Norwegian Immigrant Arrives In the USA).
Pat White, I'm Leaving Tipperary.
Frank Quinn, An Irish Farewell.
The Pogues, Thousands Are Sailing.
Cherish the Ladies, The Back Door.
Big Audio Dynamite, Beyond the Pale.
Neil Diamond, America.
Arthur Collins, The Argentines, the Portuguese and the Greeks.
Kos Hristos, Xenos Ime Ki Iltha Tora (I Am an Immigrant and I Just Came Home).
Rita Abatzi, M'Ekapses Ameriki (America, You Ruined Me).
Dr. Antonio Menano, Fado do Emigrante (Song of the Immigrant).
Marilyn Cooper, Chita Rivera, et al, America.
Gaytan y Cantu, La Discrimination.
Juanito Valderamma, El Emigrante.
Gene Clark and Carla Olson, Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos).
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Welcome, Welcome Emigrante.

The idea of escape was a simple one, but it hadn't occurred to me before. I had wanted only to get away from Washington and return to Bombay. But then I had become confused. I had looked in the mirror and seen myself, and I knew it wasn't possible for me to return to Bombay to the sort of job I had had and the life I had lived. I couldn't easily become part of someone else's presence again.

And one day, when I wasn't even thinking of escape, when I was just enjoying the sights and my new freedom of movement, I found myself in one of those leafy streets where private houses had been turned into business premises. I saw a fellow countryman superintending the raising of a signboard on his gallery. The signboard told me that the building was a restaurant, and I assumed the man in charge was the owner. He looked worried and slightly ashamed, and he smiled at me. This was unusual, because the Indians I had seen on the streets of Washington pretended they hadn't seen me; they made me feel that they didn't like the competition of my presence or didn't want me to start asking them difficult questions.

V.S. Naipaul, In a Free State.

Immigrant children, Ellis Island

I am the grandson of an Irish immigrant who came to the United States from Cobh in 1929. He emigrated with his mother, his sister and his brothers: they left my great-grandfather behind in Ireland, where he died. The family only discovered he was dead some fifteen years later, when one of my great-uncles, now in the U.S. Army, managed to get over to Cobh before D-Day.

As a child, before I left my grandparents' house each Christmas Eve, I would be sent to the basement to say goodbye to my grandfather and my great-uncles. There, in a dim, low-ceilinged room with wood paneling, the brothers would be gathered around the bar drinking shots. When I came down the stairs, they cheered, spoke to me in impenetrable brogues and gripped my hand as though to calculate my weight. This was my secret history--once a year I would descend into it for a few minutes, to be appraised and judged and wished well by the happy old men who seemed the custodians of the past.

A coat, a bag, a baby,
Status: refugee.
These are the people
of my family.

B.A.D., "Beyond the Pale."

My family's immigrant experience has been a series of misinterpretations and fumbles. I had thought my grandfather had come to the U.S. through Ellis Island, and so when I first moved to New York, I went there, paced the narrow hallways, imagined my ten-year-old grandfather maneuvering through them, felt small and humbled by history. It turns out that my grandfather, of course, never went through Ellis Island. He arrived in Poughkeepsie, or somewhere else--he never talked about it.

My parents brought him back to Cobh in the '90s and went on a quest to find the old family house, which allegedly was still standing. They drove around, turning up nothing, until my grandfather, likely exhausted, had them stop at an anonymous cottage. "That's it!" They took his picture in front of it. When they got back to the U.S., my great-aunt saw the photograph. "Oh, that's not the house at all." The real house was a few streets away, she guessed. He wasn't bothered.

At the high tide of my gloomy adolescence, I felt the need to connect to my roots, a process that mainly meant blasting Pogues songs like "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six" and "Young Ned Of the Hill" ("A curse upon you, Oliver Cromwell/who raped our motherland"), and McCartney's "Give Ireland Back to the Irish," and occasionally feeling righteous and aggrieved about a conflict that I didn't comprehend.

At college in Boston, I wrote an essay on "the modern Irish immigrant experience" for a journalism class. I went to an Allston youth center that served as a crash pad for newly-arrived Irish, and found a kid my age named Desmond. He was sweet, had a extravagant nest of blonde hair, and loved watching Beavis and Butthead. He was from County Offaly ("pronounced AW-FULL-Y") and had come to Boston simply looking for work, for something better to do. Talking about what it meant to be an immigrant didn't interest him in the least, and his traditions seemed ridiculous. "You mean like sittin' out in a field with your old pa playin' the tin whistle?"

Joseph Stella, Immigrant Girl, Ellis Island (1916)

I also called a newspaper columnist named O'Baogill, who wrote for a local weekly that catered to the Irish expat community. The paper was unapologetically pro-IRA and was filled with grim articles about martyrs and retribution. I mispronounced his name as I introduced myself. "OH-BWEEL! OH-BWEEL!" he barked. He soon settled into his obsessions. "The British need to give up the ghost of colonialism," he said, about a dozen times in the course of the interview.

The longer he spoke, the more I wanted to get off the phone. I had found my subject, an American obsessed with his Irish heritage, and he was insufferable. If my grandfather's basement had been a cabinet of curiosities, holding the promise of an unclaimed past, this man just sounded as though he was deep in a box, trapped in some grievance of his own imagining.

I finally went to Ireland in 2001: to Limerick and Dublin, and of course, Cobh. I found my grandfather's old school, and not his house. It was an odd trip. When I first arrived in Ireland I quietly held the same delusive hope that many children of immigrants have upon returning to the homeland--that somehow, in some inexplicable way, the mother country will welcome you effusively, as if your absence had left the place so bereft that perfect strangers will sing your name out in the streets.

As the days went on, and as we indulged in various tourist shenanigans, like attending a musical revue that consisted of, in part, a teenage kid sitting with her old pa playing the tin whistle, I became convinced the Irish actually hated me, and I began to feel like an impostor without the dignity of a ruse.

One afternoon in Waterville, I was in the village pub drinking a Carling when I saw a man about my age sitting across the room. He looked as though he had just gotten off work, and was sprawled on a bench with a pint in front of him and a laborador retriever trying to climb into his lap. He slapped the belly of the dog a few times, which made the dog yelp happily. He hoisted his pint, looked around absently. What he made of me was nothing, or less than nothing. Just another family-tree tourist.

I thought for a moment: could his have been my life? If my grandfather had never left, if some variation of me had somehow come into being in Cobh in 1972. It seemed enticing, in the way that imagining your death can seem enticing, and then it just felt horrible, offering the prospect of some grotesque shadow existence. I felt closed in, swamped by the catastrophic power that the past holds. I soon left the pub; a few days later, I went home.

There have been a great many immigrant songs over the past century, as it's a natural subject: to be an immigrant is to voluntarily cast yourself into exile, to carve yourself in halves; to be the son or daughter of an immigrant is to have the sense that your house is built on sand. Call it the immigration blues, as Duke Ellington did. (Ellington's 1927 track, featuring one of the first great recorded Bubber Miley trumpet solos, is on Early Ellington).

