Friday, February 27, 2009

Red War Yet Redder: 1914

John McCormack, It's a Long Way to Tipperary.
Irving Berlin, Follow the Crowd.
James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, Down Home Rag.
James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, Castle House Rag.
Joan Sawyer's Persian Garden Orchestra, Bregeiro.
Van Eps Banjo Orchestra, Sans Souci (Maxixe Bresilienne).
Victor Military Band, Memphis Blues.
Felix Arndt, Desecration Rag (A Classic Nightmare).
Unknown Band, 20th Century Rag.

The reservists were leaving for London by the nine o'clock train. They were young men, some of them drunk. There was one bawling and brawling before the ticket window; there were two swaying on the steps of the subway shouting, and ending, "Let's go an' have another afore we go." There were a few women seeing off their sweethearts and brothers. One woman stood before the carriage window. She and her sweetheart were being very matter-of-fact, cheerful and bumptious over the parting.

"Well, so long!" she cried as the train began to move. "When you see 'em let 'em have it."

"Ay, no fear," shouted the man, and the train was gone, the man grinning.

I thought what it would really be like, "when he saw 'em."

Last autumn I followed the Bavarian army down the Isar valley and near the foot of the Alps. Then I could see what war would be like--an affair entirely of machines, with men attached to the machines as the subordinate part thereof, as the butt is the part of a rifle.

D.H. Lawrence, Manchester Guardian, 18 August 1914.

"It's a Long Way to Tipperary," a 1912 show tune by Jack Judge and Harry Williams, became the British theme song for four catastrophic years; it was cut several times during the war--a 1914 recording by John McCormack is here, along with Billy Murray and Albert Farrington's versions.

We only know Irving Berlin through his interpreters, whether Bing Crosby or Ethel Merman, so the sound of Berlin's front-parlor singing voice can startle. You can sense in Berlin's raw, humble vocal the vast reservoir of energy that powered his compositions--the sense of optimism and pluck that makes even a call to mass conformity (as in "Follow the Crowd") swing.

"Follow the Crowd" is basically a rewrite of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," with the singer once again trying to entice someone out of their house and into the street (the pitch includes the prospect of seeing, and joining, "thousands of dreamy tango dancers!!"). Written for the show The Queen of the Movies, which opened in January 1914.

Berlin recorded "Follow the Crowd" for Columbia in January 1914, but the track was never released (not surprising, as it's basically a demo); it finally appeared on a 1980s compilation entitled Music for the New York Stage Vol. 3 and can now be found in this archive. "Crowd" and other Berlin performances are on Irving Sings Berlin.

Czech volunteers for the Russian Army, ca. 1914-1915

Soon [the trains] would be moving, filled with hundreds of thousands of young men making their way, at ten or twenty miles an hour and often with lengthy, unexplained waits, to the detraining points just behind the frontiers...

Images of those journey are among the strongest to come down to us from the first two weeks of August 1914: the chalk scrawls on the waggon sides--"Ausflug nach Paris" and "à Berlin"--the eager young faces above the open collars of unworn uniforms, khaki, field-grey, pike-grey, olive-green, dark blue, crowding the windows. The faces glow in the bright sun of the harvest month and there are smiles, uplifted hands, the grimace of unheard shouts, the intangible mood of holiday, release from routine.

The Germans marched to war with flowers in the muzzles of their rifles or stuck between the top buttons of their tunics; the French marched in close-pressed ranks, bowed under the weight of enormous packs, forcing a passage between crowds overspilling the pavements...Russian soldiers paraded before their regimental icons for a blessing by the chaplain, Austrians to shouts of loyalty to Franz Joseph...

Battle of the Marne

However clothed, the infantrymen of every army were afflicted by the enormous weight of their equipment: a rifle weighing ten pounds, bayonet, entrenching tool, ammunition pouches holding a hundred rounds or more, water bottle, large pack containing spare socks and shirt, haversack with iron rations and field dressing...The French piled everything into a mountainous pyramid, le chargement de campagne, crowned with the individual's metal cooking pot; gleams of sunlight from such pots would allow young Lieutenant Rommel to identify and kill French soldiers in high standing corn on the French frontier later that August.

John Keegan, "The Battle of the Frontiers and the Marne," The First World War.

Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer

The short, extraordinary life of James Reese Europe seems crafted to fit the demands of history. His colleague Eubie Blake once called him the "Martin Luther King of music," and while that seems hyperbolic, there is something epic to the man: Europe would reconcile in his own person the extremes of the conservatory and the street, and he invented or popularized, among other things, the turkey trot, the foxtrot, and the word "gig" to denote a musical performance (or so Blake claimed).

One of the first major African-American bandleaders, and the first black bandleader to have a recording contract, Europe drafted the big-band future (he serves as the dry run for Duke Ellington) by making a patchwork of the recent past, taking freely from ragtime, blues, classical piano recitals, brass bands, even novelty minstrel cylinders, so that everyone from Benjamin Harney to Will Marion Cook to Scott Joplin to W.C. Handy seems to have held equity in him.

Europe's Society Orchestra, 1914 (Europe is at the piano)

Europe was born in 1881 to a freedman minister and a freeborn schoolteacher, both of whom were also musicians, and Europe grew up in the emerging, aspiring black middle class of Washington DC that would later produce Ellington. Europe trained with John Philip Sousa's assistant director, learned violin and piano, and moved to New York after he graduated high school. Like his predecessors Joplin and Cook, he found no interest in his classical ambitions, so he switched to mandolin and wrote songs for dance revues, with some success. In 1910 he founded, along with some colleagues, the Clef Club, an all-purpose organization that served as concert promoter, booking agency, informal union for black musicians and, for Europe, composition and arrangement laboratory. By 1912, the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra was playing Carnegie Hall.

The dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle, having seen Europe's band perform at a private party, hired him and his orchestra as their house band, and so in 1913-1914, the Castles quietly and smoothly integrated society music. If you wanted to book the Castles, the hippest dancers in town, you had to hire their black musicians too, because the Castles demanded it in their contracts. (Sometimes their solutions were ingenious--when a New York musician's union complained about having black musicians play in the orchestra pit, the Castles simply moved Europe's band on stage.)

Soon enough, Europe's band got a contract from Victor, and some of their first records, in particular "Down Home Rag" and "Castle House Rag," are stunning. One of Europe's key weapons was his drummer, Buddy Gilmore, who is arguably one of the first drummers to even be heard on record, let alone a dominant, freewheeling one who sounded like he was firing a machine gun.

For their version of Wilbur Sweatman's "Down Home Rag," the Europe Orchestra basically keeps to the written score, but the vitality of the performance breaks through the record's sonic limitations--listen to the way Gilmore's drum fills spur hollers from the band, or the way the band wheels along at a frenetic pace (twice as fast as other contemporary recordings of this piece, like the Six Brown Brothers'). One trick Europe used was to over-egg the mix, as his records feature "walls of sound"--there are five banjo-mandolin players, two pianos, three violinists, among others, all crammed into the track until it bursts. The result is, as Reid Badger wrote, in A Life in Ragtime:

There is a clear sense in this first Europe recording that interpretation is at least equal in value to composition. How something is played is as important as what is played, especially if that something is intended for dancing. (itals mine)

"Castle House Rag," also known as "Castles in Europe," goes further out--it is a viable candidate for the first jazz recording. While the piece is assembled according to the set four-strain AABBACCDD ragtime pattern, and the first three strains are fairly standard, the fourth strain breaks apart, suggesting to some that Europe basically let his band go off the charts and improvise, until the piece ends with a battle between Cricket Smith's cornet and Gilmore's drums.

Europe's Society Orchestra was: James Reese Europe directing Smith (cornet), Edgar Campbell (cl) Tracy Cooper, George Smith, Walter Scott (v), Leonard Smith, Ford Dabney (p), five banjo-mandolin players, including Noble Sissle, and Gilmore (d). In the 1914 session, Europe added Chandler Ford on cello, a baritone horn and flute, and ditched the banjo-mandolins.

"Down Home Rag" was recorded on 29 December 1913 and released as Victor 35359 c/w "Too Much Mustard"; "Castle House Rag" was cut on 10 February 1914 and released as Victor 35372, c/w "Castle's Lame Duck"; find here.

We are just getting up when mother comes up to me and says, "Vonet! Vonet! Put your soldiers away, the Germans are coming!" I go outside after putting them away and I hear shooting and I see a plane in the sky. As soon as I am back inside, my big brothers come through the door. "They're coming! They're right behind us!" I go and look out the dining-room window.