Bob Dylan's masterpiece John Wesley Harding is a set of inscrutable parables. Why does Tom Paine own a slave, and why is he sorry for what she's done? Who sent St. Augustine down to death? Why was the drifter on trial? One of the most gnomic is "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," which, upon an initial listen, seems cold, even nativist, in its sentiments:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would've stayed home,
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone.
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev'ry breath,
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise fears his death.

It's reminiscent of the scene at Lake Tahoe in The Godfather Part II, when the corrupt Senator Geary sneers at Michael Corleone:

I don't like your kind of people. I don't like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits and trying to pass yourselves off as decent Americans. Oh, I'll do business with you, but the fact is that I despise your masquerade. The dishonest way you pose yourselves, yourself and your whole fucking family.

Yet "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" can't be divined that easily: it retreats the more you peer into it. The song's narrator may well be God, who, with regret but scant compassion, watches as his wayward children stumble around in error.

Ellis Island art

Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements and, by herding together, establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of Ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can adopt our Complexion?

Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1755).

Arthur Kylander, born in Lieto, Finland, in 1892, emigrated at the start of the First World War, becoming a logger in Oregon and later joining the Wobblies (he translated Joe Hill's songs into Finnish). By the '20s he was a popular musician in the Finnish-American community, and had a few recording sessions in New York, one of which produced "Siirtolaisen ensi vastuksia," which begins "I left Finland behind me/like others I was headed to the golden land of the west." The first words the immigrant hears are "no, sir." Recorded in 1928.

The Little Oscar Gang were a regional band that played the Upper Midwest in the '40s and '50s, led by Aone Hoberg Anderson and her husband Ed Hoberg. The players were mostly descended from Norwegian immigrants, and their "Ole," from 1952, is the sad tale of a latter-day Norwegian greenhorn and his travails in America.

Both of these tracks, and some others to come, are on the fantastic compilation Stranded in the USA, compiled by Cristoph Wagner and issued by Trikont in 2004. I absolutely recommend picking it up.

The Irish are the masters of self-pitying immigration songs--there are songbooks full of them. Here are four:

Pat White was born in Chicago in 1860, the son of Irish immigrants, though he spent much of his professional life pretending that he had just gotten off the boat. He worked the medicine shows and vaudeville theaters, sometimes billed as Pat White and Gaiety Girls (a group of barely-clothed dancers) and in 1928 recorded "I'm Leaving Tipperary."

By contrast, Frank Quinn was the real deal--he emigrated from Longford, Ireland, to New York in 1903 and, unsurprisingly for a young Irish man, joined the NYC police force. He moonlighted by playing music in neighborhood theaters. (His first records for Vocalion were billed as "Patrolman Frank Quinn.") His "An Irish Farewell," recorded in 1931, is a typical Irish wake, in which departing emigrants are bid farewell the night before taking the boat to America, with the tacit acknowledgment that the departed will never be heard from again. (Again, both are on Stranded in the USA).

"where the hand of opportunity/draws tickets in a lottery"

And two more modern takes: The Pogues' "Thousands Are Sailing" is from 1988's If I Should Fall From Grace With God. "Then we raised a glass to JFK, and a dozen more besides/when I got back to my empty room, I suppose I must have cried."

Cherish The Ladies is an all-female Irish-American folk group whose members (often rotating) are mainly the American-born daughters of Irish immigrants. "The Back Door," from 1992, is their best-known song and the title track of their debut LP. Upcoming tour dates.

Until the First World War, the Bowery and the whole Lower East Side were the districts where the immigrants chiefly came to live. More than a hundred thousand Jews arrived there every year, moving into the cramped, dingy apartments in the five- or six-storey tenement blocks...In the autumn, the Jews would build their sukkahs on the fire escape landing, and in summer, when the heat hung motionless in the city streets for weeks and it was unbearable indoors, hundreds and thousands of people would sleep outside, up in the airy heights and even on the roofs and sidewalks or the little fenced-off patches of grass on Delancey Street and in Seward Park. The whole of the Lower East Side was one big dormitory. Even so, the immigrants were full of hope in those days, and I myself was by no means despondent...

W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants.

Big Audio Dynamite's "Beyond the Pale" is a fairly autobiographical song by Mick Jones, the son of a Welshman and a Russian Jew (Jones allegedly vowed never to set foot on stage with the Sex Pistols after Sid Vicious wore a swastika shirt): Jones had lived as a child with his immigrant grandmother, whose memories turn up in the lyric. He wrote "Beyond the Pale" with his old bandmate Joe Strummer, on the underrated No. 10, Upping St.

And yes, Neil Diamond (another Russian Jewish musician)'s "America" was an inescapable choice for this topic, and yes, despite its bombast, the song still can get to you sometimes. On The Jazz Singer.

The United States is invaded by aliens, thousands of whom constitute so many acute perils to the health of the body politic. Modernism is of precisely the same heterogeneous alien origin and is imperiling the republic of art in the same way...By the time the cubists came along there was an extensive body of flabby-mindedness ready...These movements have been promoted by types not yet fitted for the first papers in aesthetic naturalization--the makers of true Ellis Island art.

Royal Cortissoz, art critic, 1923.

Arthur Collins' 1920 version of Arthur Swanstrom and Carey Morgan's "The Argentines, The Portuguese and the Greeks" is a novelty song, but it sums up the mood of the era, in which many "native" Americans believed the country was being flooded with too many people from the wrong side of Europe (and anywhere in Asia), culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924.

Augustus Sherman, North African Immigrant, Ellis Island (1910)

"Xenos ime ki iltha tora [Ι am an immigrant and I just came home)" was recorded in 1909 by Kos Hristos, of whom I know nothing. On Sound Documents of Greek History.

The legendary Greek singer Rita Abatsi recorded "M'Ekapses Ameriki" in the mid-'30s. It's the tale of a Greek woman whose fiancee has gone off to America to seek his fortune and has promised he will return, but he never does. Now, she sings, she is old, alone and betrayed. "America, you ruined me, with all your dollars." (Also on Stranded in the USA.)

And Dr. Antonio Menano, from Portugal, offers "the fado of the emigrant," an apology and farewell that many an immigrant likely told the ones they were deserting. "I'll leave you/but that doesn't mean I'm not present any more/only my body leaves/my thoughts will stay here." Recorded in Berlin ca. 1935.

Along with updating Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a take on the rapid transformation of New York in the decade after the Second World War, when the Puerto Rican population went from 13,000 in 1945 to nearly 700,000 in 1955. "America," sung by Marilyn Cooper and Chita Rivera, is from the original Broadway cast recording of West Side Story.

Juan Gaytan and Fransisco Cantu were the sons of Mexican immigrants, a guitarist duo who played the Southwest in the '30s and '40s. Their "La Discrimination," recorded around 1950, is a bitter testimony to the brutality inflicted on Tejanos in Texas and other states. "Just think about the discrimination/that we Latins suffer in the fields and towns/We are looked upon as sheep."

Juanito Valderamma, a Spanish flamenco singer, wrote "El Emigrante" in 1949, about the many thousands of Spaniards who fled the country after the Fascists won the civil war. "I wrote it when I saw Spaniards weeping as they fled abroad. I could have called it 'El Exiliado' ['The Exile'] but I'd have been shot," he said later. This version was recorded around 1950; on pretty much any Valderamma compilation available, like this one.

And Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" was written after Guthrie had read about a plane crash in Los Gatos canyon, near Fresno, California, in January 1948. Guthrie was struck by the fact that newspapers and radio didn't mention any passenger names, as the passengers were all illegal Mexican mmigrants being deported (and whose bodies were put in a mass grave), instead simply calling the 28 dead "deportees" while taking pains to name the four native-born crew members also killed.

A decade or so later, a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman set Guthrie's words to music, and the track was soon performed by Pete Seeger and, later, the Byrds. Gene Clark recorded the version here with Carla Olson in 1987--it was one of Clark's last recordings before his death in 1991. On So Rebellious A Lover.

The Mariel boatlift, 1980

What evil could possibly happen? There were my books: could they be destroyed? My house--could I be dispossessed of it? There were my friends--could I ever lose them? I thought without fear of death, of illness, but not the remotest picture came into my mind of what I was still to live through. That homeless, pursued, hunted, as a refugee I would again have to wander from land to land, across oceans and oceans, that my books would be burned, forbidden, proscribed, that my name would be posted in Germany's like a criminal's and that those friends whose letters and telegrams lay before me on the table would pale if by chance they encountered me.

Stephan Zweig, The World of Yesterday.

Finally, Buffy Sainte-Marie, as a descendant of the First Nations, welcomes all of us recent immigrants. From her out-of-print 1965 record Many a Mile; find on The Best Of Vol. 2.

Next: The Life of Violets.

Monday, October 20, 2008

You Don't Own the State, 1904-1905


Tap room, San Francisco, 1904 (Shorpy).

Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Dovunque al mondo.
William Tuson, Heart Bowed Down.
Hager's Orchestra, Rooster Dance.
Peerless Orchestra, Smoky Mokes.
Charlie Rogers, Smoky Mokes.
Haydn Quartet, Sweet Adeline.

Mr. Governor, you notified your dogs of war to put me out of the state. They complied with your instructions. I hold in my hand a letter that was handed to me by one of them, which says "under no circumstances return to this state." I wish to notify you, governor, that you don't own the state. When it was admitted to the sisterhood of states, my fathers gave me a share of stock in it: and that is all they gave you. The civil courts are open. If I break a law of state or nation it is the duty of the civil courts to deal with me. That is why my forefathers established those courts to keep dictators and tyrants such as you from interfering with civilians.

I am right here in the capital, after being out nine or ten hours, four or five blocks from your office. I want to ask you, governor, what in Hell are you going to do about it?

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, letter to Colorado Gov. James Peabody, 26 March 1904. Peabody had ordered Jones deported from Colorado for aiding strikers.

Some Americans found the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics a bit unnerving, with its thousands of dancers and drummers working in complete synchronization and everywhere the barely-veiled suggestion of great reserves of manpower, confidence and wealth. They might consider that Europeans felt the same way about the United States a century ago.

Puccini's Madama Butterfly is, in part, an Italian's take on the rising Yankee empire (composed just as the Philippine Insurrection was crushed). "Dovunque al mondo," an aria early in the first act, is sung by the U.S. Navy Lt. Pinkerton and the American counsel Sharpless--it's a boast by a Yankee sailor who has a girl in every port, and a portrait of a brash, adolescent country entering the springtime of its dominance. It opens with a few bars of "The Star Spangled Banner" and ends with Pinkerton and Sharpless singing, whiskey glasses in hands, "America forever!" Today, it just seems so terribly sad.

Madama Butterfly debuted at La Scala on 17 February 1904; this 1959 performance, conducted by Tullio Serafin and performed by the St. Cecilia Academy Orchestra, is sung by Carlo Bergonzi (Pinkerton) and Enzo Sordello (Sharpless).

Alice Roosevelt, most glamorous First Daughter ever, 1904. She once told Gore Vidal how much she resented her cousins Franklin and Eleanor. "We were the President Roosevelt family. But then came along the Feather Duster [FDR] and we were forgotten."

The earliest recorded instrumental soloists were either classical players or the spotlit members of a popular orchestra. The latter included the cornet player Herbert Clarke, of the Sousa Band, and the clarinetist William Tuson, who recorded like a madman from 1899 to about 1906. Their popularity was in part owed to their gear--as we've noted before, acoustic-era recordings favored instruments with great projection--as well as their dazzling technical skill.

A Clarke or Tuson solo is quite unlike the types of soloing later developed by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, or Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane. If Tuson has a modern equivalent, it's the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen: technical perfection; runs of showstopping feats; and devoid of much surprise or soul. You get the sense that Tuson could have pulled off an exact duplicate of "Heart Bowed Down" a minute after recording this piece, and maybe he did.

That said, it's also likely that the young Armstrong heard some of these records, and got a sense of what could be done by a performer out on the tightrope alone.

"Heart Bowed Down" is an aria from the Balfe opera The Bohemian Girl; released as Edison Gold Moulded Record 8455 (Edison had introduced the line, a more durable type of wax cylinder, in 1902). Featured in this archive.

"Rooster Dance" was recorded sometime in 1904 by one of the studio orchestras that Frederick Hager led, in this case for the Zon-O-Phone label. It's unclear who wrote the piece, or where it came from, though there is also a contemporary Edison recording of "Rooster Dance." The Edison Amerbola Monthly noted the latter was from a Broadway show called "The Runaways," in which some poor soul had to dress up in a rooster costume and dance around. "It is a Record made of the music to which the comedian dances. It is a very clever characteristic composition," the sparkling ad copy reads.

So this is likely just Hager's take on the same piece. What happened, however, is that over the decades the track's catalog information was lost, and it wound up on several early jazz LP compilations simply titled "Cakewalk," as recorded by unknown players, dated to around 1900, and offered as a prime contemporary example of the cakewalk dance. This led to speculation as to who the mystery players could have been--was it an early recording of a black band? Minstrels? Broadway veterans?

Allen Lowe puzzled it out in his book That Devilin' Tune. Rather than being some lost Rosetta stone of American music, "Rooster Dance" is simply a crack studio band blasting out a recent hit. There's little of the primordial about it. But as Lowe wrote, it "is much more engaging than most other (usually "military") band recordings of the day, and seemingly on the verge of a very early, pre-jazz form of musical levitation."

Jack London in Korea, covering the Russo-Japanese War, 1904.

Ragtime gave the [brass] bands what they lacked: funk, snap, swerve. All those massed horns blasting on the beat had already guaranteed that their marches would drive, but the added syncopation transformed the bands from bulldozers to M1 Abrams tanks.

David Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve.

Abe Holzmann, according to the New York Herald (who published a profile on him in 1901) was "a German of high musical education. His knowledge of bass and counterpoint is thorough and his standard compositions bear the stamp of harmonic lore." No one cared about his standard compositions, however. What they loved, as the Herald wrote, was "his propensity for composing darkie dances."

Yes, Holzmann slummed as a writer of cakewalks and rags, with all the usual racist accompaniments. "Smoky Mokes" ("mokes" being a slur, possibly of Welsh origin, for blacks), published in 1899, was his first and biggest hit. Sousa debuted it in 1900, and soon enough every studio orchestra took a crack at it. Here's a version by Edison studio regulars the Peerless Orchestra: a take that's all swagger and drive.

Released as Edison 712; on Cakewalks, Rags and Blues--Military Style.

As a contrast, here's a banjo version of "Mokes" recorded by the British banjo prodigy Charlie Rogers. He was thirteen when he cut this track. Rogers, who the British (naturally) considered a better banjoist than Vess Ossman, enlisted in the army at the start of the First World War and was maimed in battle in 1916. He never played professionally again.

Recorded (possibly with Alf Brooks on piano) in London, February 1904, and released as Nicole 3142. On Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4.

"Sweet Adeline" seems so eternal that it's hard to imagine it having an origin. But here it is:

A prizefighter named Harry Armstrong came up with the melody while he was training in 1896 (the first part of the chorus is basically a variation on the well-worn "Westminster Chimes"), using his fellow boxers to work out the harmonies. Armstrong originally called the tune "Down Home in New England," and cast about for a suitable lyric, trying out everyone from Charles Lawler to "Gentleman" Jimmy Walker, the future mayor of New York City. At last he found Richard Gerard, who suggested the tune be called "Sweet Rosalie." Armstrong and Gerard struck out in finding an interested song publisher, however. So, acknowledging that the chorus hook "For you I pine/Sweet Rosalie" didn't really rhyme, Gerard tried a new tack: after he saw a sign for a performance of the opera singer Adelina Patti, Gerard rewrote the lyric, and "Rosalie" became "Adeline."

The song was published at last in 1903, but it was neglected until a Philadelphia-based vaudeville quartet called the Quaker City Four began performing it on stage. And then, suddenly and all at once, everyone was singing it (including Boston's mayor (and JFK's grandfather) John Fitzgerald, who used it as his re-election theme song). In 1904 alone there were three recorded versions, the most popular being the Haydn Quartet's.

Recorded in Camden, NJ, on 12 July 1904 and released as Victor 2934.


Shoeblack stand, NYC, start of Jewish New Year, September 1905

John Taylor (or Charles D'Almaine), Medley of Old Time Reels.
Richard Strauss, Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils.
Bob Roberts, Now What Do You Think of That.
Billy Golden, Rabbit Hash.
Prince's Orchestra, St. Louis Tickle.
Ossman-Dudley Trio, St. Louis Tickle.

She had never hung so near the dizzy brink of the unreal. Sleep was what she wanted--she remembered that she had not closed her eyes for two nights. The little bottle was at her bedside, waiting to lay its spell upon her. She rose and undressed hastily, hungering now for the touch of her pillow. She felt so profoundly tired that she thought she must fall asleep at once; but as soon as she had lain down every nerve started once more into separate wakefulness. It was as though a great blaze of electric light had been turned on in her head, and her poor little anguished self shrank and cowered in it, without knowing where to take refuge...

She could bear it--yes, she could bear it--but what strength would be left her the next day? Perspective had disappeared--the next day pressed close upon her, and on its heels came the days that were to follow--they swarmed about her like a shrieking mob. She must shut them out for a few hours; she must take a brief bath of oblivion. She put out her hand, and measured the soothing drops into a glass; but as she did so, she knew they would be powerless against the supernatural lucidity of her brain. She had long since raised the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she felt she must increase it.

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth.

Picasso, Lady With a Fan.

I found "Medley of Old Time Reels" on Lee Hartsfeld's "Music You Possibly Won't Hear Anywhere Else" site some years ago, where he made the convincing case that while official histories generally state that "country music" only started being recorded in the early 1920s, discs like 1905's "Medley of Old Time Reels" suggest far otherwise. It's intriguing to think how many early country records are out there, still left to be discovered.

The reels in the medley include "Flower of Edinburgh," "Speed the Plow," "Tom and Jerry," "Roger's Reel," "Miss McCloud's Reel," and "Auld Lang Syne." This is dance music, flat out, and this is ancient music. People in 1905 considered these to be "old time reels," remember.

There is some confusion as to who actually recorded this track, as both John Taylor and Charles D'Almaine are credited on the label, depending on the individual disc. Whoever it was, they did it on Victor 16393.

Mr. and Mrs. J.P. Morgan

"Dance of the Seven Veils" is the lurid centerpiece of Richard Strauss' opera Salome, in which Salome performs an elaborate striptease for her stepfather Herod so she can demand the head of John the Baptist. It's an orchestral interlude so over-the-top at times that Gustav Mahler thought Strauss had blown what ought to have been the highlight of the opera. It does seem as though Strauss envisioned Cecil B. DeMille staging his opera, and even today, conductors approach it at their peril--one can easily turn the dance into "an outtake from the Showgirls pole dance scene."

Still, the dance fulfills its intentions, as it reflects Herod's decadent, kitschy tastes, and provides a contrast to the remainder of the opera, which is marked with dissonance and murder.

Salome debuted in Dresden on 9 December 1905; "Dance of the Seven Veils" is performed here by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Humor is often corroded by time. Am I the only one who's thumbed through Aristophanes stone-faced, desperately trying to find something to laugh at? (Maybe it was a lousy translation.) And musical humor certainly isn't immune--even the Firesign Theater seems a bit creaky these days, and I wonder what the shelf-life of "Weird Al" Yankovic records is. However, for those brave enough, here are a couple of comic pieces from 100 years ago to try out.

Bob Roberts' "Now What Do You Think of That" is your standard vaudeville comic number, geared to make the audience sing along with the chorus. There are plenty of gags shoved into its two-minute timespan, though it ends rather strangely.

Released as Edison Cylinder 9046; found in this Roberts archive.

Matisse, Woman With a Hat.

And "Rabbit Hash" is pure Southern minstrelsy: it's barely comprehensible, and marked by Golden laughing heartily at his own jokes. You could call it the ancestor of everything from "Hee Haw" to skit tracks on rap records.

Billy Golden, born in Cincinnati in 1859, was doing blackface routines by the mid 1870s. He became famous enough that, twenty years later, he was one of the first "celebrities" that Emile Berliner asked to make then-experimental shellac records. "Rabbit Hash," one of Golden's popular routines, was recorded first in 1895 for Berliner, and he later cut it for Edison and Victor. Golden, whose most popular record was "Turkey In the Straw," performed and recorded for decades to come (his contribution to the war effort was the tasteful "The Colored Recruit"), and he kept reworking old routines, including "Rabbit Hash," until he died in 1926.

This version of "Rabbit Hash" was recorded on 10 May 1905 and released as Victor 622 (Victor, in its record catalog, listed "Rabbit Hash" under the heading "Original Negro Shouts and Songs.")

Tokyo, 1905.

Though it was copyrighted in 1904 by an obscure ragtime publisher, "St. Louis Tickle" may be stolen goods. The jazz legend Buddy Bolden was rumored to be its real composer, as was the white pianist Theron Catlen Bennett. But it probably had no single author: as David Wondrich writes of "Tickle," "it's a folk rag, three simple and swervy strains plucked out of the whorehouse air and stitched together." The second strain is based on a filthy Mississippi Valley folk song, often known as "Funky Butt" (and which, years later, Jelly Roll Morton rewrote as "Buddy Bolden's Blues").