They pass by the window and we hear a gruff command: 'aarrarrrncharr." They stop and line up to go to the station, when the shooting starts. They turn around and charge. Some fall down and we hear a thud--two massive ones even, as two horses fall dead in front of the window. Bullets whiz by in both directions. We go into the living room and we hear Germans hitting Mr. Benoit's door with their rifle butts, looking for French troops. Just to be safe they shoot Mr. Benoit's dog, so that its barking won't interfere with their patrols.

Diary of Yves Congar, 10-year-old native of Sedan, a northeast French town that fell to the German army on 25 August 1914.

Klinger, "Spring Show" poster.

Joan Sawyer was born Bessie Morrison in Cincinnati, in 1880 (she took her stage name from an ex-husband), and she scrapped for fame for much of her life, mostly on the vaudeville stage, though much of her notoriety came from a breach-of-promise lawsuit she filed against a playboy she claimed had backed out of marrying her.

Around 1911, she became an exhibition dancer, positioning herself as an elegant "high society" contrast to the modernist Castles. She persuaded the theater mogul Lee Shubert to back a new dance club for his Winter Garden theater--Joan Sawyer's Persian Garden, which opened in January 1914. There Sawyer greeted each patron and danced the latest steps with a series of partners (including the young Rudolph Valentino). And like the Castles, she was backed by her own private orchestra of black musicians. (Much of this is from Tim Brooks' Lost Sounds.)

Sawyer's would-be James Europe was Jamaica-born Dan Kildare, who ran the Clef Club Orchestra after Europe had left to form his own group. With the Castles/Europe Society Orchestra tracks selling well for Victor, Columbia quickly signed the Castles' main competition--Sawyer and the Clef Club Orchestra.

The Sawyer tracks aren't of the same caliber as the early Europe cuts, however, and they were also duds in the marketplace (so much that Columbia shelved some of the tracks because of poor initial sales); the best of the bunch was the Clef Club Orchestra's take on Ernesto Nazareth's classic "Brejeiro," a mandolin-led maxixe, a performance whose tight rhythmic interplay is highlighted by unusually clear sound for the period.

Recorded in New York on 6 May 1914 and released as Columbia A5572; on The Earliest Black String Bands Vol. 1.

The banjo monarch Vess Ossman was finally toppled in the 1910s by his younger rival, Fred Van Eps. Van Eps had worshiped Ossman (he had improved his banjo technique by playing Ossman cylinders over and over again, and his first recording sessions were often remakes of Ossman tracks) so his triumph over his mentor has a touch of the Freudian to it, though some of it was logistical: Ossman had left New York around 1910, leaving Van Eps as the go-to studio banjoist for all the major record labels.

Ossman also seemed unable or unwilling to adapt to the changing times--while Ossman could do ragtime, he showed little interest in the more intricate and frenetic musics of the late 1910s, from jazz to various Brazilian dance imports. Ossman died in semi-obscurity in 1923, while Van Eps was still busy in the studio. (from Wondrich's Stomp and Swerve).

In the mid-'10s, Van Eps created a "banjo orchestra," a modest creature made up only of Van Eps and another banjoist, a pianist (often Felix Arndt, see below) and percussionist. Here is their take on another maxixe*, although "Sans Souci" is not a Brazilian import but rather a knock-off by songwriter Arthur Green.

Recorded 24 July 1914 and released as Columbia A1594; on Stomp and Swerve.

* The maxixe, an enormous dance fad in 1914, was on the verge of taking over the United States until it suddenly fell into oblivion, seemingly overnight. No one seems to know why for sure (though the maxixe was reincarnated in the '30s as the carioca), but this fascinating article by Micol Seigel, "The Disappearing Dance: Maxixe's Imperial Erasure," has a number of theories.

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practise out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“And all nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christ's sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters."

Thomas Hardy, "Channel Firing," 1914.

Refugees, Ostend

History and authenticity rarely coincide. So the first-ever recording of the blues was not made by a Mississippi Delta musician, or by a New Orleans string band, or by a vaudeville pro, or even by the blues' composer, W.C. Handy. Instead, Handy's "Memphis Blues" was cut in New York by the anonymous, stodgy Victor Military Band, the house studio group of Victor Records.