Here are two versions: a decent take by Prince's Orchestra, released in December 1905 as Columbia 32843; and one by a string trio consisting of the banjoist Vess Ossman, Audrey Dudley (mandolin) and either Roy Butin or George Dudley on harp-guitar--their take (which seems to be hinting at the blues and bluegrass all at once) was recorded on 24 January 1906 and released as Victor 16092-B; in this archive.

Derain, Le Phare de Collioure.

Next: Threads (an occasional series): The Wretched Refuse.

Sources: Gage Averill, Four Parts, No Waiting ("Sweet Adeline"); Tim Gracyk, Popular American Recording Pioneers; Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve; Lowe, That Devilin' Tune.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The President Is Seven Years Old, 1902-1903

White, The Orchard

"We must never forget that the President is seven years old," possibly apocryphal quote by a British ambassador about Theodore Roosevelt.


Bedford Street, London, 1902

Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, Down On the Old Camp Ground.
Abdal Ali, Kurdish Death Lament.
Cantrell and Williams, Bye Bye Ma Honey.
Arthur Collins, Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home.
Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar, On Emancipation Day.
Len Spencer, On Emancipation Day.

Even if Gourlay had been a placable and inoffensive man, then, the malignancies of the petty burgh (it was scarce bigger than a village) would have fastened on his character, simply because he was above them. No man has a keener eye for behaviour than the Scot (especially when spite wings his intuition) and Gourlay's thickness of wit, and pride of place, would in any case have drawn their sneers. So, too, on lower grounds, would his wife's sluttishness. But his repressiveness added a hundred-fold to their hate of him...

It shewed itself in an insane desire to seize on every scrap of gossip they might twist against him. That was why the Provost lowered municipal dignity to gossip in the street with a discharged servant. As the baker said afterwards, it was absurd for a man in his 'poseetion.' But it was done with the sole desire of hearing something that might tell against Gourlay. Even Countesses, we are told, gossip with malicious maids, about other Countesses. Spite is a great leveler.

George Douglas Brown, The House With the Green Shutters.

Dinwiddie County is in southeast Virginia. Petersburg, the site of the last great slaughter of the Civil War, anchors one end of it. At the close of the 19th Century, the county was predominantly black in population--about 60%--and dirt poor. In 1898, philanthropists set up the Dinwiddie Normal and Industrial School in the hopes of improving the prospects of local blacks, and the school soon had a "jubilee quartet" that would tour nearby towns for fundraising.

By 1900, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet (whose members routinely changed) had become a professional act, playing the vaudeville stage, and had acquired a manager, the Philadelphia-born Sterling Rex, who also served as first tenor. The Quartet, which joined a touring show called "The Smart Set," seems to have severed its ties with the Dinwiddie School by this point.

In October 1902, "The Smart Set" opened in Philadelphia, and during the run the Quartet went to the Victor Talking Machine Co.'s studio at Tenth and Lombard to record six tracks. This was one of the newly-formed Victor's first efforts, possibly its absolute first, to record black musicians.

"Down on the Old Camp Ground" was the first song cut, and it's masterful. While its structure is fairly basic (call-and-response verses, a gloriously harmonized chorus), it seems to contain multitudes, bearing the seeds of barbershop quartets, gospel and R&B. And while it is mainly a revival song, it is sewn through with bits of tomfoolery, in particular "down home" jokes in the final verse:

Down in the barnyard on my knees
I thought I heard that chicken sneeze
he sneezed so hard with a whooping cough,
that he sneezed his head and tail right off.

Recorded 29 October 1902, with Rex, J.M. Thomas, J.C. Meredith and H.B. Coyer, and released as Victor 1714; on Lost Sounds.

The Germans slip into the dying Ottoman Empire through its dreaming head, arriving in Zincirli (now Sam'al) in south-central Turkey, bearing Edison cylinders and a recording horn. They spend a few days on tours. One, a doughy young man from Saxony, finds that the dry weather has awoken his eczema and so he avoids the sun like a bankrupt dodging a creditor. The other, a grim mystic from Danzig, sleeps only three hours a night and spends the rest of the time reading Hesiod.

Their guide, a local rascal burlesquing as a learned man of the area, offers to find them talent. One afternoon, he approaches a Kurd named Abdal Ali. They want songs, the guide says. They might pay. I can't tell. Still, you should talk to them.

Ali has a wife and five children. The other morning he woke up from a terrible dream, and spat on his left side three times, the way the Prophet advises. He has an elaborate toothache which feels as though his lower gum has caught fire. He agrees to meet the Germans for tea.

They talk through an interpreter. The Germans want something that represents a pure aspect of the Kurdish spirit. Ali beams. He tells them a story about his grandfather which is entirely fiction. He never knew his grandfather and in fact is a quarter Dutch. The Germans stare at him. Ali smiles. Something of worship, or a death song, the interpreter (an oily little troll from Izmir) begs. They want something of importance.

So a day later, in the Danzig man's hotel room, Ali sits before the horn, which looks to him like a great conch shell grown from a stick. He clears his throat, sings. The Germans etch his voice onto wax, bring his voice home like a butterfly in a traveling case. The cylinder is cataloged, archived, forgotten. The Ottoman Empire falls, as does the German Reich (the cylinder winds up in East Germany after WWII); the Kurds endure a long century of murder.

In the waning years of the past century, after Germany's reunification, the Berliner Phonogramm Archiv begins digitizing its vast catalog of ethnographic musics, including Ali's lament. Ali's voice, his death song, now soars weightless, unmoored, existing merely now as a few digits of electronic space. Ali has achieved immortality, of a sort.

On Music! The Berlin Phonogramm Archiv 1900-2000.

Portrait of the tyrant as a young man--Stalin, 1902.

Edgar Cantrell, born in Newport, Kentucky, in 1864, was taught to play banjo by a black family servant. When he moved to Chicago to work as a banjoist and singer, he met Richard Williams, a mandolin player of German ancestry. They formed "The Ragtime Duo" and came to the U.K. in 1902, touring around the musical halls (and playing the Lager Beer Room of London's Piccadilly Hotel), offering a grab-bag of ballads, rags, "coon" songs, cakewalks and reels.

While Cantrell and Williams seemed like the height of novelty for the U.K., their music was generally quite old-fashioned. "Bye Bye Ma Honey," for instance, was copyrighted in 1885 by Monroe Rosenfeld as "Good Bye My Honey I'm Gone" but it most likely had existed in some form for decades longer. Other songs in their repertoire were pre-Civil War.

The recording session that produced "Bye Bye Ma Honey" as well as their take on the inescapable "All Coons Look Alike to Me" was evidently a bit of a mess--the British recording engineers flummoxed by the wild, creaky American music, and the American performers getting drunk in the studio to take the edge off.

Recorded in London on 20 October 1902; released as Zonophone X-44000/Gram. Concert Rec. 4229; on Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4.

"Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home" is a pure product of 1902, the year's top hit song. Written by Hughie Cannon, it's an example of how American popular songwriting and vocalizing was rapidly mutating. As Edward Marks once said, "The verse doesn't matter. Nobody ever remembered it anyhow," and that's true enough with "Bill Bailey," which is remembered almost entirely as just its hummable chorus (which disguises the grim fact that this is essentially a song about an abused woman begging her ne'er-do-well man to come back).

The song allegedly was written about a real minstrel performer who Cannon knew (and caroused with, as Cannon loved his booze and dope) and whose wife indeed threw him out of the house after he showed up drunk one too many times.

And Arthur Collins, while he still sings the tune roughly by today's standards, is very much singing in the new American vernacular--brassy, fearless and unconcerned with living up to classic parlor song expectations.

Recorded ca. May 1902 and released as Columbia 872; it can be found all over the place, including this archive of Collins tracks.

To tell the story of American composition in the early twentieth century is to circle around an absent center. The great African-American orchestral works that Dvořák prophesied are mostly absent, their promise transmuted into jazz.

Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise.

The life of the African-American composer, impresario, violinist and conductor Will Marion Cook is a long study in frustration and perseverance. While it was Cook's ultimate fate to be a transition figure (as Ross writes, "he forms a direct link between Dvořák and Duke Ellington"), he didn't suffer in obscurity--he wrote a number of hit musical revues and mentored everyone from Sidney Bechet to Ellington.

Born in 1869, Cook from his youth had determined that he would be the first great black musician in American history. He was accepted into Oberlin, studied in Berlin and later with Dvořák, and returned to America in 1889 bursting with ambition. He intended to make a living as a performing violinist while writing classical works, including a proposed opera based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. After his Carnegie Hall debut, a critic hailed him as the "world's greatest Negro violinist." Enraged, Cook went to the critic's office, smashed his violin on the man's desk and exclaimed: "I am not the world's greatest Negro violinist--I am the greatest violinist in the world!" (This might be an apocryphal story, though Ellington included it in his memoirs.)

This sort of confidence slammed head-first against the virulent racism of the period (Plessy v. Ferguson was a recent Supreme Court decision), and Cook found little work in the classical music world. A black symphony orchestra that he had founded with Frederick Douglass' grandson went bust. So he began looking to musical revues. He collaborated with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar on Clorindy (the first-ever black-composed Broadway show) and then in 1902 they collaborated on In Dahomey, whose show-stopper was "On Emancipation Day":

On Emancipation Day,
All you white folks clear the way...
When dey hear dem ragtime tunes
White folks try to pass fo' coons
On Emancipation Day.

Cook's mother was appalled. She had sent him to college, to Europe, and he had come back to write this? The crowds, however, howled for more. Performed by William Brown on Swing Along.

Sadly, unsurprisingly, "On Emancipation Day" was not recorded at the time of its composition by the African-American performers who delivered it on stage--Bert Williams and George Walker--but by, you guessed it, everyone's favorite desperate minstrel, Len Spencer. Whether Spencer appreciated the irony of him singing these lyrics is up to you to determine.

Recorded on 25 October 1902 and released as Victor 1710 (Spencer cut another take with Vess Ossman around the same time, and Collins also cut a version for Columbia).


Bowery flophouse, 1903 (Shorpy)

Columbia Orchestra, Peaceful Henry (A Slow Drag).
Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F Major: 2nd Movement (assez vif-très rythmé).
Scott Joplin, Weeping Willow Rag.
Air, Weeping Willow Rag.

They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days -- Sorrow Songs -- for they were weary at heart. And so before each thought that I have written in this book I have set a phrase, a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the soul of the black slave spoke to men. Ever since I was a child these songs have stirred me strangely. They came out of the South unknown to me, one by one, and yet at once I knew them as of me and of mine...

What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. They tell us in these eager days that life was joyous to the black slave, careless and happy. I can easily believe this of some, of many. But not all the past South, though it rose from the dead, can gainsay the heart-touching witness of these songs. They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.

The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development.

W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk.

Sargent, Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel.

Sousa's Band, which toured as much as it recorded, was a rare bird: most of the brass orchestras captured on disc in the early 20th Century were pure studio concoctions. These bands were pulled together out of jobbing theater musicians and the occasional classical orchestra slummer, and, more often than not, their attempts at syncopated popular music, whether ragtime or cakewalks, were dire.

There are a few exceptions. Columbia Records, one of the three major record labels of the 1900s, along with Victor and the declining Edison, had a solid house band led by Frederick W. Hager, who had good taste and who kept his orchestra nimble enough to preserve the rhythms and intricacies of ragtime compositions. Hager would survive well into the jazz age, producing Mamie Smith and Bix Beiderbecke.

Here is the Columbia Orchestra's take on E.H. Kelly's "slow drag" "Peaceful Henry." Kelly was a white Kansas City ragtime musician and vaudeville performer (he had a dog act), who named the piece after an old janitor he knew. The "orchestra" was actually quite small--just two cornets, trombones, and clarinets, a pianist, a piccolo (soon to be left behind by evolution), bass and drums. Recorded October or November 1903 in New York, and released as Columbia 1555; on From Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4.

Stieglitz, Flatiron Building.

Maurice Ravel completed his first and only string quartet in April 1903, and in the following year he submitted it to two great French cultural institutions--the Prix de Rome and the Conservatoire de Paris. They both found it confusingly written and even Gabriel Fauré (to whom the piece was dedicated!!) thought the final section was "a failure." This reaction led Ravel to leave the Conservatoire for good.

The Conservatoire's dismissal of one of the finest string quartets of the 20th Century (only Bartok and Shostakovitch wrote better ones, IMO) seems, in retrospect, pretty damning evidence of the somnolent, palsied cultural establishment of Belle Epoque France.

"In the name of the Gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet," Debussy wrote Ravel. He didn't. Here is the second movement, a pizzicato whirlwind in which fandango rhythms vie with Ravel's austere classical harmonies, as performed by the Quartetto Italiano. And here is the complete score.

Scott Joplin composed "Weeping Willow Rag" at a time he was at odds with life: he had left Sedalia for St. Louis, had recently married a woman who he realized didn't like music, was feuding with his old publisher John Stark ("Weeping Willow" was published by St. Louis' Val Reis Music Co.) and was beginning to feel constrained by the standard ragtime format.

"Weeping Willow" is one of Joplin's loveliest pieces, and is one of his most tightly-structured compositions--the four sections are in two keys (G for the first two, C for the last) and feature common intervals and, in the case of the final two sections, repeated measures. The gorgeous trio section, with its sweeping rhythms and folk song chord progression (Bill Edwards hears the roots of "'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do" in it), in particular soars. This recording is a piano roll (Connorized No. 10277) that Joplin made near the end of his life, in April 1916. (On The Entertainer.)

For a magnificent elaboration, here is the great jazz trio Air's take on "Weeping Willow," from their 1979 LP Air Lore (still not on CD). It opens with a parade-ground drum call by Steve McCall, who then launches into a three-minute solo, some of which is a variation on the "A" section of Joplin's rag (the other players eventually troop in). Henry Threadgill, on alto sax, improvises on the "B" section for five choruses, then repeats "A". He introduces the "C" section while McCall and bassist Fred Hopkins play stop time (just magnificent), then Hopkins takes four choruses to improvise on "C." Threadgill improvises on the trio section as well, then bores on into the final strain. In the words of Gary Giddins, "all of which sounds more complicated and cluttered than it is...the spirit suggests a naturalness at odds with the effort required."

Next: You Don't Own the State.