And the record's a bit of a mess--whatever vitality the track suggests in its opening bars is soon eroded by some dithering percussion and a general turgidity to the playing. Still, in the third strain, buried underneath the stiff horns and the sludgy beat, is the primal I-IV-V blues chord sequence, the genetic code for the musical century to come.

Handy composed "Memphis Blues" ca. 1909 and copyrighted it in 1912. Was it the first blues ever written? Of course not.

A minor tragedy is that although James Reese Europe was among the first bandleaders to play "Memphis Blues" (and his band's version, according to those who heard it, was smoking), he never recorded it. As Wondrich wrote, the Europe Society Orchestra's "Memphis Blues" "is one of the greatest records that never got made."

The Victor Band track was recorded 15 July 1914 and released as Victor 17619 (Columbia cut a version a few days later by Prince's Band); in this archive.

3rd August: At school the teachers say it is our patriotic duty to stop using foreign must no longer say "Adieu" because that is French. I must now call Mama "Mutter." People wander through the streets in groups, shouting "Down with Serbia! Long live Germany!"

10th September: Horror stories. They say Russians tie German women to trees, then set up wooden crosses in front of them and nail their little children to them. When the kids have died before their mother's eyes, the Russians mutilate the women and kill them. The Belgian guerrillas are said to be no better, but they do it all more secretly. Dear God, just bring the war to an end! I don't look on it as glorious any more, in spite of school holidays and victories.

16th September: Last night I heard Grandma crying. She was crying so much it greatly distressed me. The young First Lieutenant Schön is the first of our friends to be killed. I buried my head in the pillow so that Grandma would not hear me crying.

25th October: There is war everywhere. In Africa too. In the Orange Free State and the Transvaal a rebellion has broken out. There is nothing in the papers about our losses.

1914 diary of Piete Kuhr, a twelve-year-old girl in the East Prussian town of Schneidemühl (today known as Piła, in northwest Poland).

Russian Army, invasion of East Prussia

The pianist Felix Arndt, a descendant of Emperor Napoleon III, is a one-man intersection of classical piano, ragtime, jazz and what would be called "novelty ragtime," a lesser variant of ragtime popular in the late '10s and early '20s.

His "Desecration Rag"'s title is an in-joke, as the piece performs "ragtime perversions" (as Victor Records called them) on Dvorak's "Humoresque," Lizst's "2nd Hungarian Rhapsody," Sinding's "Rustle of Spring" and Chopin's "Impromptu," "Militaire Polonaise" and "Funeral March."

As Arndt was a New York-based piano player, his recordings may show the influence of the undocumented generation of regional pianists who were turning ragtime into stride jazz playing, such as New York's Richard "Abba Labba" McLean, Baltimore's "One Leg" Willie Joseph and John "Jack the Bear" Wilson, who played in Baltimore and NYC, and whose piano playing was a sideshow to his main interests of pimping, gambling and, later, opium.

Arndt was the organist at New York’s Trinity Church and a staff musician for the Duo-Art piano company, for whom he made some 3,000 piano roll recordings over a handful of years. He inspired and likely taught the young George Gershwin, and he died in October 1918, one of the millions of people killed by the Spanish flu pandemic, one of the 20th Century's less-remembered catastrophes.

"Desecration Rag" was recorded on 6 March 1914 and released as Victor 17608.

In October 1914, a man named Henry Waterson placed an ad in a pair of music trade magazines. Waterson, who was Irving Berlin's business partner and song publisher, proposed the following: "A New Low-Priced Record."

In 1914, there were only three major record labels, a quasi-monopoly: Edison (the eldest and weakest), Victor and Columbia. As the trio owned most of the record-manufacturing patents and had complete control over record distribution, they had no serious competition, and so were able to jack up prices, with the cheapest discs going for 65 cents (over $13 in today's dollars) and higher-end records selling for as much as an inflation-adjusted $20.

Waterson's "Little Wonder" Records proposed something new--keep it short and keep it cheap. The label produced 5 1/2-inch records, whose performances were, at most, two minutes in length, and Little Wonder sold them for a dime. It was all incredibly cut-rate: Little Wonders didn't credit artists on their labels, and their discs didn't even come in sleeves. Using a retail network of dime stores and catalogs, Little Wonder sold more than 20 million copies from 1914 to 1916 alone.

Bomberg, The Mud Bath

As it turns out, Little Wonder was secretly backed by Columbia, which offered up its recording artists (like Jolson and Eddie Cantor) for double-duty and pressed the Little Wonder records at its own plants. A lawsuit in 1916 led to Little Wonder being owned outright by Columbia, and by the early '20s, when Little Wonder folded, it was a far different world: Edison was in a permanent decline, record prices were cut to fit a working man's salary, a wider variety of retailers were selling records and, with the expiration of various patents, a host of new independent labels had started up.

So here's to Little Wonder, unsung democratizer of pop music. This is one of their first discs, cut sometime in 1914--"20th Century Rag," by some unknown group, released as Little Wonder 9. From the Little Wonder Music Library, which has a goldmine of Little Wonders. You can spend all day in there, as I did.

The Christmas truce, December 1914

The war goes slowly as death because it is death, death to millions of men. We've all said all we know about it to one another a thousand times: nobody knows anything else; nobody can guess when it will end: nobody has any doubt about how it will end....

Europe is ceasing to be interesting except as an example of how-not-to-do-it. It has no lessons for us except as a warning. When the whole continent has to go fighting--every blessed one of them--once a century, and half of them half of the time between, and when they shoot away all their money as soon as they begin to get rich a little, and everybody else's money too, and make the world poor, and when they kill every third and fourth generation of the best men and leave the worst to rear families, and have to start over fresh every time with a worse stock--give me Uncle Sam and the big farm! We don't need to catch any of this European life...Besides, I like a land where the potatoes have some flavor, where you can buy a cigar, and get your hair cut and have warm baths.

Letter of Walter Hines Page, U.S. ambassador to Britain, to his son; London, 20 December 1914.

Next: Planes and Lines.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

John Cale, Wall.
Keene Brothers, The Naked Wall.
Johnny Cash, The Wall.
George Harrison, Awaiting On the Wall.
Tom Robinson Band, Up Against the Wall.
Louise Johnson, On the Wall.

Folks, I've been horribly sick, (thankfully) overworked and generally very, very (very!) uninspired of late, so it's going to be a while yet before we get things going again on this site. Until then, you've gotta face the wall with me.

Monday, February 09, 2009

We Went Canoeing and We've Been a-Wooing: 1913

The Hedges Brothers and Jacobson, On San Francisco Bay.
The Hedges Brothers and Jacobson, The Land of Cotton.
Al Jolson, Everybody Snap Your Fingers With Me.
Al Jolson, You Made Me Love You.
The New York Military Band, Hungarian Rag.
Gauhar Jan, Dadra.
Grupo Chiquinha Gonzaga, Sultana.

We are poor, with the accumulated poverty of over a thousand years...History has shaken us out of her sleeve into a severe environment and scattered us thinly over a vast plain.

The Russian people was not less heavily oppressed by nobility and Church than were the peoples of the West. But that complex and rounded-off way of life which, on the basis of feudal rule, grew up in Europe--that gothic lacework of feudalism--has not grown on our soil. We lacked the life-matter for it, we could not afford it. A thousand years we have lived in a humble log cabin and filled its crevices with moss--did it become us to dream of vaulting arcs and gothic spires?

No sooner had the young elements of the old estates entered the sunlit zone of European ideology than they broke away irresistibly, almost without inner hesitation, from feudalism and inherited orthodoxy. [The Russian intelligentsia were compelled to defend their most elementary rights by the most extreme and wasteful means.] It became their historical calling to use watches for knocking nails into walls.

Leon Trotsky, essay for Kievan Thought.

Easter Sunday, 1913, Fifth and 42nd, NYC (Shorpy)

One questionable theory promoted in Ken Burns' Jazz TV miniseries is that jazz emerged fully-fledged from New Orleans, a region-specific mutation of ragtime and blues: a theory that greatly shortchanges, among many things, the decades-long contribution of vaudeville performers, from Bert Williams to Nora Bayes to the Hedges Brothers, who seasoned the general public to be ready for the later revolutions of jazz. Syncopation, looser styles of singing, even the sense of swing--they could be found on the stage of a third-rate music theater in Syracuse as well as in the bordellos of New Orleans.