Sources: Tim Brooks, Lost Sounds; Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve; Ross, The Rest Is Noise; Mark Berresford, liner notes to From Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4; Ceane O'Hanlon-Lincoln, County Chronicles; Giddins, Visions of Jazz (for much of the "Weeping Willow" analysis); the Abdal Ali bit is entirely made up.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Elite Syncopations, 1900-1901

"Clarence and Alonzo," photo taken by Wilbur or Orville Wright, back of the Wright Cycle Co. in Dayton, Ohio, ca. 1900 (from Shorpy)


Scott Joplin and Arthur Marshall, Swipesy Cakewalk.
Vess Ossman, Ethiopian Mardi Gras.
Arthur Collins, The Mick Who Threw The Brick.

Dear Evelyn: Your letter was waiting for me when I came home, but was not the less interesting because I had seen you in the meantime. We usually say more in a letter than we do in conversation, the reason being that, in a letter, we feel that we are shielded from the indifference or enthusiasm which our remarks may meet with or arouse. We commit our thoughts, as it were, to the winds. Whereas, in conversation, we are constantly watching or noting the effect of what we are saying, and, when the relations are intimate, we shrink from being taken too seriously on one hand, and, on the other not seriously enough--

But people no longer write letters. Lacking the leisure and, for the most part, the ability, they dictate dispatches, and scribble messages...In these days, we have not the artlessness nor the freedom of our forbears. We know too much about ourselves. Constraint covers us like a curtain. Not being very sure of our own feelings, we are in a fog about the feelings of others. And it really is too bad that it should be so.

Joel Chandler Harris, letter to his son, 5 April 1900.

Louisville, Kentucky, 1900

Our story could start anywhere, so it might as well begin here, in Sedalia, Missouri, on some lost evening at the rag end of the 19th Century. Sedalia is a frontier town, and still young--it began as a Union military post at the start of the war, and by 1899 some 15,000 people have come to live here, to work on the railroads, in the restaurants, in the seed and harness stores, and in the bordellos and honky tonks.

For while Sedalia by day is a quiet little plains town, with just a dirt road, lined by wooden sidewalks shaded by corrugated iron awnings, to serve as its Main Street, at night it gets wild. Gamblers, prostitutes, pimps, cardsharps, hustlers of all stripes and even the occasional respectable citizen flood Main Street, weaving in and out of the sporting houses and the taverns. One of the latter, the most popular, is the Maple Leaf Club, where each night a neatly-dressed, somber-looking man plays "jig piano" amidst the smoke and noise.

This is Scott Joplin, who would much rather be in a conservatory somewhere. Still, as he works his intricacies on the upright piano while choruses are howled by gamblers and drinkers all around the room ("You been a good ol' wagon but you done broke down!" "Oh! Mr. Johnson turn me loose!"), Joplin lets the trace of a smile escape.

Hammershøi, Sunbeams or Sunshine, Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams.

Rags were played in Sedalia before Scott Joplin settled there, but he got to making them really go.

Arthur Marshall.

Joplin had come to Sedalia around 1895, looking for some steady work and using the local college as a means to improve his composition skills. In the previous decade, Joplin had struggled to bring something to light--he had toured the Midwest and Northeast in minstrel troupes and ramshackle vocal groups, trying to get his own compositions published, with meager success.

Things began to coalesce when Joplin went to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The Exposition was something like a coming-out party for the upcoming century--everyone from Thomas Edison to Nikola Tesla came, and everything from Cracker Jack to the Ferris Wheel to the hootchy-koo dance debuted. There Joplin met and likely played with the Chicago ragtime pianists Johnny Seymour and "Plunk" Henry Johnson.

In Johnson, Joplin found an echo of his own emerging voice. Joplin, from Texarkana, was the son of a slave; Johnson, who came from the Mississippi Valley, likely was born a slave. Both had started out as banjo players. One imagines the two in an idle hour playing a duet: Johnson on banjo, Joplin on piano. Or Johnson offering some lessons on the piano, showing that the basic idea of banjo syncopation, of hitting on the off beats, can be simply transferred to the piano keys. Jus' ragging it up, he says.

In 1899, when Joplin publishes "Maple Leaf Rag," named after his one-time employer, the world is finally ready for him. "Maple Leaf Rag" sells 75,000 copies in six months (sheet music, not records) and Joplin's publisher, John Stark, pushes him for as many new compositions as he can get out.

In the next year comes "Swipesy Cakewalk," a Joplin collaboration with a young Sedalian composer named Arthur Marshall, who is only nineteen years old. When Joplin first arrived in Sedalia, he had been a boarder in Marshall's mother's house, and came to regard the younger man as his protégé. Marshall, who desperately wanted Joplin to get him into the Maple Leaf Club, managed to learn composition as well.

"Swipesy" is mostly Marshall's work. Like most ragtime pieces, it has four sections, with the opening one featuring an oom-pah bass pattern, aligning it with brass band music, while the second section is less complex, more like the cakewalk that the title suggests. The third (trio) section is likely Joplin's major contribution to the piece, with an elegantly structured melody. The final section, which goes back to the original key of B flat major, lets the pianist do a bit of stride playing. (More from Bill Edwards' analysis.)

This recording of "Swipesy Cakewalk"is arranged as a duet of piano and banjo, and it seems fitting to have the two prodigies of ragtime together in syncopated partnership. Recorded by Max Morath (p) and Jim Tyler (b) in 1972, on the Vanguard LP Max Morath Plays the Best of Scott Joplin.

Using recordings to get a sense of early 20th Century popular music has its perils. For one thing, black musicians (and rural white musicians) were all but ignored until 1920, so that the surviving records of the first two decades offer a skewed picture in which brass bands, banjoists, whistlers, sentimentalists, mediocre classical song recitals and belabored jokes seem to be the dominant musical forms.

So while the legendary trumpet player Buddy Bolden, one of the pioneers of jazz, was never recorded and even Joplin is only available to us through a handful of piano rolls, the likes of the banjoist Vess Ossman are omnipresent. David Foster Wallace, writing about the prolific John Updike, cracked that Updike had never had an unpublished thought, and you could use a similar riff with Ossman, who is everywhere on shellac and cylinder, backing everyone from "coon shouters" to parlor pianists and even being shoehorned into orchestras.

Ensor, Death and the Masks.

Sylvester Ossman, born in Hudson, NY, in 1868, began playing the banjo at age twelve and soon set upon a demanding work regimen--he claimed to practice at least four hours a day, and sometimes ten. It paid off. By 1900, he was playing for the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (Bertie was a banjo enthusiast), and was recording like a fiend. Ossman began making brown wax two-minute cylinders in 1893 and kept on, cutting the first record with "ragtime" in the title (1897's "Ragtime Medley"), and he didn't start to flag until the First World War. His legacy is thousands (literally) of records, many of which have survived, making him impossible to avoid in any survey.

Like most successful studio musicians, Ossman worked quickly, proficiently, with no drama, and evidently he was always available. It also helped that the primitive standards of early recording favored instruments with high treble and strong projection--fiddles, clarinets, cornets, banjos. His solo oeuvre consists, on the whole, of "strange little time-capsule set pieces of early white ragtime, stiffly strummed and picked...his facility was impressive, but he had little real idea of vernacular time and seemed occasionally like a duck out of water" (Allen Lowe). Ossman, at his best, has a hard, relentless force to his playing, in which speed and volume take precedence over rhythmic sense.