Or just listen to "On San Francisco Bay," a pop number torn to pieces by a trio of white vaudevillians in 1913, and tell me that it doesn't have some kick to it. When the chorus begins, the vocal harmonies are such you can't keep track of who is singing each line, and somehow a trio manages to sound like a quartet--it's a gonzo fugue.

Fred and Elven Hedges, from Philadelphia, and the pianist Jesse Jacobson, from California, became a performing trio at some point in the aughts, based in Philadelphia. By 1910, they were recording (a version of "Some of These Days," among others) and playing vaudeville theaters across the country. An October 1910 New York Times article notes them playing at the Alhambra Theatre, opening for Karno's Komedians, while a 1914 notice lists them (along with Joan Sawyer) in the Follies Marigny "on top of the Forty-Fourth Street Theatre."

In 1912, the trio went to London, where they spread the gospel ("One evening there, hot and astonished in the Empire, we discovered ragtime, brought to us by three young Americans: Hedges Brothers and Jacobsen (sic)" wrote John Boynton Priestley, in The Edwardians) and also cut some records for Columbia, one of which was the little miracle "On San Francisco Bay." The trio seemed set to outlive ragtime, as in 1920 they signed a six-year contract with a theater chain.

It is bit confusing as to what happened next. Mark Berresford, who wrote the liner notes to the compilation Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4, claims that Elven Hedges gassed himself to death a week after the theater contract was signed. Yet other (admittedly quite spotty) sources indicate that Elven Hedges lived until 1931 (which seems right, as Elven is listed as a songwriter on some late '20s compositions). Freddie Hedges, however, apparently died in 1920, so perhaps he was the suicide. I've reached the limits of my non-scholarly, non-paid research, so anyone with more information please let me know, and I'll post it.

"The Land of Cotton" and "On San Francisco Bay" were recorded ca. April-May 1913 in London and released as Columbia 2172 and Columbia 2191, respectively; "Cotton" is on From Ragtime to Jazz.

Christmas at Jenny Lind Hospital for Sick Children, Norwich, UK, 1913

Few performers dominated their time as Al Jolson did; few were discarded as quickly by later generations (as early as the '50s, Jolson seemed like old news). With the rise of "cool" as a standard of the postwar years, Jolson, with his hammy, hectoring vocals, his blackface mugging, seemed like a loud embarrassment. Jolson's well-documented egomania, which created a generation of fellow performers who hated his guts, didn't do much for his posthumous reputation either.

Yet if you take Jolson at his own terms--in which the utter, vulgar shamelessness of his drive to entertain, and his relentless vitality and guile, are inseparable from his artistry--his records can still retain their old power. This is modern pop singing at its root level, crafted by a singer who is far more improvisatory, daring and extravagant than his backing musicians; one who is, without visible effort, sweeping away whatever standards of gentility and decorum still existed on the American stage in 1913.

Poster for the NYC Armory Show, at which America first met modern art (they didn't get along at first)

Gary Giddins once drew a comparison of Jolson and Elvis Presley: both outsiders (Jolson an immigrant urban Jew, Presley a Southern white working-class boy) with a taste for hot music, both mother-worshipers, both born to drive and bait an audience, both catholic in their musical tastes, both given to isolation in their later years. And Giddins notes that one of Presley's first Sun records, "I Love You Because," is a near-rewrite of the melody of "When You Were Sweet Sixteen," mimed by Scotty Beckett, the actor playing the teenage Asa Yoelson in The Jolson Story.

On June 4, 1913, Jolson cut both "You Made Me Love You" and "Everybody Snap Your Fingers With Me." "You Made Me Love You" would become an eternal standard, sung by everyone from Judy Garland to your grandmother, while "Everybody Snap Your Fingers" is cheap, forgotten pop. Jolson treats both songs as equals, making each a waxen impression of irresistible self-extravagance.

"You Made Me Love You" was written by James Monaco and Joseph McCarthy (no, not him), and introduced in the Broadway show The Honeymoon Express--Jolson's version, Columbia 1371, was one of its first recordings; Jolson's "Everybody Snap Your Fingers With Me" (Kalmer-Puck) was Columbia 1356 c/w "That Little German Band"; in this archive.

De Chirico, Ariadne

"Hungarian Rag" was composed by an actual Hungarian, Julius Lenzberg, but the New York Military Band's take on it is about as heartland Americana as you can get--the sound of a brass-band concert on a village green at midday on a summer Saturday, the carefully arranged perfection of an era that is just about to vanish.

"Hungarian Rag" was recorded ca. July 1913 and released as Edison Blue Amberol 2089 and Edison Diamond Disc 50123-L; find here.

The empress of India

Many of Gauhar Jan's early discs and cylinders were labeled "First Dancing Girl, Calcutta," although Jan, one of the first Indian musicians to record, wasn't a native. She was born Angelina Yeoward, the child of an Armenian Jew and a Jewish woman with the quintessential 19th Century name of Victoria Hemming. However, Victoria soon had enough of the West--she divorced her husband, took up with a man named Khurshed, converted to Islam and moved to Benares, India, renaming her daughter Gauhar Jan in the process.

By 1883, Gauhar and her mother had moved to Kolkata, where Victoria, now renamed Malika Jan, sang and entertained, while Gauhar trained with a series of Indian song and dance masters, until she could sing in "Bengali, Hindustani, Gujrathi, Tamil, Marathi, Arabic, Persian, Pushto, French, Peshawari, and English." (Suresh Chandvankar.) She performed at the mansions of the zamindars but the commoners loved her as well--hence her early move to making records (her first session was in 1902), many of which were massive sellers. "Dadra," recorded ca. 1913, is but one of hundreds. On Rounder's Vintage Music From India.

Philip Grierson and his father, ca. 1913

Francisca Edwiges Neves "Chiquinha" Gonzaga was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1847. The illegitimate daughter of a white father and a mixed-race mother, Gonzaga was married off at age 16 to a Navy officer who didn't approve of her musical ambitions (the story went that at one point, when he found her playing a violão, he told her to choose between it and him--she chose the guitar). After having three children, Gonzaga deserted her husband, was disowned by her father and became, eventually, the first woman in Brazil to get a legal divorce.

By the 1870s she had begun playing professionally, in the flautist Joaquim Callado's group O Choro do Callado, and was composing as well--she went on to be Brazil's first female conductor. She was entwined with Brazilian music until her death in 1935, leaving behind records, collaborators, disciples, reams of compositions and other keepsakes of a monumental life (she even, at one point, managed to free a slave, the musician Zé Flauta).

This recording of Gonzaga's 1878 polka composition "Sultana," recorded ca. 1913, is on O Melhor De Chiquinha.

Next: Red War Made Redder.

Monday, February 02, 2009

50 Years On

Buddy Holly, Dearest.
Buddy Holly, Love Is Strange
Buddy Holly, Slippin' and Slidin'.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death, I've reposted this piece, which I first put up in Feb. 2007.

Also, thankfully, at long last, the Holly demos and home recordings are officially available, after a half-century of existing almost entirely as bootlegs. Down the Line: The Rarities is worth every cent.

The newly-married couple moved into 3B at the Brevoort in the fall of 1958, just as the sycamores were turning. They were very polite whenever you came across them in the hallway. The girl, Maria Elena, is Puerto Rican. While at first she seems shy, she's actually a lifelong New Yorker, and has a quiet confidence in the way she carries herself, as well as an operatic laugh. Her husband, Buddy, is a skinny guy with thick black-framed glasses--when he speaks, you hear Texas.

Their one-bedroom apartment seems relatively modest for someone who, as the neighbors realize, is involved in show business in some fashion. Buddy's often carrying a guitar case. His gawkiness seems to rule against him being any sort of entertainer, though perhaps he's a songwriter up at the Brill, or maybe he produces Frankie Avalon records. Few people at the Brevoort listen to the pop radio stations, and of those, even fewer would have associated Buddy with songs like "Oh Boy!" or "Maybe Baby," which the DJs say are by a band called the Crickets.

The Brevoort, on Fifth Ave. between 8th and 9th, is a huge, bright-new building, only four years old. It seems to radiate cleanness and modernity. The heat pipes don't clank, the water's always hot when you want it to be. It stands on the grave of the former Brevoort Hotel, once home to a Who's Who of American Reds and bohemians--Emma Goldman, Eugene O'Neill, Isadora Duncan. Longtime New Yorkers complain that replacing the legendary Brevoort with some gruesome middle-class apartments is another sign New York's losing its soul.