So here's one of many: Ossman's take on "Ethiopian Mardi Gras," written by Maurice Levi, recorded in New York sometime in early 1900. The pianist Frank Banta accompanied him. Released as Zon-O-Phone 9188; on Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4.

Alleged 384-lb black sea bass, caught off Catalina Island, 17 August 1900.

One of Ossman's regular accompanists was the singer Arthur Collins, who first appeared on record in 1898 and whose first major hit was "All Coons Look Alike to Me." Collins, while he had been a professional singer since his childhood, went respectable upon his marriage in 1895, learning bookkeeping and typewriting. After six months of work at a cigar factory, however, his arm went lame, and soon enough Collins was back in show business for life. Like Ossman, he seems to have recorded every popular song composed between 1900 and 1915.

"The Mick Who Threw the Brick" is, according to a 1901 issue of Dominicana: A Magazine of Catholic Literature, "a comic Irish song full of drollery." The song marked the reunion of Arthur Blake and Charles Lawlor, who had written "Sidewalks of New York" together a few years before, though "Mick" has none of the latter's charm. Collins' version was recorded sometime in 1900 and released as Edison Concert cylinder B-522 (he cut another version for Berliner around the same time). Available here.


Gertrude Kasebier, Portrait--Miss N. (Evelyn Nesbit), 1901-02.

The Sousa Band (with Arthur Pryor), Pasquinade.
Steve Porter, Carrie Nation in Kansas.
Columbia Quartette, Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield.
Len Spencer, You've Been a Good Old Wagon.
Benjamin Harney, You've Been a Good Old Wagon.

It is salutary to realise the fundamental isolation of the individual mind. We have no certain knowledge of any consciousness but our own. We can only know the world through our own personality. Because the behaviour of others is similar to our own, we surmise that they are like us; it is a shock to discover that they are not. As I grow older I am more and more amazed to discover how great are the differences between one man and another. I am not far from believing that everyone is unique.

W. Somerset Maugham, notebook, 1901.

Kubin, The Lady on the Horse (1900-01).

The Sousa Band, who Joplin had heard perform at the Columbian Exposition, was a brass orchestra led by John Philip Sousa, who passionately hated the concept of recording, considering "mechanical music" a menace that would vitiate live performance, and even testifying to Congress that he had never been in a record company office. He didn't mind getting checks from record companies, however, and let his band cut as many tracks as they could.

So the job of conducting Sousa band recording dates often fell to his star trombonist Arthur Pryor. Pryor had a taste for rags and cakewalks and once in a while, in a recording, he would hint at something far beyond the ken of a typical brass band--like 1902's "Trombone Sneeze," in which Pryor has a brief, possibly improvised solo using "bent" notes, along with a call-and-response section with the rest of the band.

When Pryor formed his own band the following year, he kept innovating, both in studio arrangements (Pryor pushed for simpler, cleaner takes and even managed to get a halfway-decent bass sound) and in his taste for the hippest new material, like "St. Louis Rag," which he cut in 1904. It's enough to make you wish to nudge Pryor a few decades ahead in time, to hear what he would have done in the swing era, for instance.

The White House kitchen, 1901

"Pasquinade" was originally a piano piece (op. 59) written by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Gottschalk was a great, if now forgotten, transitional figure in American music, a half-Jewish Creole composer and pianist, and a "purveyor of vernacular influences translated into middle-class expression, a virtuoso of Lisztian technique who wrote compositions indebted to the dance rhythms of his native New Orleans" (Lowe). Gottschalk was also one of the first internationally renowned American musicians: he toured Europe and South America, and he died in 1869 in Rio, after collapsing on stage while playing his piece "Tremolo."

Sousa's Band, led by Pryor, manages to preserve the lightness and flair of Gottschalk's piece and masters its intricate rhythms fairly effortlessly; the track was recorded in Philadelphia on 7 June 1901, and issued as Victor 3438.

"Carrie Nation in Kansas" is primitive musical satire, mocking the notorious temperance advocate (Nation would sometimes back her teetotal convictions with an axe, smashing up saloons accompanied by a pack of hymn-singers). Nation would help lead the push for the 18th Amendment that banned alcohol manufacture, sales and distribution, thus inspiring speakeasies and organized crime, and so also, indirectly, helping make jazz a popular music. It just goes to show that you never know what your consequences are going to be.

Recorded by Steve Porter, ca. August 1901 and released as Columbia 31577; find here.

As David Wondrich writes in his pugnacious Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, one major historical achievement of the cylinder era of popular music was that it captured, almost entirely, "the whole spectrum of Reconstruction-era minstrelsy," from weepy "plantation" songs to bottom-barrel vile racist garbage.

The Columbia Quartette's "Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield" is somewhere between the two extremes. It is a quartet of white singers (their names lost to history, though one might have been George "Honey Boy" Evans, a popular minstrel) singing horrific lyrics, but there's also, if you can stomach the bilge, a sense of innovation and freedom (from earlier, European modes of performance) in their singing, especially when the quartet does a "banjo" breakdown late in the performance.

Recorded ca. 1901, released as Columbia Moulded Brown Wax Cylinder 9029; find in this archive.

Len Spencer, in photographs, looks more like a classic anarchist than a recording star. His massive head, which appears hewn out of granite, is topped by a crest of thick black hair, so that one imagines his grim face hanging like a lantern over a filthy desk covered with scribbled manifestos. On record, however, Len Spencer just desperately wanted to sound like a black man.

Of all the cylinder-era minstrels, Spencer is perhaps the most shameless and offensive, and yet in his performances there is also a vulgar power and perhaps, deep in the muck, even a measure of respect for his sources. His finest record is his take on "You've Been a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down," in which Spencer's singing is matched by some vigorous piano runs by some unknown player.

The story circles inward, like the whorls of a seashell. "You've Been a Good Old Wagon"'s composer, ragtime pioneer Benjamin Harney, was thought to be black by many of his contemporaries. The pianist Eubie Blake, interviewed by Alec Wilder in the early '70s, said of Harney, "He's dead, and all of his people must be. Do you know that Ben Harney was a Negro?" Convinced, Wilder, in his American Popular Song, calls Harney "one of the best Negro writers of the late nineteenth century." The Harney family, on its genealogical website, makes an exhausting case, however, that Harney was a white man born to white parents.

Included in the list above is the only vocal Harney ever recorded, of "Good Old Wagon," made for the archivist Robert Winslow Gordon in Philadelphia on 9 September 1925 (Gordon Cylinder G24). You certainly can hear where Eubie Blake got his ideas from.

So, to sum up, Spencer's recording is that of a white man trying to sound black who is singing a song written by a white man who even black folks thought was black. You could be facile and call it the story of America, or at least one of its stories.

Spencer's "Good Old Wagon" was recorded in either 1901 or 1902 and released as Lambert 989; many of Spencer's surviving recordings, including this one (and two reenactments of scenes from Uncle Tom's Cabin, which could be the most horrendous things ever recorded--I haven't had the heart to listen), have been archived here.

Next: The President is Seven Years Old.

Sources: Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime; Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve; Tim Gracyk, Popular American Recording Pioneers; Lowe, American Pop and That Devilin' Tune.