In December, Buddy seems between jobs, as he's hanging around the apartment more often. In the mornings, when Maria goes out to the store, Buddy sits on the couch, tunes his guitar and starts running through some new songs. He had last been in the studio two months before, when he had recorded "True Love Ways" and "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." He had been used to Norman Petty's hole-in-the-wall studio in New Mexico, the band doing take after manic take until they got it. At the Coral Record Studios, it was as layered as a wedding cake. Buddy had sung in a vocal booth, then sat on a folding chair in the control room as the row of engineers punched up the string section. He had heard his voice rise and fall, buoyed by tenor saxophone, chased by descending violas. Dick Jacobs, the producer, had smoked through half a pack of cigarettes and simply nodded his head when he thought the mix was done.

It had been only five years since Buddy and his best friend Bob Montgomery had been playing country songs around Texas. Now it sometimes feels like he's leaving country, and even rock & roll behind him, leaving it back in Texas with his old band, his old producer. There's a new sound now--softer, more arranged, soundtracks for imaginary movies. Buddy pinches the strings on his guitar, makes a chord; he imagines Tony Bennett, or Dean Martin even, singing one of his songs.

He's been writing a bunch lately. Some are wistful, like "Learning the Game." When Maria gets back from the store, he plays them for her, and when he thinks one's good enough, he turns on the tape recorder and commits the song to the reels of its memory. Sometimes he and Maria walk across Washington Square Park to her aunt's house, where there's a piano. He plays his songs while the two women smile, drinking tea. They clap when he finishes, and he guffaws.

One morning, whiling away a few hours, Buddy gets the idea to do a sequel to "Peggy Sue," in which Peggy gets married, the way everyone seems to do when they turn 20 or so. He dashes it out quickly, using the same riff as the earlier song--it's half a joke, but there's a sense of loss, a feeling of something ending, in the performance he commits to tape.

Early in the new year, things are tight. Buddy's split from his former manager has tied up all his money. Buddy's on the phone all the time, looking for some quick work. By mid-January it's arranged. Buddy will head a tour of the Upper Midwest with the Bopper, Dion and Ritchie Valens. Small snowbound towns, hardly any days off between shows, but it'll pay enough.

In the last days before the tour, Buddy keeps recording. He takes Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin" and digs into it, extends it, taking pleasure in the changes, in the rhymes, in lines like "she's a solid sender." He breaks the words down, popping consonants, twisting vowels as he works through the song.

And he turns Mickey and Sylvia's "Love is Strange," that pair's sassy, knowing duet, into something as dewily innocent as his own "Everyday." "Dearest," a Mickey and Sylvia b-side, he hushes to sleep, lowering his voice to its depths. One line he sings like a hymn: Our love will grow old...mmm, yeah...our love will grow old.

One shatteringly cold morning, Buddy's in the lobby with a suitcase and his guitar, waiting for a cab to take him to Idlewild. He calls Maria after each show. It's lousy. The crowds are fine (in the audience at the Duluth show is an 17-year-old kid from Hibbing), but the transportation is terrible--the bus has no heat most of the time. It's like a tour of Antarctica. It'd be great if they could get a plane once in a while.

The morning of February 3, some people at the Brevoort, reading the News or the Times or the Herald over breakfast, notice a small AP story tucked away on an inner page. Buddy is dead; a plane lies in pieces on a frozen Iowa field.

Neighbors see if Maria Elena's around, to offer condolences, to be awkward in her presence, but she's gone to her aunt's. A man from Buddy's producers comes by the apartment one day to pick up the tapes. He packs them in a small valise and heads up to midtown. Over the next year or so, they'll overdub strings, bass, drums, backing vocals--weighing the tracks down, but making them commercial enough to sell. "Peggy Sue Got Married" even becomes a small hit.

In the late spring of 1959, the realtors start showing around Apt. 3B at the Brevoort.

The "apartment" tapes Buddy Holly made in Dec. 1958-Jan. 1959 are Holly's last recordings, and have never been released unaltered on CD until now. The overdubbed versions are found on Remember.

The Brevoort
still stands, though I imagine the rent's a bit more these days.

The photos, all of which are from the last days of Buddy Holly's life, are from this amazing resource.

Maria Elena Holly
eventually remarried and had children.